Allen Cohen, editor of The City of San Francisco Oracle wrote, “Although there were many spiritual paths being explored and invented in the Haight, the preponderant view favored an intense sensuousness. Experiences with both LSD and marijuana seemed to unveil a world of sensory splendor and spiritual depth that had been absent from most peoples’ Judeo-Christian expectations.” Such experiences led to a whole lot of touching in many different ways, stirring up a hornet’s nest of emotions about bodies, sensuality, sexuality, joy, hedonism, and to break free of the chains of two centuries’-worth of national history of Puritanism. At the same time people opened many new doors, some profound and others downright goofy, and explored new realms that were, well, deeply touching.
See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.
—Tommy, The Who
Massage, formerly found only in the realms of athletics, physical therapy and in name only in massage parlors, suddenly became popular to the point of achieving fad status. Being a masseur or masseuse was a very hip profession: part healing art, part spiritual practice and part celebration of nudity, sensuality and all things pleasurable about the feeling of skin on skin. There were top-selling books about massage, massage classes, couples massage, Esalen massage, group massages in which everyone sat in a circle and rubbed each others necks, sensual massage, healing massage, erotic massage, “strictly nonsexual” massage, massage for your chakras and massage for your pets. People discussed the best formulas for massage oils as if they were alchemical formuli: sesame or coconut oil? Mint- or lavender-scented? Was it more efficacious to chant Wiccan incantations over the oil or do a pseudo-Sioux pipe ceremony for the best vibrations?
Thanks to the Human Potential Movement and all the love in the air, there was a whole lot of hugging going on. After an era when, other than among family and close friends, men shook hands with other men in public by way of greeting and women gave air kisses so as not to smear each other with lipstick, it was cool in the counterculture for anyone to hug anybody any time: engulfing, full frontal bear hugs. People meeting for the first and maybe only times hugged, groups hugged to affirm their togetherness at the beginning and end of meetings. Food co-op members hugged. Free clinic staffs hugged. Church groups hugged. Politicos may or may not have hugged, depending on how they felt about hugging as a political statement: sign of solidarity or feel-good cop-out on The Struggle.
The Human Potential Movement also popularized “puppy piles,” groups lying together on the floor in one big, relaxed full body hug. Human pile-ups began to occur spontaneously at various gatherings: parties, meetings, rap groups and late-night rock concerts. These could make for some oddball moments. More than once I lay amidst a mass, comfortable and relaxed, only to jerk away, startled, as the fingers of an unknown individual safely concealed in the crowd deftly reached under my clothes and copped a stealth feel of my nipple or tush. Certainly, in all the various new ways to touch, there arose at times confusion between what was overtly sexual and what wasn’t, if there was any difference and if so, where to draw the line. “Clear boundaries” was not yet a phrase with positive connotations. A boundary was something that was supposed to be dynamited into oblivion.
However, getting high was often undeniably about getting very, very turned on. There were amazing, amorphous arousals when you spontaneously got off on everything and everyone. I can remember lying collapsed on the floor at The Avalon Ballroom at one A.M., after having danced for the last four hours. I was just a tad worn-out and a little spacey from the mixture of cigarette, incense and pot smoke, sweat and pheromones. My head was resting on some unknown cat’s shoulder, my mussed-up hair mingling with his and his breath tickling my ear. My mini-skirt had gotten hiked up above see-level and the back of somebody’s head was resting on my thigh, his or her hair splayed across my leg. I was listening to a fantastic Chicago bluesman sing “I just want to make love to you.” The electric guitar was wailing so sweet, the drums wouldn’t quit and the cymbals sent electric tingles through my body. The bass is grounding everything, invisibly pinning me down so I wouldn’t levitate up to the ceiling and the whole swarm of people lying on the floor was rhythmically rolling and tumbling, drumming on the floor with hands and heels and writhing together to that carnal beat that not only hit my ears, but vibrated the floor and throbbed into my cells and my soul. The floor was warm, slightly gritty and alive, pounding with the music and the crowd’s energy. I was part of that amoebic oversoul of the audience and band, and at the same time I remained blissfully alone, lost in my personal feedback loop with the sensations on my skin, and taking in all the stimulation that was causing every cell, nerve and biochemical in my young body to quietly explode.
Ultimately, a lot of the joy from being at rock concerts, and especially from dancing at them was about getting high on yourself. After all, dancing didn’t often involve touching anyone else. However, you always touched yourself, and one of the most pleasurable energy conductors was that most powerful symbol of hippiedom: hair. Hair is a highly sensitive touch receptor for the skin. Stroke a person’s hair, even lightly, and he or she will probably feel it at the skin level. The feeling of dancing with long hair swishing around my neck and shoulders, of shaking my head and feeling it fly in the breeze and have it whip across my arms, or leaning back with eyes closed and the voluptuous slithering sensation as it dribbled across my face, over my bare shoulders and down my back was its own private universe of ecstasy. It was a reenactment of the tribal rites of all time, in which groups such as the Shakers, Sufi “whirling dervishes, Shamans, Native American tribes and hundreds of others, danced themselves into ecstatic states of consciousness, with or without the aid of drugs. That was liberation made manifest.
You didn’t have to have long, straight hair to experience such pleasures. The heft of a full-blown Afro and its scratchy fullness against your hands and the back of your neck was another spectacular sensation.
Long hair in the sixties inspired unbelievable frothing at the mouth, mockery, anxiety and rage. How radical it was when The Beatles arrived in the USA sporting hair that grew just a tiny bit below their collars! They were dubbed “The Four Mop-Tops” by the press. For a while you could buy Beatles wigs so that you could have long hair temporarily as a novelty and then go back to being normal.
San Francisco psychedelic poster artist Alton Kelley said, “I think one of the things tht sparked it [the hippie era]: the Beatle haircut. Everybody started letting their hair grow and that made it easier to identify who you were and all that.” (64) The Beatles opened the floodgates and men’s hair grew longer and longer, from collar to shoulder-length and beyond. Sideburns, mustaches and beards came along for the ride from another angle.
In San Francisco, The Charlatans personified the look with their Wild West reenactments. Men began to adopt both sides of the barbed wire fence of the Old West, either as pioneers or going Native American with braids, headbands, beads and feathers in their hair.
A guy could literally get killed by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time with hair flowing over his shoulders. Schools banned. Bosses fired. Parents yelled. Mobs taunted. People snickered, “You can’t tell the boys from the girls,” which seemed patently absurd to boys with long hair and the girls who loved their locks.
Why did hair become such a rallying cry, such a line of demarcation between hippies and straights? Men’s long locks and women’s untamed manes truly constituted a line in the sand that acted more like a fault line, causing more earthquakes and aftershocks than many far more significant social issues. Throughout history, hair has had great meaning and potency ascribed to it that perhaps came home to roost on the hippies’ heads. It has been a power symbol since the biblical days of Sampson and the superhuman strength he derived from his unshorn locks. Hair is used in sympathetic magic in cultures the world over; with just a few strands of a person’s hair you can gain power over him. Hair has long been a sex symbol and its control is emblematic of harnessing sexual energy and power. Left free and untamed, the implication is that those forces are also unleashed. (I recall something as innocuous as the moment I left the house for a date when I was fifteen. My father could only express his disapproval that his daughter was meeting a boy by snapping, “Get your hair out of your face!”) Historically, cutting off peoples’ hair or shaving their heads is a method of symbolically dehumanizing and/or neutering them. It is also a defining rite of passage for people losing their individuality and entering institutions, from men entering the military to women joining nunneries.
By the mid-twentieth century in the Americas and Europe, as in no century before, short hair on men was also a defining feature of masculinity in the mainstream. In the world of The Establishment, a man sporting long hair implied that he was effeminate, maybe even a dreaded “homo.” What liberation for men to revel in the sensation of a mighty mane flying free in the wind; how freeing to toss away a razor. It was a celebration of the New Man, the ultimate image of male bliss and freedom to be roaring down Highway One with a big bad chopper between your legs, the endless blue Pacific to the West, the sea air caressing your scalp as your hair streamed behind you like a banner. Your hair might lash across your face for a moment as you turned to one side to check your rear view mirror, then whip back behind you as you eased forward, blazing down that road hugging the edge of the continent.
A hippie boy only cut his hair under the greatest of duress. You had to have long hair to hang with the hip. It made a man one of Us instead of one of Them so thoroughly that any male with short hair just looked wrong—even if you knew him to be on the right side. A boyfriend showed up once on a rainy night, having had his hair trimmed from mid-back length to shoulder-length. I was so stunned by his appearance that I stood in the doorway gaping at him, momentarily repulsed by his short hair. He waited in the rain for me to let him in for a full minute, a puzzled expression on his face and water streaming down those newly cut locks.
Meanwhile, parents wrung their hands as their daughters parted their straight hair down the middle and stepped out into the public eye without curling, spraying, tying back, or otherwise controlling their hair. Mothers and grandmothers came from an age where hair was often “done” in a beauty parlor once a week: cut short, crimped, curled, sprayed, and above all else, held in place. Instead of arranging their hair into the neat bobs, page boys and flips of the early sixties and wearing tidy hair bands and barrettes, girls adorned their hair with colorful bandanas, Indian headbands, feathers, leather thongs, and strung beads, ribbons and yarn into their long braids. But mostly hair hung long, loose and free.
I was one of the tribe known as “Jewish gypsies,” chicks of the Chosen People with masses of dark, curly hair. If you played it right, you could work it to appear exotic and mysterious. However, until it became acceptable in the late Sixties for white folks to let the frizz fly, those born with any amount of curl in their crowning glories resorted to all sorts of diabolical measures to make their hair look like it was naturally straight. When I was fifteen I went to a beauty parlor to get my hair straightened with chemicals that smelled like rotten eggs mixed with ammonia. I set my hair on huge rollers—the instruments of choice were empty orange juice cans. Lemon jello was a common hair setting lotion with enough heft to tame frizz. After wrapping my hair around those cans, I baked my head in a bonnet hair dryer on a high heat until my brains were ready to melt, or else I put them on at night and attempted to sleep on them. Another technique was to iron damp hair with a clothes iron. However, ironing contained the inherent danger of burning your hair off if you pressed for too long or the heat was too high. Unfortunately, a humid or rainy day wreaked havoc on all my extreme measures and my hair frizzed up anyway.
Hip African Americans, on the other hand, abandoned the hair straightening methods that symbolized for them an effort to conform to standards of beauty in Whitey’s world. They embraced their African heritage and let their hair grow into “afros” or “naturals.” Some of these hairdos were enormous. The best comb for such fantastic halos was an angel food cake cutter. Many adorned their crowning glories with one of these tools stuck into it for easy access. With only the handle and a bit of the metal part showing, they had the eerie look of a hatchet stuck into the back of the person’s head.
For a short period of infamy it became majorly cool for women to grow out the hair on their legs and armpits. The rap went that razors had been forced into the hands of women by uptight, commercial, corporate cretins who inflicted their standards of beauty on The People. Shaving was unnatural. It denied the natural rights of hair to grow where it lived. It deprived your legs their natural sensuality. Decades of social conditioning were supposed to melt away like so many puffs of shaving cream in a stream of hot water.
However, what to do when your philosophy butted heads with your aesthetics? Most importantly, what was a girl to do when a such an au courant attitude, no matter how righteous, might put a serious cramp in her potential love life? Abandoning social conditioning was all well and good if all you had on the legs that walked your talk was a whisper of soft blonde down. However, if like me and all the other Jewish gypsies and dark-haired women, you ended up with dark brown thickets beneath your arms and a burnt lawn on your legs, no matter how cool it might be it also looked downright hideous. How many bets a guy was going to be thinking, “Hey, she is sooo cool!” or “Holy shit, that looks disgusting!” when I was looking down at my legs and thinking the latter myself? Did I do the righteous, hip thing and grow it out anyway, or did I sell out to the Establishment and get out the razor? This was a very, very serious philosophical and political issue, the kind that could be discussed endlessly in rap sessions and consciousness-raising groups.
By age twenty, after plenty of internal wrestling I made the final unconditional surrender. Issues enough abounded without one that was easily remedied. My housemate Marianne joined me in solidarity. We held a tribal ceremony to mark our solemn decision. We danced around in a circle in the moonlight, waving razors, squirting shaving cream, shouting war whoops and chanting indecipherable incantations. When we felt the gods might be appeased, we retired to the bathroom to perform the last rites. There was probably a small amount of blood shed during the sacrifice, given how hard it was to slay that pernicious beast. The relief, however, was unbelievable.