In 1968 I lived in one of 2 Houses in Ann Arbor, MI that the White Panthers* collectivized, I mean, it was a collective including my Mom & me, David Sinclair, The Poet and Collective Spokesperson John Sinclair, his partner Photographer Leni Sinclair & their daughters Sunshine & Celia, some individuals that destroyed a regional CIA office in an delightful act of domestic terrorism, a Radical Newspaper named the Sun, which published pictures of Narcotics Officers that would have preferred to remain undercover, a band called the MC5, and their pals Iggy & The Stooges, my pal Hiawatha Bailey, and other erstwhile revolutionary concepts and personages.
The White Panthers were most likely full of the best intentions; to overthrow the government, end the Vietnam War and racism, make everything free and have drugged sex in the street. But I found them to be surprisingly humorless and didactic, as a three-year old. The child-rearing skills of the Hippies were underdeveloped and clumsy, as most children of Hippies can attest.
- I was forbidden to play in the War Protest Simulated Grenade Crater that they’d dug in the front yard. The message of Protest was apparently negatively impacted if there was a kid throwing his superhero action figures around in it.
- I was not allowed to use the tiny black-and-white television to watch the regional** Bozo Show. That particular clown was known to be a distinct agent of corporatism.
- The food was terrible, when there was food. In 1968, health food was just brown rice and broccoli. Most meals tasted like boiled burlap or sticks. There was so little food that they had to call in my Grandmother to bring a spaghetti dinner every time Timothy Leary or the Velvet Underground dropped in.
These privations and more I endured as my lot in life among the Hippies, but not without Protests of my own: I clearly remember starting multiple fires, first in the long grasses in the back yard, escalating to the trashcan in the upstairs bathroom. When the Hippies took my matches away, I blocked the drains in the bathroom and flooded the house.
There was a turntable on the main floor, in the communal area of the house, and the Hippies favored the Beatles Sgt Pepper’s album that year. I liked Lucy in the Sky, sure, but I personally favored the Treasure Island side of a children’s musical story album, a severely abridged 15 minute musical version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, narrated by Sir Donald Wolfit. Within the narration were several short songs, one about an ancient Pirate Parrot that witnessed a horrifying act of cannibalism, and another about desiring cheese. I found the whole performance simply riveting.
The turntable had the common “Auto-Return” feature, where the needle would lift upon completion of the album side, move back to starting position, drop back into the first grooves of the album and play the side again, infinitely or until halted by some outside force. Serially, Sir Donald Wolfit’s Treasure Island narration would begin wafting through the house long before the Hippies arose from their bad wine and weed slumbers, and would continue any time they forgot to load the turntable. The reverse side of the album was a similarly abridged musical version of the King Arthur story; I do not recall having listened to that side of the album.
After maybe 27,000 repeat listenings of Treasure Island, the album actually became the focus of one of their communal meetings around the big table on the main floor, and it was communally decided that further playings should be disallowed, and the album should be removed from my possession.
The White Panthers’ rationale for this harsh decision, to take away a toddler’s favorite entertainment item, seemed facile to me even at that early age: Beyond unkind critiques of the various Pirate voices and insufficiently psychedelic musical numbers, I clearly remember that one of the Hippies went as far as to criticize the album art, because of the cruel depictions of Pirates. He leant his big fuzzy Tie-Dye Headbanded head down on a Mr. Natural-T-Shirt-Clad undernourished stem of a body to say to me, “Man, these are ugly caricatures of human beings: people don’t look like that,” and I literally remember having an internal debate over whether I should try to explain the concept of a cartoon to this human cartoon, deciding quickly that it’d be a lost cause, just like my Bozo Appeal.
It would take 54 years, an interviewer’s offhand question provoking a revelatory recollection, and the magic of the internet for me to once again see the condemned album cover and hear Sir Donald Wolfit giving voice to Long John Silver. The experience reduced me to a quivering puddle of near-catatonic self-awareness, horror and anxiety, but then, most things do, these days. Nonetheless.
As a fully-vested dues-paying member of Gen X, I have to hear both Old Was-Hippies and the generations once or more removed from Hippies opine about the about the Age of Aquarius like it was some lost kingdom of utopian peaceful love and inclusiveness, at least until the Hippies inherited their parents’ wealth and blew it all on Wall Street and cocaine.
But I stand to bear cold witness to the simple fact that at least this faction of the movement was critically flawed in its conception, as arbitrarily reactionary and prohibitionary to those in their charge as the Corporate and/or Uniformed Pigs they disparaged. This banning of media could have been the precursor to Pirate Book-Burnings nationwide, had the White Panther Party risen to supreme power. But that was not to be.
In years to follow this event, John Sinclair, ostensible leader of the White Panthers, was set up by a narcotics agent for a minor drug bust and sent to prison until John Lennon wrote a song about the bust that was so mediocre that they let Sinclair free. Others of the collective were surveilled and pursued internationally, imprisoned on various other charges, and my Mom took me to hide from the cops to a cabin in the woods, with a shotgun in the closet.
All of that must have been as unpleasant for them as being some kid having their Pirate Album taken away by a bunch of unsmiling patchouli-scented Muppets, right? I didn’t specifically want revenge but in the parlance of the times, Instant Karma, man. My Pirate Album might just have been the one beat too many of that butterfly’s wings.
*Huey P. Newton apparently had suggested that anti-racist Whiteys that supported his group, The Black Panthers, might should start a “White Panthers” group. It was in retrospect maybe not the best branding for an anti-racist collective, and subsequently they changed their name from the W.P. to “Trans-Love Energy” and then to “The Rainbow People’s Party,” which 21st-Century colloquial language causes me to point out that neither of which names were connected to Trans or Gay Rights, and so again, not such prescient branding.
**Before National Network television took over, broadcast areas were limited, and the Clown Bozo was actually a franchise: There were like 180 of them around the U.S., paying half of their money to, and buying their Yak-Hair Wigs from Larry Harmon, who was Bozo Prime. My personal Bozo was Art Cervi, out of Detroit.