It may be coincidence that the late-sixties “tribal rock” musical *Hair* reopens on Broadway the same week that Albany repeals New York State’s draconian “Rockefeller drug laws,” but there is poetic justice in the syncronicity. Glorifying the sex- and drug-positive lifestyles of New York’s hippie kids at the cusp of the 1970s, the still brilliant music and lyrics of “Hair” expose all the brave hopes and naive hypocrisies of that transitional period–from anti-war activism and gender privilege, to interracial dating and gay rights.
Few actual hippies were as self-aware as the characters of *Hair,* but in retrospect I’d say that McDermot, Ragni and Rado were gently satirizing as well as celebrating their subject matter. They understood, as too few of today’s holier-than-thou activists do, that wanting and working towards peace and love is still miles away from actually having it. The struggle continues. And it must necessarily continue with compassion for human fallibilities.
The triumph of over 30 years of grass-roots political lobbying and organizing, the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug law offenders (especially first timers), will allow some 1500 current inmates to apply for re-sentencing or early release, and give judges more power to send offenders to rehab programs rather than prison. So-called “soft” drugs, like marijuana, sent many young, non-white people to jail in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, decades in which controversial street drugs like angel dust, black-market pills, crack, and crystal meth flooded urban America.
When vocal celebrities like Russell Simmons put their time, money, and influence behind the reform campaign in the ’90s, public attention was focused on how three decades of harsh drug laws had impacted children whose mothers and fathers had been jailed and missing for most of their formative years. Many rap stars grew up personally scarred by the social conditions created not only by a criminalized drug culture, but also by indiscriminately punitive and practically ineffective state drug laws. One hopes the landmark shift in Albany this spring will give recording artists something new to sing about.
I went to see the new production of *Hair* last night. The cast of attractive, multi-racial kids were somehow able to resurrect the original magic despite not having been even a gleam in anyone’s eye when the original version hit Broadway. I saw that version the week the show closed. It truly seemed the end of an era. Then as now there was no longer any relatively harmless urban counter culture to run away to if you were 16 with a non-capitalistic dream. I remember leaving the theater determined tomake a living doing what I loved, since I couldn’t change the world. I wonder if the teens and twenty-somethings who came out of *Hair* last night into a world where Obama is president and the worst of the Rockefeller drug laws are newly dismantled went home with better ideas?