Although the Expressionists and Surrealists had esteemed Gaudí as a fellow visionary, popular attitudes began to change dramatically in the 1960s, a decade of worldwide social and cultural ferment that made Gaudí’s work speak to a young generation alert to imaginative and expressive qualities long dismissed as pathologically bizarre, especially in architecture. Indeed, there is something almost psychedelic in his freewheeling aesthetic, characterized by distorted forms, propulsive patterns, kaleidoscopic colors, and quirky materials. The rediscovery of Art Nouveau during the 1960s carried Gaudí along with other newfound fin de siècle heroes of the burgeoning counterculture, including Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Although Murphy and Price [Michael Murphy and Dick Price, Esalen’s founders] actually met Aldous Huxley only once, in January of 1962 when the author visited them briefly in Big Sur shortly before his death on November 22, 1963 (the same day, it turns out, that JFK was assassinated), his intellectual and personal influence on the place was immense. His second wife, Laura, would become a long-time friend of Esalen, where she would fill any number of roles, including acting as a sitter for one of Murphy’s psychedelic sessions.
Aldous Huxley’s writings on the mystical dimensions of psychedelics and on what he called the perennial philosophy were foundational. Moreover, his call for an institution that could teach the “nonverbal humanities” and the development of the “human potentialities” functioned as the working mission statement of early Esalen. Indeed, the very first Esalen brochures actually bore the Huxley-inspired title, “the human potentiality.” This same phrase would later morph in a midnight brainstorming session between Michael Murphy and George Leonard into the now well-known “human potential movement.” When developing the early brochures for Esalen, Murphy was searching for a language that could mediate between his own Aurobindonian evolutionary mysticism and the more secular and psychological language of American culture. It was Huxley who helped him to create such a new hybrid language. This should not surprise us, as Huxley had been experimenting for decades on how to translate Indian ideas into Western literary and intellectual culture.
When Weathermen did get around to bombing things, the preparation and execution remained fraught with risk. Long-haired young people lingering outside courthouses and police stations late at night tended to draw attention in the early 1970s. It occurred to Dohrn, and to others in the leadership, that disguises alone wouldn’t ensure their safety. Thus the question arose: What could they take along to reliably deflect a policeman’s curiosity? One answer was children.
No beat cop, they reasoned, would suspect a family with kids out for an evening stroll. It was a brilliant idea; the only problem was, no one in Weather had children. A handful of supporters did, however, and this was how one of Dohrn’s friends, the Chicago attorney Dennis Cunningham, saw his family drawn into clandestineness…
“I went to L.A. a bunch of times,” Delia [Dennis Cunningham’s daughter] recalls. “I would play while they had meetings. There was a lot of time in cars. Bernardine and Billy always had cool cars, 50s cars. We would go to movies, old films, Chaplin films. Later I started going on trips, into the countryside, to other cities, trips on airplanes, on trains, cross-country, once or twice to upstate New York, where I think we stayed when Jeff Jones moved there. I knew they loved spending time with us, my siblings included, but I also knew we were good cover. The two things went together well. I know Mom was really into that, that we were helping. Did we scout out bombing targets? Yeah, I think so. I never actually saw anything explode, but it was always discussed. ‘We had a great action. We’re going to be discussing an action.’”
Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
Elaine Brown is an American prison activist, writer, lecturer and singer. In 1968, she joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party as a rank-and-file member. Six years later, Huey Newton appointed her to lead the Party when he went into exile in Cuba. She was the first and only woman to lead the male-dominated Party. She is author of A Taste of Power (Pantheon, 1992) and The Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press, 2002). She is also the Executive Director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee and CEO of the newly-formed non-profit organization Oakland & the World Enterprises, Inc.
Her 1992 autobiography A Taste of Poweris a story of what it means to be a black woman in America,tracing her life from a lonely girlhood in the ghettos of North Philadelphia to the highest levels of the Black Panther Party’s hierarchy. The Los Angeles Times described the book as “a profound, funny and…heartbreaking American story,” and the New York Times called it “chilling, well written and profoundly entertaining.” Our thanks to Brown for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.Read more…
Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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Fifty years ago, a champion boxer picked up his son from school, a literary critic was tackled by NFL players, and a famed NASCAR racer tended to his chicken farm. Such was the sidelong view of sports presented by Gay Talese, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe. Sports in the 1960s proved a rich arena for writers looking to flex their literary muscle, and Talese and Wolfe tried out unconventional sports writing while still kicking off their careers. You won’t find much reference here to the sweeping political developments that tend to dominate our narratives of 1964. Instead, you’ll get some sense for the texture of the time. Read more…