I just wanna ride and rope and hoot
Well I just wanna be a cosmic cowboy
Talkin’ ‘bout a supernatural country rockin’ galoot
— Michael Martin Murphy, “Cosmic Cowboy”
Well, now. This summer marks 50 years since the Summer of Love. Ain’t that somethin’? I mean, I was less than two years old, so I don’t have any personal memories of the epoch, but it’s graven on the cultural memory, especially in the places I explored in my early 20s. Even after all these years, that summer continues to echo through the culture. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
The summer of 1967, especially in San Francisco, was the flowering of the counter culture that hit its high-water mark two years later at Woodstock — and its nadir at Altamont.
The counter-culture changed mainstream culture profoundly — and I would argue mostly for the good. If that sentiment surprises you, it shouldn’t. I’m always on the side of the wild and free and the ardent-hearted. You don’t have to buy in to the whole ethos to recognize that the counter-culture shook things up in useful ways, creating more space for all of us to act, create, be who we are.
Now, I must admit that my preferred version of the counter-culture didn’t really emerge until a few years later, around 1972, when the hippie thang mated with the shit-kicker thang in places like Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, and produced Cosmic Cowboys and Outlaws.
I’m obviously more of a Dripping Springs Reunion kinda feller than I am a Woodstock kinda feller, but the phenomenon that became Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic was a child of the Summer of Love, make no mistake. So was Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music thang. Waylon Jennings opened for the Grateful Dead in 1973 and was rapturously received. That’s MY kinda counter culture, baby!
Speaking of Waylon, as I so often do, he told a funny story about Dripping Springs:
We’d never seen anything quite like it. Everything we did was wrong, and it didn’t matter. Nobody paid to get in; the fences were torn down. I’m singing “Bob Wills Is Still The King” and women are throwing brassiers on stage. My band just went to pieces. Girls with no tops, no bottoms, up on boys’ shoulders and taunting you. If you didn’t look, people were going to wonder about you; if you did look, they were going to know about you. They caught you either way. One ol’ gal took her clothes off and got up on a tall camera platform. She was just lying there squirming and some cowboy jumped up and mounted and went to work. It started a whole orgy over in that area. Debbie couldn’t do Dallas like she did. I never quite got used to that….
We were having a time, that was for sure — one big ball. I don’t recall anybody looking sideways. Billy Joe (Shaver) put it best. “We were all melted into the same comet.” All we could do was grab it by the tail and hang on for dear life.
Of course there’s a dark side to all that wild freedom — as Billy Joe, a prime hell-raising participant — knew well:
Low down freedom, you done cost me everything I’ll ever lose.
The drugs were a disaster, blighting countless lives and giving birth to the evil of the Mexican drug cartels. Free love, in the end… ain’t. The whole thing got commercialized, like everything else, and that killed it. What started as a revolt against bland conformity became… bland conformity. And the counter-culture also spun off some dangerous, authoritarian mutations that have had a pernicious effect on American life.
Ultimately, the counter-culture had to learn the same hard lesson we all learn — there is no action without consequence and there is no freedom without discipline.
But for all the downsides, the music was great, and the sense of freedom and possibility something worthy of holding onto. And when the hippie chicks mated with those ’kicker boys, they birthed a mighty compelling American Son, and he’s been ridin’ the range and actin’ strange ever since. Long may he ride…