Don McNeill, Documenter of the Hippie Explosion, 1945-1968
A Death in the Family
by Leticia Kent
We have had a death in the family. Don McNeill accidentally drowned last Saturday night near his rented summer cottage in Monroe, New York. He was 23 years old. The sole witness to the accident, a ten-year-old boy, reported that he heard McNeill call for help about 50 feet from the shore of Lake Mombasha. Police later recovered his body. McNeill shared the summer house with some friends from New York. He told them he was going for a short walk.
Born of parents who were reporters, Don McNeill vowed not to become a newsman. But he joined The Voice as a staff writer in the summer of 1966. No contradictions. The Village Voice, he insisted, was not a newspaper.
McNeill was, as everyone knows, a splendid reporter, but there was something of a quest in his news-gathering that paralleled the search for meaning of the alienated youth about whom he wrote. "If we want to discourage the use of LSD for altering our attitudes," he quoted poet Allen Ginsberg in his very first Voice story, "we'll have to encourage such changes in our society that nobody will need to take it to break though to common sympathy." McNeill pounded his East Village beat by night and returned home to his East Village loft to write his lambent reports into the early morning. He slept by day. Since his beat was also his life, his stories rang true and were widely read and imitated by other journalists.
McNeill was plugged into the hippie scene, the rock scene, the meditation scene, the drug scene, an the demonstration scene and was himself a celebrant of these. As a participating reporter, he was often harassed by the police. He was rather proud of the bloodstains on his working press card that were a souvenir of an encounter with the Tactical Patrol Force during the "Yip-In" at Grand Central Station last spring. His head wound required five stitches, but his account of the affair was masterly in its dispassionate even-handedness:
"As I see it," he wrote, "the central issue -- besides the astonishing brutality of the police -- was a failure in planning on the part of both YIP and the city that borders on gross incompetence and irresponsibility."
The slim, soft-spoke, leather-jacketed reporter in the East Village remained the gentle boy, comfortably born and educated, who, before he came east from Seattle at 20, was never exposed to anything harsher than an Alaskan snow storm. Occasionally he fled the Slough of Despond that was his beat in New York and took a hotel suite uptown, but it was impossible for him to avoid sharing, so the Gotham or the Carlyle sometimes became brocaded crash pads.
It's no use trying to imagine what Don McNeill would have done had he lived on. As a writer, he was older than himself at 23. He was an illuminator, humble before his own illuminations, as were many of his jaded readers:
"As the dawn sun gleamed off a backdrop of molded metal skyscrapers on Easter Sunday, a medieval pageant began in the middle of Manhattan. Laden with daffodils, ecstatic in vibrant costumes and painted faces, troupes of hippies gathered on a hill overlooking Central Park's Sheep Meadow to Be-In. By sunset, 10,000 celebrants swarmed in great rushes across the meadow, and thousands more were dispersed throughout the rest of the park. Bonfires burned on the hills, their smoke mixing with bright balloons among the barren trees, an high, high above kites wafted in the air. Rhythms and music and mantras from all corners of the meadow echoed in exquisite harmony, and thousands of lovers vibrated into the night. It was miraculous.
"It was a feast for the sense; the beauty of the colors, clothes, and shrines, the sounds and the rhythms, at once familiar, the smell of flowers and frankincense, the taste of jellybeans. But the spirit of the Be-In was tuned -- in time -- to past echoes and future premonitions. Layers of inhibitions were peeled away and, for many, love and laughter became suddenly fresh.
"People climbed into trees and made animal calls, and were answered by calls from other trees. Two men stripped naked and were gently persuaded to re-clothe as the police appeared. Herds of people rushed together from encampments on the hills to converge en masse on the great mud of the meadow. They joined hands to form great circles, hundreds of yards in diameter, and broke to hurtle to the center in a joyous, crushing, multi-embracing pigpile. Chains of people careened through the crowds at full run. Their energy seemed inexhaustible.
"The password was 'LOVE' and it was sung, chanted, painted across foreheads, and spelled out on costumes. A tall man, his face painted white, wearing a silk top hat adorned with straw flowers, wandered ethereally through the Be-In holding aloft a tiny sign reading 'LOVE'."
LOVE to you, Don McNeill.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]