There was a sweet nostalgia and a vague sadness and a squirmy embarrassment — and not a whiff of marijuana — in the air when my very groovy tie-dyed companion and I recently embarked with friends on a mind-blowing, far-out excursion into the Age of Aquarius and a production of the great hippie musical “Hair.”
A little history. When I was 13 years old, I somehow aced the admissions test and was accepted into the ivy-covered embrace of the prestigious Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y. While I was there, I wore penny loafers and sport jackets with sewn-on elbow patches. And my impressionable mind was shaped not as much by the teachings of Fordham Prep’s Jesuits as by as the happy fact that “The Prep” was located on the campus of Fordham University, where I witnessed demonstrations by the SDS and the Black Panthers, and where I one day wandered into the university bookstore and purchased the first record album I ever owned: The original Broadway cast recording of “Hair.”
Why was “Hair” my first record album? I suppose there was something stirring in my blood, a combination of teenage angst and youthful rebellion and righteous but silent anger and protest at the economic and racial injustices I already sensed in this country (maybe my not-quite-comfortable presence at the still mostly white and still mostly affluent prep school had something to do with this Yonkers boy’s angst). And I know I was very aware of the vague but real prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam War-era military five or six years down life’s road.
But back to the future:
As we sat in a New Jersey theater waiting for the Age of Aquarius to dawn once more, we amused ourselves by checking out the audience and commenting on how OLD many of them were; noted with gladness that at least one-third of the audience looked to be of high-school and college age or a little beyond; and wondered if the young cast of this production of “Hair” would “let the sunshine in” and take off their clothes during the notorious production number at the end of the first act.
Yes, they took off their clothes. And, yes, I enjoyed the show and still liked the music — the title song, “Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine” “Where Do I Go,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “I’ve Got Life” “Frank Mills” “What a Piece of Work Is Man” and “Let the Sunshine In” still have a surprising emotional resonance.
But the audience reaction, at least what I sensed, was disconcerting , a sort of bland, happy-faced, homogenized, weren’t-we-young-and-crazy-and-hip, superficial, Disneyworld, pastel-tinted, self-satisfied response — the hippie generation’s idealism and energy giving way to tired generalities and sappy nostalgia.
Perhaps it’s inevitable….”Give me a head with hair/long, beautiful hair” is now “I used to have hair”…The Age of Aquarius is now the Age of Viagra commercials…”Let the sunshine in” has given way to “Let’s move to retirement community in Florida”…They who were once hippies now get hip replacements.
Maybe Pete Townsend and The Who were on to something when they sang about “My Generation” and Roger Daltrey declared “Hope I die before I get old!” I mean, look at Daltrey now, old and tired and hoarse. Look at the embarrassing and cringe-worthy spectacle as one of the two remaining Beatles — Ringo — walks out on stage and flashes the peace sign and the other surviving Beatle dyes his hair and leads arm-waving, he-used-to-know-better “Hey Jude” audience sing-alongs. Look at the 100-year-old Rolling Stones, looking like they’ve been let out of the crypt for just one more tour.
And look at the world and what things are like more than 45 years after “Hair” opened off Broadway in 1967. War, hatred, poverty and bigotry all survive and even thrive, “
But there was still something good about seeing “Hair.” It’s hard to define, but maybe that long-haired poet Shakespeare said it best, in the lyrics adapted by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and set to music by Galt MacDermot: “What a piece of work is man…”