December 4, 2012 by gabnormal
Throughout “Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,” Alice Echols creates numerous descriptions of what life in the counterculture was really like for those living in America during the 1960’s. Despite the common notion that the “hippie decade” was just ten long years made up of one party after another, Echols states “finally, this book challenges the conventional view that remembers sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as one big happy bash,” and describes numerous events and occasions to support her thesis.
Throughout Echols work there are copious amounts of events, occasions and quotes that illustrate the binary nature of the 1960’s counterculture in the United States. Seemingly, this decade serves as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the time periods in contemporary American history. On the surface, this era appears to be the age of one good time after another, a continuous party whose ingredients were drugs and alcohol, free love and wild fashion. Music that had never been heard before dominated the scene and to this day defines the typical notion that the 1960’s would have been a great time to grow up in.
Although the aforementioned characteristics may be true to the time period, many who idealize the 60’s ignore its darker side and all the negative side effects that are inevitably packaged with endless drug usage and parties. Besides the obvious effects such as countless overdoses and prevalent alcoholism within the community of the counterculture, race and gender lines were still very thickly drawn across all societal boundaries in the United States.
Initially seen throughout all forms of expression – fashion, music, etc. – the ideals and societal norms of the 1950’s still reigned supreme in the early 1960’s, and a rejection of that straight-laced way of life further emphasized the radical nature of people and their behavior during the 1960’s. A point of unity throughout the decade and across many culture lines was this same rejection of the 50’s way of life, which persisted in forms of police and government officials’ behavior, college campus rules and regulations and the constant nagging from Mom and Pop, commanding their counterculture children to cut their hair and get a real job. “The point is that the fifties didn’t give up without a fight,” Echols writes. “Of course, once the decade started to unravel it did so with dizzying speed.”
When comparing the decade from beginning to its end, the 60’s illustrate two different ends of the spectrum. No matter what sub-group of the counterculture was in control at the time, music was always a defining characteristic on who were popular at the time. In the beginning of the decade there were the beatniks who dressed in Levi jeans, loose button down shirts and sandals. Although very organic in nature there was still an emphasis on being “cool,” something that would continue to be a driving factor in most young people lives during this time. However, during the early 60’s, “cool” meant something completely different to the folkies and beatniks than it would less than ten years later to the hippies and rock stars. Echols writes, “Cool. Folkies were forever embroiled in arguments about who or what was the coolest, the hippest, and authenticity was the critical factor.” Authenticity and originality would lose much of their importance by the end of the decade when rock ‘n’ roll took over.
By 1969, performers such as Janis Joplin had traded in their Levi’s for something a bit more flashy. Gold lamé, feather boas and wild prints would become more important as bands and performers began to focus more on their stage presence than the authenticity of their music. In the beginning of this new genre takeover, “The scene was primitive and funky, with none of the big money and glitz that would soon come to characterize rock ‘n’ roll,” Echols wrote.
The beats, in the beginning of the era, were also more accepting of blacks than the hippies would be later on. Folk music drew inspiration from so-called “black music” – the blues – and in accordance to this black attendees at folksings were no problem, even in segregated United States. This would change later on, as blacks lost a certain amount of importance in the scene. “For beats, blacks had signified hipness; the new bohemians, whether out of choice or necessity (by the midsixties, black power was beginning to eclipse fantasies of integration), insisted on their own hipness,” Echols said.
Another hold the 50’s had on counterculture America was attached to women’s rights. The binary can be seen in the way that many people spoke of change and forward thinking through political movements, however, to most Americans during the 60’s a woman’s place was still, stereotypically, in the kitchen. Echols explains, “the new bohemia was even less hospitable to ambitious, creative women than the older beatnik subculture, in which women could at least occasionally gain entry by acting like the guys.”
For as time changing as the 60’s were, they remained heterosexual for the most part. Relationship lines blurred as married men and women stepped outside the promises of their vows and redefined what the standard notion of a romantic relationship had always been. This was considered cool, as long as the partnerships remained between a man and a woman. However for the majority of the counterculture homosexuality was still frowned upon, as Echols explains, “hippie boys may have looked like girls, but the counterculture was overwhelmingly heterosexual, despite straight America’s association of long hair with effeminacy and homosexuality.”
Throughout the early 60’s and into the first few rounds of LSD distribution, people ingesting illicit substances had a much different agenda than those who were doing so by the end of the era. Initially, the purpose behind smoking marijuana or dropping acid was to open one’s mind and explore realities that could only be access through the use of chemical substances, “drugs were about altering consciousness, not just getting fucked up, although this distinction doubtless meant more to some than to others,” Echols said. By the end of the decade the only object of the game was to “get fucked up,” shown through the untimely deaths of rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who passed within months of each other, both due to drug overdoses. Echols writes, “Janis no doubt shared Tommy [Stopher’s] conviction that true artists led beautifully doomed lives.”
All in all, to look back on the 60’s as this entirely wonderful time period where everyone tried new things and experimented and was happy, is to look back on a myth. The story of the Saturday Night Swindle is a good metaphor to the 60’s, a time where even nothing good could be fully enjoyed due to all of the underlying turmoil that was only waiting to surface. Echols quotes Linda Gottfried, Janis Joplin’s childhood friend who remembers Janis’ father telling them “the story of the Saturday Night Swindle, about how you hear over and over that if you work real hard you’ll go out Saturday night and have a really good time. And everybody lives for that good time, but it never really happens.”