Dear blog readers, I am still collecting stories about Abbie Hoffman at the Chelsea Hotel, so if you have a story, or have any corrections to what follows, I'd appreciate hearing from you via the Comments to this post. -- Sherill
If it's true that certain buildings can communicate their character and something of their past to their current occupants, it was hardly surprising that Abbie Hoffman found himself drawn to the Chelsea in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Norman Mailer's words, the grandson
of Lower East Side Russian-Jewish immigrants was "a bona-fide nineteenth-century revolutionary...a true socialist--a believer in progress," just like the people who created the hotel.
Abbie discovered politics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960. But, like Chelsea Hotel alumni Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Harry Smith, Phil Ochs,and Bob Dylan he was more fully galvanized by the music of America's outsiders--in his case, the social and political power of the gospel songs sung in a Negro church where he attended weekly political meetings in Worcester, Massachusetts. "There was something about singing freedom songs in a black church..." Hoffman wrote, "that summoned a spirit never to be recaptured."
The power of the music took Hoffman to Mississippiin 1964, where he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--teaching,registering voters,and helping create a Poor People's Corporation for selling hand-crafted goods. Increasingly alienated by a too-conservative Democratic Party, he learned from Stokely Carmichael's "spoken R&B" how to set aside his college-educated intellectualism and speak out in a way that "let people experience feelings as well as thought."
Moving to the Lower East Side in 1966, he met his future wife, Anita,as well as Chelsea habitués Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs, Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary, and Country Joe MacDonald. Out of the conversations and debates he enjoyed with them, he realized
that there was an opportunity here to harness the power of the youth movement and perhaps finally break the stranglehold of the corporate ruling class."Like freaked-out Wobblies," he wrote, "we would build a new culture smack-dab in the burned-out shell of the old dinosaur."
Unlike the Wobblies, though, Abbie and his conspirators could do this by drawing on a decade's worth of communication techniques developed by the artists, musicians, writers and actors of the Fifties and Sixties,
many of them at the Chelsea. Abbie could see that artists like Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Harry Smith, and others had already proved Marshall McLuhan's claim that information was culture, and change in society would occur as the flow of information changed.
Abbie's means of attack would be through theater. Theatrical techniques, he wrote, would "allow players to connect directly, viscerally" with the public. He and his co-conspirators would "organize a movement around art," as the Chelsea's "founding philosopher" Charles Fourier had
recommended--using the potent symbols developed by artists to draw people in and make social change fun.
Beginning in 1967, Abbie--with Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, The Fugs, The Bread and Puppet Theater, and many other fellow travelers--staged guerrilla-theater events designed for maximum political impact: dropping dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; plastering the Times Square recruiting center with stickers reading, "See Canada Now"; throwing plastic bags full of cow's blood at visiting Secretary of State Dean Rusk; and simply declaring the war over and celebrating it in the streets, shouting, "Hip-hip-hurray!...If you don't like the news...make up your own." Then, in October, Abbie and 100,000 demonstrators "exorcised" the Pentagon, relying on exorcism techniques provided by the Chelsea's Harry Smith. The iconic image of one of them placing a flower in the barrel of a policeman's gun made that demonstration "the perfect theatrical event." "We were light-years ahead of the Living Theater," Abbie claimed. "We had taken it off the stage. We were not trying to represent it in art, we were trying to live it." Probably because of this demonstration, Johnson saw his power slipping and decided not to run again. (To Be Continued….) (Video -- Abbie Hoffman Makes Geflite Fish at the Chelsea Hotel, Christmas 1973)