Easy to be Hair

The sun shines in as Milo turns his attention toward the flower children.

I was somewhere between my “Hocus Pocus” phase and my “Return of the Jedi” phase when I discovered “Hair.” I was 6 years old and most of what I knew about hippies was from my older sisters. They listened to Bob Dylan and told me that “getting stoned” meant smoking cigarettes. The closest glimpse I had ever gotten to the psychedelic festival of paisley scarves and feathered crowns so integral to “Hair” was when my sister Krissy played me “Revolution 9” by John Lennon. A drug-addled sound collage, it gave me a taste of the artistic renaissance of the Bohemian days that has always stayed with me.

Hair

Directed by: Miloö Forman
Starring: Ellen Foley, Annie Golden, Treat Williams
Showing at: Walker Art Center, April 13, 2 p.m.

My mom decided to let me watch “Hair” because she figured that most of the LSD dropping, racial slurs and promiscuous sex would go right over my head. A baby-boomer with a few hippie locks of her own, she and my dad often drove us to school with Cream records and Yoko Ono-inspired primal therapy playing on the stereo.

She was right by thinking that the inappropriate parts of the movie wouldn’t exactly corrupt me. I barely even remembered them. I liked “Hair” for the songs, sure, but what really drew me in was John Savage’s character, Claude.

As soon as I saw his brown cowboy getup and high cheekbones, I knew I had found a nice transition out of my crush on Dylan from “90210.” It didn’t matter to me that he was the “square” in the film, serving as the clueless country boy who stops in New York before the army ships him to Vietnam. I liked his smooth voice and the way he sang my favorite song from the soundtrack, “Manchester, England.” The chorus goes: “I believe in God, and I believe that God, believes in Claude, that’s me.”

I didn’t realize there was anything contentious about “Hair,” until I went in to Suncoast to buy it when I was 9. My mom quickly slipped up behind me and pretended that she was buying it.

“Don’t ever let anyone know you’ve seen that movie,” she told me as we walked out of the store.

When I turned 17 my family gave it to me as a birthday present. This time it was in DVD form, with a tacky cover full of lazily drawn psychedelic blurbs in sour candy colors. Watching it as an adult was almost as shocking as when I revisited “Rocco’s Modern Life” and realized what it meant when the dog fell in love with the mop at the same time that a train went into a tunnel.

“I’m an Uncle Tom/Aunt Jemima/Little Black Sambo/Cotton pickin’/Swamp guinea/Junk man/Shoeshine boy” the character Hud rhymed, his eyes popping hauntingly in the song “Colored Spade.” I couldn’t believe that, even at 6, I hadn’t noticed the in-your-face racial dialogue.

I had also completely zoned out during the song, “Sodomy,” where the main characters ride on horses through Central Park and sing about sex. “Masturbation/Can be fun/Join the holy orgy/Kama Sutra/Everyone!” they coo in lullaby tones.

My slightly more experienced eyes could finally make sense of the scene where Claude takes a hit of acid for the first time and imagines himself in a flying, demon-filled wedding with a rich girl whose stomach blows up like it were a simple balloon. I guess when I was little I thought he’d just had a very potent cube of sugar.

But more so than “Hocus Pocus,” “Hair” is a story with a thick, fleshy plot that has lasted through the flower-power generation and into generation “Y bother.” It suggests both the idea of breaking out of the confines of your life and the sacrifices and challenges in doing so. The characters bemoan their lack of “bread,” their lack of cigarettes and the seeming absence of God. But watching them embrace their humanity by allowing their natural hair to be “a home for the buzzin’ bees,” wasn’t a bad introduction to the lunacy that was the ’60s.