In search of hippie ghosts and youthful memories, I recently visited the Amsterdam music institution and concert venue—Paradiso. The front wall of this two hundred year-old building is plastered with dozens of concert posters. In the Sixties Paradiso was established as a multi-disciplinary center for the emerging the counterculture. Fifty years on, not only surviving, but succeeding, Paradiso hosts two live music shows every evening. Inside and out, it hasn’t changed much since my first visit in 1969. The main room still reminds me of the Fillmore in San Francisco, open seating, balconies, and baroque architecture. Comfortable like old bell-bottom jeans, I felt at home. But this time, I stood out with my pony-tail hair, a stranger in a familiar land.
But ‘hippie’ was NOT forgotten this summer up and down California. In San Francisco swirling fluorescent colored posters and dozens of events celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the ‘Summer of Love.’ High-brow museums like the De Young Museum in San Francisco and the UC Berkeley Art Museum packed in visitors who wanted to look back on that magical, almost mythical time, when Scott MacKenzie sang ‘Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.’ Written by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas as a promotion for the Monterrey Pop Festival, a halcyon moment in the exploding youth culture, it branded San Francisco as the hippie city. After Monterrey ‘hippie’ became firmly planted in the mass consciousness as a California thing. Apparently, it still is to this day.
Riding a bicycle around Amsterdam this year, the countercultures’ European headquarters in the Sixties, I saw no posters of concerts promoting the old days, no museum exhibits, and even more surprising—no long haired guys. Institutions established in that era such as Paradiso and its’ associated visual arts venue, Milky Weg still flourish, but no recognition of the days of free concerts in Vondel Park and toking weed on Dam Square. My home in those days was H-22, located on one of the outer canals, where for $2 one could get a bed and breakfast. Generosity prevailed in those days, for example, when I was robbed and lost my money and passport, they allowed me to earn my room and board until my traveler’s checks were replaced. Love was in the air, even the American Express office believed my story and immediately reimbursed the stolen checks, as did the American Consulate which issued a new passport.
So natural at the time, but now was it just a passing fad? A dream? Sometimes a nightmare? A watershed moment in history? Did Amsterdam’s hippie period fade into history like the Dutch East India Company, WW II and Mata Hari (a Dutch native)? It felt that way in Amsterdam this year. Perhaps it WAS a California thing, part of our American history but not important enough for Europeans. But in those days, European hippies were as prevalent and active as Americans. The political side of the generation dominated in Europe: In France, a general strike shutdown the country, the Provos in Amsterdam staged huge demonstrations, and Germany’s Red Army Faction captured and killed establishment leaders.
I went to Europe this year to check-out what has changed since my first foray almost fifty years ago. My personal quest was to revisit a thread of my life—European backpacking. I and thousands of like-minded spirits, members of the most wide-spread counter culture movement in world history, wandered all over Europe looking for adventure and fellow members of our tribe. Variously known as hippie, new left, anti-establishment, freak, counterculture—our generation wanted to make a break from the slow progress of humankind. In those days we were the future. Now, I wondered if we were a footnote in the mist of European history, with no lasting legacy other than the polarized political and social scene, global warming, and classic rock and the best place to look would be the epicenter of hippie in Europe.
During summer of 1969, while Americans were focused on the moon landing and Teddy Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick imbroglio, I and my close buddy Big Ed booked a charter flight from LAX to London with $500 in traveler’s checks, a youth hostel card, and a backpack filled with jeans (a valuable commodity in Europe in the sixties). Three months on the rails and hitchhiking led us to Amsterdam and an authentic hippie pad where we smoked hash, listened to Jefferson Airplane and found sartorial treasures (like the Dutch mailman’s wool cape I still own) in flea markets. With the summer adventure seared into my core memory, I returned home a committed member of the counterculture, whereas before I was just another suburban kid protesting the Vietnam War.
In those days all roads led to Amsterdam from LA, Berkeley, Boulder, Cambridge, Sydney, Cape Town, London, Berlin, Rome, youthful explorers were on the move. Still seeking adventure, what I found in Amsterdam this year saddened me. What I found were the skeletons of the past. On Dam Square, rather than young longhairs lounging around, tourists with designer shopping bags rested for a few minutes, while a team dressed in American football uniforms performed chants. Where the American Express office used to be is a McDonald’s. Even the erstwhile sex district, where prostitutes display themselves, has become a tourist attraction with couples of all ages gawking at the greatly diminished number of ‘working girls.’ Whereas in the seventies, one had to go to Kosmos and a few other select places, coffee shops where you can buy and consume cannabis are now sprinkled throughout the tourist zone.
Disoriented by images of the past and present, I bicycled to Vondel Park (the main park, near the center), where in the old days regular outdoor concerts drew hundreds of young people. Now the concert band shell is occupied by a children’s arts program. Next stop was Paradiso, my window to the past. The main room still reminds me of the Fillmore in San Francisco, open seating, balconies, and baroque architecture.
Somewhat mollified that my memories weren’t just fantasy, I biked to an outlying canal, Herengracht, to see my home-base hostel in the old days—H-22. A dormitory, the place provided a cheap place to stay with a cafeteria. Generosity prevailed in those days, for example, when I was robbed and lost my money and passport, they allowed me to earn my room and board until my traveler’s checks were replaced. Love and community prevailed. Even the American Express office believed me and immediately reimbursed the stolen checks, as did the American Consulate which issued a new passport. As I stared at the old hostel, which is now a school for disabled children, a young couple passed by. They took my photo and asked why this place? I told them the story concluding with the cliff-hanger of losing my stuff, and said, “And it all worked out.” The guy responded, “Yes, you’ve had a life.”
Amsterdam has mainstreamed part of our countercultural such as the music and hash, but overall like my own hometown of Venice, it has become a tourist magnet where ‘squares’ from Ohio or Prague or Simi Valley or Munich, feel comfortable to walk around and spend money. Except for Paradiso and Milky Weg, Amsterdam could’ve been my neighborhood of Venice, CA with more canals. Cities once only available to the affluent few or the poor, adventurous youth like me, have become theme parks organized to extract tourist dollars. With the spread of global consumerism and tourism, something precious has been lost in the places we ‘discovered’ back in the sixties/ seventies.
Soon after returning to LA, I discovered an old friend from the anti-establishment wars that has been reincarnated—The Los Angeles Free Press and my spirits lifted: I’m not alone in honoring and promoting the values and vision of the Sixties. The seeds planted back then have not died. In this highly stressful and polarized era, the lessons, vision, and values of the Sixties have the potential to inform and inspire. Resistance is not enough. Perhaps it is time to re-member, to put back together the pieces of solidarity, peace, freedom, and love and again dream of a better world.