Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally.
—Patrick Süskind, Perfume
Helen Keller called the sense of smell ‘the fallen angel.” Sight and hearing may get top billing in the hit parade, but smells cast spells that hit you with emotional wallops that can send you reeling when you least expect it. Scent reaches the brain by the most direct route, traveling from nose to gray matter without the detours and neural Rube Goldberg apparati found along the other senses’ pathways. We experience the sense of smell in the limbic system, the oldest and most primitive area in our noggins. Therein lie memories and basic, stripped-bare emotions. Therefore, smells can trigger powerful feelings and long-forgotten memories.
Like sound and light, scent flies with the greatest of ease through that most ephemeral of medium, the air. Breathing is our first and last task on earth. As Diane Ackerman pointed out in A Natural History of the Senses, our opening act when we enter the planet is to inhale, and the last thing we do as we make our exit is to exhale. “Everyone breathe together,” Allen Ginsberg exhorted the crowd at the Human Be-In. Inhale and exhale together to unite as one. Ginsberg and Gary Snyder had walked around the Polo Grounds before the Be-In, chanting Sanskrit and Buddhist prayers to sanctify and purify the atmosphere, the prana, the cosmic breath of life, the life-force of everything and everyone in the universe. Air is beyond containment and imprisonment, just as so many people wished their lives and their spirits to be. The phrase, “As long as I am free as the air I breathe . . .” marked the beginning of many a phrase, lyric and rant. Furthermore, the air was one thing that greedy, corporate suits couldn’t stick a price tag on: free also meant free of charge. Air is forever mutable, beyond capture.
Air is also generous, taking whatever it is offered and distributing it to all: sound, light and smells. What I inhaled in those life-giving breaths while attending a Sixties rock concert emanated from a disparate mixture of substances and humanity. To members of The Establishment the operative phrase was “dirty hippie.” The epithet was literal, as in “those dirty hippies never take baths.” The New York Times reported in 1967, “All pure hippies, both boys and girls, have long and dirty hair….they do not like to pay their bills, so often the water is shut off in their pads, making it difficult for them to wash.” The straight and narrow-minded constantly accused hippies of smelling bad, and that their bare feet were especially dirty and malodorous. There was—gulp—was a grain of truth to the accusation. Runaways and travelers, and various communal arrangements with many sharing one bathroom and washing machine—if there even was such a contraption—could make for less cleanliness than godliness. Middle class teenage and twenty-something kids on their own for the first time reveled in lives with no one to make them bathe on a regular basis. And with no handy Mom or cleaning lady to do their laundry and scrub the house, how many wanted or even knew how to do such things themselves?
On a deeper philosophical level, there were some serious questions about the sanity of sanitization versus the sensuality of scent as a celebration of the human spirit. The 1950s had spawned an industry churning out products to suds, scrub and spray away the natural scents of the human body: deodorants, antiseptic soaps, acne medications that could strip paint from the walls, feminine hygiene sprays, strongly perfumed face creams and hand lotions, air fresheners, harsh laundry detergents and various assorted chemical lotions and potions. To many, these represented yet another Establishment denial of the body in its natural glory. By eradicating its odors you robbed the human temple of its sensual and sexual splendor. Some ceased and desisted from using deodorants and strong soaps on principle. (You could often smell their principles from a far distance.) Many, including me, used the few available natural and organic products, which were in their infancy and often didn’t work very well.
However, the dirty hippie was generally an unfair stereotype just as much as when the word “dirty” prefixed the name of one ethnic group or another at various ignoble moments in history. The delights that accosted your nostrils amidst of a large assembly of such bodies, which could often be found at close quarters at rock concerts, were varied and often quite marvelous.
One of the most magical places to encounter such a mix was in the great outdoors in Marin County. For a time, the San Francisco bands became Marin bands, living close together and cross-pollinating their music among the meadows. The Jefferson Airplane, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and other bands took refuge when the Haight-Ashbury started to become overrun by tourists, runaways, wannabe hippies and cops.
The scene was mellow, laid back-to-nature with people wearing buckskins, and Indian beads with feathers woven into their hair. In wooden houses tucked into redwood groves, earth mothers nursed babies, baked bread, made pottery and embroidered their cats’ jeans.
During my fifteenth summer I worked as a junior camp counselor in the redwood-studded Marin County haven of Forest Knolls, just over the hill from Camp Lagunitas, an old Girl Scout camp where The Grateful Dead were living. Every afternoon I could hear them practicing. Members of the other bands would join them to jam. Big Brother and the Holding Company were also living in Lagunitas and Janis Joplin frequently hung out with Pigpen at The Dead’s digs. One of the campers where I worked was Greg Chaquico, later of The Jefferson Starship. Years afterwards he told my brother that the music drifting over the hill inspired him to become a musician.
Many years later Bob Weir recalled Camp Lagunitas to me. “That was the most halcyon of times. The weather was gorgeous out there. I spent the entire summer barefoot pretty much. I got to the point where I could run through the woods. In California the live oaks are prickly, and they didn’t bother me a bit. It was great; we were living out in nature. We’d rehearse a few hours a day and then just take it easy. It was wonderful. It was a great way to get started with a band. It was a bit harsh after that getting back into the city, even though it was the Haight-Ashbury that we moved into. City life was nowhere near as placid and tranquil and easy-going as living out there at Camp Lagunitas. But I guess we had work to do . . . .”
Most of the bands eventually returned to San Francisco, with its plenitude of venues for gigs. The January, 1967 issue of The City of San Francisco Oracle contained a tiny classified ad: “Big Brother is returning to the city! Need rehearsal hall and places to live. Call 454-1408 or write B.B. & the H.C. at Box 94, Lagunitas.”) I wonder who answered that ad, rented to Janis Joplin and provided a space for the band to practice.
Dominating Marin County’s landscape is the mountain the Spanish named Tamalpais. Grizzly bears, mountain lions, elk and antelopes used to call it home. My parents went camping there in the 1940s. On the west side it slopes into the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach and Stinson Beach. Along the eastern slope and at its foot is the city of Mill Valley. Mount Tam’s silhouette, when viewed from the East Bay, resembles a reclining woman with her long hair streaming behind her head. In the nineteenth century, people started calling the mountain “The Sleeping Princess” and created an ancient romantic legend about her. Whatever she may be, there is a noticeable feeling of heightened sensitivity on her slopes. The Magic Mountain is redolent with the aromas of redwood trees, sage, eucalyptus, pine and oak. The pungent, seaweed-laden salt air of the Pacific perfumes the beaches and the fog that frequently blankets the hills. The caress on your skin of California sun or heavy ocean fog and geographical mojo combine to make for some fantastically good vibes that are Mount Tam’s alone. The Sleeping Princess sang her siren song to beats, bohemians and hippies.
Ellis Amburn wrote in Subterranean Kerouac, “Just before [Gary] Snyder left for Japan, he took Kerouac on a long hike up Mount Tamalpais to Muir Woods, and then down a steep path to Stinson Beach for a swim in the Pacific. In Snyder’s poem, ‘On Vulture Peak,’ he wrote that he and Jack got drunk, took off their clothes, and squatted on the beach as they enjoyed a bunch of steamed mussels. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac recalled beach picnics with Snyder when they spread out their meals of salami, Ry-Krisp, cheese and wine on a piece of paper in the sand.” Hippies also claimed the Magic Mountain as their own.
Muir Beach’s clubhouse and the ampitheater on Mount Tam hosted many of the most mellow Sixties rock concerts and dances. (It was also the site of one of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ most famous Acid Tests, with The Grateful Dead supplying the music.) To join the tribe for such events was to be enveloped in layers of ritual scents. Marin air in the sixties was fresh, clean, pure and rural, constantly replenished by masses of greenery madly photosynthesizing the sun’s rays. People would drift dreamily through the crowds clutching burning sticks of incense, or wave them around like magic wands while dancing..
Men and women alike anointed themselves with rich, deep, mysterious essential oils of jasmine, sandalwood and patchouli, evoking the exotic East and an earthy sensuality. The oils mingled erotically with the aromas of bodies sitting close together in the hot sun or dancing vigorously for hours.
Pungent marijuana and hashish smoke sat heavily on the air as joints and hash pipes traveled from hand-to-mouth through the crowd. Cigarette smoke was also ubiquitous. Unfiltered Camels was the brand of choice, though a handful of the ultra-hip smoked French Gaulouise, Moroccan cheroots and other tobacco exotica. People brought their moveable feasts, and tantalizing food odors mingled with the mix. Friendly souls with food-sharing on their minds might show up with victuals to pass around: chips, peanut butter on whole-grain bread, carrot cake, banana and zucchini breads and occasionally hash brownies from a particularly magnanimous benefactor. You had to make a judgement call about whether or not you wanted to risk getting dosed with LSD by partaking of food or drink from sources unknown.
Other potential land mines lay earthbound. Dancing barefoot on grass and sun-warmed beach sand felt incredibly luscious. However, unwashed feet recently unloosed from well-worn leather sandals or moccasins could be a tad ripe if you happened to be lying down and they were in close proximity to your probiscus—or if those freshly abandoned sandals or moccasins were just a little too close. Also, there were always dogs at outdoor concerts chasing Frisbees or loping through the crowds, drooling in the heat. These cheerful mutts, inevitably never on leashes and not trained to heed or heel, were lavished with bandanas or loops of rawhide decorated with Indian beadwork tied around their necks. They often had names that millions of people in other parts of the world invoked in prayer, such as Buddha and Krishna. However, they may not have seen anything approaching a bath since the last time they frolicked amongst the seaweed in the Pacific. You also had to be careful not to dance into their leavings.
There were also smells too subtle to be perceived, seducers that had yet to be named or even known in that era. All those gyrating bodies and waving limbs sent pheromones flying freely, wrapping everyone up in youthful lusty joy, lifting the crowd higher and higher and higher on that gorgeous mountain, an ephemeral whiff on a fleeting breeze of a paradise on earth.