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Top 10 Most Influential Counterculture Icons

VO: Rebecca Brayton

Script written by George Pacheco.

There are certain counterculture leaders who helped define the 1960s, whether it was its anti-establishment sentiment, feminism or civil rights activism or the hippie movement. From LSD guru Timothy Leary to feminist leader Gloria Steinem to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, these are just a few of those famous people who shunned the mainstream. WatchMojo counts down ten of the people who best represent the counterculture of 1960s America.

Special thanks to our users jkellis, Raymond Leduc and dagwood525 for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top%2010%20Counterculture%20Icons


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Script written by George Pacheco.

Top 10 Most Influential Counterculture Icons of the 1960s

These men and women defined the unrest and defiance of a generation. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Counterculture Icons.

For this list, we’ll be ranking individuals in the public eye who were known for going against social norms of the day, with a particular focus on the turbulent political climate of the 1950s and especially the ‘60s. For the record, we’re only commenting upon the importance and impact of these individuals within a specific group or organization, and not necessarily on their beliefs.

#10: Jack Kerouac

The “Beat Generation” is a term often assigned to the poets, artists and authors who defined the politically and personally complex society of the 1950s and ‘60s. Jack Kerouac was one of the most famous authors of this generation, who - alongside his contemporaries Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs - affected many with his novels “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums.” Kerouac explored themes of religion, drugs and sex in his work, and was also greatly inspired by jazz music. He specifically utilized the spontaneous and improvisational nature of jazz in his own work, often writing in short, sharp, unedited bursts. Jack Kerouac’s work may not be to everyone’s personal taste, but there’s no denying his status as one of America’s greatest authors.

#9: Jimi Hendrix

The image of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix performing “The Star Spangled Banner” to a group of blurry-eyed hippies early in the morning is one that many fans feel defines the legendary concert known as Woodstock. Hendrix closed out the supposed-to-be three-day “peace and music festival” with this performance, a volume and feedback-drenched exercise that many felt encapsulated the decade’s tumultuous relationship with the Vietnam War. Many members of the Hippie Movement point to this moment as one that defined this era of civil disobedience, free love and drug experimentation; an image of freedom and hope against the dark and often complex shadow of war.

#8: Andy Warhol

The experimental and colorful sides of the art world owe a large debt to the groundbreaking work of Andy Warhol, the forward-thinking maverick who would go on to spearhead the visual movement known as “Pop Art.” Warhol had his hands in nearly every aspect of the fine arts, from sculpture and illustrating to music management and film production. Additionally, Warhol’s personal decision to live openly as a gay man during a time when this was extremely difficult made him a pioneer for the gay liberation movement. Warhol may have claimed that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” but his own storied legacy continues to this very day.

#7: Gloria Steinem

Every important social movement needs to start somewhere, with someone bold enough to make important strides forward. Gloria Steinem was the right person at the right time back in the 1960s and ‘70s with regards to the Feminist Movement, and she was a firebrand who made it her life’s mission to fight for equality of the sexes. Steinem sought to expand such early feminist causes as voting rights into the more specific worlds of workplace respect, equal pay and legal rights against domestic violence and abuse. Steinem served as founder for “Ms. Magazine” during her tenure as a writer and columnist, while her fight for gender rights continues today in her career as an internationally recognized lecturer and spokesperson for the feminist cause.

#6: Lenny Bruce

Can you imagine today’s hot button comedy stars having to face arrest and jail time for their controversial material? Well, this was exactly what faced the pioneering stand-up comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce during his time as one of comedy’s most polarizing figures. Bruce’s material bucked comedy trends of the time by not shying away from political issues, sex or vulgarity. It was the latter that got the comedy maverick in hot water during the early sixties, however, as Bruce frequently found himself followed by authorities and arrested for obscenity at his gigs. Sadly, the comedian’s increasing dependence on drugs served as a personal demon that ultimately led to Bruce’s fall from grace and eventual death via morphine overdose on August 3rd, 1966.

#5: Timothy Leary

“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” This is but one of the famous phrases attributed to psychologist and author Timothy Leary, the LSD guru who former President Richard Nixon once labeled as “the most dangerous man in America.” Leary believed that the controlled usage of LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms could be beneficial for therapeutic, rehabilitative and even religious purposes. These enthusiastic beliefs tied Leary in with another LSD advocate of the day, Ken Kesey; an author linked to the Beat Generation and whose book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has since gone on to become an American classic. Meanwhile, Leary enjoyed a life of frequent incarceration and controversy, before settling in as a lecturer and Internet advocate until his death in 1996.

#4: Muhammad Ali

The 1960s Civil Rights Movement had a number of important political figures to its credit, as well as one very significant, and very famous athlete. The man may have been born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in January of 1942, but it was the rejecting of a “slave name” that would lead him to become one of the most popular, yet also polarizing athletes of the 20th century. Muhammad Ali was a complicated figure, a man who wasn’t just one of the world’s premier heavyweight boxing champs, but also an activist for Civil Rights during a turbulent time in his nation’s history. Ali’s unparalleled charisma and fierce in-ring prowess ensured that he remained a legend until his death from Parkinson’s in June 2016.

#3: Bob Dylan

It isn’t every day that a popular musician becomes the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, but that was exactly what occurred when famous folk hero Bob Dylan was awarded this honor in 2016. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Dylan was recognized for his musical contributions, many of which went on to define counterculture sentiment during the 1960s. Moreover, the impactful power of Dylan’s lyrics, many of which dealt with civil rights and anti-war sentiment, continue to resonate with listeners today, making him a musical icon who is revered across age, gender and generational gaps.

#2: The Beatles

It could be argued that there are very few musical acts who have had an appeal as overarching as those Fab Four lads from Liverpool known simply as The Beatles. The band explored a wide variety of lyrical themes and musical styles from their humble beginnings as a young skiffle act before evolving to become some of the world’s premier songwriters. However, it was their daringness to explore concepts of anti-war, psychedelia and spirituality that earned them continued praise as members of the counterculture – and this praise continues to be echoed to this day by fans around the world.

Before we name our number one counterculture icon, here are a few honorable mentions!
- Cheech & Chong
- Jim Morrison
- Jane Fonda

#1: Hunter S. Thompson

There have been few modern journalists quite like Hunter S. Thompson. The self-styled inventor of “gonzo journalism” has been often imitated, but rarely duplicated in the years since Thompson first captured the nation’s attention during the late sixties. Thompson earns his place on this list not only thanks to his memorable, fascinating and often hilariously written work, but also thanks to his virulent defiance of authority figures, specifically former President Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, Thompson’s natural tendency towards adventure, travel and recreational drug use have made him a folk hero of sorts, a man who was more than just inspiration for movie adaptations and Halloween costumes, but one whose legacy impacted journalists around the world for years to come.

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