February 9, 2014

This Ain’t the Summer of Love


Every day after work back in the late nineties, the editorial staff of the NY Press would retire to the back table of a bar around the corner. Morgan and I usually joined them, as did the art director and a fluctuating group of writers, artists, salespeople, whoever happened by. It was a large, round, well-lit table with plenty of room, and over time the bar staff simply came to reserve it for us every night. It was in that bar after work that the real work of the paper got done. Amid all the jibes and the drunken foolishness and the gossip and the stories, ideas were pitched around, assignments were made, and upcoming issues were sketched out. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what the hell the editors did up there on the eighth and ninth floors of the Puck Building all day. Their offices were right next to each other, but it seems they never spoke until they hit the bar.

         One night the production manager Don Gilbert, a semi-regular at the back table, stopped by. Don—and I mean this in the best possible way—was as hep as they come. He was a surfer, old school New York punk rock, knew everyone in the East Village. He was the only non-member allowed free access to the Hell’s Angels Third St. clubhouse. He hung out with underground filmmakers and musicians and people from the old Factory scene. But he stayed very low key about it and always stayed behind the scenes (I know of at least two books he all but completely wrote, but he let someone else take full credit.) He looked far younger than he was, with long dark hair and a perpetual tan from all the surfing he did out on Long Island.

         Don was extremely sharp, streetwise, well-read. He and I always got along very well, and that night he pulled up a chair next to mine and dropped a legal pad and a pen on the table between us. “Hey Knipfel, I’ve got an idea,” he said.

         It was pretty clear from the get go he was a little stoned, and not on the beer he was drinking. I wasn’t sure on what. He’d been using heroin off and on since the seventies, and a bit of everything else in between. That night he’d been handing out something he called “French Valium,” whatever that was. It didn’t matter—he did his job and did it well, no matter what his condition. I minded my business and he minded his. He was lucid enough, so I pulled my beer closer to listen as he laid out his plan. Then, over the next hour or so, we compiled a list of some two dozen names on that legal pad, among them:


            Evel Knievel

            Charles Manson

            Tom Laughlin (writer. producer, director and star of the Billy Jack movies)

            Sonny Barger (leader of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels)

            Iggy Pop

            Members of The Weather Underground

            Members of the old NYC street gang The Motherfuckers

            Dennis Hopper

            Blanche Barton (widow of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey)


         The list went on for some time, but those are the names I recall off the top of my head. There were two operative factors governing who made it onto the list. First they had to be living, and people either Don or I felt we could easily contact to set up an interview. The second factor brings us to Don’s idea. He wanted to collaborate on a book, a collection of interviews orbiting around a central theme. He already had a title for it: And the Hippies Were Boiled in their Tanks (a play on And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, an early experimental novel Jack Kerouac wrote with William Burroughs).

         Each one of the cultural figures on that list, see, in one way or another, was instrumental in the ugly and brutal end of the hippie era in the late sixties and early seventies. Manson was an obvious choice given as the Tate-LaBianca murders in ‘69 were cited by so many as marking the end. Sonny Barger was another obvious choice. Barger’s Oakland chapter of the Angels had been hired to handle security at Altamont, and it was a member of the Angels who stabbed that fellow by the stage as The Stones were performing “Under my Thumb.” The stabbing called attention (with a little help from the Maysles Brothers and their documentary Gimme Shelter) to what a dark and savage scene that concert turned into.

         The reasoning behind other inclusions was a bit more complicated. Dennis Hopper, for instance, foreshadowed the end of the era in the final moments of Easy Rider. Difference was, instead of evil rednecks blowing hippies away, it was the hippies themselves who would implode and turn on each other, as Hopper proved by taking a suitcase full of studio money and heading to Mexico to make the incoherent Last Movie while setting himself up as some kind of Manson-like guru in the desert. Tom Laughlin’s character Billy Jack (who first appeared in the 1967 outlaw biker film The Born Losers, but became a folk hero with 1971’s Billy Jack) spouted a bunch of peace and love crap together with a load of fake Indian mysticism, even surrounded his character with lots and lots of kind and gentle hippie folk, but when push came to shove he revealed not only the buried violence at the heart of it all by kicking the shit out of his enemies, but also the inherent narcissism behind the hippie claptrap that would overtake the country in the next decade.

         Speaking of which, there’s Evel Knievel, admittedly one of my biggest childhood heroes in the early seventies. He dragged motorcycles out from the underground and away from the outlaw biker gangs (to whom bikes were a symbol of freedom and anti-authoritarianism) and made them—and himself—the core of a massive, flashy, corporate-sponsored family-friendly spectacle. (Not surprisingly, this led to a life-long blood feud between Knievel and the Angels.) He also helped herald the arrival of the age of flamboyant narcissisim and empty self-absorption by taking what was essentially a silly carnival stunt and equating it (and himself) in his mind and the minds of all those millions who adored him with the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus and Neil armstrong. Yes, well.

         Sitting there at that back table it was really shaping up to be an interesting project, and one I wanted to work on. It was going to be part cultural history, part sociology, there’d be plenty of good stories involved, and it would offer a broad spectrum of perspectives on a specific period and series of events people have traditionally oversimplified. We had a couple more beers, made a lot of notes, and sorted out which one of us would contact whom. He knew Barger, I could get to Manson, we both had Knievel connections of one kind or another. It was looking good.

         Sadly, a few weeks later as we were still bouncing ideas around at the office and the bar afterward, Don died of an overdose. More than anything I was pissed at him—he’d made it this far, which meant he was supposed to live forever, like Keith Richards or William Burroughs. But I was also pissed because it meant the end of that book. The legal pad was gone, the list was gone, the notes were gone, and Don was gone. It was more than I was capable of taking on myself, and besides, the whole damn thing had been Don’s idea. So it became another one of those projects added to my own long list of brilliant but abandoned books that will never, ever get written. Unless of course someone reads this and decides to cop the idea.


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