The Year Abbie Hoffman Changed the Channel
By David Dalton

First posted: 5-07-01

Tom Paine + Lenny Bruce + LSD = Abbie Hoffman. That would do as a basic equation, but then you’d have to add in Antonin Artaud and the theater of the absurd (he was, after all, the Che Guevara of guerilla theater), Marshall McLuhan (a master manipulator of the media), the Scarlet Pimpernel (an escape artist of genius), André Breton (a surrealist prankster), Charlie Chaplin (The Little Tramp who triumphs over the forces massed against him), the Dreyfus investment lion gone nuts, Allan Kaprow (he made political rallies into happenings), the beagle in Dali’s Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (because once you see him you can never again ignore him), an assortment of disruptive, insolent and loony cartoon characters (Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner), George Metesky, the mad subway bomber (Abbie’s hero), Vladimir Mayakovsky (because he was also a poet of the revolution), Andy Warhol (an impresario of Pop creations) and Serge Eisenstein—because Abbie was a one-man writer, director, producer and rabid publicist, turning everybody from Mayor Daley to the Chicago police into stooges, straight men and extras in his own long-running, avant-garde movie extravaganza.

A scene from the life of. It’s September 1968, and the Students for a Democratic Society are holding an international conference at Columbia University. Trotskyites from Mexico City! Ashes and Diamonds Maoists from Czechoslovakia! Vicious infighting Brit union brigades! Ho Chi Minhites from Provo, Utah! All the intense little Raskalnikovs are here with their well-thumbed copies of Marx’s 18th Brumaire, their agendas, their five-year plans and their demands and slogans, sitting at a big long table—just like commissars!—delivering their ultimatums to thin air, when—on stage—comes Abbie, Mr. Chutzpah himself (in full cowboy regalia—boots, hat, nudie shirt, chaps), leaping on the table—the sacred podium of the elect!—slinging a psychedelic yo-yo that glows in neon day-glo colors when it comes to the end of the string, just as he is making his point: an absurdist, hilarious suggestion that turns the whole meeting upside down. Abbie, Loony Bird of the Left, rapping, spritzing, cajoling, needling, joking, making a mockery of the somber baby aparatchiks who are scheming to change the world with their clever little manifestoes—and presto!—before their very eyes, turning this grim black & white cinema verité documentary of theirs into his own wide-screen Technicolor burlesque show.

More coming attractions from The Abbie Show. In the spring of 1967, Abbie and a bunch of friends throw dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange from the Visitors Gallery, resulting in a near-riot as traders scramble for the cash. On their knees, three-piece-suited arbitragers fighting over dollar bills. In October of that year, Abbie organizes an "Exorcism of the Pentagon" in which, like the Pied Piper, he leads 50,000 people to surround the building, chanting "Out demons out! Out demons out!" in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon by their combined psychic energy. He runs a pig for President, he invites the press to a demonstration of a new drug called Lace that he claims makes people want to have sex (actually LSD combined with DMSO, a skin-penetrating agent shot from water pistols) and has hippie couples show how effective it is.

"The goal of this nameless art form," Abbie explained, "part vaudeville, part insurrection, part communal recreation—was to shatter the pretense of objectivity. . . . We infiltrated the news by entertaining, offering some freaky tableau to contrast with the nightly news blur." Abbie was a serious civil rights activist who was arrested four times during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and a committed radical, but he was also a pop kid, a freak who had integrated acid into his daily life, a tummler, and a supreme narcissist. He saw that pop culture had made the didactic style of the old left obsolete and that LSD made the doctrinaire programs of the new left seem pompous, shrill and absurd. If you wanted to change society, you weren’t going to do it by lecturing people—you would do it by employing the artillery of pop culture itself to puncture the lumbering, humorless establishment, by using anarchic, prankish, lysergic humor to radicalize the hippies and humanize the radicals.

As the Clown Prince of Protest, he drew on his high spirits, manic energy and incurable optimism to overcome all obstacles. All this prankishness came together on New Year’s Day 1968 when, according to most accounts, Abbie, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner, along with Abbie’s wife Anita and Jerry’s girlfriend, Nancy Kunshen, met in Hoffman’s apartment and invented Yippie! My wife, Coco Pekelis, was there (when the assembled radicals are named, she is usually described, if at all, as "an unidentified girl"). Here’s her account:

Actually, I remember the gathering as taking place at Jerry Rubin’s apartment, not Abbie’s. Jerry lived in a small walk-up on 3rd Street off the Bowery, next door to the men’s shelter. One of my overriding memories of that day is of Anita and Nancy spending much of their time in the back room/kitchen area, where they were busy sewing and, I kid you not, ironing. (Though I’m not exactly one to talk. I was there in lieu of a sometimes boyfriend, David Welsh, who worked at Ramparts and was a friend of Eldridge Cleaver.)

I do remember everybody just sort of coming up with the word Yippie in a sort of group jam session. Just fooling around with words, saying hippie, then hip-hip hooray, then dippie and kippie and zippie, till we finally landed screaming and laughing on Yippie! Just silliness really, Abbie coming up with the idea of running a pig for President (nothing to do with cops being called pigs, as I recall, just the most absurd image he could think of). By the end of the afternoon, we were all going to the Democratic Convention in Chicago; Pigasus would be our candidate! It was just sitting-around-crazy-talk, but Abbie would eventually make it happen. I remember taking a cab home and dropping Paul Krassner off at Max’s Kansas City. Not exactly where the Students for a Democratic Society hung out after planning to overthrow the government! That summer I took a bus from New York City to Chicago with a homemade gas mask made out of a shower cap & Vaseline. By the way, it doesn’t work.

In the summer of 1968, the Yippies set out to subvert the Democratic National Convention in Chicago by holding a Festival of Life. Mayor Daley’s storm troopers were poised as if for a foreign invasion. Tanks and jeeps and barbed wire were placed at the entrances to all the bridges. Seven hundred cops were lobbing tear gas grenades and beating up protesters, having actually sealed off all park exits so the kids couldn’t get out. There were bizarre scenes everywhere: police tear gassing a floodlit cross, Abbie with the word "FUCK" written in lipstick across his forehead, protesters climbing a Civil War sculpture (looking like a parody of soldiers putting the flag on Iwo Jima).

Chicago in Abbie’s opinion was "a Perfect Mess," a situation he considered ideal for undermining the status quo. "In a Perfect Mess, everyone gets what he wants," he said. "In a Perfect Mess, only the System suffers." Here he is, ranting on in Revolution for the Hell of It:

We had won the battle of Chicago. As I watched the acceptance speech of Hump-Free (new slogan: Dump the Hump and Vote for Free) I knew we had smashed the Democrats’ chances and destroyed the two-party system in this country and perhaps with it electoral politics. Nixon-Agnew vs. Humphrey-Muskie. Four deuces. HA! HA! Losers ALL! (See McLuhan’s brilliant article in a recent Saturday Evening Post entitled "All the Candidates Are Asleep.") There was no doubt in my mind when I saw that acceptance speech that we had won. There would be a Pig in the White House in ’69. I went out for champagne, brought it up to the MOB office, and toasted the Revolution. Put on my dark glasses, tucked my hair under my hat, pasted on my mustache, and called my wife. Told her to ditch the Chicago police tailing us and pick me up. I checked my phony identification cards and my youth ticket. In a half-hour we were at O’Hare Airport, two hours later back on the Lower East Side.

Chaos was Abbie's ideal playground. He instigated it, reveled in it, conjured it up with a sorcerer's glee. Like the Continental Op in a Dashiell Hammett novel, his modus operandi was to stir things up and see what happens. He enters a scene where everyone thinks he understands the situation and his position in it, then tips it over and lets the barrel of monkeys out. Now all the pieces are strewn about; you have to rethink everything. Abbie’s art—like his precursors the Ranters, Diggers and Samuel Rutherford of 17th Century England, along with the Dadaists and Surrealists—was to turn the world upside down and make you see this new reality through his kaleidoscopic eyes.

Chicago was an animated Underground Comic complete with an enraged booboisie, the Chicagoans behaving like good Germans in Nazi Germany, the National Guard going after fourteen-year-olds, the cops forced into absurdist acts such as arresting a floodlit cross, Mayor Daley turned into a raving, hysterical Mussolini and the pusillanimous Democratic Party showing themselves to be craven, spineless, liberal wimps and running lackeys of the Establishment.

There were scenes straight out of Genet’s The Balcony. Cops pushing the crowd from behind to make it look as if the protesters were attacking the police—and ultimately forcing them through the plate glass window of a hotel bar. The soused and indignant bar patrons are aroused out of their middle-class torpor and begin attacking the radicals. And then, as in a black comedy, the protesters take seats at the bar and the little round tables with candle lamps on them, pretending to be customers.

And there’s Jean Genet himself—how he must have loved to see his phantasmagoric theater come to life—along with Terry Southern, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Look! Over there! Genet kissing William Burroughs on the lips! Quelle spectacle, mon vieux!

Look! There's Abbie, the quintessential glyph of radical intent, running maniacally through Grant Park, down hotel corridors, dropping ice cubes on cops’ heads like some prankish, mischievous Jewish Roadrunner—laughing uncontrollably as they beat him up in various precincts, trading pop-referential banter with homicidal cops like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup: "This cop says to me, ‘You see this gold bullet? I’m saving it for you, kid.’ I told him, ‘I’m not scared. I got the silver bullet. I’m the Lone Ranger.’"

Everybody’s on stage. When a fellow activist says he’s going to disguise himself, Abbie tells him, "I’m gonna disguise myself, too. I’m gonna disguise myself as a manic depressive." He acknowledged he might be crazy but that, in any case, he regarded schizophrenics—like acid heads—as daring, inadequately understood voyagers in the veiled regions of their own minds.

Chicago was Abbie’s Waterloo. It was his triumph, but at the same time his success began to work against him. In Chicago, fellow activist Tom Hayden recalls, Abbie was "really, really explosive, paranoid, fatalistic, almost to the point of being immobilized. At this point, he had become so symbolic to the police that he couldn’t lead anything, he couldn’t go to a restaurant, he couldn’t do anything. He was shut down."

Abbie turned the subsequent Chicago Seven trial into a theater of the absurd. Asked to identify himself, he said, "My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America." He claimed Woodstock Nation as his residence. "It is a nation of young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind in the same way the Sioux Indians carried the Sioux Nation around with them." He and Jerry Rubin dressed themselves in judges’ robes and, when ordered to remove them, revealed that they were wearing police uniforms underneath.

Abbie, always savvy about the floating world of the media, saw that in the end the whole Chicago debacle would be replayed according to people’s expectations of what it was:

The road into Chicago begins and ends in your own head. Daley and the FBI will enter by finding a conspiracy. Jack Newfield will enter through his friend Tom Hayden. Richard Goldstein through me. Marvin Carson and the West Coast through Jerry Rubin. Paul Krassner will enter it through his own mind, as will Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, and Ed Sanders. Teen magazines will enter through interviews with young Yippie girls (most of the interviews will be made up). Julius Lester will get it right. He always did. The Guardian will enter it through SDS, as will New Left Notes. Ramparts will be mixed, but its emphasis will be on politics rather than theater. The John Birch Society will enter it through Lester Maddox. The National Student Association will enter it through the McCarthy kids.

Jean Genet’s article for Esquire will be fascinating because Genet does not understand English. He will get it right. Rolling Stone will ignore it. EVO will enter it through the Lower East Side. Theodore White won't be able to enter it at all. Meet the Press will enter it through people like Allard Lowenstein, Muskie, McCarthy, and Dave Dellinger. Most interesting will be the way in which the Chicago Seed enters the Myth. The overground press in Chicago will whitewash what happened as soon as the blood is cleaned from the streets. They have to live with Mayor Daley, not the Yippies. The National Enquirer will enter it through its own sexual fantasies.

Playboy will enter it through Hugh Hefner, who got beaten one night. Television will enter it through Yippie, and the New York Times will enter it through the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. There was enough of a Perfect Mess for everyone to get a share of the Garbage.

Abbie continued to agitate, aggravate and generally stir things up until 1973 when he was busted in a cocaine deal that turned out to be an FBI set-up. Abbie went underground for six years, continuing, even while on the lam, to fight and win causes, notably Save the River (stopping the Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the St. Lawrence Seaway). But life in hiding was almost as bad as prison for someone as volatile and manic-depressive as Abbie. He needed adversity in order to thrive. He would sit at home and watch TV, screaming, "No! No! No! Lies! Lies! Lies!" That’s how he got through the day. During this time, he had his first schizophrenic breakdown.

On September 4, 1980 (after appearing with Barbara Walters on 20/20 the previous night—hey, never throw away an opportunity to get on an electronic soapbox), he surrendered to the authorities and received a reduced sentence (he served less than a year). When he reemerged, Abbie was as witty and crazy as ever. It was as if Lenny Bruce had risen again. He was to the end a ferocious and wily advocate of environmental causes. Among other things (along with Amy Carter and a group of University of Massachusetts students), he put the CIA on trial and, in 1987, won the case. But Abbie was a prophet who no longer had a role and, as a friend said, "There was always a fear that a genuine existential depression would coincide with a physical depression." On April 12, 1989, it did.

Abbie seemed so alive, so funny, so full of energy and mischief that when he committed suicide people were shocked. And angry. How could he? But this was no cry for help. The autopsy confirmed that he’d taken 150 Phenobarbital and was legally drunk at the time of his death. This was no CIA plot, either. It was the act of a desperate man. He was overwhelmed, he had serious personal problems and everything was breaking down. Clinically manic-depressive, his mood swings had become drastic. On April 7, 1989, Abbie wrote to his ex-wife Anita, "I’ve been in an acute depressive episode for almost two months. This is the most I’ve written and I don’t read. I’m scared to cross the road without Johanna [Lawrenson, his last companion] and am on lots of medication."

"Abbie was a difficult person," Tom Hayden said of him, "but America shouldn’t be a place where difficult people have to commit suicide. I just think he had a broken heart, that’s what I think. Yes, he had a massive ego that nobody had a responsibility to satisfy, but basically what he wanted was less egoistic than most politicians or businessmen."

Abbie entitled his autobiography Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, but it was a joke—we’d already seen the movie with the main character as star and hero of the age. Anybody fool enough to try and recreate his life with a lame, pudgy actor (without a gram of moxie) in the principal role is a dupe, a fool and a criminal. And for that reason alone, Steal This Movie should be avoided at all costs. To make a boring, plodding, made-for-TV-ish biopic out of Abbie’s life is a capital crime. Dose that movie! Dennis Hopper in Flashback gives a better idea of Abbie’s prankishness and charisma than this travesty. If you want to see a really good Abbie movie, check out his first book, Revolution for the Hell of It by "Free." It is a nonstop, hip, funny, nutty collection of Abbie trailers and assorted shorts that reaches out and grabs you on every page with jumping-out-of-your-skin joy, inventiveness, bizarre mind leaps and profound and boundless optimism.

Abbie is a true hero, an American saint—although a flawed one—in my mind, but would you want your saints otherwise? Through his wits and imagination, he changed America forever. You can say that he helped end apartheid in the South, that he was the chief rabble-rouser in ending the war in Vietnam, that if anyone was emblematic of the spirit of the sixties, it was Abbie. But more than all that, Abbie changed the channel. He changed reality. Like the beagle in the Dali painting, once you had seen America through his eyes, you’d never again see it the old way. Tom Paine as Bugs Bunny as Lenny Bruce as David with his slingshot facing the military-industrial Goliath and saying, "There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure as a nobody, giving it your all and winning."

More Best of Gadfly:
Marijuana as Medicine
Footnotes From the Book of Job
Great Generation Hoax
Overnight in Terre Haute
Abbie Hoffman
The Trials and Tribulations of Christine Maggiore