The First Time I Saw Abbie Hoffman

The first time I saw Abbie Hoffman he was running naked down the aisle of St. Mark's in the Bowery during a poetry reading and my immediate reaction was that this was rather a tasteless thing to do in a church, particularly an Episcopalian church. Another sighting was at the Peace Eye Bookstore on Avenue A in the summer of 1969. He was a skinny, straggly hippie with acne, sitting on the floor reading Zap comix.

He was never my favorite counterculture hero, lacking the staid dignity of, say, Allen Ginsberg, or the prudent, level-headed sagacity of Timothy Leary. But after reading Abbie's autobiography Soon to be a Major Motion Picture (Putnam, 1980), I am almost persuaded that he was a pretty good superhero after all, especially if everything he says about himself is true.

Major Motion Picture is primarily an eye-witness, blood-curdling account of the Sixties counterculture and is highly recommended to Young People These Days who, having come of age during the dreary backlash years of the Seventies, might find it hard to imagine that such goings on ever went. The black struggle for freedom, the hippie counter-consciousness, and the antiwar movement were three strands that twisted to form the counterculture, and Abbie narrates his journey through all three. From his work in Mississippi with SNCC starting in 1964, to the creation of hippie urban glory on New York's Lower East Side, to the 1968 police riots in Chicago, his manic energy drove him through the storm sewers of the decade.

Merry pranks were the hallmark of his style. The burning of money at the New York Stock Exchange and the levitation of the Pentagon were two stunts that symbolized the new consciousness and its rejection of what Leary called the "fake-prop-television-set American society". It had never occurred to the Old (pre-LSD) Left that the Pentagon was so demonic that it required an exorcism. The hippie contribution to the counterculture brew was its total rejection of the legitimacy of not only government, the military, and Mammon, but of the very thought patterns that create and maintain them.

Mayor Daley's police riot at the Chicago convention of 1968 marked the beginning of the end of the brief floruitof the American sixties' subculture. Hoffman gives a detailed description of Nixon's campaign to crush the antiwar movement and the account, from the trial of the Chicago Eight, through the Jackson State and Kent State shootings, makes depressing reading, as the counterculture whimpers to an end in the early Seventies.

Hoffman went underground after a cocaine bust. Underground during the period he wrote the book, he surfaced just in time to be in the audience at Columbia in 1981 as Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" on the 25th anniversary of its publication:

"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? ...
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! ... Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!"

Hoffman's greatest legacy is perhaps the defunct Yippie (Youth International) Party, the sardonic and surreal political imagination of the brains not sacrificed at the altar of Moloch. He was certainly not a pragmatic, pork-barrel politician for the long haul.

The last time I saw Abbie Hoffman was at the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania in the late '80s. At the time, he was working on the obscure "Pump Project" in rural Pennsylvania and hawking his latest book, Steal This Urine Test!. He was a fluent and impressive lecturer and filled the huge auditorium. He would have made a fine professor. Some years later I read that he had killed himself. Gone but not forgotten. Sacrificed after all on the altar of Moloch.

--Ross Bender

Exorcism in Some Beat Poetry
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