Friday, August 1, 2008

let the sunshine in

As a kid I grew up listening to the original cast album of HAIR. I loved it. I didn't quite understand all of the songs or what they meant but I could sing them all. Surely a puzzlement to grown ups who weren't musical theater savvy or "hip" enough to know where the tunes came from, I would walk around, seven or eight years old, singing little songs with lyrics about hashish and the Kama Sutra.

When I was ten years old my father took me to see the Broadway show, already running for five years at that point, and I knew that what those people were was what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Dancing, running, singing joyously and beautiful. Celebrating free love, acceptance of each other and being true to one's inner self. Self expression through sex, drugs and non-violence. Standing up for what they believed in, slamming the conservative societal values of the time and saying very clearly "I won't fight your war for you" and the cherry on top of it all: they got naked.

This all represented to me an adulthood I couldn't wait to be a part of. By the age of thirteen I had hair below my shoulders, was wearing patched jeans and was listening to the Stones. I very soon discovered the joys, and confusions, of drugs and promiscuity. Whether I knew it or not I was desperately looking for the freedom that I had found in HAIR.

But as I came of age the world became a different place. The "Love Generation" of the 1960's morphed into the "Me Generation" of the 1970's. The great rock and roll bands of the 60's were replaced with disco and punk rock, psychedelics were traded in for cocaine and the war ended. Seemingly, there was no longer anything to fight for.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of HAIR. Last night I went to see the anniversary production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. I was expecting a time-capsule piece. A tongue in cheek, musical review of familiar songs and dated 60's themes. True, there was some of that but there was also a lot that was surprisingly timely and topical.

So much has changed since that innocent and naive year of 1968. Drugs are no longer an acceptable method of protest, escape or mind expansion. We've all since seen the ravages of what drugs can do to individuals, families and even communities. The raising up of Timothy Leary in 1968 was pushed aside as we saw the drug related deaths of Judy Garland in 1969 followed by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks and countless others both with and without celebrity.

Free love and sexual experimentation became a frightening prospect when in the early 1980's people, mostly gay men, started dying from a mysterious sexually transmitted disease that was first called "Gay Cancer" then GRID, "Gay Related Immune Deficiency", and is what we now know as AIDS.

Most biting in the present revival of HAIR are the differences and the similarities of war. There are no more draft cards to be burned. When there was a draft everybody was a potential soldier. Now the military is filled with kids using their military service and training as a way out of poverty. It is, disproportionately, a poor man's army. Out of the 435 members of congress and the 100 members of the United States Senate not one has a child serving in the United States military.

The war is no longer being televised. As a kid I clearly remember my parents watching news reports of men walking through the jungle with firearms and footage of wounded men being air lifted to safety. We are no longer allowed to see the damage of war first hand, the human cost. The present administration has put a ban on all media as to images of war. No wounded soldiers, no flag draped coffins, no prize winning photographs of terrified children running for their lives toward a camera, looking helplessly at the lens and pleading to viewers who might perhaps care about the outcome of such conflicts.

What we do still have is involvement in a war that is questionable at best. We have an ongoing war that few support, that no one can win and that there is seemingly no way out of.

Poignant and chilling the beautiful, young cast, black and white, look into the audience, make eye contact and stage whisper in unison:

"prisoners in nigger town
it's a dirty little war...
take weapons up and begin to kill
watch the long, long armies marching on"

After the thirty five year interval between performances I went back to HAIR ready to take a nostalgic look at the lifestyle I wanted to grow into only to realize that HAIR is not about adults at all. It's about kids. Kids choosing to drop out of school and leave the picturesque simplicity and American Dream of their parent's Eisenhower years behind them and find a path, a voice and a life of their own. Funny how I can look back now and see those years of unrest and turmoil as comparatively innocent and idyllic, far away from the corruption and cynicism the twenty first century has brought.

While the members from the original "tribe", if still alive, would now be in their sixties and seventies, I continue to want to be one of them when I grow up. How I still romanticize that late 60's lifestyle. A lifestyle attainable for such a very short period by so few that will never be again. Even as I buzz what hair I have and struggle to keep my middle aged belly in check I long for a pony tail, beads and a brocade vest. The most fitting homage I can make to that time is to take it's best intentions and apply them to my own resolve as best I can: Be true to myself, fight for social justice, surround myself with a community of loving, like minded friends and let the sunshine in.

1 comment:

Rev. David Lewicki said...

Great post, Jeff. Can't wait to see it myself.