Howard Bloom is an author, scientist and thinker who founded the music industry’s biggest PR company, representing acts as famous and diverse as RUN DMC, Michael Jackson, Prince, Diana Ross and Queen. In this conversation with Vulture Hound we discuss the topic of his latest book “How I Accidentally Started the Sixties” and much more.
“That spirit of getting beyond what other humans have already felt before, of doing it through adventure, is a spirit that this generation of kids desperately needs” he insists, jabbing the air with every word so that my speakers crackle. “The real spirit of the sixties was breaking the boundaries of the norm and going beyond into those new territories…”
We’ve already been talking for over half an hour and Howard is describing to me for the umpteenth time what exactly the sixties were… something I’m so clearly failing to grasp — what exactly my generation seems to be missing out on. But despite his obvious zeal for the time, he is far from the obvious candidate to be the decade’s cultural ambassador. Born in Buffalo, New York in 1943, Howard Bloom often experienced the difficulty at school that comes with being “more of a science than a people guy”. “My parents didn’t have any time for me, the other students didn’t want to have anything to do with me” he recalls, “so I was sort of left out on my own and I had to find homes. And I did that through reading.”
“I read about these wonderful people called the Beatniks” he says, a group of radical, artsy American anti-conformists. The first of their kind to openly do the things the hippies would later take credit for: experiment with drugs, alternative sexuality and flirting with eastern spiritualism. “I was very powerfully moved by the philosophical goals of the Beatniks which seemed to involve achieving some sort of enlightenment. So I made it my mission to find them.”
The fifties…” he explains to me, “were a period of tremendous prosperity based on tremendous conformity”. No surprises then why his Beatnik heroes stuck out like a sore thumb. “…and kids like me grew up in a brand new middle class. Until the end of world war two there had been no middle class like this.” He says, punctuating every word with the amazement he expects of me, “It was the prosperity of the late nineteen forties that gave us the freedom to be explorers. And some of us took that job extremely seriously… I certainly did. “
“Probably the book that best summed up the age was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”: A book that Wikipedia describes as chronicling “the American search for purpose in a world dominated by business.” In describing the time to me he makes no effort to conceal his dislike for the period: “they all wear the same clothes, they all buy the same kinds of houses, they all raise their families the same way, they’re all taught what to think by reading TIME magazine and so forth. What’s great at the Theatre, what books to read…”
“In nearly every one of my non fiction books you’ve got this story of the bees. Bees manage to survive by having the perfect balance between conformists and non-conformists.” he tells me. “Now life in the bee colony is a life and death challenge. They will not only have to gather enough honey it takes to make it through the summer, but an extra forty pounds of honey or it will not make it through the winter.”
“What does that mean then, to be a conformist? It means every morning when all the bees get up and all go to work, you follow everybody else to work. You go to the hot flower patch of the day, and you and all your sisters bumble around in the flowers of that patch looking for pollen, and because you’re all loaded up the other bees back at the hive get really enthusiastic. They run their antenna all over you and they hug you… they make you feel like a rock star.”
“Ninety Five per cent of the bees are doing this, and when they’ve unloaded they go back out and follow their sisters again to the fashionable flower patch of the day. Meanwhile, there’s this little group of loafers, this little group of totally self-indulgent bees and they do not do anything useful at all. They fly out when everybody else fly’s out to the hot flower patch, they fly off on these long zig-zagging loop-de-looping figure-8’ing rambles that go for miles, just following their instincts.”
“Well eventually the hot flower patch of the day runs out. And the conformist bees follow their sisters every day when they get up in the morning and they don’t find pollen. But they come back expecting to get a hero’s welcome and once they’ve been checked out and the waiting bees have realised there’s no goodies, they turn their backs and walk away. It takes a long time for these poor bees to realise that that same old factory job isn’t gonna pay off anymore. Now what does this conformist bee do to get out of this state of absolute misery? She looks for entertainment – and where does she find entertainment? Well remember that other five per cent of the bees, some of them have found new flower patches…”
“You end up with a whole bunch of unemployed bees as an audience watching five or six bees, the artiste bees, dancing their little nuts out about the flower patches they found. Where this flower patch is, what headwinds and tailwinds there are. Some dancers will dance with such enthusiasm that some conformist bees will take heart and think ‘Maybe what she’s reporting is true’. And they will go out and check her message and if they become enthusiastic they will come back and dance too, and all the bees will follow the leading artiste bee. And that balance between the artistes, who find the new sources of things, and the conformists – that’s what gets you the forty pounds of honey.”
“Another guy who sees the importance of that forty pounds of honey is a person who in 1962 when I was doing these things would’ve disagreed with me completely. Because I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican, and his name was Buzz Aldrin.”
“Buzz Aldrin?!” I ask. “One of the first men on the moon Buzz Aldrin?”
“The very same. He called me two weeks ago for a two hour and thirteen minute phone call. One day we were standing in a crowd together and he said to me ‘Howard we need the spirit of the sixties back!’”
Buzz Aldrin being a generally conservative guy who can probably list more things wrong with the sexual revolution than most people, I suspect their ideas of what the sixties entails differs more than slightly. Howard agrees. “Well I don’t think he was thinking of my walking around barefoot for a year with hair twenty four inches long. What I was doing at the time would’ve shocked him. But what Buzz recognised was that the spirit of adventure was there and it was the same spirit of adventure that made possible his trip to the Moon.”
Its been over forty five minutes now, and despite talking about a decade most people remember as “swinging” – with all the images of music and dance that entails – I still have yet to hear about the Beatles, the Stones, flower power or Woodstock. I’m told in the beginning, for Howard at least, the revolution was surprisingly silent.
“There was a strange thing, at least in my personal journey from the 50s into the 60s and that is that music was somehow absent. I had gone on to college in Portland, Oregon from my hometown in New York state. I had packed a whole trunk of recordings – most of them were classical music but a small percentage were jazz too – and had these adventures where music wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. When you were picked up by an automobile you’d hear music on the radio, except that I got involved with such intense conversations with the people in the cars that they wouldn’t put the radio on.”
I’m shocked to say the least. Everything I had learnt and thought I knew about the era revolved around young fashionable types finding new ways to get blitzed to the pop music of the day. Some of this holds true anyway.
“The kids in my group, we never wore clothes, we were all entirely naked. But aside from being naked – this one time they were excited! They had just discovered something. The kids from Berkeley in the graduate biochemistry department had started synthesising this stuff called lysergic acid [LSD] and they had started putting drops of this stuff on sugar cubes and wrapping the sugar cubes in tin foil and selling them for five dollars each.”
“My people discovered that the students at Berkeley were making this stuff, but it was totally amusical which is really remarkable. We didn’t meet any musicians, not a single one. No musician ever came to live with us. Its possible that because we didn’t have music we weren’t pre-programmed, yes we were all looking for the Beatniks but we were freer to perceive things in our own way. We didn’t have music to programme our moods, we didn’t have music to tell us how to feel about things. For the most part we didn’t have anything to help with interpreting our experience. If we’d of had music we’d of been a subculture already because subcultures discover themselves through their music. So thank god we had that time to discover ourselves through words, that advantage of being able to carve out our territory without having music to guide us.”
“And if you think about it, around 1967 when the Jefferson Airplane were able to get big – they had songs about being stoned, and those songs about getting stoned gave you a perceptual guide. We were very lucky not to have that perceptual guide, we were out on our own.
Before long we’re back to what seems to be the overriding theme of the conversation and, it seems, the decade: “the spirit of adventure”. “I think the spirit of the sixties is very important today – there’s the real spirit of the sixties from 1962 to 1963, before anything even had a name – there was no hippie movement” he says, “no modern popular musicians had ever gone in front of an audience and performed songs they had written themselves. That was a revolution that happened in 1963 and 1964 pioneered by The Beatles.”
“By the time I got to New York in 1964 it was the influence of my own movement on the West Coast that was echoing around New York City. I was finding folks who were more Hippie than Beatnik. And remember, we had no name for our movement. I moved to Israel to see what living on a Marxist Socialist commune was like, and when I came back all of sudden the movement I’d helped start had a name – the Hippie movement!”
“So you never found the Beatniks?” I ask.
“No, never. But I think I found something better.”
Howard’s latest e-book ‘How I Accidentally Started the Sixties’ is available now on Amazon.com.