Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Day Abbie Hoffman Came to the Village

by Chris Till

            On March 16, 1969, the legendary Abbie Hoffman visited Yellow Springs. At 8:30 pm on that Saturday night, he spoke at 113 McGregor Hall on the Antioch College campus. According to Hoffman’s FBI files, only 30 to 35 students attended.
            This relatively small turnout is notable because it was exactly four days before Abbie became world famous. Why? Because on March 20, 1969, the Chicago Eight were born. On that date, he and seven others were indicted for their alleged conspiracy to foment riots at the August 1968 National Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. After that indictment made him a star, Abbie became a popular and controversial speaker at college campuses across America, performing to audiences vastly larger than a few dozen.
            In his 1969 book Woodstock Nation, Abbie colorfully described his visit to Yellow Springs:
                        "Antioch is Hippie Heaven. It's our version of R & R (rest and recreation for you who weren't in the army)…
                        "It didn't take long to figure out where Antioch's head was at. There are lots of progressive nursery schools, but there the kiddies are so big! Most issues that are being fought for at other schools were won at Antioch ten years ago. Perhaps won is not the right word, they were liberally given. Like the big sheet  of paper over the men's pissing stall for graffiti. But, well Antioch would be the dream school for most students given what they now have. No ROTC, close teacher-student community relations, people turn on and fuck everywhere, naked swim-ins in the gym pool, a black dorm, nice woods, co-ed dorms, Sunday tourists who drive through to stare at the commie-hippies, and so much love and identity-searching. It was all "Who am I?" stuff. Everything was so beautiful, I was completely bored after three hours. The school lacked the energy that comes from struggle. When I was leaving the next day [my Antioch guide] remarked, "You know surveys show that 55 per cent of us end up in large corporations." What Hair is to Broadway, Antioch is to universities. That's not really a put-down. If you can't fuck you might as well jerk off. Antioch is the best play going, that is, if you've got about $25,000 for an orchestra seat."

            Whether Abbie’s commentary is insightful or insulting or both, I will leave to those of us who may have been in Yellow Springs in 1969.
            From Abbie's FBI files, regarding that March 1969 Antioch appearance: Hoffman "attacked 'the establishment' and called for everyone 'to do their thing,' meaning to behave as they individually wished … [T]he subject was not paid a fee by the college but was given some money taken up as a collection from among the students who were interested in giving to that purpose… [The FBI informant] was not familiar with the amount of money the subject might have received nor would there be any record of it anywhere at the college."
            “Who was Abbie Hoffman?” younger readers may ask.
            Abbie was the author of about ten books, ostensibly about politics. Yet, he may be better understood as a humorist, rather than as a serious commentator. He was a terrifically irresponsible man. A master of self-publicity. Media darling. Media demon. An acid eater. Womanizer. Charmer. Liar. Shoplifter. Co-founder of the Youth International Party, aka the Yippies. One of the leaders of the protests at the 1967 Levitation and Exorcism of the Pentagon and 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention. One of the Chicago Eight (later the Chicago Seven) in the massively publicized Chicago Conspiracy trial of 1969-1970. Would-be hero of the Second American Revolution. Cocaine dealer. Felon. Fugitive. And finally, dead by suicide at age 52 in 1989.
            His two thrown-together books from 1968 and 1969, Revolution for the Hell of It! and Woodstock Nation really capture the era's rebellious psychedelia. For some, it was an era full of revolutionary pretense: the world was about to change, the Age of Aquarius had dawned, the revolution was at hand! As director John Waters wrote, it was "a decade which may never be surpassed in misguided revolutionary lunacy." Abbie aspired to be a general in that flower power army, but, even more than that, Abbie just aspired to be famous.
            Looking back, Abbie's suicide in 1989 is especially unfortunate because, regardless of his character flaws, he would have really enjoyed the fall of the Soviet Union's tyranny soon after his death. For those curious about Abbie, the classic book on his life is Larry Sloman's 1998 oral biography, Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Countercultural Revolution in America.
            If any readers attended that Abbie’s McGregor Hall lecture in 1969, I would love to hear their memories.

Reader submissions are always welcome.

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