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From Hippie to Scholar

In a new rock and roll-tinged memoir, a boomer looks back at his post-grad attempts to postpone maturity.

En español  |  University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has chosen a grabby but misleading title—The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll—for his memoir of postcollegiate rites of passage.

The wisdom in question did not, as he implies, spring solely from Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, or any other band he hung out with as a rock-concert stagehand in the mid-1970s. Rather, the epiphanies struck Edmundson at several beautifully rendered moments in an epic (and ultimately six-year-long) journey that carried him from final exams at Vermont’s elite Bennington College through successive incarnations as a New York City taxi driver, a Rocky Mountain outdoorsman, a Berkshires bar bouncer, a self-trained teacher at an alternative high school named (of course) the Woodstock Country School, and finally a Yale University grad student. Many a serially reinvented boomer will relate to his comic recitation of failed jobs and multiple donned-and-discarded identities.

Music and politics intertwine organically throughout the narrative. Working a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show on the hot August night in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, for example, Edmundson beamed in the dark as the band played "Long Time Gone."

Edmundson had received his political baptism at Bennington, where a campus consciousness-raiser ("Pelops Kazanjian," in the author’s pseudonymic treatment) steeped him in humorless tracts by Lenin. Following the Kazanjian syllabus, Edmundson found himself memorizing lyrics about killing the bourgeoisie—set to the tune of "Three Blind Mice."

After college, Kazanjian and Edmundson shared an apartment in New York City's Washington Heights. The firebrand's foil in the Big Apple was a friend’s father, who welcomed Edmundson to his Park Avenue apartment to discourse about the virtues of free markets and short hair.

It's fun to be reminded of the days when life meant living for the moment—and gleefully embracing downward mobility. As Edmundson dabbled in writing for the flower-powered Village Voice, his editor there tried to help him out by arranging a job interview at way-more-mainstream Newsweek. Edmundson failed to land the gig—the predictable result of informing a prospective employer you've just completed an essay condemning their core publication as "slick."

The obligatory taste of LSD takes place in Central Park after his 1974 college graduation: "I was seeing, it struck me, the way painters must see all the time, and every sound seemed to echo gorgeously off the vault of the sky." Edmundson describes the experience wistfully, but he was actually of two minds about the revolutionary scene of that time. Much of the era’s music, he writes, "filled me with the promise of collective being, collective solidarity, collective change…. But what to do in my own life, isolated and rather small, about all that force and beauty—alas, I had little idea."

Forsaking his conviction at the time that "New York is the center of the universe," our hero heads for Colorado to attend a three-week course at Outward Bound. Rather than getting a Rocky Mountain high, though, he winds up bored—and alienated by the group leader's boot camp approach.

So Edmundson hitchhikes to Massachusetts and hires on as the bouncer-doorman at a new disco in Northampton. It’s the perfect perch from which to witness the demise of ’60s esthetics: "Now the kids the college crowd had left behind in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Medford and Somerville were having their day," he writes. They wanted "class"—but they defined that quality as wearing sequined outfits and line-dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band.

The pivot point in Edmundson's aimlessness comes after he is lured to a teaching post at a countercultural boarding school in Vermont.  At first he gets nowhere with his sullen, rule-phobic charges. But something about their awe of his music-insider pedigree (to say nothing of their unbridled pot smoking and coed skinny-dipping) persuades Edmundson to stick around and cultivate his muse. It turns out to be just the springboard he needs: Within four years he has moved on to graduate studies in English literature at Yale.

Edmundson is a prolific phrasemaker. He describes Pelops Kazanjian, for example, "striding up and down my room like a Visigoth in a sacristy." Bennington is "a bin of aesthetic poseurs and intellectual acrobats," while the New York subway is so grimy you spy "rats dancing like popping corn on the track up ahead of you."  

Readers of this zigzagging tale of transformation from hippie to scholar may have to content themselves with instances of "fine wisdom" such as those.

Charlie Clark, a Washington writer and frequent AARP reviewer, claims he’s still enjoying the cusp of adulthood.