From Hipsters to Hippies

on November 7, 2009

The psychedelic counterculture that had started bubbling up in 1964-65 would remain in the background for a few years, partly because a distinctive 60’s culture was already in full flower. That was the hedonistic, sex-based “swinging Sixties” so nostalgically recalled in the Austin Powers movies — the Sixties of miniskirts, go-go dancers, birth control pills, the Playboy Philosophy, and James Bond movies.

That version of the Sixties was relatively superficial and mindless, although it did prepare the ground for more serious rebellions to come. When I started this series of posts I thought I could just ignore it, but it eventually dawned on me that anything described as “swinging” had to be an aspect of the chaos vision — which meant I needed to pay attention to where it fit in.

So I dredged up memories of my high school days — when I was learning most of what I knew about contemporary society from Mad Magazine — and it struck me that the swinging Sixties must have been largely an extension of the Hollywood hipster culture of the late 50’s.

The Hollywood hipsters reached the peak of their fame in the Kennedy years, when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and other members of the “Rat Pack” were considered the very embodiment of cool. I was aware of them at the time, of course — at least on the Mad Magazine level — but it would never have occurred to my fourteen year old self that the Hollywood hipsters might be simply the glitzier cousins of the beatniks.

That appears to be the case, however. Both groups were rooted in the original hipster culture of the 1940’s. Both used hipster slang and saw themselves as rebels against square society. Sinatra and Davis even feature in an online listing of “Famous Hipsters,” along with such hipster icons as Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Ken Nordine.

Unsurprisingly, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner had a television show in 1959 — Playboy’s Penthouse — which appears to have made a practice of bringing together the full range of late 50’s hipster culture.

The program is described by one blog as “modelled on a hip, swinging bachelor party, the kind of bash where cool people lounged in their cocktail clothes exchanging bright ideas. Beat poets, writers, comics, and musical immortals … mingled in an impromptu fashion with Hef and his assembled party-goers. … Hef’s first ‘Penthouse Party’ (as the show was also known early on) featured raucous comedian Lenny Bruce, a controversial choice.”

More or less by chance, at the same time as I’ve been checking out late 50’s hipster culture, I’ve also been learning things I never knew about the original 1940’s hipsters. I’ve been listening in particular to the music of Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, who invented the term “hipster” around 1940 when he decided that “hepcat” no longer sounded sufficiently hip.

As well as being a mad genius of jazz and boogie-woogie and a proto-rock ‘n’ roller — whose stage act influenced the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — Harry also had a strong wacky streak. One of his best-known songs from the early 40’s, “Stop that Dancin’ Up There,” runs in part:

Some folks say that I’m insane
And just as goofy as can be
But they’re all wrong, I’m all right
Everybody’s crazy but me

I’m living in the cellar, on the 7th floor
I can’t go to sleep ’till I hear myself snore
Now the people downstairs say I’m an awful square
When I shout, “Hey, stop that dancing up there!”

Bugs Bunny couldn’t have said it any better.

Somewhere along the way, though, Harry’s manic wackiness got filtered out of the hipster code and replaced by a dedication to laid-back cool, cynical disengagement, and a determination to measure hipness by the standards of wild Hollywood parties.

The hippies may have derived their name and some of their jargon from the ultra-cool late hipsters — but the hippies weren’t like that at all. Instead, they were both the product and the beneficiaries of a great upwelling in passion and commitment, a change in attitude which reflected a major shift in the nature of the chaos vision itself.

I’ve written quite a bit about the close partnerships that form between the two dominant visions of each era. However, there are also more subtle ways in which one vision can influence another. These subtler influences do not reach the same level of long-term integration but they are still extremely significant, especially in a vision’s early development.

When a vision first emerges, it does so in an extremely pure form, reflecting a single area of human awareness — scientific, social, or inner experience. As a result, the emergent vision invariably suffers from certain weak spots, which it amends by incorporating material from a vision of one of the other types.

Scientific visions, for example, tend to be overly abstract and remote, so they benefit by connecting with a social vision to gain human warmth and relevance.

Social visions, being derived from arbitrary human cultural institutions, typically appeal to an inner experience vision for proof that their true basis lies in higher universal values.

Inner experience visions, which grow out of dream and hallucination, lack objective correlatives and must rely on scientific visions to provide a concrete foundation for their mystical intimations.

In the case of the chaos vision, its initial pure stage came in the 20’s and early 30’s, when it was still largely ineffable and expressed in the form of deliberate nonsense and surrealism. It began taking on greater concreteness when it fell into the orbit of the science-and-democracy partnership in the late 30’s, but it was not until the middle 40’s that the abstract expressionists finally adapted the concepts of scientific materialism and depicted chaos as a seething cauldron of matter and energy.

This concreteness, however, had a serious downside. The universe as envisioned by scientific materialism consisted solely of atoms hurtling through empty space and was devoid of human meaning or purpose. Imagining the cosmos in this way may have been acceptable to scientists and engineers, but cross-breeding it with mysticism would have been very hard on artists and musicians and other more sensitive types.

There had, in fact, already been one brilliant foretaste of the appalling consequences of such a cross-breeding, in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft had begun his career in the early 20’s as a writer of occult horror, mining the fading reason-and-science partnership for story devices to express his dawning intimations of chaos. But around 1926, when the science vision was being reformulated after its final break with reason, he had switched over to telling stories of scientific horror — the Cthulhu Mythos.

By the time Lovecraft died in 1937, science had become distinctly less threatening as a result of its partnership with democracy. The effect of science on the chaos vision over the next few years was thus not quite one of Lovecraftian horror but more of Sartre’s existential nausea — a sense of pervasive alienation and undefined dread.

It’s no coincidence that film noir developed in 1940-44 to express that sense of alienation and dread, or that the quintessential film noir hero, Humphrey Boghart, would be the prototype of later hipster cool. The best a sensitive hipster type could do under those circumstances was to swallow hard, accept the essential absurdity of existence, and stay hip.

And that was where the chaos vision stood until the 1960’s, when the breakdown of scientific materialism made room for a successor vision of the same type — holism. As the shift from scientific material to holism took place, followers of the chaos vision were able to see the universe in an entirely new light — still as strange and elusive beyond rational understanding, but also possessing its own mysterious structure and inner significance.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

Read the Previous Entry: The Times They Are A-Changin’
Read the Next Entry: The Search for Meaning

4 Responses to “From Hipsters to Hippies”

  1. I came along a few years after you, but for a time my knowledge of contemporary society came from Mad Magazine, as well.

    A side note: perhaps because of I wasn’t really aware of Sinatra and Davis before the mid-Sixties, I didn’t consider them examples of cool. To me–at age 14 in 1965–they were polished products of Hollywood and record companies. “Cook” always meant to me the outlanders, people like Dylan who made their own tracks. Sinatra and Davis came across as part of the Establishment. When I thought about hipsters, I thought of the beatniks from the Fifties, Dylan, Lenny Bruce, and jazz musicians. I have no idea whether that was any sort of majority or representative view for my age group at the time. It was probably a view shaped by what I read and heard about.

  2. “Establishment” is the wrong term to describe my perception of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1965. The precise word is “mainstream.”

  3. Cory Panshin says:

    My perceptions were the same, Mike — which is why I was so surprised to learn in the course of writing this entry that in the context of the late 50’s and early 60’s they were part of the same hipster spectrum as the beats or Lenny Bruce and saw themselves as rebels against “square” society. But mainstream success is fatal to cool.

  4. Gus says:

    I’ve heard stories about Sinatra insisting that Sammy Davis be allowed to stay at the same fancy Las Vegas hotels as him. This is hardly cutting edge civil rights stuff.

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