Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot     index     <prev     next>


"I felt sorry for the damn flies. They never hurt anybody. Even though they were supposed to carry disease, I never heard anybody say he caught anything from a fly. My cousin gave two guys the clap, and nobody ever whacked her with a newspaper."

--Lenny Bruce from "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" 1967

Aleister Crowley calls the King of Cups the "graceful dilettante." The progress of the Cups is the journey of emotions and after the experiences of love, loss, grief, and happiness, it seems right that the suit's final card should embody a giddy, inveigling laugh. The Cup King is a jovial leader, in Jungian terms the intellectual father with a generous spirit. His mind wanders the world but his heart stays home. He has a lively sentiment for justice. He is also the class clown, at once expansive and acerbic. His Counterculture counterpart is the subversive stand-up comic, a master of ceremonies of the Sixties that hosed authority with streams of clever ridicule and brash obscenity. Some emotions prepare us for action, but humor doesn't. As Aaron Ben Ze'ev writes in The Subtlety of Emotions, "Indeed, at the moment of laughter we are temporarily disabled . . . In this sense humor is also similar to art; both draw attention away from the self and its desires, thereby enabling us to look at reality from a safe and somewhat different perspective." Humor also alters consciousness. In a state of hilarious disability our minds are opened to perception just as in weeping our hearts are opened to sympathy.

Godfrey Cambridge was such a subversive comic, a towering man of thoughtful bearing who had no trouble making comedy out of racial tension. "You aren't going back to Europe," Cambridge shouted at his mostly white audiences, "and we aren't going back to Africa." Before his early death at age 43, Cambridge starred in Watermelon Man, a brittle, dark comedy about a white insurance salesman who one morning wakes up with black skin. Produced by iconoclastic filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, the 1970 film exploited situational slapstick to deliver a racial poke in the eye to its mostly white audiences. In the mid-Sixties Cambridge was part of a cabal of rebellious comics that, among many, included Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and Lenny Bruce. Mostly Jewish or black, they tested the limits of prevailing taste with raunchy stories and jokes drawn from topical resentments and grievances, some embedded in their own minority experiences. Sahl revolutionized cabaret entertainment when in the late 50s he walked onto the stage of Enrico Banducci's hungry i nightclub in San Francisco with a rolled up newspaper and an improvisational monologue taken from the day's headlines. Gregory poked his barbed wit at racism and later, as a civil rights and peace activist, joined protest marches and went on hunger strikes. Foxx specialized in sex jokes that were considered shockingly explicit for the time. But it was Lenny Bruce who broke the rules, so many in fact that he became the sacrificial martyr for progressive comedy, a truth-telling comic monarch hounded, persecuted, and ultimately doomed by his tenacious and uninhibited brilliance. "He was prosecuted when he should have been treasured," Richard Pryor later said of Bruce. "Lenny had a routine called 'How to Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties.' He taught me not to go for the jokes to be funny, just to tell the truth. When I did that I was funny."

Outrageous whimsy infected the public agit prop of the Yippies during the late Sixties. As historian Todd Gitlin describes, when the Washington police announced they would use on unruly demonstrators a new stinging and temporarily blinding spray called Mace, Abbie Hoffman countered with a spray of his own. Called "Lace," Hoffman described it as LSD combined with DMSO, a skin-penetrating agent. "When squirted on the skin or clothes," Hoffman said, "it goes right into the blood stream, causing the subject to disrobe and get sexually aroused." At a Yippie press conference reporters watched as two couples sprayed each other with "Lace," tore their clothes off and started to make love. "The taboos may have changed," Paul Krassner wrote in describing the Counterculture's sardonic attitude. "But irreverence is still our only sacred cow."