Nostalgia for the '60s in 'Haight-Ashbury'


July 24, 1995|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

It is probably safe to say that Haight-Ashbury in the 60s (for Windows and Macintosh, about $30) is the first multimedia production to come packaged in its own "collectible stash box."

It is also safe to say that excerpts will not appear in a William Bennett CD-ROM of Virtues.

In the 1960s, the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco was the antithesis of everything the establishment saw as virtuous. The heads in the Haight promoted sex, drugs, rock music and a libertinism that outsiders saw as threatening the very foundations of society but that insiders deemed the pathway to a higher consciousness.

This two-disk set, produced by Rockument Inc. and available in stores or by calling (800) 261-6109, illuminates the era with the fuzziness of a lava lamp.

The software is divided into three sections listed on the rim of a mandala: Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out. Turn On is a historical slide show of mostly still images tarted up with vaguely psychedelic effects. Narrated primarily by Allen Cohen, founder of the Oracle, San Francisco's original psychedelic newspaper, the mostly linear Turn On occasionally offers interactive "tangents" of related material, but not enough of them.

Much is made of an intriguing rock band called the Charlatans, but none of their work can be heard. Picture credits are available at the click of a mouse, but photo captions are mostly absent.

Turn On proceeds at a pace best described as mellow. Before somnolence arrives, wise heads will Tune In (go to the reference section). Roll Your Own Show lets you play sections of Turn On in any order but not any faster. "Topics" organizes some of the material by categories.

Tune In also lets you choose articles and graphics from the Oracle, for which Mr. Cohen provides a brief history. The paper's covers and centerfolds, famous for their anything-goes art (which looks surprisingly tame today) and typography (which still looks wild) are displayed as oversize images. To see them in full, you drag them across the screen.

On the evidence of the text, the Oracle was no literary seer. Even works by such major lights as Lawrence Ferlinghetti reveal bad poetry and worse rhetoric, including Allen Ginsberg's exhortation "that everybody who hears my voice, directly or indirectly, try the chemical LSD at least once; every man, woman and child American in good health over the age of 14. . . ."

A more poignant piece by William Burroughs, who spoke from first-hand experience, observed that the stronger hallucinogenic drugs "present more serious dangers than their evangelical partisans would care to admit" but wondered whether senators would "ask themselves plaintively: 'Do we really want to put a good percentage of our young people in jail?' " or " 'Is this the only answer to the narcotics problem?' "

The program organizes itself fairly logically across its two disks, Haight and Ashbury. Most of the text and still images appear on both, the slide show is on Haight, and the Drop Out game and most of the music and video are on Ashbury. But if you want to see or hear material from a different disk, you must exit the program entirely and waste considerable time reloading it. Bummer.

The musical material amounts to five Grateful Dead tracks, one from Jefferson Airplane and one from Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, all playing with images that appear elsewhere on the disk.

The video is more interesting and less familiar. A CBS interview with the very young Grateful Dead captures the milieu perfectly. Footage of Ken Kesey reveals the personal charisma at the heart of his leadership of the Merry Pranksters.

And Drop Out is the CD-ROM equivalent of a board game, with "the elusive goal of enlightenment?" Under the influence of nothing stronger than a mouse and a monitor, it quickly engenders ennui. Perhaps that is the point.

With time, the collage effect of the material begins to work its spell on you. But it lacks analysis and context of the sort that Tom Wolfe provided so impressively with similar material in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Hindsight and criticism are almost entirely absent from the disks, making it essentially a nostalgic souvenir. Links to the Beat and New Age movements are acknowledged but unexplored, and the world outside the Bay Area seems virtually nonexistent.

Mr. Cohen notes police repression and hard drugs as elements that doomed the spirit of the Haight, but otherwise fails to account for the movement's decline. A charmingly sunny article on a free "Thanxgiving" meal provided by the Diggers group eventually turns dark and foreboding.

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