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The 1960s can be said to have begun on many days other than January 1, 1960, among them February 9, 1964, the day the Beatles first played the Ed Sullivan show; December 2, 1964, when the first Berkeley campus protesters were arrested; or March 3, 1965, when a former chemistry student began selling large amounts of LSD to young people in San Francisco. Probably as many can be proffered for its death, but one date?September 18?has special claim. It marks two events, five years apart, that signaled the end of the era. On September 18, 1970, the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix died, the result of a drug overdose, and on the same day five years later, the kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst was arrested for collaborating with her captors.
Hendrix was found comatose the morning of September 18 by a girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, in her home in London. He had been in the city since aborting a European tour almost two weeks earlier in response to his bass player?s nervous breakdown. Hendrix spent his last night much as he had the previous twelve days, ambling around the city and socializing with friends. He returned to Dannemann?s flat from a dinner party in the wee hours, talked to her until after dawn, and then took the barbiturate Vesperax?the autopsy indicated nine times his usual dose?to sleep. Dannemann realized something was wrong by 11:15 a.m. and called an ambulance, but Hendrix, who had choked on vomit, was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Mary Abbots Hospital. He was 27.
He had released his first record only three years earlier, but that was plenty of time for him to revolutionize rock-guitar playing, particularly in the sixties, when each year seemed to carry the weight of five musically. After an unhappy childhood in Seattle?his father was sporadically employed, and his mother, an alcoholic, died when he was fifteen?he performed a brief stint in the army as a paratrooper before criss-crossing the country as a back-up and session guitarist. He was playing with his own band in New York City when Chas Chandler, the bassist for the band the Animals, persuaded him to move to London in August 1966. There he formed a new band, the Experience, which released its first hit, ?Hey Joe,? that fall. A string of hit singles and albums followed, fusing country blues, jazz, Indian raga, and psychedelia with a virtuosity unmatched in rock. Sales were buoyed by his charismatic concert performances, in which he played guitar with his teeth and even set the instrument on fire.
But after three groundbreaking studio albums, Hendrix became the first big rock star to die from drugs, followed by Janis Joplin just two weeks later. Their deaths prompted the rock biographer Albert Goldman to write in Life magazine that rock had ?run down badly. The year 1970 has seen the most lavish outlays ever made in the history of the pop recording business; yet hardly a star has come up with anything that could match his previous records ? . The world that once adored those innocent boys, the Beatles, which decked itself with flowers, practiced transcendental meditation, came together in the joyous Woodstock festival, danced wildly and spoke gently of love and peace?that beguiling world now lies broken. The rock culture has become the drug culture.? Goldman was proved right. By the end of the decade Hendrix would be followed to the grave by the Who drummer Keith Moon, the Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, the Doors front man Jim Morrison, and Elvis Presley.
But as sex, drugs, and rock ?n? roll continued to claim their victims, Patty Hearst was undone by another sixties mainstay, radical politics. The 19-year-old granddaughter of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had led a privileged life untroubled by questions of race, war, sexual politics, Marxism, or revolution until she was abducted from her Berkeley, California, apartment on February 4, 1974 by a militant group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.
The ten-member SLA had formed in Berkeley, the nesting ground of radicalism, the summer before with the stated purpose of eliminating racism, monogamy, prisons, and ?all other institutions that have made and sustained capitalism.? Its introductory act was to assassinate the first black superintendent of the Oakland schools for supporting a student I.D. requirement, which the SLA thought created a slippery slope toward a police state. When two group members were arrested for the crime, the SLA abducted Hearst to barter for their release. But the kidnappers quickly dumped the idea of using her as a bargaining chip, instead forcing her father to set up a $2-million food giveaway to the city?s poor as ransom. He complied until the SLA?s demands reached $6 million at the end of February 1974, a sum he said he could not match.
In the meantime, Patty was undergoing an ideological change the nature of which is still debated 30 years later. In a gun-filled safe house in San Francisco, she was blindfolded and held in a closet, which her captors told her had the same dimensions as a cell in San Quentin prison. In between threatening her and denouncing her rich family, they read her news clippings on world politics and prodded her to examine her own prejudices. Whether sincerely, to humor them, or because she was brainwashed, she began coming around to their cause. In the first taped communiqu?s the group released to local radio, she wished aloud to come home, but as the weeks wore on, the tapes revealed a woman increasingly angry at her parents, experiencing for the first time the generation gap the sixties made famous. Her speech grows heavy with radical lingo, until she parrots the SLA?s slogan: ?Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people."
Had she limited herself to spouting rhetoric on homemade tapes, her name might be forgotten today. But her appearance on security-camera footage holding a rifle with other SLA members during a bank heist on April 15, and her taped admission nine days later that she had participated willingly, converted her from kidnap victim to FBI-wanted fugitive. She abetted another armed holdup, this time of a sporting goods store in Los Angeles, one day before six members of the SLA were killed in a fiery shootout with police on May 17. After that, she and the two other surviving members went underground, hiding in New York, Pennsylvania, and Sacramento before being arrested in San Francisco on September 18, 1975.
Hearst went straight from captivity to prison, convicted on March 20, 1976, of armed bank robbery and first sentenced to 25 years. President Carter commuted her sentence after 22 months, however, and President Clinton gave her a full pardon in January 2001. Since her release she has married and had two children, published her autobiography, and appeared in several movies by the cult director John Waters. After her conviction, the SLA effectively ceased to exist, as all of its known members were either in prison or dead.
Between Hendrix?s death and Hearst?s arrest, the last American troops left Vietnam, the Watergate scandal unfolded, and Nixon resigned. The SLA was only one of the last and most volatile remnants of the sixties to consume itself. Russ Little, a former SLA member, attributes the era?s end to growing up as much as flaming out: ?As far as changing the whole society goes, it was always a pipe dream. The true communist state where everybody is a brother to everybody else, and we all share everything, and, you know, everybody lives happily ever after. I mean, I would have been fine with that. But, yeah, I know, I'm older now. People, they're working, they?re paying their mortgage, they?re worrying about their kids.? In Hendrix?s senseless death and in the ugliness of the SLA?s crimes, we see the inevitable, unfortunate evolution of the sixties?a movement from optimism to violent frustration; playful experimentation to deadly dependence; and omnipotent, immortal youth to disillusioned, but potentially calmer, adulthood.