This Girl's Voice

Saturday, May 03, 2003  

••Full Circle with William Gibson: from Yorkville Hippie to Cyberpunk Daddy••

If you ever have a couple of hours to kill, go and hit up the CBC video archives; there's loads of cool interview and doc footage there about and with famous Canadians in our cultural, political and artistic history... in the "Life and Society" category, there's "Trudeaumania: A Swinger for Prime Minister" Topic Timespan: 1968-71, "Marshall McLuhan: The Man and his Message" Topic Timespan: 1960-80, and in the "Arts and Entertainment" category, "Leonard Cohen: Canada's Meloncholy Bard" Topic Timespan: 1961-93, justs to name a few.

In the Life and Society category, there's a weath of fun old footage spanning from 1965 through 1985 about hippies; it was there under the header "Hippie Society: Youth Rebellion", that i found a gem of a doc about the "1967 hippie culture phenomenon" that had taken hold in Yorkville, an area and a street by the same name in central downtown Toronto which even back in '67, was considered a "tourist attraction", albeit one with "a splash of colour in a grey town -- a festering sore according to some city fathers."

Yorkville, once known for its counter-culture Bohemian atmosphere has changed with the times as hippies have become wealthy yuppies. In today's Yorkvile, there are plenty of terraced cafes, stores and art galleries, and it’s where many of Toronto’s elite come at night to be seen.

However, what's fascinating about this segment titled "Yorkville: Hippie Haven", that was shot on the streets of Yorkville in the summer of '67, has more to do with who is providing the informal "man on the street" guided tour.

The segment was encapsulated as follows:

"If Haight-Ashbury is the centre of the American hippie world, then Yorkville is Canada’s hippie heartland. Full of coffeehouses, boutiques, long hairs, draft dodgers, and freaks, Yorkville is a tourist attraction – one where the tourists prefer to watch the excitement from the safety of their cars. A 19-year-old draft dodger named William Gibson conducts CBC TV on a tour of the village, where Beatle-haired kids, drugs, and free love are rampant."

The documentary clip is hilarious in that one cannot help but hear the tangible distaste in the voice of one of Canada's most recognizable broadcast personalities, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter, Knowlton Nash, who was at that time, a prominent CBC Washington bureau correspondent more likely to be interviewing prominent heads of state rather than "long hairs, draft dodgers, and freaks". One of the best lines that demonstrates that looking-down-the-bridge-of-his-nose disapproval, is when Nash delivers in a deadpan perfection that had me laughing out loud:

"Yorkville hippies are non-violent, and passive to the point of lethargy."

And then there is the introduction of a slumberous young William Gibson:

This is Bill. A real hippie. He wandered from Vancouver to San Francisco when the movement began 18 months ago, then to Yorkville, home of the largest Canadian branch.

The hippies bring their beards, beads and dirty feet. Their vague ideas of "free love" and spiritual love. Their marijuana and LSD. They're different. But what are they?

And then as if introducing a subject from a failed clinical study that he is somewhat surprised is still even moving, Nash announces in an aloof no-committal droll: "This is Bill talking".

It is then, that a young gangly man appears on the screen and proceeds on a guided tour commentary which seems almost anthropological in it's detached style and acute analysis. It is a style of observation and a manner of its telling, that 17 years later, would launch the cyberpunk generation with the release of his book Neuromancer:

"They don't agree with the rules or with the lifestyle that society has setup. Find it, distasteful. They find a lot of it... insane. They can't cope with it. So rather than attack the society in an agressive way, they try to drop out and not contribute to the society. The society may change: if enough people drop out of the society, it'll be altered. There may eventually be the creation of a sub-culture... a large enough sub-culture that it would modify the existing culture.

It's not necessarily true that it's a society of individualists... there's a kind of conformity within this; a non-conformist doesn't necessarily have to be a hippie; a hippie has to be at odds with the establishment, but he may be conforming to the other hippies.

The hippie society centers largely around this curious word "love". And everyone here would probably give you a different definition of love. In a sense I suppose it would mean "co-operation"; sort of mutual sacrifice for the benefit of the community."

Cut to 2001, and Gibson has again become a documentarist, as he stars in a revealing film, No Maps for These Territories by British director Mark Neale. No Maps is mostly told in monologue by Gibson sitting in the back of a car wired with micro-cameras, a fax machine and the internet. The film is interspersed with other interviews, most notably with fellow "cyberpunk" author Bruce Sterling and both Bono and The Edge read from Gibson's books.

"He decided to go on the record in a way that he has very deliberately avoided for a long time. He'll talk until the cows come home about literature," explains Neale. "But the stuff he hasn't gone on the record about in the past, things like the loss of his parents, his dodging of the draft and taking drugs took a long time to get out of him. I had to go back and ask him those things several times. But drug culture was such a big part of his life."

Cut back to the 1967 CBC doc, as it closes with a night shot of the young Gibson walking away from the camera down Yorkville Ave. with his arm around a young blond woman, as he turns to her, much like a man on the street interview with a stranger he's just walked up to:

"How do you feel about love...?" he enquires in a serious tone, as he leads her to an unknown destination in the midst of conducting his informal scientific study. A small chuckles slips from his deadpan delivery as the scene fades to black:

"Do you see god when you take LSD?".

posted by voxpopgirl | 5/03/2003