9 Counterculture Icons who Defined an Era

We take a lot of things for granted in today’s world.

The right to say what we like, the right of women to take part in the workforce, the right to make lifestyle choices outside of a 9-5 career or military service, the right of African-Americans to have any form of freedom or meaningful, self-determined existence at all, and the right to raise our middle fingers at the pre-written script society has laid out for us, if we choose to do so.

Yet, it wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago, at the beginning of the 1950’s, the world was a very different place. Brave pioneers fought against social injustices, fought for the rights of women and minorities, decided to reject the establishment along with its music, clothing, lifestyle and ideas of how life should unfold….and partied!

Men and women marching to the beat of a different drummer arose in fierce opposition to the American dream, the war in Vietnam and the treatment of certain members of society.

They decided to “turn on, tune in and drop out”. In some cases, they changed the world forever.

They may be a little cooky and strange in some cases, but what these men and women did was lay the foundations for a freer(er) and fair(er) world. Love them or hate them, they stood for what they believed in and they brought a seemingly insurmountable power structure to its knees.

In one case, he almost collapsed American society completely and was deemed “The most dangerous man in America” without raising a single weapon in defiance, by that pillar of the established order, Richard  Nixon.

Here are 9 Counter Culture Icons who Defined an Era

Allen Ginsberg

The counterculture movement actually started with a group of not-so-merry men known as The Beatniks.

Consisting of poets, travelers, hobos, drug addicts, alcoholics and vagabonds of all varieties, the Beatniks defined a generation by shrugging off ideas of a mortgage, a career and the American dream and instead hitting the road in search of adventure.

The Beatniks, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac, largely led the way for what took place in the 1960’s. Ginsberg was the intellectual and poet of the group, an open homosexual who was interested in hallucinogens, poetry and enlightenment.

Ginsberg is most famous for his poem Howl and makes several appearances in Jack Kerouac’s best-selling books and was heavily involved in Timothy Leary’s plot to bring acid (LSD) into the mainstream.

Jack Kerouac

Most people will have at least heard of the king of the Beatniks, Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac shot to national fame with his best-selling book On the Road. A vagabond from a young age, Kerouac’s books document his life hitchhiking, hopping trains and travelling by any means all across America.

Kerouac was a lonely soul who ultimately drank himself into oblivion on his mother’s couch, but he goes down as one of the greatest writers in American history. It is said that he wrote On the Road on one roll of paper over the course of only three weeks while on a manic drug binge.

Kerouac’s books inspired a generation to go off and travel across the country, rejecting the traditional path laid out for them. Anyone who reads his books will catch a glimpse of a unique time in American history, now past, when the youth of a nation began to rebel and decided to cut their own path through the uncharted woods.

These books arguably laid the foundations of the 60’s and it is known that Kerouac participated in Timothy Leary’s now infamous LSD experiments towards the end of his life.

Jimi Hendrix

It was difficult to choose a musical icon from among the many who defined the counter-culture. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Doors and plenty of others deserve their own mention, but ultimately Jimi Hendrix was selected because of how he lived, and how he died.

The 1960’s were the height of the counterculture. A time when the free love movement was in full swing, vast quantities of drugs were consumed, huge, swelling opposition to the Vietnam war was boiling over and more and more people were dropping out of mainstream society and living a life of travel, music, revolution and drugs instead.

Jimi Hendrix perhaps defined the musical era better than any other. A live fast, die young rocker who partied like there was no tomorrow, was known for his prolific sex life and ultimately died as a result of his own out of control lifestyle, Hendrix released instant classics which defined the era like All Along the Watchtower in opposition to the war in Vietnam and Purple Haze, defining the experience of being deeply stoned, among others.

Hendrix died aged just 27 from a fatal drug overdose. Perhaps his death, just as much as his life, defines the era and how it ultimately ended.

Eldridge Cleaver

In response to the civil rights abuses still very much in play at the time, the Black Panther Movement arose and made its presence felt all across America.

Taking a more militant stance than pacifists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the panthers demanded, often using violence to get their way, equal rights for African-Americans.

Cleaver went on to become a fugitive in both Cuba and later in Algeria, where he took fellow-fugitive and counterculture icon Timothy Leary into his fold. The two are said to have had a dispute which led to Cleaver holding Leary hostage, but this is unconfirmed.

Cleaver wrote an excellent and much-praised collection of essays which summarize the aims of the Black Panther movement and what they stood for as well as his own religious conversion, called Soul on Ice.

The Black Panther movement played a huge role in the civil rights movement, and therefore despite being classified as a violent criminal, Eldridge Cleaver deserves his place on this list of counterculture icons.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

When it comes to changing the world, most people who have a great idea or are outraged by something go back to watching TV and forget about it. Not so in the case of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

Growing up in a middle-class family and studying to be a doctor, Che travelled around much of South America with his best friend, documenting his journey in the now classic book The Motorcycle Diaries.

Che became deeply disturbed and outraged by the suffering and inequalities he witnessed while travelling and ultimately became a Marxist revolutionary hell-bent on toppling the capitalist overlords from their comfortable thrones.

First joining in and taking part in the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro and others, Che went on to stir-up and fight in revolutions across several continents.

He was eventually captured and executed in Bolivia after a firefight involving 1800 Bolivian soldiers vs Che and his band of haggard revolutionaries.

Love him or loathe him, view him as a hero or a villain, Che Guevara goes down as possibly the single most prominent counterculture icon. He was more than just an icon, he was a revolutionary who fought to the death for what he believed to be right.

Even if you don’t agree with him, you have to respect that type of conviction!

Betty Friedan

Women today have a lot to thank this female counterculture icon for.

Betty Friedan was a fierce feminist activist who fought for women to have a role outside of the home. She penned The Feminine Mystique in which she encapsulated the frustration and alienation educated, ambitious women felt at the time.

Friedman co-founded the National Women’s Organization which fought for women’s rights on several fronts – for greater representation in the workplace and the right to live an autonomous, self-determined life being just two.

Friedman also later came out against the more extreme, second-wave feminism which was birthed out of the original movement. She became a polarizing figure, admired by some and demonized as out-of-date and out-of-touch by others.

Whatever you think of her and her later stances, Betty Friedan defined a generation of women and led a movement which has seen vast improvements in women’s rights and liberties up until today.

I think that’s about as counterculture as it gets!

Hunter S. Thompson

No movement, generation or era would ever be remembered without its artists.

It’s easy to get carried away when looking back at this time in history and think it was all revolution, protest, fighting and seriousness.

Yet, there were some who were simply out to have fun, take enough drugs to sedate a small village of people, and create fantastic, informative and entertaining art. Hunter S. Thompson was one of those people.

Thompson created an entirely new genre of journalism known as “Gonzo”. He wrote outrageous and entertaining books which summed up the somewhat darker, nihilistic, hopeless side of the counterculture movement in classics like the Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Thompson brought the drug-fueled, rebel without a cause element of the counterculture into the homes of millions of readers through his classic books.

Sadly, he ultimately ended his own life, perhaps going out in a fashion which is summed up best by one of his best-known quotes:

“The Edge….there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are those who have gone over.”

Ken Kesey & The Merry Pranksters

You may know Ken Kesey best by the title of his most famous book One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Of course, this was later turned into a feature film which largely shot Jack Nicholson to global fame.

However, Kesey was not just an activist-writer challenging the mental health system of America and its treatment of patients, he was also a strong advocate of LSD use, a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, and a counterculture guru who drove a psychedelic bus named Further across America spiking people with LSD and pranking the public along with Neal Cassady (who features as one of the main characters in On the Road by Jack Kerouac) and many others.

Further and the Merry Pranksters, in general, have become an iconic image of the 1960’s and the counterculture movement. The pink, blue, yellow, red, green and orange bus clearly states the influence of LSD on this adventure.

The whole thing is summed up in Tom Wolfe’s classic book The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, although Wolfe was not present on Further when the adventure took place and met Kesey a year afterwards.

Timothy Leary 

If Pablo Escobar defines the Cocaine cartels of Colombia, Timothy Leary defines the counterculture movement and the 1960’s in general.

A Harvard professor who was expelled for dishing out LSD to  students and throwing wild parties under the cover of experiments, Leary quite literally became the figurehead of the counterculture, hippie movement and was at one time called “The Most Dangerous Man in America” by president Richard Nixon. Of course, this only further enhanced his street credibility and worked to his favour.

Leray’s misadventures are too many to mention but his life story involves taking more drugs than probably anyone before or since, pioneering and advocating the mass use of LSD in an attempt to cure society of all ills, creating a cult where people could come to a massive mansion and take LSD to explore their consciousness, going to prison for his exploits and escaping only to be captured in Afghanistan after being held hostage by Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, and going on to pioneer and lead the ‘designer dying’ movement in which he called for people to die on their own terms, making death a celebration of their individuality.

It is impossible to define the impact Leary had on the 1960’s and the entire counter-culture movement. Some see him as a hero of his time, others as a villain who preyed on the innocent intentions of the youth and almost brought America to its knees.

Whatever you think of Timothy Leary and what he set out to achieve, he tops the list of counterculture icons by a long way.

After all, who else wears the badge of honour of topping Richard Nixon’s list of enemies? Only Timothy Leary fits that bill!


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