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The Long, Strange Trip

It was the decade of free love and sit-ins, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Easy Rider, hallucinatory trips and lunar landings. It began with Camelot and ended with “Tricky Dick.” It saw the first American in space, the arrival of the Beatles, multiple assassinations, and the rise of feminism. And now, half a century later, everything Sixties is on the verge of turning 50—a series of anniversaries that is just getting started. We didn’t host Woodstock or birth Timothy Leary, of course, but Minnesota did play a part in that infamous, psychedelic, peaced-out decade of change. Here’s what we brought to the party. Dig it.

The Long, Strange Trip

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You’ve probably never heard of the monks or of the noise band’s lead singer and guitarist, Minnesota native Gary Burger. But modern acts like the Beastie Boys and the White Stripes list the Monks as an influence. First called the Torquays and formed in 1964, while Burger was a G.I. stationed in Germany, the band was made up of soldiers and played conventional, high-energy rock for German crowds thirsty for American music. After discharge, the Torquays stuck around Germany, playing small clubs but with the new name. The Monks dressed in all black, sometimes in cassocks, with nooses for neckties. In contrast to the mop-topped Beatles, they shaved their scalps into the traditional monk’s tonsures. The music was no less strange. Berger and his band mates pioneered a raw proto-punk filled with thumping beats, strangled vocals, and waves of dissonance. “Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam?/Mad Viet Cong!/My brother died in Vietnam!” Burger shouts in the signature tune, “Monk Time.” Such songs led Iggy Pop to declare of the Monks, “They may be the only legitimate anti-war rock group to come out of the ’60s.” Not long after releasing their debut album, Black Monk Time, the band fell apart. Nowadays, Burger is mayor of Turtle River, the Minnesota town where he was raised.


The first game to use human beings as playing pieces was born around 1964 in St. Paul at a company called Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design. Twister languished on Milton Bradley’s B-list until Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor got down on all fours to play on The Tonight Show in 1966. After that, Twister became controversial (and therefore extremely popular), as ’50s-style prudes condemned it as “sex in a box.” Thus, Minnesota did its part to usher in the sexual revolution.


If it wasn’t for the Vietnam War, there would have been no Vietnam War protesters. Minnesota played a significant role in the war via what’s sometimes called the military industrial complex. In 1964, Minneapolis-based Control Data Corporation developed the supercomputer. Being several times faster than any other in existence, it was used by the government to break codes and simulate nuclear explosions. The enormous Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, now shuttered in Arden Hills and New Brighton, produced more than 10 billion rounds of ammunition for the Vietnam War. But by far the most prominent target for protesters was Honeywell, which manufactured cluster bombs along with guidance systems for nuclear weapons and military planes. In the late 1960s, the Honeywell Project sprang up with one sole mission: to push the company, then Minnesota’s largest military contractor, to stop making weapons. To grasp  just how consequential the group was, consider that it was later discovered that the Project had been infiltrated by the FBI. In the end, the protests bore fruit. Sort of. Honeywell spun off most of its military operations into a new entity, Alliant Tech Systems.


We used to honor poor Humphrey in a fitting manner. Sports announcers referred to the “Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome,” not “Mall of America Field at the H.H.H. Metrodome.” Road signs near the airport directed travelers to the “Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal,” not “Terminal 2.” No question, Ozymandias had it better than the Happy Warrior. But even if the nameplates fall from every last monument to Humphrey, his fingerprints remain on some of the most significant legislative accomplishments of the Sixties. Most famously, Humphrey shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the U.S. Senate. He was also a pioneer when it came to federal aid for education, Medicare, and the Job Corps. By the end of the decade, though, Humphrey was a pariah to the Left—largely due to his support for the Vietnam War. When Chicago police thumped heads at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Humphrey, the party’s nominee, sat on his hands. Routed by Richard Nixon in the general election, Humphrey returned to his old job in the Senate. He mounted one more presidential run and mulled another, but he was never able to shake the ghost of ’68.


If you followed the culture wars of the 1990s, you may know Robert Bly as a leader in the so-called men’s movement and the author of Iron John, a book that urged the squishy modern male to nurture his inner “wild man.” In that role, Bly, a longtime Minnesota poet, has been occasionally ridiculed (see Susan Faludi’s seminal feminist treatise, Backlash). That Bly, however, is quite different from the fiercely political Bly of the Sixties. Part writer and part activist, in 1966 he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, which conducted poetry “read-ins” on college campuses across the country. According to legend, the first event—at Reed College in Oregon—was attended by Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself and was back-dropped by conservatives yelling from the balcony, “You’re all cowards! Go back to Russia!” When Bly’s 1967 collection, The Light Around the Body, won the National Book Award for poetry, he donated the $1,000 prize to the Resistance, an organization of draft protesters. The book, which contained poems with titles like, “Listening to President Kennedy Lie About the Cuban Invasion,” was lauded by The New York Review of Books as “austere yet tender,” and dubbed “a jeremiad at half-mast.”


Few political figures of the Sixties underwent an ideological transformation as dramatic and perfectly in tune with the times as Eugene McCarthy. An ex-Seminarian-turned-academic, McCarthy was recruited into politics after World War II, where he worked alongside his future adversary Humphrey to purge the DFL of communists. “Our policy must be to assist within all possible means the liberation of people who are subject to Communist tyranny,” he said in 1960. When other Democrats first began to question the Vietnam War, McCarthy was unmoved. But by mid-decade, he’d changed his mind. In 1968, he became a hero to the pacifist left when he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, running on an anti-war platform. “Get clean for Gene” became a rallying cry, as McCarthy volunteers shaved hippie beards and cut hippie hair in order to canvass door-to-door. He showed so well in the New Hampshire primary that Johnson dropped out of the race. In the end, the Democratic nomination went to Humphrey, though McCarthy refused to step aside, leading some to charge that he hastened the election of Richard Nixon. In subsequent years, McCarthy mounted a series of increasingly futile presidential campaigns and by 1980 was so estranged from the Democratic Party that he supported Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.


Once the Sixties party was over, Minnesota stepped in to mop up the tears. Our state has always been fertile ground for treatment centers, beginning with the founding of Hazelden in 1949. But it was the Minnesota Model—the idea that alcoholics and addicts need not “hit rock bottom” in order to be helped—that revolutionized treatment across the country. For that, much credit goes to the late Reverend Vernon E. Johnson, former archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Johnson’s own drinking problem led him to Hazelden in 1962. As a recovered alcoholic, he pushed the concept of “interventions” by co-workers, family, and friends, promulgating his ideas through books (most notably, I’ll Quit Tomorrow) and the Johnson Institute, an organization he founded to help employers deal with alcoholics. Johnson, coincidentally, developed the first chemical dependency treatment program at St. Mary’s Hospital, where the doomed poet John Berryman dried out more than once. 

* Take a photo tour back to Minnesota in the sixties at MNMO.com/sixties.


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