Eighteen years of American dream. . . . Did you see him?
The sixties will be remembered as the Age of the Great Rejection: racism, militarism, big brotherism, censorship, commercialism, sexism, organization, inhibition, liberalism, conservatism, Mr. Chipsism, poverty, pollution, bureaucracy, reason, progress, deliberation, efficiency, domestic tranquility (the indictment read in the fifties by Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse)—even the virtues that are really virtues, like consideration and patience and humility–the sixties exploded Western Civilization, clearing the way for pioneers and exploration.
This wholesale negation, this angry no, was much misunderstood by America’s elders and by establishment apologists, who took it to be simple nihilism. It was exactly the opposite. First, it represented a great opening of the mind and spirit, a rejection of stultifying conventions and a demand for meaningful choices. Second, the angry no grew directly out of a fervent affirmation of American ideals. As sixties people saw it, the real negativism, the real leveling, the real sellout was to be found in the America they had known as adolescents: a betrayal of the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality as articulated in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Memorial Day speeches. Whatever Spiro Agnew might have said at the close of the decade about
nabobs of negativism, sixties people saw in him—as in Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, Lawrence Welk, Bob Hope, Clark Kerr, Robert McNamara, many of their teachers, most of their entertainers, and all businessmen, politicians, and generals—the real denial of American tradition. Their elders’ easy accommodation of injustice, corruption, and patent lunacy maddened children of the sixties, whose no was a no to a no: a yes. It is in this context of denial as affirmation that the decade must be viewed. Only by grasping this yes in the no can the high moral seriousness of sixties protest be understood.
This is a land full of Power and Glory, celebrated Phil Ochs in what he once called
the greatest song I’ll ever write. This was the same Phil Ochs who, in The War Is Over, suggested, Just before the end even treason might be worth a try. Ochs contained a lot of Guthrie.)
For in one corner of their schizophrenic souls, children of the sixties took themselves and others very seriously. They all believed in things like ethics, equality, and justice—everything they’d been taught in eighth-grade civics class and seen in Frank Capra movies. They expected, especially in America, everybody to get a fair deal. And they could see that nobody was getting a fair deal. You can always recognize a bad check by the way it bounces, a phony politician by the hollow sound when you knock on his head, a rotting corpse in Mississippi or Indochina by the evil odor that seeps out from under the locked closet door.
Moreover, thanks largely to sputnik and the Protestant temper of the fifties, they were a very motivated bunch of kids who felt personally guilty and individually responsible for the gap between reality and possibility. If their neighbor was unloved, it was up to them to love him. If people were being killed—and there are in the twentieth century so many ways to kill a man—it was their responsibility to save them. If the system was a fraud, it was up to them to fix it. And by action more direct and more effective than mere voting and letter writing.
What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. . . . Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. . . . Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
A less aware or less educated generation, or one distracted by a war or a Depression, might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distances.
Undistracted, innocent, and responsible, children of the sixties brashly attacked injustice, irritation, and idiocy head on. The undertaking was, though quixotic and naive, supremely heroic.
And it was massive.
Between September 16 and October 15, 1968—one month of one year of the decade—over two hundred separate incidents of protest were reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post. How many hundreds, how many thousands of marches, rallies, and demonstrations in Carbondale, Illinois, or Wapakoneta, Ohio, or Tallahassee, Florida, escaped the media (and thereby the consciousness of the nation)?
How many American boys, convinced they could not participate in an immoral and stupid war, slipped quietly across the Canadian border that month? How many hundreds of thousands of friends and family were lost because of the rigid moral stands young Americans took?
If you decide to burn your draft card then burn your birth certificate at the same time. From that moment I have no son.
Moral and ethical considerations weighed heavily on all Americans during the sixties. It was a time when you could not, in good conscience, carry a card that assimilated you, however peripherally, into the U. S. Army; when you would refuse to buy fruit sold by exploitive California growers or plastic wrap manufactured by the makers of napalm; when you gave more than your cheap vote and a feeble countenance and Godspeed to the right, lest it pass you by. When protest was a condition of daily life. When people sat in, marched, seized, and occupied almost as casually as they rolled joints or turned on their favorite FM station. And if protest meant going down, then that was okay because you were going down in a good cause and that was the kind of commitment you were making.
I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
Public dissent took many forms during the sixties. Each act was as much a reflection of individual circumstance as of personal philosophy. In the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders protested segregation in southern bus terminals by the simple act of taking a bus ride. In 1963, Martin Luther King registered a very moving protest by delivering a speech to fifteen U. S. senators and two hundred thousand other folk gathered before the Lincoln Memorial. In May 1965, Columbia University students registered their protest against militarism by throwing lemon meringue pies during the NROTC officer awards ceremony. In August 1965, blacks in Watts ghetto protested racism by setting Los Angeles ablaze. In 1968 the Poor People’s Campaign protested poverty by constructing Resurrection City of plywood shacks in Washington and moving in for the spring. At Amherst College, students protested by smashing dining hall dinner plates that depicted Lord Amherst killing an Indian. Cassius Clay protested by refusing induction into the army, thereby losing the best three years of his fighting career and becoming a myth to millions of young people. At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medals around their necks, protested American racism with black gloves and clenched fists raised high. Late in the decade it was customary to protest the war in Vietnam with a general strike on Moratorium Day. Faculties and students studied the war; the names of war dead were read in public ceremonies, hurled against the White House and the vastnesses of America; and speeches by the thousands reminded everybody that still a hard rain was falling.
Amid the chaos of causes, organizations, and styles, it is possible to distinguish four strains of sixties rejection, each with characteristic music: the nonviolent protest of the pacifists; the violent protest of the radicals and the anarchists; the holy goofs, who parodied corruption and injustice in weird carnival nightmares; and the artists, who moved on from attacking the topical and the specific to challenging the human condition. In the popular imagination and with much help from the news media, these strains tended to be associated with individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Hayden, Malcolm X, Ken Kesey, and Abbie Hoffman. But the archetypes were probably not as pure as they were drawn, and most people of the sixties resonated to anything that moved—which was all four.
The nonviolent approach that characterized Ban the Bomb marches, early stages of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and almost all environmental protest was borne of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience, orthodox Christianity, a pinch of Tolstoy and a dash of Thoreau. It sought to confront injustice directly, but it was assiduously nonviolent. In many cases it acted by not acting, by simply refusing to become an accomplice to the crime, or by behaving as if discrimination, trespassing laws, and organized power structures did not exist. It accepted its role as victim and applied, to reverse the cliché, the sub-minimal force necessary to get a job done.
It lost. It marched in the teeth of dogs and the barrels of guns with flowers and smiles. When beaten, it went limp, got hauled off to court, and then chose jail over bond or fine, thereby making itself an embarrassment to injustice. It expected to lose battles in order to win the war. And it lost plenty of battles.
You may choose to face physical assault without protecting yourself, hands at the sides, unclenched; or you may choose to protect yourself making plain you do not intend to hit back. If you choose to protect yourself, you practice positions such as these: To protect the skull, fold hands over the head. To prevent disfigurement of the face, bring the elbows together in front of the eyes. For girls, to prevent internal injury from kicks, lie on the side and bring the knees upward to the chin; for boys, kneel down and arch over with skull and face protected.
This type of protest continues in
No Nukes and
Save the Whale/Seal, identified by its peaceful and orderly demonstrations, usually with proper permits and along predetermined routes (often with police escorts), by its polite but firm refusal to comply, and by its assumption that ends are inseparable from means (as the popular slogan went,
killing for peace is like fucking for virginity). The nonviolent protester assumes that laws and institutions grow directly out of prejudices and that once you change hearts and minds by pointing out injustices again and again, institutions will take care of themselves. But you take your time, and always you turn the other cheek. As much as you hope for change, you accept the fruits of your protest as inevitable, if unjust: privation, pain, jail, even death. They are the necessary costs of changing society, of living the moral life. The cost of freedom, as Stephen Stills observed retrospectively in 1972, lies buried in the ground. (Besides, television and the other news media may record your death and spread the record of your suffering all across the country, and you just might discover—as so often was the case in the sixties—that you win by losing.)
popular archetype: Martin Luther King and the NAACP
moment: Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963, and the high point of nonviolent civil rights protest. Police Chief Bull Connor meets five hundred black children with high-powered fire hoses. Then police wade in with clubs and German Shepherds, arrest all the kids, and pack them off in school buses become paddy wagons. The world looks on dumbfounded at a spectacle that, Wayne Morse tells the Senate, would disgrace the Union of South Africa.
We Shall Overcome (someday)
song: Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind
Musically as well as sociologically, nonviolent protest predominated throughout the sixties, especially early in the decade, when the folk music revival brought both the acoustic guitar and sharp public protest out of Greenwich Village coffeehouses and onto college campuses across America. The decade’s most poignant protests were almost all folk-based songs.
Hints of the folk rebellion to come reached America in the hits of the Highwaymen (Cotton Fields, 1962), Brook Benton (Boll Weevil Song, 1961), Sam Cooke (That’s the sound of the men workin’ on the chain gang, 1960), the Kingston Trio, and the Brothers Four. Other indications of what was going on down underground could be found in media coverage of civil rights or ban the Bomb activity or—on the West Coast—of anti-HUAC demonstrations:
A friend of mine telephoned me about three weeks ago, it was the day after we read in our newspapers up here what was going on in Birmingham with the dogs, and he said,Pete, you have to see it to believe it. They have a little dance down there, I don’t even know the name of it (I found out since it’s called the wooble), but they do a song with it, they start with a twist and then a step back and then a step forward and a hesitation somewhere, but they all sing, I ain’t afraid of your jail because I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom; I ain’t afraid of your jail because I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.
He says you have to see it, though, to see how it works. There’s the Reverend King giving them a lecture in church, he says,This is to be a silent demonstration today, no songs, no slogans, and if any obscenities are shouted at you from the sidelines, you don’t reply to them. You keep right along the line of march . . . until you are arrested. Then the singing can begin.So they all file out of church, just as solemn as deacons and quiet as mice, down the street, a couple hundred of them. Along comes a policeman,You’re all under arrest . . .I ain’t afraid of your jail, because I want my freedom. . . .
Many of the songs of protest that filled civil rights rallies in 1961 and 1962 were centuries-old spirituals; many of the folk songs that filled Village coffeehouses were protests against men and events buried long before. At first the folk flowering represented a reaching back to the tradition of handcrafted American music and thirties and forties radicalism. The hip owned a tall stack of Weavers records, and Vanguard Records was truly hip because they recorded the Weavers (and Joan Baez). The image of Woody Guthrie loomed large in the minds of men.
As did the old stories spun by Guthrie and Seeger and Aunt Molly Jackson, stories of Joe Hill and Casey Jones and Pretty Boy Floyd, the battle between striking Colorado miners and Rockefeller scabs at Ludlow in 1914. And the genuine folk songs, protests against work and bosses and hard times, like Drill Ye Terriers and All My Trials and The House of the Rising Sun. Songs of the Dust Bowl and the Depression and even old war songs (well, actually a Woody Guthrie song about the war) like The Sinking of the Reuben James, with its pointed remark that the worst of men must fight and the best of men must die. The folk scene in 1960 was dominated by the past: the collections of Alan Lomax and other pioneers, the songs of Guthrie, Seeger, the scattered Weavers, traditional folk material of all countries and races. In fact, folk purists made a point out of tradition: a real folk song cannot have a known author.
This argument, of course, is foolishness. What was significant was that protest singers of the early sixties were grounding themselves musically and sociologically in the past: in Gandhi, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Guthrie and Joe Hill and the IWW.
And sixties protest was learning from the past. While Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; the Chad Mitchell and Kingston Trios–even Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan–were reviving, impersonating the past, many of them were learning from their elders techniques that would allow them to make new songs of their own. They were learning how to take an old song, change a few words, and turn—for example—a fairly stiff, white, European hymn I Will Overcome into a relatively loose, black, American hymn, which could with minimal alteration be turned into a powerful civil rights protest song. They were learning how to take an old tune, change a few notes here and there, make it go up where it used to go down, add a chord that wasn’t there before (as Woody Guthrie once advised the young Bob Dylan), and come up with a song of their own. They were learning how to write their own Ludlow Massacre and Reuben James.
So that Phil Ochs would cop a tune from Guthrie’s Tom Joad, which Guthrie had copped from Leadbelly’s John Hardy, and set to it his lyrics about Joe Hill, the martyred labor organizer and one of the wellsprings of early sixties protest. Later, Ochs would take his own 1964 Here’s to the State of Mississippi and, by changing a word or two here and there, come out with Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.
Very quickly it became apparent that sixties folk protesters were not just resurrecting a buried past. They were constructing a new protest of contemporary social and political conditions.
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood; I have a dream—
That one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice; I have a dream—
That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; I have a dream today. . . .
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!
And the songs were printed in Broadside and Sing Out! and they were sung in the streets and coffeehouses of New York and Boston and Philadelphia and across the South and finally on records and on FM stations, and they have thus found their way into American consciousness, a permanent record of early sixties protest.
The most popular song to come out of the Village in the early sixties, and the anthem of the protest movement throughout the decade, was Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Written in 1962 and sung onto the top forty in 1963 by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Blowin’ in the Wind is a classic statement of nonviolent protest. Two concerns dominate the song, and they are the two causes that dominated early sixties protest: racism and militarism, men who are not allowed to be men and the white dove of peace rocked by cannon balls. As the decade unfolded and people of the sixties began to understand just how immense the task would be, Blowin’ in the Wind gathered a wealth of associations no other song of the sixties could match. Versatile enough to lend itself to any cause, as timeless as We Shall Overcome, Dylan’s simple statement of 1962 (deceptively simple—few people seemed to notice that Dylan’s Minnesota roots led him to believe that all answers are just
blowin’ in the wind) carried many through the decade.
There were others as well. If I Had a Hammer was a Pete Seeger-Lee Hayes song folksingers had known for years: Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it into national consciousness in 1962. It, too, made a general statement: freedom, justice, love between brothers and sisters all over the land. If the hammer hinted vaguely at barrel-of-a-gun protest, the bell and the song made clear the nonviolent predilections of Seeger and everybody else who sang along: the revolution was love, the means was music.
(Woody Guthrie had written on his banjo,
This machine kills fascists. Seeger, perhaps in imitation, had written on his,
This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.)
As folk music flowered and as sixties protest began to define for itself causes and issues other than racism and militarism, folksinger-writers increased both their range and their output: Malvina Reynolds (Little Boxes, What Have They Done to the Rain, and It Isn’t Nice—to block doorways and go to jail), Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton. Paxton’s classic That’s What I Learned in School (1962) is remarkably comprehensive in its jabs at education, militarism, racism, capital punishment, politicians, and policemen.
How did you get to be such puppets? You perform. But when do you think? Dutifully and obediently you follow, as a herd of grade-worshiping sheep. . . . But whether you are strong or weak, you perform like trained seals, and like sheep you follow.
A great deal of the folk flowering, however, was not as universal as Blowin’ in the Wind or even That’s What I Learned in School. The air was full of topical songs, throwaway broadsides in which the folksinger turned himself into a radical newspaper, bringing to his audience, in the words of Phil Ochs’s first album,
all the news that’s fit to sing. It was a trick the youngsters had learned from their elders, a trick as old as Joe Hill and union organization early in the century, a trick Guthrie had learned, and Seeger and Hayes after him. In March 1963 Phil Ochs had written for Broadside a combination explanation of his art and call for more topical songs. In this article, The Need for Topical Music, Ochs argued that every newspaper headline is a potential song and that one
good song with a message would speak
more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies. At the Newport Folk Festival of that same year, he and Dylan and the Freedom Singers held a workshop that turned the topical protest song into the musical genre of the next few years. Langston Hughes, writing the jacket notes to Joan Baez 2 (1964), observed,
In a worried period, the folk singers, many of them, particularly the city folk singers, are taking the troubles of our times and wrapping them up in songs—documentary songs, musings songs, angry protest songs.
I think in ‘63 especially, at the Civil Rights apex, musical esthetics came together with politics, and it was good to be involved with both.
And so they came, topical protests about every person and event imaginable, most now lost with the memory of the persons and events they memorialized. Richard Fariña wrote and Joan Baez recorded Birmingham Sunday, the story of the black children killed in the church bombing of September 15, 1963. After the missile crisis of late October 1962 Phil Ochs wrote Talking Cuban Crisis, and in 1964 he wrote Talking Vietnam (yes, as early as 1964 some Americans were concerned about the war in Vietnam—but only a handful), and before, during, and after he wrote songs like Oxford, Mississippi, The Thresher (on the nuclear submarine lost while being tested), Lou Marsh (on a priest killed in trying to stop a gang war), and The Ballad of William Worthy (on an American newspaperman whose passport was revoked after he visited Cuba illegally). When Medgar Evers was assassinated in June 1963, not hours after President Kennedy had called for a revolution in race relations that would be
peaceful and constructive for all, Ochs wrote Too Many Martyrs, an ironically prophetic song, as things would turn out, and a plea for nonviolence:
The killer waited by his home hidden by the night
As Evers stepped out from his car into the rifle sight.
He slowly squeezed the trigger; the bullet left his side.
It struck the heart of every man when Evers fell and died.
The country gained a killer and the country lost a man, Phil noted at the end of his nearly journalistic recounting of the event, a characteristically aphoristic conclusion that would plant this song (he hoped) firmly in people’s hearts and minds and help make of Medgar Evers a political battle cry. This was what most topical protest songs of the early sixties attempted to do, although virtually all of them failed to carry their causes or themselves further than a decade or so.
Meanwhile, Bob Dylan had been pumping out topical songs of his own.
I don’t sit around with the newspapers, like a lot of people do, Dylan once said in an obvious dig at Ochs,
spread out newspapers around and pick something out to write about. But a glance at some of Dylan’s early albums shows that Dylan was as much into the topical protest bag as anyone else: The Death of Emmett Till, Ballad of Donald White, Oxford Town, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, The Ballad of Hollis Brown. And when Medgar Evers went down, Dylan wrote for him—or for his killer—Only a Pawn in Their Game:
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Today these songs have a quaintness to them, like old copies of Life magazine. A line or two—the rhetorical snapper hammered home in each refrain—live today, but mostly these songs remind us that there once was a time when, if singers didn’t spread newspapers in front of themselves, they at least functioned as a kind of newspaper, bringing to their audiences not only the latest atrocities but important editorial commentary as well.
By the middle of the decade, the topical protest song had lost much of its appeal, although the genre persisted long after Dylan left it (and folk music) with Bringing It All Back Home in 1965. Ochs included a number of topical protests in I Ain’t Marching Any More, among them his popular Draft Dodger Rag (Sarge, I’m only sixteen, I got a ruptured spleen, and I always carry a purse). When the United States invaded Santo Domingo, Phil got right on it with Santo Domingo, and as he committed himself more and more to campus demonstrations against the war, he ground out increasing numbers of songs against both U. S. militarism and the heavy hands of college administrators and local police in repressing campus unrest. In 1965 Tom Paxton released Ain’t That News, which is full of topical protests, including Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation, an anticipation by two or three years of the president’s unpopularity because of the war. Seeger carried Ochs and Paxton and himself from campus to campus, the only places he was allowed to find an audience (because of the old HUAC blacklist), bringing his musical newspaper to the people who didn’t bother to read newspapers. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree Indian, took up her people’s cause with an album in March 1964 titled It’s My Way, which introduced her soon to become popular Now That the Buffalo’s Gone and the antiwar Universal Soldier, popularized in 1966 by Donovan Leitch during his Bob Dylan period. Buffy followed with My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying in 1966, and the Indians had an eloquent voice. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel included her song He Was My Brother on their first album. Protest was still the order of the day in folk music.
In 1964-1966, however, folk music protest was changing in several respects. Most obviously, the genre was broadening its subject matter. Phil Ochs had complained in 1963 that only civil rights and the antiwar crusade seemed to spur people to action or song; by 1965 the movement, both social and musical, was considerably broader. More important, a tone of anxiety, almost of desperation, had crept into the music—and the movement. The old, naive optimism was burning low as martyr piled upon martyr, as civil rights turned violent, and as the election of
peace candidate Lyndon Johnson brought bombing to North Vietnam (begun in February 1965) and raised the U. S. troop commitment from 23,000 men at the end of 1964 to 165,000 men at the end of 1965 to 375,000 men at the end of 1966. It was becoming clear to everyone that America was in for a long and bitter struggle in the quest to
live out the true meaning of its creed of social equality, and the outcome was very much in doubt. Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction (1965) has been often criticized as Chicken Little
sky is falling all-purpose apocalypse,
a vague philosophical point that can be taken any way by anybody as Phil Ochs said, the end of responsible protest singing, pure commercialism. But it reflects the growing uneasiness of 1965, when things seemed to be coming slightly unglued. Many folksingers moved left and toward violent protest.
The drift of mid-decade events was obscured, however, by the British musical invasion of America, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1964, and by Beatlemania, which prevailed in 1964-1965. Commercial, faddish, cute, flip, and in the early stages plenty innocuous (despite the hair), the Beatle phenomenon might have provided hope for anxious politicians—and cause for alarm among those who believed pop music could yield songs with art and message. Certainly, next to Blowin’ in the Wind, I Want to Hold Your Hand sounds like pure pop fluff. But in a matter of years lovable John Lennon would go over to the peaceniks: All we are saying is give peace a chance.
Which is the way rock music went, and the way it was heading even in 1965, when the Beatles released Rubber Soul, Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, and the Byrds brought the social statements of folk music to the popular medium of rock-‘n’-roll to create the
folk rock that would give protest a new dimension. Far from being a distraction, the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and an explosion of their followers gave protest a much broader audience than it had ever had before, and a range of techniques infinitely more sophisticated and more suited to the times than Seeger had ever dreamt possible. In fact, had rock not become a vehicle for intelligent social statement, it’s quite possible that protest would never have achieved the sophistication it needed to address increasingly complex causes and audiences. (Conversely, of course, it may have been exactly the increased sophistication of sixties people, both musical and social-political, that created the new music.) Either way, what the mid-sixties produced were protest songs like Think for Yourself, Nowhere Man, Dr. Robert, and Taxman from the Beatles; Like a Rolling Stone and Desolation Row from Dylan; the Rolling Stones’ 1965 blockbuster, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (plus Get Off My Cloud, 19th Nervous Breakdown, and Paint It Black, all protests in the general sense of the word); and the Kinks’ light Well-Respected Man about Town and Simon and Garfunkel’s heavy Sounds of Silence. And Otis Redding’s Respect, and Langston Hughes and Nina Simone’s Backlash Blues (Whatta ya think I got to lose? I’m gonna leave you with the Backlash Blues). Even a new, non-topical breed of Phil Ochs song: Pleasures of the Harbor, Miranda, Crucifixion.
These songs are qualitatively different from those that preceded them. They are generally angrier, as a comparison of Backlash Blues (1966) and, say, Sam Cooke’s magnificent A Change Is Gonna Come (1964), or Get Off My Cloud (1965), or maybe the Drifters’ Up on the Roof (1964) will make immediately clear. More important, however, the scope of causes had grown: taxes in the Beatles song, alienation and lack of communication in the Paul Simon song, the intrusions of an unwanted and obnoxious commercialism in the Stones’ Get Off My Cloud. But most important, the thought in these songs is considerably more sophisticated than the thought behind almost all folk protest lyrics except those written by Bob Dylan.
Dylan was ahead of the pack. More than the others, he had been able almost from the start to see beyond black and white moral distinctions to shades of gray and to
the them in us. And he had been sensitive to the self-righteousness of nonviolent protest. In this respect he was whole marches ahead of the others, often to his following’s frustration and uncomprehending anger. Like his speech in accepting the Thomas Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, when he found himself identifying with (horror of horrors) Lee Harvey Oswald:
When I got up to make my speech, I couldn’t say anything by that time but what was passing through my mind. They’d been talking about Kennedy being killed, and Bill Moore and Medgar Evers and the Buddhist monks in Vietnam being killed. I had to say something about Lee Oswald. I told them I’d read a lot of his feelings in the papers, and I knew he was up tight. Said I’d been up tight too, and I’d got a lot of his feelings. I saw a lot of myself in Oswald, I said, and I saw in him a lot of the times we’re all living in. And, you know, they started booing. They looked at me like I was an animal. They actually thought I was saying it was a good thing Kennedy had been killed. That’s how far out they are. I was talking about Oswald.
As for topical protest, Dylan told his friend Ochs,
The stuff you’re writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. It’s all unreal. The world is, well, it’s just absurd. On the Bomb, Dylan observed,
What’s wrong goes much deeper than the bomb. What’s wrong is how few people are free. So the real issue for Bob Dylan had become how people are or are not free, which in turn became the subject of the new kind of protest songs he was writing in 1965. In Subterranean Homesick Blues, Dylan explored in short, staccato lines, jangling rhymes, and machine gun rhythms the incredible unfreedom of America in the mid-sixties.
Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.
The scene is repainted more darkly in other Dylan lyrics of this period. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)—a marathon recitation of social ills, both greater and lesser (advertising, education, war and war toys, authority, irrelevant jobs, religion, hypocrisy) begins with the frank admission that there’s no sense trying and ends with the fatalistic
it’s life. Highway 61 Revisited is nearly unique in Dylan’s poetry in that the highway—usually an escape and therefore uncontaminated—is poisoned by Louie the King and Mack the Finger and the roving gambler’s hired promoter who’s trying to stage the next world war.
Everybody must get stoned, Dylan warned. There’s no exit.
Other Dylan songs of the middle sixties are slightly more optimistic. Maggie’s Farm, for example, offers a world no saner than that of Subterranean Homesick Blues but suggests what all Americans always want, something that can be done.
Well, I try my best to be just like I am,
But everybody wants you to be just like them.
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
(Dylan himself worked for a very big Maggie’s Farm, Columbia Records—and he, like the rest of us, could not escape all that easily. But the myth was heartening, to think that you just might tell them all to take this job and shove it and they would dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West.)
The problems of America, as Dylan saw them, were interconnected and largely internal. The solutions were internal as well: everything might be solved once you were out on your own, no direction home, a rolling stone. Or, as the Beatles put it about the same time (December 1965), Say the word and you’ll be free.
This new music reflected a new maturity in the children of the sixties. They had been, this generation of renegade middle-class whites, to college; some of them, to graduate school. And they’d been doing some heavy thinking about social and moral problems and some reading and a lot of talking. Blacks in CORE and SNCC had become increasingly adamant about black leadership of civil rights activities not so much to achieve effective organization as to enhance black self-image. Self-image was becoming more important than immediate material gains. The real problems were internal.
And Selective Service, the way it drafted the poor and the black and sent them off to die, while waving the white sons of middle-class Americans safely by into college and 2-S deferments, and the way the 2-S hung over your head once you got into school—burn your draft card and you lose it; thumb your nose at the dean and get expelled from school and you lose your 2-S; and then it’s straight to boot camp and straight to San Diego and straight to Nam and home in a wooden box. So they really had you, and it was all connected, just as you had always suspected.
The point is that the problems we’re up against, and those include environmental crime, race crime, political, total, obnoxious corruption, and international crime, which is war—all of those problems, man, relate to a power structure that is running this country. . . . I’m trying to explain to people that it isn’t the President, it isn’t Congress, it isn’t the governors. It seems like it, but as far as I can tell, it’s an inter-locking whole socio-economic systems group.
And the way those in authority reacted to student protest, black protest, antiwar protest—wasn’t it all the same, and wasn’t it all part of a hopelessly corrupt American consciousness, an obsession with violence and repression? At antiwar teach-ins, increasingly common after spring 1965, you could rap into the early morning about causes and connections and the great web of entanglements. From graduate students and hardened radicals you could borrow a copy of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) or James Baldwin’s prophetic Fire Next Time (1963) or Ramparts magazine. At SDS meetings (the organization had grown by leaps and bounds following the free speech disturbances at Berkeley in the fall of 1964) you could catch up on neo-Marxism. Words and ideas and fragments of arguments filtered through media straights reached sixties people all across the country, and heads were churning. Nothing was decided, nothing was clear except that something was very definitely happening here, and the straights had no idea what it was.
As the sixties rocked to their climax in 1968, nothing became any clearer. Indeed, the onrush of events, the organization of the New Left, the emergence of an underground press, the growth of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (organized in September 1966), the increased attention paid to dissent and protest by all media, the great awakening of counterculture, the flowering of rock music in which so much of the sixties was concentrated—all merely intensified the confusion: more causes, more songs, more ideas. In the late sixties protest became such a natural condition of so many people’s lives (pushed from below by the war in Vietnam, pulled from above by media attention) that numbers no longer meant anything. Everyone was protesting everything in every way imaginable. Conservatives, hard hats, and know-nothings of the right were counter-protesting. And some sixties heads who were very far along the metaphysical march were hinting that maybe the angry no might be transcended into a yes, that this was not the way to put an end to war.
A new and more strident voice was now being raised in discussions and in music, the voice of violent revolution, of anarchy, of fighting in the streets. The move from pacifism to violence was justified, in some minds, by establishment response to nonviolent protest. The war in Vietnam was exploding, and white response to civil rights initiatives was largely what Martin Luther King had warned against in 1963:
Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. The bombed church at Birmingham in 1963, the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and of fifteen more civil rights workers during the so-called freedom summer of 1964, the explosion of Selma in March 1965 and of Watts in August—these things Lyndon Johnson could use to prod Congress into guaranteeing voting rights and antipoverty programs, even highway beautification and Medicare programs besides, but the congressional victories were soon overshadowed by the war, the incessant war, the omnipresent war, and the bodies decaying in the closet. Anyone could tell that America was in trouble even before the climactic year of 1968, when King went down and Columbia went up and police clubbed/gassed/pounded demonstrators while Hubert Humphrey was receiving Richard Daley’s blessing in Chicago.
We’d like to do a song about this guy who was a friend of ours. And just by way of mentionin’ it, he was shot down in the street. And as a matter of strict fact he was shot down in the street by a very professional kind of outfit. Don’t it make you sort of wonder? The Warren Report ain’t the truth, that’s plain to anybody. And it happened in your country. Don’t you wonder why? Don’t you wonder?
Pacifism, many believed, was not working.
The major problem with nonviolent protest is that it hurts. You have to put up with getting arrested, teargassed, spat and shat upon, bitten by police dogs, beaten on the head, shot at, maybe even killed and dumped in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. People who studied protest during the sixties, most notably the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968), the Walker Report on Chicago (1968) and the Skolnik Report on protest (1969)—reports made for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence—concluded that
the weight of violence was overwhelmingly on the side of the police (Walker), that
nearly all the violence that has occurred in mass demonstrations has resulted not from the demonstrators’ conscious choice of tactics, but from the measures chosen by public authorities to disperse and punish them (Skolnik). These were American investigations, of course, but nonviolent protest met with substantially similar reactions in Germany, Japan, France, and to a lesser extent England and Holland. Police brutality is not the American frontier spirit come home to haunt, but a frightened reaction to nonviolent protest. Pacifists always get whacked.
Radical protesters therefore rejected nonviolence as naive, impractical, holy, ineffective, and slightly suicidal. Why should our heads ache? Why should Medgar Evers be murdered in 1963, fifteen good people during the freedom summer of 1964, Martin Luther King in 1968, and four Kent State students in 1970, while Bull Connors becomes a national hero, Lester Maddox gets himself elected governor, and George Wallace runs for president of the United States? Besides, the advocates of violence argued, your broken bones and bombed homes will never cause them any discomfort, will never force them to change. Beat their heads, take a few shots at them, blow up their offices and cars; then you will see some action. Bring the Irish cause from working-class Belfast to chic London; bring the anger of the ghetto from Watts and Harlem to the suburbs; bring your demands for free speech directly to the dean’s office, then you will get remediation (or at least you will get even).
Revolution is never based on begging somebody for an integrated cup of coffee, Malcolm X wrote in 1962.
Revolutions are never fought by turning the other cheek. . . . And revolutions are never waged singing We Shall Overcome. Revolutions are based on bloodshed. Power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and in this great and good and blessed country of ours, it is possible for every man to wield power.
If somebody points a gun at me, I’ll do my best to point one back.
We’ll only use the tactics that the oppressor makes us use; if they could change peacefully, then good, but they can’t and they won’t, explained a radical bomb-maker to the East Village Other in 1968. And up they went: the Bank of America, the CIA, army recruiting stations, ROTC buildings, anything remotely connected with the establishment. (Which, for black Americans, meant everything. They torched whole neighborhoods—usually, ironically, their own: Birmingham in 1963, not three days after the triumph of nonviolence mentioned above; Watts in 1965; Newark and Detroit in 1967; a hundred towns and cities in the days after King’s assassination in 1968.)
There was something awesome in this wholesale leveling. And something characteristically American as well. For all their religiosity, Americans seldom turn the other cheek. They speak loudly and carry big sticks. If a foreign government doesn’t suit us, we send the CIA to get us one that does. We intervene wherever we see fit to defend our “interests.” And we come with guns and tanks and planes. The violent revolution of sixties radicals was as American as the CIA.
popular archetype: Mark Rudd and the Weathermen (as in Bob Dylan’s line You don’t need a weather man to know which the way the wind blows)
moment: October 1968, when Weathermen bomb the CIA building in Ann Arbor, a U. S. Army recruiting station, the school board building of Michigan’s Macomb County, another building in nearby Roseville, and the 10th and 13th precinct stations in Detroit—the 13th twice!
Up against the Wall, Motherfucker!
song: Volunteers, by the Jefferson Airplane (We’re all outlaws in the eyes of America)
(Violent protest, however, was never the threat it was made out to be by the FBI, CIA, U. S. Army Intelligence, and local police authorities. Not the Black Muslims in 1959 or the Black Panthers in 1969 or the Weathermen or any of the Maoist splinter groups. Most protesters were on the side of life against death and lacked the heart for serious killing. Whether on the campuses of Jackson State and Berkeley; in the slums of Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit; in the swamps of Georgia or the parks of Chicago and Los Angeles—when the official estimates were in, the guys in uniform always outnumbered the students, Black Panthers, Weathermen, civil rights workers, hippies, and Yippies at least five to one. Malcolm X, the Kennedys, King, and dozens more were shot; Nixon, Hoover, Helms, Agnew, and Daley were not.)
Phil Ochs, on the cutting edge, was growing impatient. He had put in his time politically and musically and could see that not much was happening. Late in 1964 he wrote I Ain’t Marching Any More. Then he used the song to title his next album. A note of explanation on the jacket reads,
Borders between pacifism and treason, combining the best qualities of both. The fact that you won’t be hearing this song over the radio is more than enough justification for the writing of it.
There was a definite flowering-out of positive feelings when John Kennedy became President. The Civil Rights movement was giving off positive vibrations. There was a great feeling of reform, that things could be changed, that an innovator could come in. . . . Things looked incredibly promising.
Then came the Bay of Pigs, the beginnings of Vietnam and the assassination was the big thing. It ruined the dream. November 22, 1963, was a mortal wound the country has not yet been able to recover from.
By winter 1965 Phil was celebrating Rhythms of Revolution in a vindictive but purely imaginary triumph over the power elite. You’re supporting Chiang-Kai-Shek while I’m supporting Mao, he sang in the guise of a student to his tweedy professor and noted other countries where the students helped to overthrow the leaders of the land. His In Concert album arrived in 1966 with poems by Mao Tse-tung and the caption
Is This the Enemy? Ochs was at the front of those moving left and toward violence. Love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal, he sneered. Students and militant blacks applauded. Parents, university administrators, and liberal politicians (including Lyndon Johnson) flushed and wondered what to do. No longer could they take comfort in the impotence of the demonstrators, in the small numbers or the quiescent pacifism. It became increasingly difficult to support even the lunatic fringe explanation with which the establishment so frequently dismisses anything it cannot or will not understand.
In The War Is Over (1968) Ochs hinted as broadly as he decently could that the time was ripe for something stronger than marching and carrying signs.
So, do your duty boys and join with pride;
Serve your country in her suicide;
Find a flag so you can wave good-bye.
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try—
This country is too young to die.
It was tough to be pacifist. Like the Little Rascals, on tour of the South with Dick Clark, split off from the rest of the tour in Fort Pierce, Florida, their equipment in a broken-down van somewhere along the road. And in the local diner, a scene right out of Easy Rider:
I’m trying to figure out whether you’re a boy or a damn girl.
Where we come from, we chew on people like you.
Let me see your draft card.
So the Rascals split the diner for their trailer, only to be met by
50 or 60 motorcycles waiting for us. On each of the motorcycles there was at least one person. Some of them had as much as three. They were going to kill us, evidently. They definitely wouldn’t just hurt us (Rolling Stone, 1979). So the Rascals cleared out and wrote People Got to Be Free, an innocuous enough song. But their hearts were elsewhere: Eddie swore he was going back in there and clean the town out with a machine gun.
(Behind every radical with a gun protesting against the injustices of America stand John Wayne and the long cowboy-Indian film tradition. He shoots first, he shoots later, Phil Ochs sang. It’s the American way.)
That’s the way violent radicals got made, and by 1968 many thousands had been radicalized. We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees, sang James Brown in Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud (1968). The fires in the street were alluded to in Arthur Brown’s Fire, in Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and in the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the streets, Jagger announced in 1968, parodying Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit Dancing in the Street and tying rock and revolution together. The group United States of America officially acknowledged the inclusion of violent revolutionaries into the sixties pantheon with Love Song for the Dead Ché. And John Sinclair brought his White Panthers to the nation via the rock house band the MC5.
Kick Out the Jams is not an album to rattle the memories of most sixties heads, but it rattled plenty of music systems in 1968 and 1969. And not just because of the “motherfucker” that came through loud and clear until it was changed in mid-run to “brothers and sisters.” And not just because of the ultra high-energy rock that blasted from the speakers. The MC5—in the Sinclair days, at least—was a revolutionary group.
I want to hear some revolution out there, brothers! I want to hear a little revolution. . . . The time has come for you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or you are gonna be the solution.
(The career of the MC5 was short and tragic. The group quarreled with a well-known record store chain, suggested in Detroit’s underground newspaper that fans level the joints, and then sent the bill for their underground ad to Elektra Records. That finished the MC5 at Elektra. When Atlantic picked them up, they split from Sinclair and his Panthers and settled docilely into what Mike Jahn termed “life at the high school” songs that made it with nobody, and the MC5 disappeared after only 3 LP records, only one of them at all significant.)
The most radical album of the sixties, however, was the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers (1969), with the group chanting in obvious delight, Look what’s happening out in the streets, got a revolution, got to revolution. Complete with a chorus or two of Up against the wall, motherfucker, tear down the wall. And intimations that we should all be together, volunteer outlaws in America, and suggestions from Gracie Slick that we either go away or go all the way. It was a very heavy album, very in tune with a segment of the late sixties, and an album not aired on AM radio.
Naturally Volunteers got the Airplane in plenty of trouble with RCA Records because among the many revolutions it brought home was the right to free speech. Curiously RCA made little attempt to censor content (not even when the Airplane-Starship eulogized Weatherman Diana Oughton, killed in the explosion of a homemade bomb, with two other Weathermen, in New York in 1970). Censorship meant no dirty words. Perhaps, as everyone suspected, the real revolution was in language and dress; everything else was mere window dressing.
Ultimately it was language that made an outlaw of Country Joe McDonald, whose Superbird and Fixin’ to Die Rag (An’ it’s one, two, three, what’re we fightin’ for?) should really have been the main issues.
November 21, 1969
I would like to explain to you exactly what it is that we are being charged with doing, because people have a tendency to be really tripped out about a specific thing that we do as a regular part of our act, and we have done it for almost two years now. At a certain point in this set, usually towards the end of the show, we do a song which is a protest against the war in Vietnam. It’s a very popular song amongst the Underground. Almost everyone in the Underground knows the song, and before we do it we spell a word. We used to spell FISH—we used to say “Give me an F”—the audience would say “F”; “Give me an I”—the audience would say “I”; “Give me an S”—the audience would say “S,” and “Give me an H”—the audience would say “H,” and then someone would yell, “What does that spell?”—and they would say “FISH,” and then we would play the song, which is called I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.
We got tired of spelling FISH, and at one point we started spelling out another four-letter word which begins with “F.” And the audience seemed to enjoy it even more than saying “FISH.” As a matter of fact, the thing caught on so much that at several performances we would spell “FISH” but the audience would respond with the contested four-letter word, which begins with “F.”
The absurdity of the paranoia of the Establishment has been carried so far that right after our last Wooster, Massachusetts, date (for which we have been charged with being obscene), we were met in Boston by one police captain, three lieutenants, 75 uniformed patrolmen with clubs, guns and mace, police squad cars, 25 plain clothes detectives and a paddy wagon, and we were informed that we couldn’t do that thing which we had done in Wooster, but no one would articulate what it was we had done because I imagine they were just waiting for us to do it again.
It is really an infringement upon the Constitutional rights of the audience to have the police decide what we can and cannot hear, particularly when this is such a very small issue; it is generally the tendency of the Establishment to treat young people as if they were second-class citizens, as if they were not capable of making rational decisions which would lead to moral conduct. The kids are finding out that the real obscenities and the real immoral acts are committed by the Establishment—the adult community which chooses to manifest its hang-ups in poisoning the rivers and the oceans, and the food we eat, by smoking themselves into alcoholic stupors and by forcing their own children to go off into a foreign country and murder for them.
You will understand how it was that Country Joe McDonald and the Fish dedicated a record album to Bobby Hutton, the eighteen-year-old Black Panther murdered by Oakland police in 1968. And how the band got itself into trouble that same year at the siege of Chicago and thereby became part of the heroic and absurd trial of the Chicago Eight. And how it brought the revolution in free speech home to America. And how life went for millions of sixties heads at the close of the decade.
Pacifist and violent protesters, for all their differences, shared several fundamental characteristics. The first was high seriousness. The second was commitment to if not the system then a system. Only the pure anarchists freed themselves from organization, and many leftists who accepted violence as a legitimate and necessary escalation of the fight to free America developed codes of behavior far more rigid than those of the establishment against which they warred: the Black Muslims, Black and White Panthers, Weathermen. Finally—and most important—violent and nonviolent protesters shared an implicit acceptance of the game. Pacifists played expecting to lose; their more violent comrades played to win. Both played and thereby reinforced the sanctity of the game.
Not all sixties people, however, saw the game as either desirable or necessary. To many it appeared a lose-lose proposition. If you played and lost, your body ached and you wasted your time, energy, youth, and maybe your life. If you played and won, you were also screwed: the prizes (money, power, and ego gratification) were hopelessly corrupt to begin with, and the things you had to do to win them were dehumanizing; so you still wasted your time, energy, youth, and maybe your life. Furthermore, it was impossible, really, to play the game without accepting tacitly the value of the prizes. At best you might replace one system with another, but the prizes remained, and power corrupts, over and thus out.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, sang the Who, looking over their shoulders in 1971.
Or, as the Buffalo Springfield said in 1967,
Perhaps you have just been bought.
So what you do is step outside the game and freak the whole thing out. Quit buying and start stealing. Fold, spindle, and mutilate. Stop working and start playing. Do it in the road. Kiss a cop. Nominate a pig for president of the United States and then serve him for dinner. Haul ass down the road at 90 MPH with your clothes off and the windows open. Steal This Book.
Fun was what adolescent revolt had to be about—inebriated affluence versus the hangover of the work ethic.
There’s only one thing that’s gonna do any good at all . . . and that’s everybody’s just got to look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and sayFuck it.
A militant Lower East Side group, the Black Mask, once staged a mill-in at Macy’s during the Christmas rush. Demonstrators flooded the store disguised as shoppers, floor-walkers, and counter assistants. Stock was either spoiled, stolen, swapped around or given away. Half-starved dogs and cats were let loose in the food department. A berserk buzzard flew around the crockery section, smashing china and terrorizing sales girls.
Not playing the game was, in sixties America, the greatest sin of all. Although the grown-ups were accustomed to a certain amount of horseplay from their children (especially from their sons, away at college and pledged to a fraternity and all), there existed a line not to be overstepped, especially in serious matters like the U. S. Army, courts of law, trade and commerce, and free elections. Especially not by unwashed, long-haired hippies with an absurdist vision. Holy goofs who flaunted their fuck it style had a tough time; this country does not tolerate disrespect. Besides, the goof cut straight to the heart of the matter: was the whole business worth a damn or was it all just too surrealistic, too corrupt, too impossibly gone to care about? Here was a matter too overwhelming for most Americans to ponder.
So the goof seemed even more threatening than the apostle of violent protest. The Mafia—which played an essentially American game by essentially American rules and was as American as the Colt .45—could flourish, but hippies and yippies got whacked. And there was no halo around their mangy heads to make people feel sorry.
popular archetype: Abbie Hoffman, throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1966
moment: the attempt during the 1967 march on Washington to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet in the air and exorcise its demons (to the music of the Fugs).
song: Mrs. Miller’s version of Chim Chim Cheree. (Talk about freaking out the whole music industry! She couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, no personality, no looks, no nothing. A complete musical goof.)
As the sixties unraveled, holy goof protest gained momentum, fueled by the rediscovery of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Dylan’s experiments in absurdist vision, and constantly increasing evidence that this world was totally fucked up, inside and out, and what else could you do with it except goof the whole thing? For some, goof was the endpoint of escalation.
(This protest, in a curiously mutated form, has endured whereas massive, nonviolent protest demonstrations and outright guerrilla warfare against the system have largely disappeared. Nobody is blowing up the Bank of America. Literally millions of Americans have, however, decided that no, the whole business isn’t worth a damn. And while we’ve lost our sense of joy, absurdity, and ingenuity, we are—many of us—busy folding, spindling, mutilating, ripping off, ignoring, and generally fouling up the system.)
Jerry Rubin began his journey into the absurd by organizing the 1965 Berkeley Vietnam Day teach-in. He moved on to more direct protest, less passive and less pacifist, including attempts to stop trains bringing troops to embarkation points for Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the fabled East. It was all too bizarre and yet too earnest for Rubin, so with Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner he
got very stoned so we could look at the problem logically and came up with the Youth International Party, the Yippies. And holy goof protest was by 1967 institutionalized.
(Light years earlier, Hoffman, it will be recalled, had participated in quiet, nonviolent protest at the sit-in against the execution of Caryl Chessman.)
The Chicago Festival of Life, conceived as a protest against the war and the war’s candidate, and the conspiracy trial of 1969-1970 were historically the high point of holy goof protest. Media attention was crucial to effective goof; Tuli Kupferberg and the Fugs, who had goofed for something like nine hundred performances in a row in some of the coffeehouses along the Village’s MacDougal Street with Kill for Peace and Group Grope and Coca-Cola Douche (all pre-1968), never got much media attention and could not therefore be effective media marauding holy goofs.
Lunacy with a cause seeped into sixties music. On the more serious side were songs like Dylan’s Tombstone Blues and the Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale (August 1967), with its mishmash of musical and verbal allusions to Chaucer, Bach, vestal virgins. The crazy scenes, humor, rhythms, and rhymes could not entirely conceal a serious declaration of insanity lurking just below the surface. Nor could the light rhymes and tripping meter of the Buffalo Springfield’s Mr. Soul (December 1967) hide the fact that Neil Young was registering a protest and making an important statement about insane times.
In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?
Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster.
For the race of my head and my face is moving much faster.
Is it strange I should change? I don’t know,
Why don’t you ask her?
Somewhere between joke and earnestness came the Airplane’s Doesn’t Mean Shit to a Tree (
It doesn’t, Paul Kantner once remarked.
Don’t get serious about it at all. ’Cause it’s not serious. . . . We didn’t even know what we were doing when we started doing it.). Country Joe McDonald goofed protest with his campaign to clean up America by sending out the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange to round up Lyndon Johnson in Superbird.
So come out Lyndon with your hands held high
Drop your guns baby, and reach for the sky
We got you surrounded and you ain’t got a chance
Gonna send you back to Texas—make you work on your ranch
Madness, pure fun, and high-spirited lunacy. And the lovable Beatles had a bit of goof in their random.
There’s a lot of random in our songs . . . writing, thinking, letting others think of bits—then bang, you have the jigsaw puzzle.
On the lowest level were trashy songs and singers that made no pretense of being art or novelty or pop shlock or anything except trash: Mrs. Miller in 1967, Tiny Tim in 1968.
Amid the swirl of nonviolent protest, violent protest, and holy goofing (and the counterrevolution, embodied in songs like The Ballad of the Green Berets and Okie from Muskogee) the suspicion developed that perhaps protest itself was not where it was at. Amid the shouts and cries came warnings and whispered reservations. People dropped out, quietly or flamboyantly. Dylan, of course, quit the marches in 1964 with My Back Pages (I was so much older then, he explained, I’m younger than that now), and he quit the protest movement in its broadest sense with John Wesley Harding in 1968. He was a man ahead of his time, but by the close of the sixties he had company. In 1967 Stephen Stills cautioned against protest-fed paranoia in For What It’s Worth. That same year Phil Ochs lamented the way protest bred dissension bred anger bred lack of love and lack of communication: Walk away both knowing they are right. Still nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady. A year later he declined participation in black-white protest games, arriving somewhat belatedly at Dylan’s position in the Tom Paine Award speech:
One is guilty and the other gets to point the blame. Pardon me if I refrain. The Beatles opted out late in 1968 with Revolution: But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.
Think, Aretha Franklin warned in 1968: in trying to make other people lose their minds, be careful you don’t lose yours. You were risking more than your mind, Country Joe pointed out in Playing with Fire.
Dynamite Charlie was a loser,
Buildin’ bombs in his bath . . .
He was playin’ with fire,
But it was too late.
Even if you didn’t lose your mind or blow yourself up, you might freak out on the paranoia or the heat and have to split.
(In Air Algiers, Country Joe might just have been talking about promising novelist-turned-counterculture-superhero—and holy goof protester—Ken Kesey, who, after a couple of pot busts and in the teeth of a stiff jail term, hopped in a car for south of the California border in January 1966. But the song fit so many in the closing years of the sixties.)
In 1969, Phil Ochs opted out, publicly at least, with Rehearsals for Retirement. There was his tombstone on the jacket with his own epitaph.
Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968
The title song is a bitter farewell to the movement and to the country.
Farewell my own true love,
Farewell my fancy.
Ah, you still own me, love,
Though you failed me.
But one last gesture, for your pleasure
I’ll paint your memory on the monument
In my rehearsals for retirement.
One option open to Ochs, which he declined to take although he had dabbled in the area throughout the later sixties, was the art lyric. From its lowly birth in reduced circumstances to disreputable parents on both sides, rock-‘n’-roll had come a long way in a very short time and aspired, in the middle to later sixties, to fine art. Whether rock ever managed to become fine art or not, it did in fact become a legitimate form of pop art. Like art it took to making big statements, many of which constituted a form of protest against the human condition, against immorality and insanity, against insensitivity and lack of communication. As a form of protest, the art lyric was very much alive in popular music of the sixties.
The American artist’s relationship with his audience historically has been neither clear nor happy. On the one hand, Americans are notoriously disrespectful of art, since it lacks obvious utilitarian value and defies easy packaging and marketing. On the other hand, they are too respectful of Culture with a capital C, of Shakespeare and Russian ballet and French impressionists. Most Americans see art as a moral tonic, a decoration, or a business investment. A tiny minority, mostly artists, turn it into a secular religion, complete with vows of poverty, if not also of chastity and obedience.
Art, of course, is none of the above. What the artist does is speak to the heart of the human condition as he understands it, realizing that institutions do derive ultimately from moral and philosophical presuppositions (just as the nonviolent protesters always suspected) and that once hearts and minds have been straightened out, systems are bound to follow. Thus, artists place themselves in, but at some remove from, society. They see the world around them through the glasses of metaphysics, which may not be a benefit:
Say a prayer for the Pretender sang Jackson Browne in 1976.
A people’s artist sings about the life and deeds and joys and sorrows of the people. If that is politics, so much the better.
Here artists face two problems. If they speak directly to social or political issues, their expertise will be questioned.
What the hell does Norman Mailer know about Vietnam? He’s a writer. (
What does Bob Dylan know about civil rights? He’s a folk singer.) Americans are not accustomed to the Russian notion, embodied in a writer like Solzhenitsyn, that artists are responsible for the moral health of their society, for its politics and economics and social structure. If Robert Bly turns his National Book Award speech into a lecture on the Vietnam War and donates some of his prize money to draft resisters, the American public is likely to send Bly back to writing poems about life on Minnesota farm. Let Paul Newman forget Eugene McCarthy and get back to acting. Let Bob Dylan write songs and let Joan Baez sing them and let both of them quit telling America how to run its business, and if she won’t pay her taxes, then throw her in jail.
On the other hand, if artists do not speak directly to the issues, if they insulate themselves from social and political realities, they run the risk of being too esoteric and thus misunderstood, in which case they are both ineffective and elitist. As protest became increasingly subtle and increasingly artistic during the sixties, it did lose contact with much of its audience: artiness was vitiating the movement in the later sixties.
This dilemma, which confronts every artist in America, was made somewhat less thorny by the generally politicized atmosphere of the sixties. Audiences were unusually receptive to moral and ethical statements of all varieties, and the times literally demanded such statements from artists. The sixties nudged both audiences and artists toward a more natural state of affairs: audiences became responsive, artists became responsible.
One of the more significant aspects of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night is the author’s frank admission that he was reluctant to participate in the demonstration in Washington, the recounting of which nevertheless won him a Pulitzer Prize. His reluctance stemmed from a commitment to overly refined art.
When was everyone going to cut out the nonsense and get to work, do their own real work? he challenged at the outset of Armies of the Night.
One’s own literary work was the only answer to the war in Vietnam. Three hundred pages later, Mailer speaks a new aesthetic and has a book far more important than the work he left behind when he went to Washington.)
And so the sixties, like other periods of social and political unrest, were also a time of great artistic flowering. Art flourished in print, in theater, in film, but most of all in music, the chosen medium of the decade. The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and a dozen other artists (both popular and fine) turned folk music, rock, rhythm and blues, even country music into a form of protest more refined than the topical ballads of the protest singers, infinitely more to the moral and social point than the cotton candy of Tin Pan Alley or American Bandstand. This protest has weathered the intervening years much better than the songs that tied themselves more closely to civil rights or the war. Art always does. In fact, some of it speaks as much to the seventies as it did to the sixties, both the fine art and the pop art.
The most important work in the latter category is unquestionably the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967 (and resurrected eleven years later as a purely shlock piece of nostalgia). This album was in many respects the most remarkable of the decade: in its production, instrumentation, lyrics, and conceptualization it was a musical revolution. It virtually created the concept album. It introduced multitrack recording technique. It turned rock into art, completing a process begun with Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and the Beatles’ own Rubber Soul (both 1965). It was a terrific head album and did much to promote the use of dope by giving heads something rich and complex to listen to while stoned. It contained one great song after another, so that whether you picked up on the words or not (and many folks didn’t, although the lyrics were printed on the back of the album jacket—a pretty good indication that the Beatles were trying to tell us something), the album tended to get inside you.
And it made a remarkably coherent statement on modern society and on the pervasive emptiness of all our lives and on the assorted methods we use to cope with that emptiness.
On the album, the Beatles pose as Sgt. Pepper’s Band, his lonely hearts club band, performing a concert for us. The loneliness is right out front, from the very introduction of the band, which follows the dubbed-in warmup sounds at the beginning of the record. We’d love to take you home, the band hints, but nobody takes them up on their offer and the concert proceeds to the introduction of lead singer Billy Shears (Ringo Starr, the puppy dog, lonely one). He’s uptight, insecure, afraid the audience will walk out on him or laugh in his face. (The laughter is there, all right, although it does not appear until side two, just after the band’s most direct appeal to love and to be loved, Within You and without You).
The songs are filled with lonely characters. There is the girl (and her parents) of She’s Leaving Home. Both sides of the generation gap live in exile, and both are or will become painfully aware of their isolation. The parents now know that money will not buy fun or love; she must soon realize that fun and freedom are the most cruel illusions of all. There is the recluse of Fixing a Hole, who shuts the world out and himself in. There is the anxious mail-order suitor of When I’m Sixty-four, who looks forward to a cottage on the Isle of Wight and scrimping and saving. There’s the vacuous hustler of Lovely Rita, who turns his slick seduction into a grotesque parody of a scene from the fifties: I nearly made it/sitting on the sofa with a sister or two. Emptiest of all is the stud who cruises town in Good Morning, full of boredom and clichés, casing the old school, hustling a skirt, nothing to say because there is nothing in his head.
In Within You and without You, the band—and the Beatles—speak directly to their audience—and to us—and explain the whole album in unmistakable, clear, frightening prose: We were talking—about the space between us all and about the illusions and the love that’s gone cold. The audience in the concert recorded on the album is unable to deal with this kind of direct statement. They laugh. And the band progresses to more holes and more illusions and more defeated attempts to discover love and sublimate loneliness, until it’s back for the big finish with a reprise of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band theme song. There is no mistaking the point now: Sgt. Pepper’s lonely.
We’re all lonely and depressed. And then, outside the context of the band’s performance, the Beatles turn the mirror on us and on modern civilization in A Day in the Life.
I read the news today oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade. . . .
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car.
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.
The song drifts into a fog of films, books, smoky dreams, news reports of holes in Blackburn and the Royal Albert Hall. A lot of sixties heads grooved on gossip in this song (and on this album—the games you could play with the cover!). Who was the man from the House of Lords? Did smoke mean dope? What were the holes in Blackburn supposed to represent? But those who understood the space between us all, and the illusion, and the lost love knew that the holes were sitting right there in Albert Hall in front of the band. It was the holes that laughed at the end of Within You and without You. It was the holes that were listening to the album.
And it still is. Having transcended self-righteousness, we recognize ourselves as Nowhere Man and fear that we may one day become Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie.
and we are all together. . . . I am the walrus.
It’s hard to respond to the kind of criticisms leveled by the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper. Clearly, liberal reform, escalated protest, and tinkering one way or another with the system were out. Attractive options were all escapist: withdraw into the self or loop through time-space to some future world, past world, or remote corner of the present world. At the time of Sgt. Pepper the Beatles were busy largely with exploring remote corners of the physical, spiritual, and musical worlds of the twentieth century in Magical Mystery Tour, their white album, and Abbey Road. Others in England and America would exercise different options—if they found any exit at all.
The Kinks, an important British group that (unfortunately, in light of many of the groups that did) never achieved widespread popularity in the United States, found their resolution in the past. Ray Davies and his group first made the pop charts with a series of heavy British r&b singles, then turned to light satire in the tradition of the Rolling Stones: Well-Respected Man about Town, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, and Dandy. But Davies’s vision gradually expanded—like that of the Beatles, unlike that of the Stones, who never did manage a comprehensive statement unless it is their collected works. In 1969 the group offered the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Village Green is interesting in its typically British feeling for warm anachronism and its attempt to preserve in the midst of anarchy Donald Duck, Vaudeville, variety shows, draft beer, Old Mother Riley, Moriarty, Tudor houses,
the George Cross and all those who were awarded them.
(The American version of Preservation Society is the Band’s album The Band, fondly looking backward in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek.)
Arthur represents the Kinks’ major critique of modern society. Like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Arthur was the soundtrack for a television film; like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, it is a complex statement, as applicable to the United States as to the United Kingdom. Arthur tells the story of one Arthur Morgan, who lives in a suburban London home indistinguishable from any other on the block. He calls it Shangri-La. The album opens with an unabashedly sentimental lament for Victorian England and the empire, the time when everyone worked hard and knew his place and there was order and dignity of a sort. This is followed by a real authority piece called Yes Sir, No Sir,s which suggests on the one hand the price Victorian Englishmen paid and on the other the reward they reaped. This nineteenth-century stability Arthur still values, although he has spent, as his grandson points out, his entire life on his knees, laying carpets. Arthur’s brother was killed in the battle of the Somme and his son was killed in Korea. Still, he has not learned any lessons. His pleasures are few and pathetic: driving in the country, eating gooseberry tarts, and drinking beer (the Beatles’ cottage on the Isle of Wight). Arthur is not so much angry as puzzled. His world is crumbling, has crumbled. This he understands. But he has not figured out why. Neither has his surviving son, who is leaving England for Australia, the land of opportunity. But the grandson knows the score and explains it in Brainwashed: the aristocrats and bureaucrats have combined to grind Arthur down. They kick and push him around until he can’t take any more.
You men should remember how you used to fight.
This is standard Marxist analysis, but Arthur is filled with obvious contempt for the creeping socialism of bureaucracies (what Charles A. Reich called
consciousness two in The Greening of America): trade unions, social security, tax-savings benefits. And Arthur reflects a similar contempt for look-alike houses made of ticky-tacky and look-alike people made of ticky-tacky, for a land of no opportunity and a conditioned citizenry. It also shows a genuine nostalgia for the old days of handcrafted values, of order and stability, for a social order that seems in retrospect more open than it really was. The Kinks’ anger is externally directed: it’s not Arthur who’s daft, it’s the world that’s passed him by. Maybe the world is wrong, maybe Arthur is wrong, nobody can say. But surely something is very, very screwy.
Unlike the Kinks, England’s Who were, in the sixties at least, mod, mod ultra mod, without a shred of fondness for the old. New clothes, new music, new instruments (had to—they were busted after every performance), all gilt and flash and consumption. Youth. Kineticism. Pinball. Flashing lights. Mmmmy Generation. The anti-heroes of tomorrow here today.
A group with built-in aggression, they called themselves, mean motor-scooters and very bad go-getters.
Pretentious, some people called them in 1968.
Living social criticisms of modern British society.
A fraud. Whatever, the debate virtually disappeared after Tommy. After all, you can’t quarrel with success, and the Who had played the Met. Besides, Tommy is good music, fair theater, and a sound critique of both English society in the sixties and the human condition in the twentieth century.
Most of all Tommy is a plea for seeing, feeling, loving, understanding, a plea from one of society’s rejects-become-idols. It is the story of one who does unto others as has been done unto him and then receives from his fans-turned-disciples exactly what he has passed on to them: disdain, abuse, hate. He ends as he began: despised and rejected. Underneath its mod flashiness Tommy teaches a hard lesson: Tommy is warped by the same forces that warp everyone in the twentieth century—lack of love, absence of communication.
As a very young child Tommy sees his father kill his mother’s lover. Tommy is told he didn’t see or hear the murder, and Tommy believes his parents and does not see, feel, hear, or speak. (Jackson Browne returned to the same theme of self-imposed blindness as a modern defense mechanism in Dr. My Eyes.) Then Tommy is abused by queer Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin the bully, and the freaked out Acid Queen. So when Tommy learns to play pinball and thereby makes himself into a semireligious sensation, Tommy has survived a lot of abuse and a lot of hatred. And, having lost temporarily his physical blindness and deafness, he is still morally blind, deaf, and dumb.
The situation comes to a head in the song Sally Simpson, in which the Who cast Tommy as a rock star, Sally as an average fan, and the human relationship in star-fan terms. Sally, drawn by Tommy’s words and personality (he is
preaching on the text
Come unto me), rushes onstage, only to be pitched by guards back into the audience, receiving a gash that requires her to be hospitalized. Tommy is entirely unaware of what has happened. He remembers fondly the day when the fans went wild. Later, when Tommy opens his summer holiday camp, he retains Uncle Ernie to help him train recruits. They will learn as he learned: by suffering. And they turn out as he turned out and forsake him and rape him and there is Tommy, loveless and sightless again.
Here is a statement nearly as bleak as that in Sgt. Pepper, a glimpse into the darkness of the soul, the hypocrisy, the sexual repression, the violence, and the terrible isolation that are ours in the twentieth century. Here is a protest against the lonely crowd, against the lack of community (doubly debilitating, as the Who knew only too well, for rock stars), against the emptiness of modern society. The noise and lights and flash of mod society, like the irrepressibly high spirits of the Beatles’ music in Sgt. Pepper, serve only to make the protest more morose.
(The Who did not leave us comfortless, however. They went from Tommy to Quadrophenia, a 1973 retrospective on the sixties and on mod, with its final affirmation Love, Reign o’er Me. Just the way the Beatles moved from Pepper’s to Hey Jude, who made it better. Just the way Dylan moved from you’d know what a drag it is to see you to love is all there is, it makes the world go ‘round.)
It didn’t always take an entire album to create a work of art that registered in some small way a protest against the human situation. The Beatles had warmed up for Sgt. Pepper with singles like Eleanor Rigby, and they returned to the subject in songs like George Harrison’s remarkable lament for modern mankind, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Either is in miniature nearly everything that the album is. The Who, for their part, had Pictures of Lily and My Generation to their credit when they produced Tommy. The first is a masturbation song and thus more or less directly a statement on sexual repression; the second, the anthem of Mod England, is a vague but defiant protest comparable to Get Off My Cloud or Chuck Berry’s Almost Grown.
Other singer-composers offered equally impressive miniatures. Like Leonard Cohen’s Story of Isaac, in which the poet-folksinger turned to a biblical theme for an allegory of the sixties. Cohen set a story of suffering victim and inscrutable divine purpose against the less holy victims of the late sixties and their less holy butchers.
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it any more.
A scheme is not a vision. . . .
A scheme is not a vision, Cohen asserted, speaking through the mouth of Isaac. Terrific, practically a slogan. Bumper sticker material at least—I wonder that it was never paraded around the White House along with
Hell no, we won’t go and
Fuck the war and
Peace now. Except that it so transcended the specific context of 1967 and the LBJ mentality: as a subsequent stanza makes clear, Cohen regarded the modern victim as equally suspect. Do we not all have our schemes? We are each victim and criminal, and we will all kill if we can or must. Beware the sin of holy pride.
The peacock spreads his fan. The new revolutionaries were caught in mid-punch and dropped their arms because they no longer knew where to swing.
Of course it’s a revolution,Cohen said in 1968, surveying the carnage.But I want to see the real revolution. I don’t want it siphoned off by the mobilization people. . . . Revolutionaries, in their heart of hearts, are excited by the tyranny they wield. I’m afraid that when the Pentagon is finally stormed and taken, it will be by guys wearing uniforms very much like the ones worn by the guys defending it.
Another jewel of art protest was Paul Simon’s America. It came in a collection of statements and testimony, Bookends (1968), one of the important art albums of the sixties, which included Punky’s Dilemma Mrs. Robinson, A Hazy Shade of Winter, and Save the Life of My Child. Each is a very fine song, each a clear statement on the human condition at the end of the sixties. Each shows a compassion toward and an awareness of others that was then relatively new to Simon’s writing. He had told the New Yorker in September 1967:
I write about the things I know and observe. I can look into people and see scars in them. These are the people I grew up with. For the most part, older people. These people are sensitive, and there’s a desperate quality to them—everything is beating them down, and they become more aware of it as they become older. I get a sense they’re thirty-three, with an awareness thatHere I am thirty-three!and they probably spend a lot of afternoons wondering how they got there so fast. They’re educated, but they’re losing, very gradually.
Not realizing, except for just an occasional glimpse. They’re successful, but not happy, and I feel that pain. They’ve got me hooked because they are people in pain. I’m drawn to these people, and driven to write about them. In this country, it’s painful for people to grow old. When sexual attractiveness is focused on a seventeen-year-old girl, you must feel it slipping away if you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman. So you say,
I’m going to stop smoking. I’m going to get a suntan. I’m going on a diet. I’m going to play tennis. What’s intriguing is that they are just not quite in control of their destiny. Nobody is paying any attention to these people, because they’re not crying very loud.
Out of this awareness came the protest of Bookends. And out of Bookends came America.
It is a young song—Paul and Kathy rolling by Greyhound bus from Saginaw, Michigan, down the lower peninsula, across the flatlands of Indiana and Ohio, through the Appalachians around Pittsburgh, and up the New Jersey Turnpike, inexorably drawn to the heart of modern American neurosis, New York City. But their age does not insulate them from the sense of isolation felt by everyone else on Bookends, and the song ends up being a delicate protest against isolation and lack of communication. After a long epic of pies and cigarettes and the headlights of cars all come to look for America, there is only the emptiness and the spaces between the lights, between the cities, between Paul and Kathy and a thousand, a million individuals, locked each behind her own set of headlights, all out looking on their own.
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.
(America is important also in the way it turned Greyhound and Mrs. Wagner’s pies and even the Jersey Turnpike into art objects set in lines of nearly perfect tetrameter. America is an art song.)
The times were full of such gems. On a Rolling Stones album, for example, a song like Ruby Tuesday, with a line like cash your dreams before they slip away. Or the Mamas and Papas’ California Dreamin’, in which what might be is contrasted to what is, with religion (in the person of the preacher) interposed between, preventing one from becoming the other. Or the Who’s Substitute, a song that really hit the nail on the head, a lyric of accepting what you can get in place of what you want, of plastic substituted for silver, Coke for gin, phony love for real love, phony girls for real. Or the Doors’ Twentieth Century Fox, with its accusations of plastic girls, plastic lives, plastic worlds. And—on FM radio only, because AM would not play him—Phil Ochs’s art lyrics, wherein the crucifixion became an allegory of the Kennedy assassination and Miranda became a symbol for the whole new sociopolitical reality.
Bob Dylan started out, like all of us I think, with folk music and nonviolent protest. He matured and he raged, nearly insane. He filled himself up with hate, for some years with a white passion: the masters of war, his friends, his self. And in the end he loved. He wrote songs of protest and songs of love, public songs and personal songs, topical songs and art lyrics. And, earlier than anyone else in the movement, he transcended his rage and his protest entered into a new dimension. Most of us who lived through the sixties have of necessity made the same journey. Dylan’s is the story of the generation.
John Wesley Harding is an album second in importance only to Sgt. Pepper in terms of long-range influence on sixties style, thought, and behavior. The album is a concept album and a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage takes us from protest to transcendence, from nightmare absurdity to sanity, from rock to country, from despair to hope, from guilt to salvation. It is the pilgrimage of one man’s soul and of America’s soul, a twentieth-century allegory complete with anagogical, topological, typological, and moral levels of interpretation.
Dylan begins with John Wesley Harding, a song set in the heart of American mythology: the good outlaw and the bad sheriff. How old is this motif? Older than Woody Guthrie, who before Dylan was born was singing of Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw who paid many a farmers’ mortgage and
saved their little home. Like Robin Hood and Billy the Kid (a movie that Dylan was to lend a hand with later), Harding was
always known to lend a helping hand, to straighten things out, dispense justice, rob the rich and feed the poor, and—most important of all—never ever to make a foolish move. Harding is Dylan on square one. He is your average American and also your standard sixties head: we’re good, they’re bad, and we’re all outlaws on the side of justice.
This kind of cliché, however, serves Dylan only as a point of departure. In the next song this comfortable myth is inverted. Tom Paine and narrator Bob Dylan, both good guys for sure, are transformed into the twin forces of enslavement of the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains. As she clutches Dylan, begging him to free her and take her south, the paranoid singer yells to be unhanded. Tom Paine apologizes for the whole ugly scene. And off she goes to bondage again. There is no room for holiness here—nor in I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, in which Dylan finds himself among the crowd that put the saint to death. The song involves a Kafka-like recognition of guilt, which terrifies the speaker and reduces him to tears of remorse. The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest extends this confusion of good and evil, innocence and guilt into the eternal. As Judas Priest claims Frankie’s soul, the stage is set for Dylan’s redemption.
The last two songs of the first side of John Wesley Harding bring Dylan (and us) to the eye of the hurricane, the moment of judgment. As usual, the moment of fiercest wind heralds an instant of calm and then grace. All Along the Watchtower, demonic, apocalyptic, terrified and terrifying, magnificently biblical (and slightly New Testament, like many other songs on this album), is the moment of Dylan’s crucifixion. Joker and thief converse from their respective crosses, complaining of confusion and misunderstanding and the bad joke that is life. On the watchtower people wait expectantly. In the distance, a wildcat growls. Two riders approach. The wind howls. The song ends and we await the judgment.
It comes, disreputably and even comically, in Drifter’s Escape. The song begins with an admission of guilt and inadequacy that would have been inconceivable from the Bob Dylan who sang Go away from my window and Positively 4th Street. Who kicked Baby Blue onto the street. Who used and abused and whenever things got tense just walked out and left. Who was free and tough and brutalized Ochs and Baez and everyone else who tried to touch him. Who was traveling not a few songs ago with guns in both hands, never making a foolish move.
Help me in my weakness. Meet the new Bob Dylan. It is exactly the admission of weakness and guilt that brings Dylan’s release. In what can be called only the classic deus ex machina, a bolt of lightning strikes the courthouse in which drifter Bob is being tried, and while everybody sinks to his knees, the drifter slips free. The moment of confession is the moment of rebirth. The end of protest is grace.
Side two of John Wesley Harding provides further insight into the reborn Dylan, praying for his landlord’s soul, pitying the poor immigrant back there on square one, returning like the Ancient Mariner, like Lazarus raised from the dead to warn his brothers and sisters, the kind ladies and kind gentlemen, that they must avoid petty jealousy, keep their judgments to themselves, and learn to love each other. Finally, Dylan encapsulates his past self into
The Wicked Messenger, sent from Eli with a flattering tongue and a mind that multiplies trivia. In an intensely personal song, Bob Dylan explains both his old self and his new mission:
And he was told but these few words,
Which opened up his heart,
If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any.
Good news follows immediately, in Down along the Cove and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. (And in Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Self-Portrait, all the mellow Dylan of the early seventies in all the country songs he found to be an appropriate musical and lyrical analogue to the simple, clean, pure life he wanted to live.)
John Wesley Harding is a remarkable album in the way it extends the angry no from myth to myth, from position to position, and then finally manages to break through the barriers of metaphysics to a new reality. It is protest cast in the broadest of terms, protest against the human condition, against the propensity to do what we do not want to do and leave undone what we should be doing. Interestingly, the album ends with a simple, clichéd statement of love—exactly where the Beatles found themselves after their own confrontation with the Waste Land in Sgt. Pepper. Exactly where the Who found themselves after Tommy. Exactly where so many sixties activists ended up. On the other side of the sixties looking glass, the neoromantic, radiant, transcendent yes.