Summer of 1969, a Memoir: Why Don’t We Sing This Song All Together
Ann-Margaret was dancing down the middle of Sepulveda Boulevard.
We were watching her from an overpass above. We were 17 and 19, and we had just walked out of Los Angeles International Airport. We had worked the first part of the summer to afford this first ever trip on our own — a three-week odyssey up the coast of hippie California. But there was no allowance in the budget for taxis out of airports, so we walked out. Suitcases in hand, we crossed over Sepulveda toward Century Boulevard, and we looked down from the overpass. And we saw her: Ann-Margaret strutting down the street just outside LAX the very hour we arrived.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Of course, there were cameras on cranes gliding down the street beside her, filming her. That was Hollywood, too.
A fine, magical welcome it was.
Not that we two teenage hippies were very much fans of Ann-Margaret, beyond the obvious. We hadn’t traveled from our New York, East Village hangouts all the way to California — “promised land of my people” I would call it that fall in a senior-year creative writing class essay — to ogle the last gasp of old-line Hollywood’s old-time sex-kittenness. We had come on a pilgrimage, to see the Sunset Strip, the Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park. We were just getting started.
In those days, my name was Arnie. My friend, the older of we two, was also named Arnie. We were two Arnies, and we arrived in Los Angeles the first week of August 1969, a month in which the world would famously contradict itself. The world, it must be said, contradicts itself all the time, every day, even every moment — consider the oscillations of the sub-atomic neutral B meson particle, for instance — but not always so noticeably, and even when it shouts for our attention, to please themselves, people tend to choose what they wish to hear, and, even then, remember. So people picked and chose, it was all a fearful muddle in the Age of Aquarius, and by August of 1969, Joan Didion had lost the thread of the story. Arnie and I, keenly attuned in more adolescent fashion to the tenor of the times, had traveled from one coast to the other to hear Blind Faith sing “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a not uncommon way for a seventeen-year-old already to feel, but made more disorienting by the cultural as well as personal wandering.
We crashed that first California night in Richard Nixon’s ultra-conservative Orange County, home of his San Clemente “West Coast White House,” in a backyard of teens in transit. While the resident mom and dad went to Sunday church in the morning, Arnie and I set out on eight hours of trying to hitch a ride back out of that sun-blanched anti-hippie hell and north again. We managed finally, absent cell phone and GPS, to meet up with my older brother, Jeff, 22, already in the Golden State on his own, better financed odyssey of California-girls fornication up the coast.
Jeff had taken a motel room right in the middle of the action, a room that opened directly on the Sunset Strip. Arnie and I shared the second bed. The Sunset Strip in 1969, it must be recalled or told, was a cross between a Silk Road bazaar and the canteen in Star Wars. Freaks abounded, flags flying, their foreignness of intention hanging between every familiar transaction. The freaks hung on corners, roamed the streets, crossed them back and forth. They were dirty freaks, homeless freaks, drug dealing freaks, and deal making freaks, with sleek, rock-club scene-making freaks among them, the wandering of spirit and the beautiful of body, male and female alike, adorning the storefronts and bejeweled in their exotic selfhood. Amidst them all, fiery and concentrated, the full-throated Arthur Blessitt pronounced the word of God and hailed the return of the Lord to any who would listen and even those who didn’t. Arnie (the other Arnie) debated theology with the aspiring savior of souls. This Arnie, shoeless and shirtless but for the long Mexican vest I wore like a uniform beneath the long hair and the crab-grass beard I was trying to grow, was ticketed by the LAPD for vagrancy.
I made a certain impression. The world was making daily impressions on me. I tried to make one back. It was a lie. I was an insecure teen-aged boy, hungry for experience and afraid of the world, and the world was spinning out of control all around me.
Joan Didion felt it too. It was in the air. Deliverance and danger dancing together.
By that time, Arnie and I had been acid heads for about a year. We loved our LSD. But since everything was already speeded up with age by then, older brother Jeff had not yet himself dropped acid. He was doing downers. One night, Arnie and I already in bed asleep, Jeff stumbled off the street into the room and took down the lamp reaching for the air. Later, in the very early morning hours, back to sleep, and the memories of the previous phantasmagorical Saturday night still shaping our dreams, we woke again to a man roaming up and down the Strip screaming, so everyone, including he himself, could know, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!”
Daylight come, and the three young residents of a motel room on the Sunset Strip risen at last, Arnie and I ventured out on the street to retrieve that day’s Los Angeles Times from a corner vending machine. We saw at once, standing in the metaphorical shadow of the Hollywood Hills, the right-side headline: “Ritualistic Killings: Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered.”
It would be some time before the killers’ identities would be known, and more murders would follow, but that such events had occurred seemed unsurprising, if unsettling. After all, “Rape, murder” was “just a shot away,” the devil-channeling Rolling Stones would tell us on Let It Bleed just months later. But the bitter, piggish street slang for police mixed in with the name of a Beatles song, written in human blood? Helter skelter? Yeah, it was.
I chose at the time to look like a hippie because one of the ways you become something, whatever it is, is to appear like what you want to be. Every dress for successor knows that. People of all ages try to look like some internalized image of themselves, though teens of every generation do it with a special poignancy. By 1969, the naivete of this notion, and the look it produced in nonconformist uniformity (and the cynicism driving its commercial capitalization) had devolved, in actuality, into people from ages 15 to nearly 50 needing to be instructed daily, as if it was the delivered wisdom of the counterculture, in the lessons of elementary school. Don’t break into concert venues without paying for the ticket, stage managers would implore. (Don’t break into concert venues.) Don’t charge the stage. Don’t spike people’s Boone’s Farm and Wild Turkey with unknown drugs they don’t know they’re taking. (It’s not cool.) Don’t cheat people with pot look alikes that aren’t pot. (Really not cool.) Treat people, yeah, the way you want to be treated yourself.
What a revolution, got to revolution.
And that long-haired, bearded guy at the party who looks like one serious kind of wild hippie freak — man, he’s got a far out rap — may not be about peace and love like you at all. He might be a hitter. He might be Charles Manson.
Shit, he was.
But Arnie and I were kids. There were kids all around us, many of them actually kids, and though we were freaked out, the whole world, in truth, was freaked out, everywhere you looked, and we had lives to live and adventures to pursue, and a next stop in Santa Barbara, on the way north, to see Blind Faith.
On the morning of August 16, 1969, then, with Woodstock underway back in our home New York environs, Jeff drove his younger brother and his younger brother’s best friend to the Pacific Ocean, to the intersection of Chautauqua Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica to begin hitch hiking their way northward. We would meet again in Berkeley at the far end.
Arnie and I held out our thumbs. If the Sunset Strip was like a Silk Road bazaar, the PCH was like the Silk Road itself. Beside an ocean of sun-speckled waters, along a mountainous winding coast, within a delirium of salt sea air, young people were traveling up and down the highway amid an endless train of cars, like donkeys crossing the mountain passes of Persia. If they weren’t carrying the wares of cultural exchange, they bore instead the wonders of cultural change, and yes, it was a wondrous time to be alive, to be young and free and on the road to somewhere, including the rest of your life.
A station wagon stopped, already filled with teens. But there was always room for more. We piled in. A joint was passed around and the music pumped up as the coast sped under our wheels. The first song was from the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic Their Satanic Majesty’s Request album. “Why don’t we sing this song all together,” the Stones, and we, sang:
Open our heads let the pictures come
And if we close all our eyes together
Then we will see where we all come from