Congratulate yourselves if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age.
Our crime was that we were beginning to live a new contagious life style without official authorization. We were tried for being out of control.
Today my friend John Stewart lives in a $100,000 home in one of those lush Chicago suburbs, half an acre of ex-cornfield well up toward Wisconsin, with a bit of creek and some newly planted shade trees, air conditioning, a garden in which he grows peppers and tomatoes with the help of a garage shelf full of expensive herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. He barbecues often on the deck of his house and plays softball in the backyard with his son and mine. He drives an Audi and is a corporate vice-president who defends tax incentives for big business, the profit motive, and Republican politics in general. When he and his wife vacation, they go first-class to the Caribbean or Europe.
He does not appear in even the remotest sense to be a refugee from the sixties.
In fact, during the sixties, you would never have accused Stew of being a child of the times. No beads, no long hair, no marches, and no dope. In 1965 Stew graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in chemical engineering and went off to do his duty in Korea; he had been in ROTC at college and had his obligations and was happy enough not to be going to Nam. In 1967 Stew returned home and went looking for a job.
Chemical engineers are different from teachers and philosophers and flower children. They are hardheaded, direct, practical. They think about things like jobs and security and stock options and promotion, which probably explains why they opted for engineering in the first place, which is certainly why they have little time for offing the system. It takes care of them because they make it run. Even in 1967 they made it run.
So Stew interviewed Kodak and General Electric and lots of other giant corporations, looking for a place to fit in and help make it all run.
They would show you this huge room, you know, big as an airplane hangar, all divided up into little cubicles. Each little group of desks was a team, assigned to a special part of the problem, lead by a team leader. He had a special desk for himself, off in the corner. And over each five or eight teams there was a coordinator, and over every five or ten of them was a task force leader, and so on, and so on. An ocean of desks and cubicles and name plates with guys’ pictures next to them. And everybody is making $15,000 to start, with insurance and retirement. You work for ten years or so and you get a promotion to team leader and you get a special desk, and in another fifteen years maybe you outlast six other guys and become a coordinator, and maybe after forty years, when you’re ready to retire, they make you a task force leader or head overseer or something.
Stew freaked. He took a job with a fledgling corporation of five or six people that offered him a fistful of stock at a penny a share and the chance to travel to Europe and to bust his ass fifteen hours a day seven days a week and maybe to make a decent salary sometime if the company worked out. (It did not, incidentally. It folded, and reconstituted itself, and was bought out by a Swiss conglomerate. Stew moved to another relatively independent position with another relatively small corporation, where he is happy.)
I just couldn’t see myself getting locked into that kind of [big corporate] structure for the rest of my life, he explains. That is the voice of the sixties speaking. Because one thing that everybody agreed on—blacks and whites, lower and middle and upper classes, protesters and flower children, and chemical engineers, and politicians—was that there had to be a better way, with all this technology lying around just waiting for people to put it to use. Or at least there had to be a different way that would turn out to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the programmed rise of the organization man. And John Stewart, sensible engineer-businessman not prone to excess or romanticism, was articulating an attitude not substantially different from the desire for alternative possibilities expressed by Phil Ochs in The World Began in Eden but It Ended in Los Angeles (1968):
Don’t you think it’s time that we were leaving
For another chance, another place to start?
Desperate once they went across the ocean
And they wondered how it would all turn out.
My best education has been living with my children who lived through the nineteen-sixties. They opened up worlds for me that I was reluctant even to understand.
The sixties felt the typical young, American, Western, post-Renaissance itch to try something different, look at something new, search out another chance, another place to start.
The compulsive need to experiment in alternatives underlay Easy Rider, the great sixties quest after an America transformed by pot, sex, hippie communes, and travel (
In the end she will surely know I was not born to follow). It underlay Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power, with its vision of a new black society with black values and black institutions. It underlay John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It explains the middle-class kids who tossed over their parents’ affluence for (usually temporary) poverty in San Francisco, the Peace Corps, or rural communes; and it explains the guy who renovates a stone farmhouse rather than buy into a newer or older Levittown. It explains acid and acid rock and perhaps even the protest demonstration. Politically and socially (and musically) we were all looking for an alternative, all vaguely disaffected with established patterns of doing things. The only argument, really, was how far we had to go: some were only bored or impatient; others had more serious objections and more particularized alternatives. Some thought we might get by with minor repairs to the roof and foundation; others were for starting from scratch.
One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.
The gifted seem to thrive on problem-solving and often select more difficult solutions over easier ones.
What we had in mind was something a little more humane, a little more free. Less of
a niche for everyone and everyone in his niche. More flexibility. Fewer rules. We wanted more pluralism, as the professionals say. And we wanted it now. Youth is fleeting. A faculty-student committee on the feasibility of Black Studies three, four, five years down the road meant nothing at all to the militant junior occupying the dean’s office.
How many years until I’m thirty, man? And what good is it all then? We could all be dead by then.
(This is the mentality of a generation that has known the threat of instant annihilation not as some terrible novelty but as one of life’s givens.)
So the sixties exploded across the universe in every conceivable direction at once, gathering momentum and distance as the years unwound, intent on traveling as far and as fast and as many as possible, a shower of stars, a dizzying show of colors and free forms, beauty and a fragile light and something very, very memorable. The campaign of 1968. Flower Power. Carnaby Street. Soul. Communes. LSD. Black Power. The underground press and underground radio. Free love. Free dope. Free universities. Free speech. The surfer idyll of girls and cars, sea and sand. Meditation. Poster art. The be-in, the teach-in, the love-in. The ugly of beauty and the beauty of ugly. Commitment. Intensity. Transcendence. Self.
For everything there is a season
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Turn, turn, turn
One of the many alternatives explored by the sixties was dope. The mind expanders dropped, licked, smoked, popped, snorted, ate—marijuana, peyote, LSD, STP, mescaline, morning glory seeds, Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Nembutal—to break through the inhibitions of some twenty-five centuries of rationalist Western thought, to make you see things, really see things, for the first time, to make you sensitive to touch and feel and sound and smell, to pry loose the lid clamped on the imagination and the senses by reason. “LSD equals love.” Ditto pot, coke, uppers and downers, even—in extreme arguments—hard drugs. (Although Paul Kantner called heroin
an ugly drug, a downer. It makes people boring.) When sixties heads talked dope, they were talking liberation of the emotional and sensory self from the prison of intellect. They were talking self-discovery, intensified awareness. They were talking about a door to new perceptions.
(Which is why so much dope was given away to friends, free. Because you wanted to open for them the worlds that had been opened for you. And it was so beautiful to watch them when the dream came.)
I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer, wrote Aldous Huxley in his brief statement on mescaline, The Doors of Perception (1954). It is a learned book, larded almost to the point of incomprehensibility with big words and psychological jargon. But, like the equally obscure La Guardia Report on Marijuana (1944), it enjoyed an immense underground circulation. Dense though its prose may be, The Doors of Perception gave sixties heads much of their theory of drug use. (One of the things we have most forgotten about the sixties was the capacity for heavy, learned, mind-fatiguing, and just plain boring research and argument, as long as the effort was to good purpose.)
Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind, Huxley continued.
No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. Which, he concluded, was to be expected for he was too much the thinker and the scholar to be imaginative. His very language betrays where he was coming from:
How can a man at the extreme limits of ectomorphy and cerebrotonia ever put himself in the place of one at the limits of endomorphy and viscerotonia, or . . . share the feelings of one who stands at the limits of mesomorphy and somatotonia? But, one mescaline pill and suddenly three flowers in a small vase become
what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence. Colors are indescribably brilliant, a return to
the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept. The will suffers a change for the worse, and the causes for which one would ordinarily act and suffer seem irrelevant. The outer world becomes the inner world and vice versa. All things sensory—touch, taste, sound—become sharp and fresh and new.
The cause of this, Huxley argued (borrowing from Bergson), is that the brain functions normally as a screen. Its job is not to create but to shut off. It is a reducing valve that limits our perception to only a minute portion of what might be called the mind at large. Drugs—in Huxley’s case mescaline—unlock the doors to perception of total reality, to all those sensory reports that our brain, in making us concentrate, filters out. The drug allows our attention to wander virtually undisciplined over the infinity of things we would normally see but not see, hear but not hear, think but disregard. Under the influence of the drug we cannot think, for thought requires disciplined attention, narrowly reduced sensory input. But while we cannot think logically under its influence, the drug opens the door to intensified feeling and offers an escape from the world of the intellect, from lives
at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape . . . is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.
What Huxley said of mescaline, others said of the less esoteric hallucinogens, marijuana and acid. The effects of LSD, British social historian Peter Laurie concluded, are
to break down the processes that limit and channel sense impressions in the deeper interpretive layers of the brain, allowing neuronal excitation to spread indiscriminately sideways. Investigator William Braden reported in his own clinical jargon that acid
stops time. Or in any case, it ceases to be important. The subject is content to exist in the moment—in the here and now. . . . The sense of personal ego is utterly lost. Awareness of individual identity evaporates . . . is expanded to include all that is seen and all that is not seen.
Dr. Jiri Roubichek observed,
LSD inhibits conditioned reflexes.
Sense of time alters and profound epistemological and ontological disjunctions ensue, wrote English sociologist Jock Young.
Feed your head, sang the Jefferson Airplane.
Yippies take acid at breakfast to bring us closer to reality, Jerry Rubin announced.
As with all other sixties explorations, the pharmaceutical revolution proceeded at various paces in various locales. Pot, which had been a staple in places like New Orleans and Greenwich Village since the Depression (it was a cheaper high than opium or cocaine), was virtually unknown in white Midwestern society until well into the decade. Hollywood, depressed housewives, and the high, fast society had been plenty familiar with downers (Miltown, Equanil, Doriden, Nembutal) even in the fifties. Uppers were popular among college students cramming for exams, musicians on tour, and athletes psyching themselves up for football games. (
Most NFL trainers do more dealing in these drugs than the average junky, wrote former St. Louis linebacker Dave Meggyesy in his book Out of Their League.) Mescaline and even lysergic acid diethylamide had been around for over a decade when serious research into their psychotherapeutic capacities began in 1959-1960, bringing them somewhat prematurely to the attention of an eager young and a dour old (and lawmaking) public. In 1962 acid was a rumored secret known firsthand to only a handful of initiates; by 1966 it had become an open secret on both coasts (and the bedrock of hippie society); by the end of the decade, with feds closing in on all sides, probably the only college campus in the country where you couldn’t buy a tab of acid would have been Bob Jones University. Pot and pills were everywhere, popped and smoked openly.
An epidemic of drug abuse is sweeping the nation, preached Roland Berg to readers of Look magazine, providing conclusive proof that by August 1967 at least the pharmaceutical revolution was a fait accompli.
High priest of the movement was Timothy Leary, who inherited the miter and crosier from William S. Burroughs, legendary prophet of an already gone decade and a goner generation. Leary began the sixties decently enough as a Harvard professor, respected, up-and-coming, son of an important Massachusetts family and promising psychologist, future guaranteed by the big H’s Center for Research in Personality. This all goes to show how deceptive appearances can be: Leary ended the decade in a California jail on what could have run into a ten-year sentence for possession of marijuana. Between alpha and omega came heroic proselytizing for the faith, the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IF-IF), and IF-IF’s house organ, the Psychedelic Review:
Mescaline! Experimental Mysticism! Mushrooms! Ecstasy! LSD-25! Expansion of Consciousness! Phantastica! Transcendence! Hashish! Visionary Botany! Ololiuqui! Physiology of Religion! Internal Freedom! Morning Glory! Politics of the Nervous System!
You can see why Harvard canned Leary in 1963. You may also grasp why the East Coast immediately deified him, consuming wholesale his Psychedelic Review and his books and his message of the mid-sixties:
My advice to myself and to everyone else, particularly young people, is to turn on, tune in, and drop out. A slogan was born.
It was the dropping out that irritated the establishment, which stood to lose prodigiously in such a re-creation of the American soul. Aware that a society turned on to pot, acid, mescaline (and, more important, to the spiritual values that Huxley, Leary, and the lower orders of clergy promised would follow) would be a society turned off to General Motors and Wall Street, it struggled mightily against any attempt to legalize marijuana and acted quickly to illegalize the new danger, acid. Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, an occasional adulterous affair—these are officially sanctioned recreational addictions with which the system rewards its faithful (or anesthetizes them). They are token payoffs, necessary, protected by tacit agreement, so that even when booze inhibits an executive’s performance, the establishment sends him quietly upstairs to dry out rather than toss him publicly in the slammer. But acid, mescaline, and even pot were during the sixties (and are today) seen as subversive to the organized system, vehicles of transcendence, and therefore unacceptable as token rewards or opiates of the people.
(The establishment is right in seeing these drugs as dangerous to it. Drugs underlay virtually every nonpolitical revolution of the sixties. Wasn’t it our drug-heightened sensibilities that made color so important and sound and touch? And weren’t augmented senses of taste and touch and sound and feel at the root of the revolutions in clothing, music, even sex and life style that constituted the greening of America during the sixties? Without drugs the counterculture of the sixties is unimaginable, and it was the growth of a visible and apparently viable counterculture that so unnerved the establishment during that decade.)
Generally speaking, sixties drug songs saw dope as a means of personal liberation rather than as a mere kick or a reward. The Airplane’s White Rabbit (1967) is typical in this respect. One pill makes you larger (uppers, and a reference to one side of the caterpillar’s mushroom) and the other makes you small (downers, the other side—of the mushroom, of course); the pothead caterpillar calls; logic and proportion are warped all out of shape—here is the classic description of a drug experience. Yet the advice is to feed your head, an invitation to wake up to the new realities and personal liberation that drugs could usher in. The song is practically a cop from Huxley.
The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky (1967) is another trip song—what with taxi and train and boat, and the tangerine trees and marmalade skies, and the loss of time and the distortion of normal proportions, and the music, if nothing else, and of course the LSD of Lucy, sky, and diamonds, a trip song that is an invitation to discover what acid can turn us on to: our senses of touch and taste and sight and smell and wonder. A Day in the Life, trip song number two on the Sgt. Pepper album, is a plea to turn on not so much to dope as spiritual awareness, transcendence, love. The Yellow Submarine led to Pepperland and to the heroic victory of yes over the Blue Meanies. And Dr. Robert helps you to understand, to see yourself. (
There’s this fellow in New York, Paul explained,
and in the States we’d hear people say, ‘You can get everything off him; any pills you want. . . .’ That’s what Dr. Robert is all about, just a pill doctor who sees you all right.)
Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 is a dope song and a pun—a useful pun at that—but also a protest song in the mold of Subterranean Homesick Blues: they stone you when you’re trying to be good, and ultimately everybody must get stoned.
(You have to be careful about dope songs. There was a lot of pressure to recant, and a lot of FCC paranoia, which meant a lot of bullshit all ways. Roger McGuinn equivocated on Eight Miles High, Paul McCartney explained away Lucy in the Sky, and Peter Yarrow excused Puff, the Magic Dragon, but very few children of the sixties bought any of their excuses because we all knew about the heat from the FCC, so naturally somebody was going to have to say something public for the straights who couldn’t grasp the metaphoric significance of dope.)
Drug songs that were drug songs came in several varieties.
Roger McGuinn’s 5-D, which titles a 1966 Byrds album, sounds like a straight cop from Timothy Leary’s prose as it hypes a drug-induced insight into the fifth dimension:
All my two-dimensional boundaries were gone . . .
And I opened my heart to the whole universe
And I found it was loving
And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made
Scientific delirium madness.
The sixties abounded in frank celebrations: the Association’s Along Comes Mary (1966), the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints (1967), Steppenwolf’s Faster Than the Speed of Life (1968), less popular songs like the Rainy Daze’s Acapulco Gold, Country Joe McDonald’s 1967 Acid Commercial and his 1967 pot commercial Bass Strings, and the early classic I Couldn’t Get High (Ken Weaver, 1965): So I threw down my pipe as mad as could be, and I gobbled up a cube of LSD.
Donovan Leitch was a master salesman: Sunshine Superman, Sunny Goodge Street, Mellow Yellow (a myth—the mighty Chiquita will not take you higher—but who cared?). And the Stones: Jumpin’ Jack Flash [Methedrine] is a gas, gas, gas. And Creedence Clearwater Revival, rollin’ on the river in Proud Mary, riding the flyin’ spoon in Out My Back Door.
There were also protests. Protests about price, as in the Jefferson Airplane’s 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds: Sometimes the price is $65. Protests about addiction, as in the Stones’ Sister Morphine or Joni Mitchell’s great Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire (both bittersweet). Protests about drug laws, as in Graham Nash’s Prison Song or Phil Ochs’s Miranda. Protests about dealers, as in Steppenwolf’s Pusher Man, which came packaged in sixties consciousness with Easy Rider.
Occasionally there were warnings: You’re gonna trip, stumble, and fall, sang the Mamas and Papas in 1966.
(Be it noted here that the sixties were scrupulous about bad drugs. PA announcements warned Woodstock celebrants against bad acid. Dr. Hippocrates warned Berkeley Barb readers against cyclopropane and other dangerous highs. “Speed kills” was as common a slogan as “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”)
A fistful of lyrics turned drugs into women, until the two fused as had cars and girls in the fifties: the Airplane’s Plastic Fantastic Lover, the Stones’ Lady Jane, the Association’s Along Comes Mary, Lucy, Mother Mary, the Rainy Day Women.
Another fistful of sixties songs explored the obvious parallels between the world of drugs and the world of children’s and fantasy literature. Thus you got a dopey version of Pooh and Alice (and Puff).
The best of the drug songs was undoubtedly Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. Mr. Tambourine Man is the pusher and the drug and the musician and the music all at once. And the magic, swirling, sensual ship on which the weary Dylan trips is at once the drug and the music and the act of making the music. Ultimately it is Bob Dylan himself, the same Bob Dylan who stands blind and enervated, leaden footed in the empty streets of the first stanza, who provides escape. The spell is cast, as much the magic of music as of pot, of art as of drugs, and we and Dylan and the sixties are off, escaping, swinging madly across the sun, free and alive in a reefer, in a song, in the interior of our minds, in the person of Dylan:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Another major area of sixties liberation was sex.
The key energy for our revolution is erotic. A free person is one whose erotic energy has been liberated and can be expressed in increasingly more beautiful, complex ways. Sexual revolution is not just part of the atmosphere of freedom that is generating within kids. I think it is the center of it.
Granted, the sexual revolution is by now a commonplace—recorded, quantified, tabulated, sloganized, popularized, established. Nor did the sixties invent sex, or even free love, or even “recreational sex.” The twenties were full of free love; Beat subcultures of the fifties were full of free love; and despite Debbie Reynolds’ everlasting virginity the fifties mainstream must have known how to enjoy itself.
In addition, it is in the media interest to hype sex. Not just Playboy and its assorted imitations, all media. Sex sells books and magazines, and sex—properly distorted—can be used to sell cars, clothes, perfume, aftershave. But to use sex this way you have to convince the audience that everybody else is getting lots more than he/she. Otherwise, he/she won’t have any reason to buy your aphrodisiac magazine or movie or sports car or aftershave or cereal. Another thing about sex: people invent a lot because that’s what they’re most uptight about, even today. And, most important, the sixties were not all of a piece sexually. The decade began in innocence and ended in experience; 1962 sex was plenty different from 1969 sex.
(And from 1979 sex, which raises another point: unlike most other experiments, the sexual revolution continued into the seventies. Not as a media event, but as a significant transmutation of male-female relationships. It’s had tough going, the sexual revolution, and I suspect there’s less raw sex abroad now than then, but from a seventies perspective even 1969 sex seems slightly crude and quite chauvinistic.)
The decade began in full retreat from the musical and sexual revolution of rock-‘n’-roll. Elvis, as somebody once remarked, told us in the mid-fifties that there was a way of making it without formalities, which is essentially what rock-‘n’-roll was all about and why it generated such hostility among grown-ups. But by 1960 the establishment commanded the field: when Elvis returned from the army and retreated into shlock rock and bad movies, every one of us realized that he’d had his balls cut off along with his hair. rock-‘n’-roll had been prettified into Dick Clark-promoted cuteness. By and large we were not far from soppy fifties hits. Goin’ to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married, warbled the Dixie Cups in 1964. Bad girls did, but nice girls still did not, and the distinction between the two was still drawn. Most women in most colleges still had curfews (sign out with your date’s name, your destination, your intention, so that the dean of women can check up on you), students were expelled for shacking up, and girls were expelled from straight society for getting pregnant. Virginity and the Puritan code of abstinence were still big in the hearts of women and men and most of all parents.
Couples did not live with each other. Young people expected as a matter of course to get married and raise kids. Except, maybe, in the Village and other Beat centers, where free love was neither more nor less popular than it had been for most of the twentieth century.
The seeds of the sexual revolution, however, were already sown. First was the memory of that sexual awareness that burst into middle-class consciousness in fifties rock-‘n’-roll music, a memory not quite forgotten in the 1960 sellout of rock-‘n’-roll or in the high seriousness of civil rights or nuclear disarmament protest. Second, there was a general exporting of Bohemian attitudes in the folk music flowering of the early sixties, which brought Village morality along with Village folk music into the field of vision of Americans from Kankakee to Miami. Third, there was Playboy magazine, which, though it certainly was not sixties sex (being too glossy, too commercial, and generally too plastic), was a spur to sixties sex. It was an accepted, widely circulated publication devoted to preaching sexual liberation (of men) and is not to be underestimated as a root of the sixties sexual revolution.
Several other factors were important, perhaps crucial: developments in contraception (
The pill, the pill, they’re gonna bless the pill) and in the treatment of VD, which made sex safer and infinitely more fun, and a new assertiveness among the young, an emerging sense of me and now. This attitude was most prominent in areas like civil rights and nuclear disarmament, but it was bound to spill over into matters such as sex. Gratification of personal desires began to take precedence over what mommy, daddy, church, university, or society set down. Tomorrow being irrelevant, there was no point in preserving one’s virginity. If desegregation could not wait, why should getting laid?
Initially the sexual revolution was plenty male, plenty macho. I am just a poor boy, trying to connect, sang Dylan, telling his girl that she could go or she could stay, but if she decided to stay it was for the night. Take it or leave it. You just happened to be there, that’s all, he sang in One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later). Clinging vines—which included all women who looked for something beyond the quick, convenient lay—were shunned with a callous it ain’t me, babe. The assumption was still that good girls did not and bad girls did; you had to work, coax, trick, cajole, and otherwise con a girl into bed. And it was masculine to be strong, aloof, invulnerable: don’t offer anything that might be considered an entangling promise.
(Women, for their part, were advised by the Excitors in 1963 to swallow their pride and “tell him that you’re never gonna leave him, tell him that you’re always gonna love him.” Men screwed and forgot; women loved and were true.)
This aggressive male principle remained fairly prominent in rock, and in sixties thought, well into the decade. Show me the way to the next little girl, the Doors sang in 1967 in a resurrected Brecht-Weill tune. This could be the last time, the Stones bullied in 1965. Bang, Bang, you shot me down, Cher sang suggestively in 1966. At the end of the decade, the aggressive, male, brutal Stones wrote a couple of the most aggressive, male, and brutal sixties songs: Parachute Woman (Won’t you blow me out?) and Honky Tonk Women (She blew my nose and then she blew my mind). Sex was out in the open, all right, but relations between the sexes had not changed appreciably.
The other tradition, that of good girls wooed and won with promises of eternal affection (and eternal fidelity), also survived the decade surprisingly well: the Temptations’ My Girl and Herman’s Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter (1965), the Righteous Brothers’ Soul and Inspiration and the Association’s Cherish (1966), the Association’s Never My Love and Stevie Wonder’s I Was Made to Love Her (1967), O. C. Smith’s shlocky Little Green Apples and Herb Alpert’s shlockier This Guy’s in Love with You (1968). The fact of the matter is that at the end of the decade, many sixties people found themselves married and raising kids.
A counter tradition, however, had developed over the course of the decade, a tradition of experimentation in all kinds of sexual arrangements, a tradition of open sexuality that obliterated or reversed the old bad girl-good girl distinction, a tradition that makes sixties people still think that there ought to be no rules in the bedroom no matter how they act elsewhere.
The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, for example, is noteworthy in that in 1965 it presented an aggressive woman who was not aggressive: I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me. More noteworthy, Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 hit These Boots Are Made for Walkin’—a shlock pop song that made the rock charts and was revolutionary—presented woman as assertive, independent, even liberated. Maybe even equal. Certainly she was not about to put up with a lot of macho bullshit. We Can Work It Out, from the Beatles in 1966, also implied equality between the sexes, a direct contrast to something like Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe. The Airplane’s Somebody to Love and Otis Redding’s Respect (popularized by Aretha Franklin in 1967) said that both men and women need somebody to love. Both men and women deserve respect.
We were approaching the day when either sex could honestly say, “I love you.” Or, “Let’s fuck.”
How sweet it is to be loved by you, sang Jr. Walker and the All Stars in 1966.
Set the night on fire, suggested the Doors in 1967.
Witness the quickness with which we get it on, sang Stephen Stills in Carry On (1969). It sure beat holding hands.
What we like to think of as sixties sex (late sixties sex) was a lot different from the lovemaking of our fathers. For one thing, it was a lot more out front. Nowhere is this difference more obvious than in sixties invitations to make it. This kind of song has been around a long time, but sixties invitations show just how very much out front love and sex were. In the twenties you got indirect and very witty invites like Cole Porter’s birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, let’s fall in love. Clever, sophisticated, so slick that you almost forgot what you were about. Metaphoric, because in the twenties you couldn’t come right out and say, “Let’s fuck”; you had to be subtle. Ditto the thirties and the forties and even the rock-‘n’-roll fifties. The metaphors changed, but metaphoric indirection remained: Do You Want to Dance? Let’s Dance. Rock me all night long. Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball! (Little Richard was careful to explain that “ball” in this song referred to dancing—but what he didn’t say was that dancing was fifties slang for getting it on.)
And the metaphoric covers continued into the early sixties, with the Beatles’ I’m Happy Just to Dance with You (1964) and Drive My Car (1966). Gradually, however, sex came out of the closet. Let’s Spend the Night Together, sang the Stones (but not on Ed Sullivan’s television show, where Mick Jagger changed it to Let’s spend some time together) in 1967. I Want You, sang the Beatles in 1969, and Bob Dylan in 1966. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? (followed on the Beatles’ white album, with typical Beatles humor, by I Will) represented something of an ultimate in naked invitations to sex.
Why don’t we do it in the road?
No one will be watching us,
Why don’t we do it in the road?
Let’s Get It On, invited Marvin Gaye, carrying the revolution in frankness into 1973.
This kind of directness was a far cry from the games people played throughout the fifties. The pleasure, sixties people decided, came not in the yes-no-maybe, coax-me-a-little-more struggle, but in the simple and spectacular act of getting it on (preferably while high, which doubled your pleasure by doubling the fun). And it got things out in the open: you could either yes get it on, or no not get it on.
Another thing about sixties sex was that it was innovative.
No holds barred experimentation, one veteran called it. If you can’t be with the one you love, Stephen Stills suggested, love the one you’re with. You better find somebody to love, the Airplane warned.
(Certainly not your wife or husband. Marriage didn’t fare very well in sixties sexual theory: it was too straight, too restrictive, too traditional. Most sex was premarital or extramarital. There’s so many times I’ve played around, admitted Peter, Paul, and Mary in—would you believe?—John Denver’s Leavin’ on a Jet Plane, but playing around seemed no reason in the world not to go ahead and get married.)
In Triad, David Crosby sang about a sexual threesome. In Stray Cat, the Stones suggested the same arrangement: your wild friend—bring her upstairs and she can join in, too. Love your neighbor ‘til his wife gets home, suggested the Doors in Soft Parade (1969). Earlier (1966) they had suggested, Break on through to the other side. In fact, most Doors songs were loaded with Freudian sex and sexual symbolism—The End (1967) features a ritual killing of father and balling of mother and sister. As the decade reached its conclusion, Mick Jagger moved increasingly in the direction of androgyny, a mode that carried into the seventies. Even seediness had its moment in Laugh-In’s dirty old man Tyrone and in songs like the Jaggers’ Rapper and Vehicle, by the Ides of March (1970): I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan.
Through all this, the grown-ups assumed that the world was going to hell, sex was losing its mystery, love was losing its sanctity, and male-female relationships were becoming cheap. But to the sixties, the new sex was a supermystical experience that got richer and richer the more you explored it; or an avenue to understanding (what the Bible would call knowing); or a terrific time. Even the last was groovy: the sixties, in the matter of sex as elsewhere, saw nothing wrong with having a good time. Today. Now. Before the Bomb explodes or you turn thirty.
The sixties also enthusiastically explored flower power. Beautiful people, tribes, flower children, the love generation—hippies came literally from the shadows in 1967 to take the world by surprise. Suddenly they were everywhere (or seemed to be): New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, London, but most of all on television and in magazines. Overnight hippie culture became synonymous with drugs and sex and music, and anyone who smoked pot, grooved to the Airplane, and smelled suspiciously of sex was a hippie freak.
A whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion
People in motion
Some of the popular conception of hippiedom was of course myth. Flower culture did involve large doses of drugs, sex, and music, but it’s a mistake to assume that hedonism in any or all of these forms was the core of hippie philosophy. Also, there’s nothing particularly hippie about sex, as the midnight hustlers along Haight Street quickly discovered. To the extent that sexuality was marketed or substituted for deeper, more personal communication, sex of some kinds was outside hippie philosophy. “Promiscuity? That’s such a cute word. Oh wow!” answered a San Francisco freak when asked the obvious question by a straight reporter. “What is promiscuous, man? Sex without feeling, without tuning in?”
The girls of the great San Francisco acid rock songs were different, really, from the girls of straighter rock. The “California Girls” extolled by the Beach Boys were broads, bodies ripe and ready and willing and able. Ditto, to grab another random example, the girls of Ricky Nelson’s 1962 Travelin’ Man. Hippie chicks were barefoot, ethereal creatures, beautiful heads, jeweled hair and visionary eyes, whistling, laughing, dancing, and living on the street—as in the Grateful Dead’s Golden Road—or “children of Orpheus” called to a trip of love—as in John Phillips’s Strange Young Girls (1966).
Strange young girls
Colored with sadness
Eyes of innocence
Hiding their madness
Walking the Strip
Sweet, soft, and placid
Offering their youth
On an altar of acid. . . .
Emphasis was on the mind, the spirit (and the clothes). The body? Well, everyone comes with the same basic body, don’t they?
When it came to drugs, as the Who’s Jimmy observed in Quadrophenia, each had his own poison. Your average hippie was pretty choosy about his dope: pot was a black-bread staple, acid he used regularly, heroin was a bad trip. Speed killed. He almost never touched hard liquor. And although there might have been a lot of dope floating around the hippie community (and didn’t some of the best sixties dope songs come from hippieland, along with a few antiwar numbers?), in a pinch it could have been done without.
I don’t need Timothy Leary or LSD, Jerry Garcia once told an interviewer.
Nobody in the Haight-Ashbury follows Leary. [They all followed Ken Kesey, who was also an acid freak. But let it pass.] The people here would have done this thing without acid, without Leary. I would have been a member of some weird society wherever I went. Don’t ask why. Don’t try to analyze it, man. It just is, that’s all. This is where we’re at. This is our trip. So acid was not essential.
Likewise, hippie life was neither consumption without production nor do your own thing and screw the other guy. Most hippies worked occasionally (for pay or other rewards), and most lived relatively structured lives, with group work, group play, group meditation, group dancing and music, group meals. Thoughtless self-indulgence was a drag. A Digger, part of that selfless community that undertook to feed hippie tribes in San Francisco and elsewhere during the golden years of flower power, reflected on the end of free food in 1967:
Well, man, it took a lot of organization to get that done. We had to scuffle to get the food. Then the chicks or somebody had to prepare it. Then we got to serve it. A lot of people got to do a lot of things at the right time or it doesn’t come off. Well, it got so that people weren’t doing it. I mean a cat wouldn’t let us have his truck when we needed it or some chick is grooving somewhere else and can’t help out. Now you hate to get into a power bag and start telling people what to do, but without that, man, well.
The real essence of the hippie life style was community, the social expression of a wider metaphysical truth, love.
San Francisco’s secret was not the dancing, the lightshows, the posters, the long sets, or the complete lack of a stage act, but the idea that all of them together were the creation and recreation of a community. Everybody did their thing and all things were equal.
Community was what made hippie life so very positive, so alluring to middle-class and upper middle-class orphans who had never known real community in their secure, establishment, suburban dwellings. And why hippie philosophy so vehemently rejected social structures that tend to isolate individuals, while at the same time it developed intricate and often rigid (but unifying) rituals within the community. And why the hippie rejected all the freight of goods that require specialization (and thus isolation) to pile up. And why he rejected competition, which pits neighbor against neighbor, separates man from wife from children in the mad rush to get ahead. And why the hippie felt and loved and danced and sang and shared—dope, pad, music, mate. The values of hippie philosophy were those that tend toward community; the values rejected by hippie thought were those that create competition and isolation. In this respect the long-haired, delicately clothed, dispossessed, possessionless flower children of the late sixties were the culmination of a dream that had been building through the late fifties and all the sixties. They embodied more perfectly than any other sixties experiment the search for an alternative to establishment thought and establishment life. All children of the sixties saw in the hippie an ideal of love, peace, and joy, which they sought, consciously or unconsciously, to approximate.
The Revolution has ceased to be an ideological concern. Instead, people are trying it out right now—communism in small communities, new family organization. A million people in America and another million in England and Europe. . . . How do they recognize each other? Not always by beards, long hair, bare feet or beads. The signal is a bright and tender look; calmness and gentleness, freshness and ease of manner.
So the communities sprang up, mostly in large urban areas with decadent and decaying cores—Los Angeles, Boston, New York, London, especially San Francisco—but also occasionally in rural areas—the hills of Big Sur, upstate New York, northern California. A return to the romanticized tribalism of the American Indian. A return to the values of the American frontier, lost somewhere between the dawn of the twentieth century and 1967, which require you to open your home and your heart to that wagon struggling up the trail and when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’ to help him with his load.
(Like all other revolutions, the hippie revolution was in many respects a return to the past, a conservative revolution. Gridley Wright, a West Coast high priest and founder of the Strawberry Fields community, began as a William F. Buckley-Yale University conservative.)
Hippiedom represented a threat to the establishment far more dangerous than free sex, loud music, even drugs. People who argued that the state can tolerate hippies because they drop out and are thus no threat to the power structure were misinformed, Paul Goodman argued.
Proportionate to its numbers, this group is by far the most harassed, beat up, and jailed by the police. Negroes go scot free in comparison. The social response to the demonstrating Negroes is, primarily, “Why don’t they go away?” It is at the point of riot that the deep anxiety begins to be aroused. But with the hippies there is a gut reaction from the beginning—they are dirty, indecent, shiftless; they threaten the self-justification of the system.
Well, what else could you expect from the mainstream? Hippies were not compelled by money, fame, or power. They did not consume. They did not abide by rules, listen to orders. They insisted on choices other than those offered by General Motors, General Foods, and political parties. There were the Diggers and the Provos handing out free food, free clothing, free dope, a free place to sleep. Hippie bands played loud.
We spent two years with loud, and we’ve spent six months with deafening (Garcia again). Pads full of no furniture, no food, no television sets, just people and animals and cheap posters and dope. No conspicuous consumption, and thus no commitment to making the system run. Public nudity and open sex and thus an end to the sublimated sexuality with which the system powers itself. Lots of play and thus an end to the Puritan work ethic. Politics? The only way to end the war is for everybody to turn his back and say, “Fuck it.”
What you represent to them is Freedom, lawyer Jack Nicholson explained to Captain America and Billy in Easy Rider, taking a toke and spreading America before them.
But talkin’ about freedom and bein’ free are two different things. Whop on the head in the middle of the night.
Acid rock—the sound of San Francisco—was the sound of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the (Ken Kesey-Owsley Stanley-supported) Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Sopwith Camel, the Mind Benders, Weeds, Loading Zone. Acid rock embodied the whole San Francisco hippie scene, wrapped it in a typically noncommercial package, and carried the alternative across the nation’s airwaves and into hearts and minds thousands of miles away. Lyrically there could be no mistaking the philosophy: it got preached again and again, and again and again. You better find somebody to love. We should be together. Try to love one another right now. You’re gonna find some gentle people there (John Phillips’ San Francisco served in 1967 as a musical photograph of what had come in the summer of 1966 and what everybody hoped would return in summers ever after). The celebration of dope and hippie chicks, of San Francisco people (Country Joe’s Janis and Grace, for example), of Vietnam protest, of doing it in the road.
Acid rock was at first simple music, in keeping with the sixties’ romantic penchant for the uncomplicated, easy, accessible sounds of the people: a few basic chords, some narrow drums, hypnotic repetition. Through the simplicity, however, acid rock wove a Victorian improvisation on exotic instruments—recorder, sitar, mandolin, maybe electric violin or electric oboe—which gave the music its head appeal. The simple became incredibly complex, the raga turned baroque. You listen again and again to the long, rambling jams of the Doors or to the Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia, snaking his way through time in an almost visual or tactile trip, each phrase a whole new world and no two times do you hear exactly the same thing. Bits and pieces of a dozen different musical styles form an exquisite filigree, sounds as exotic as the instruments themselves, a rifling of the musical past analogous to the hippies’ rifling of Salvation Army clothes racks for buckskin vests and feather boas. Color. Variety. A mosaic monument to the fecundity of life in the sixties.
Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation, and scholarship bullshit; you can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around, and see that it’s all music.
Volume was important, too, and length. Acid rock blasted apart the neat world of record company rules and AM radio three-minute singles, warped equipment out of shape, got you right there inside the music, where you could chew on each note, really taste and assimilate it. Communication proceeded on several levels at once: you could hear the words (maybe), you could hear the music, and you could actually feel the sound washing over you, pressing against your ribs, throwing you back against the wall.
The personal relationships and organizational structures of acid rock groups, though largely irrelevant to the music they produced, also tended to reflect attitudes of the hippie community. The Airplane, for example, could restructure itself as occasion demanded, splitting into Hot Tuna, Slick and Kantner, reconstituting itself as the Jefferson Starship, picking up at various moments David Crosby, Graham Nash, John Barbata, Papa John Creach. The great, big, brawling, sprawling family that was the Grateful Dead, backstage, onstage, in the big pad at 710 Ashbury. The Family Dog. Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, packed together in New York’s Chelsea Hotel for a summer and a fall cutting their second album and living and fighting and being a (troubled) musical community. A random coming and going, everyone free to do his own thing with the group or with other groups (record company lawyers went berserk). Commitment to the moment and the community—but never to record company rules, censorship, and packaging, or to radio programming format, or to money.
Most significantly, a lot of this goodness was free. Acid rock groups confounded, astounded, and otherwise perplexed their recording companies first by laying down tracks far too long and too formless for AM air play, then by filling their songs with four-letter words that would never pass censorship, then by behaving outrageously onstage and off, and then by giving their music away in free concert after free concert. (And, finally, by making a success out of this kind of totally noncommercial life style.) All the San Francisco groups did freebies, and in emulation of them all big-name groups and individual performers started giving free concerts just for the art or the fans. The Grateful Dead especially were known for slopping on a few extra hours, even when the concert had been played for a veritable pittance, or for nothing, in the first place. Music became what music always should have been: just a stoned groove, a joy, a great cry of affirmation and love and beauty. I recall one absolutely free Dead concert (much opposed by authorities at Ohio University, incidentally) that began at 7:30 and pumped on until the electricity was cut off at 1:00—when the Dead reassembled themselves elsewhere and played three hours more.
(Eventually, of course, the predators came, and the rip-offs, and the lawyers, and the heat, and all the harpies of the establishment crushing in from every side, exploiting, abusing, applying the screws and the rack, and there were drug busts and legal hassles about lyrics and who could play with whom, and before you could say “1968” acid rock had gone the way of all flesh, with its light shows and Kesey-Dead-Bill Graham Trips Festivals, and Graham was calling the new breed of rock group a rip-off and closing up shop, and the Dead had gone country, and Joe had left the Fish, and the Haight was full of hustlers and perverts, and that was the end of a brave experiment and a very lovely dream.)
Another sixties experiment that had largely evaporated by the seventies was the movement toward Black Power. Early on, Black Power meant higher salaries, more jobs, lots of voters at the polls, lots of clerks working at the courthouse. But as the sixties developed, Black Power became a concerted effort on the part of the American black community to dissociate itself from any and all elements of the white, racist, American establishment and to develop alternative structures based largely on non-Western (nonwhite) cultural values. It stressed black control of all institutions that governed black lives: government, businesses, schools. But control was merely a means of insuring substantially different kinds of government, business, and education. Local (i.e., black) control of local (i.e., black) schools, a starting point fought every inch of the way not only by city hall politicos and school board members but by teachers’ unions as well, was intended to create schools substantially different from white schools. Black Power was not a change of color but a change of value. And the qualities most admired by late sixties Black Power theoreticians were the same qualities valued by the white counterculture: simplicity and even primitivism, spontaneity, ethnic identity, respect for individuality, cooperation rather than competition, joy, love. Black Power could have been, should have been, often was as valuable a source of humanization as was the hippie community.
(In demanding different institutions, Black Power spokesmen recognized immediately that there could be no cooperation with, let alone assimilation into, the white community. Thus, Black Power represented a major change of direction from earlier civil rights activity, which aimed at black entrance into existing systems.
Thus we reject the goal of assimilation into middle-class America because the values of that class are in themselves anti-humanist and because that class as a social force perpetuates racism.
Like Flower Power, Black Power drew a lot of heat: wanting into the system might mean cramped quarters until a little more room could be carved out of somebody else’s backyard; wanting out not only deprived the barons of a servant class but also called into question the appropriateness of the whole structure. It questioned the ability of the system to deliver the goods, along with the very desirability of the goods. So the more separatist the movement became, the more black heads got smashed. Compared with hippies, Black Power people did not get off scot-free.
It’s more than just Evolution,
Well, you know, you got to clean your brain.
The black regeneration (or just plain generation) of black consciousness relied heavily on music. Music, as Malcolm X observed in the late fifties, was the only part of the American scene in which black people traditionally had been free to create. As a consequence, blacks became adept at musical creation and, as LeRoi Jones pointed out,
the most expressive Negro music of any given period will be an exact reflection of what the Negro himself is. It will be a portrait of the Negro in America at that particular time. The goal of Black Power was to develop the kind of independent spinning of gold from straw in all social and political spheres that Malcolm X had seen taking place in music. Jones tells us,
And in that atmosphere, brothers and sisters, you’d be surprised what will come out of the bosom of this black man. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen black musicians when they’d be jamming at a jam session with white musicians—a whole lot of difference. The white musician can jam if he’s got some sheet music in front of him. He can jam on something that he’s heard before. But that black musician, he picks up his horn and starts blowing some sounds that he never thought before. He improvises, he creates, it comes from within. It’s his soul; it’s that soul music.
The black thinker did not really
come up with a philosophy that nobody has heard of yet, as Malcolm had hoped—
a society, a social system, an economic system, a political system, that is different from anything that exists or has ever existed anywhere on this earth. In retrospect, one senses that the greatest glory of Black Power was the myths it regenerated and its soul music.
Thus close followers of events in the jazz milieu were less than wholly surprised when Stokely Carmichael first raised the cry of “Black Power!” After all, the disputes, debates, and deluge of literature which Stokely’s cry unleashed had for some time been a permanent fixture in the narrower jazz world.
The musical assertion of black independence had begun in the forties, with the retrieval of jazz from cool white musicians of the proto-beat generation and the infusion of open resentment into black bebop. Kofsky read bebop in its social aspect as
a manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation, and he was right. But the proclamation was in musical terms only; social corollaries remained implicit. In fact, even the musical manifesto was aborted by economic dislocations in the postwar period. Then came the ascendance of the cool, disengaged style of Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, the west coast jazz crowd, which meant that the wild, ranging, engaged, hot style of hard bop was as out as the literary extravagancies of Jack Kerouac.
With the sixties, however, out came in, and everyone realized, in the words of the poet Don L. Lee (But He Was Cool, or: he even stopped for green lights), to be black is to be very-hot. And with the release in 1960 of Ben E. King’s Spanish Harlem came sweet soul music.
Soul music was the black state of mind throughout the sixties. Rhythm and blues, the black sound of the fifties, was dated or had been co-opted by white rock-‘n’-roll. Blues seemed vaguely rural, southern, and antiquated. But soul was the contemporary expression of urban black consciousness. It offered a lot of love, a lot of passion, and a protest that became more and more explicit as the decade developed.
If blues had become synonymous with Chess Records, and rockabilly with Sun, soul music belonged to Atlantic Records, which in the mid-sixties became the Atlantic/Stax/Volt conglomerate. Booker T. and the MGs (Green Onions). Wilson Pickett (In the Midnight Hour, Soul Dance Number Three, Funky Broadway). Sam and Dave (Hold On I’m Coming, Soul Man, Brown Sugar). Otis Redding (Respect, Dock of the Bay). The Drifters (Up on the Roof, On Broadway). Aretha Franklin. Ray Charles. Second liners like Arthur Sweet Soul Music Conley, the Bar-Keys (Soul Finger), Archie Tighten Up Bell and the Drells, the Crazy World of Arthur Fire Brown, and Clarence Slip Away Carter. Even the white soul music of the Young Rascals. Names infinitely more prominent in the black community than in the white: Eddie Floyd, Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge.
Atlantic, however, had no monopoly on soul music, especially as black consciousness developed (and, perhaps more important, proved itself commercially profitable) in the middle and late sixties. Soul brother number one, James Brown, recorded for King Records and Polydor; Motown gave Atlantic a run with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Shop Around was the company’s first million seller), Jr. Walker and the All Stars, Marvin Gaye, and other recognizably soul sounds early in the sixties. But as the decade wore on, Motown became increasingly slick, produced, and then overproduced. The Supremes and the Marvellettes and other formula groups became so overplayed, so mechanical, so impersonal, so interchangeable, so smooth in a world that was becoming increasingly rough, innovative, personal, and passionate that Motown lost its rep for soul.
Because what soul was, was an attempt to create something different from the status quo, a musical alternative that did not leave social ramifications implicit.
We will no longer call ourselves lazy, apathetic, dumb, good-timers, shiftless, etc. Those are words used by white America to define us. . . . From now on we shall view ourselves as African-Americans and as black people who are in fact energetic, determined, intelligent, beautiful and peace-loving.
Energy. More than a dance beat (perhaps Motown seemed cheap precisely because it was only dance music), more than a sex drive, soul music was a definite commitment to keep on pushin’, to move up a little higher, reach that higher goal (the phrases are from Curtis Mayfield’s Keep On Pushin’). The total energy of a James Brown concert, a superhuman expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears and of cuff links hurled into the crowd and of faints and gasps and collapses that went on 365 days a year, maybe twice a day, as many years as people would have it. The total energy necessary to pay the bills and to be the boss.
Determination. Soul was the determination to drive so hard that no matter how hard you try you can’t stop me now (the Temptations). To lay on Mr. Charlie a bit of the old backlash blues (Nina Simone). To demand proper re, re, re, respect (just a little bit). Not to quit until we get what we deserve. To ride that train all the way to Jordan.
Pride, As in Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud, the soul anthem of James Brown. As in Curtis Mayfield’s Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey or This Is My Country. As in Black Pearl, precious little girl. As in Black Is Beautiful, words and music by Charles Wood and Jon Cacavas, record by Nancy Wilson.
Black is the velvet of the midnight sky,
Black is so beautiful it makes you cry.
Black is oil, Black is coal,
Black is soil, Black is soul.
Young, Gifted and Black. We’re a Winner.
Anger. A willingness to burn and to let burn. Fire.
Black assertiveness filled the air in the late sixties. It most certainly represented a change of direction in both music and attitude from what the fifties and earlier decades had known, presenting at almost every point the exact opposite of what the Colored People were always thought to have been thinking. Smiling faces, they don’t tell the truth. But black soul music presented an alternative not substantially different from that of white counterculture. There was less bullshit about blessed poverty, but in the Impressions’ Woman’s Got Soul you heard the same disdain for the world’s goods that the hippies voiced: I don’t need a Cadillac car or diamonds and such. And the Shirelles could forget Paris and Rome and diamonds and pearls because in the long run, baby, it’s love alone that counts. And (Mayfield again), I’m richer than the richest gold if the woman’s got soul.
Like white counterculture-turned-mainstream pop, Black Power soul music was filled with the assertiveness of individuals, cries against the immorality of Vietnam and outrage at social stagnation at home, hatred of Nixon, and general distrust of classic liberalism. It was heavy on sex, and, against the wishes of most theoreticians of the Black Power movement, soul singers included in their new society a lot of the dope that flavored hippie culture: the Temptations’ Cloud Nine and Psychedelic Shack, Sly and the Family Stone’s I Want to Take You Higher.
(There existed in black society the same split between heads and political revolutionaries that divided the white counterculture. While the SDS and the New Left apologists attacked hippies for dropping out and giving up, black radical A. X. Nicholas attacked the Temptations and Sly:
These songs, as opposed to the blues, are counter-revolutionary, and should be boycotted by the Black community.)
The affinities between white counterculture and its aims and the goals of black nationalism were recognized early by Malcolm X.
The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has, he once told Alex Haley. White youth had come by themselves to black rhythm and blues back there in the fifties, seeing in it the only living music in America. That they were forced to settle for white imitations and covers of black originals is more a testimonial to the absorptive capacity of the establishment (soon to be considered) than a reflection of their own preference for bleached products. A veteran of the times thinks back:
You had to believe that if it was ever going to come, it was going to come from the blacks. When things got down to the nitty-gritty, flower children could always run home to daddy, women could opt for marriage and motherhood, radicals could organize banks and congressional campaigns instead of protest marches. But blacks, you half hoped, half feared, had no security to retreat to, no alternative but to level the whole system. In a way, it’s too bad that they burned their houses, that the Panthers were exterminated, and that the rest fell for Nixon’s black capitalism bullshit.
In 1971 Bob Dylan took time off from his country retreat to write a song about George Jackson. And in 1975 he did the same for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Great Black Hopes never really die.
The mention of Bob Dylan raises yet another major area of sixties exploration, the country. Musically—and spiritually—Dylan cleared out in 1968 with John Wesley Harding. Musically—and spiritually—he was followed in his retreat to the hills by a lot of other refugees from the urban, twentieth-century Mobiles that had given us all a bad case of the Memphis blues. Socially the retreat to the country began with hippies and heads looking to escape the heat of the metropolis; initially the Leary commune in Millbrook, New York, and Ken Kesey’s farm near Eugene, Oregon, although not the first communes of the sixties, popularized the idea. The notion became immediately attractive to hippies tired of watching the city scene turn sour; tired of the American Express-style tourist buses packed with middle-class paunches, their cameras cocked, hot for the first sight of a frazzle-haired freak in beads and sandals; tired of the straights looking for a quick hit or a quick feel; tired of hustlers looking for a fix or for someone to rip off; tired of plastic flowers and pulse-taking journalists; tired most of all of being hassled. By the end of 1967, hippies were ready to update the centuries-old dream of a rural Utopian community where all God’s children could live in love and get back to the good earth without persecution or prosecution. (Substitute Parliament and the Church of England for San Francisco cops to see just how old and how traditionally American this vision is.)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
People started to spread out to the country, recalled Ron Thelin, owner of the Haight’s Psychedelic Shop, who departed San Francisco in October 1967.
It started to get a feeling like, ‘Well, it’s gotta be real.’ The feeling was, grow your own food, get to know your own community, the system’s gonna die. My friends started to come out here and we had a collective commune, a real experiment. Stephen Gaskin, onetime English professor at San Francisco State and lecturer at the Straight Theater and the Family Dog, cleared out in 1969 for a 1,700-acre farm in Tennessee, which remains to this day a self-sufficient community of several hundred. Stewart Brand, who with Ken Kesey fathered the San Francisco Trips Festival in 1966, created The Whole Earth Catalog. Its “purpose” explains as can nothing else the late sixties return to the country:
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
Inside, everything: The Way of Chinese Paintings; Lee electric flour mills; how to make hard cheese; Terramycin soluble powder; pig tooth nipper; balling gun; tipis; Honda electric generators; surveying made simple; geodesic domes; British Columbia Land Bulletins, free for areas 1-10; The Book of Tea; how to make and fly paper airplanes; New Schools Exchange Newsletter; the dialectic of sex; wooden toys; yoga; wild edible plants; fishing techniques; auto factory service manuals; mountain climbing; LeClerk looms; Jewelry Making and Design; Solidox welding torches; music synthesizers; The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. Everything you might need or care to know in order to set up your own commune in rural California, the Pacific Northwest, Nevada, upstate New York, Minnesota, Iowa, Tennessee, Pennsylvania.
The transition from urban park to country commune, however, worked a profound effect on the counterculture. There may have been fewer hassles from interlopers, journalists, and police, but there was more work. With no stores to rip off, no Diggers to provide free food, no university to offer a free library, lectures, lecturers, no quick food joints . . . well, the work got done by the members of the commune or it did not get done at all. Buildings had to be built, not liberated. Children had to be taught, medical care organized, heat provided, food grown and prepared.
This is not to say that country experiments fell apart for lack of willing workers. (They fell apart for the same reason that Utopian societies have always collapsed: the assertive individual ego, material and sexual possessiveness, the original sin of the human species.) Hippie life was very different from country life. The move to the country meant changes. It meant a more structured life, with appointed times for community work, meals, play, and meditation. It meant a little less dope: you simply cannot get the work done when you’re stoned all the time. Pot, of course, continued as a staple, but the heavy pharmaceuticals, the ten-and twelve-hour trips, tended to disappear in the successful country communes. Natural foods, natural highs. A cleaning out. A simplification and a purification of body, mind, and spirit. Less Dionysius. A new moral orthodoxy. A new seriousness. (Stewart Brand observed in discontinuing Whole Earth in 1971,
Traditionally the most failures have been among the serious ones, the ones with great Utopian ideas who think they are going to do something spectacular and change the whole world. The stronger communities are kind of frivolous.)
A new conservativism was developing, from scratch almost, through the necessity of survival. Those communes that operated under the premise that
God is the sole owner of the land and we, as his children, are not meant to fight, quarrel, and kill over the land, but rather to share this natural resource—to each according to his needs (the quote comes from the Morning Star Ranch, a commune founded by Limelighters’ Lou Gottlieb, no rules, no structures, open to anyone, and no one asked to leave)—such communes failed. Those that developed structures and rituals succeeded, maybe.
The more people, the more structure; the less thoroughly members know and understand each other, the more structure. And finally, the less time members spend together, the more structure—this was the rule of thumb generated in 1972 by Those Who Study Communes.
For better or worse (in some ways, I think, for better), the movement retreated to the country. Following this vanguard, America moved to the country. And with it, the music of the counterculture and of America moved to the country.
Now I won’t be back ‘til later on (if I do come back at all).
Beginning somewhere around 1968, pop music developed an affection for the simple, honest life of the farm. Rock has always had country blood under its mulatto skin, even in black rock-‘n’-rollers like Little Richard, but the country side of rock was pretty much an embarrassment, the well-guarded secret in the family closet. Never mind that the Buffalo Springfield, Dylan, even the Stones sounded very country in odd moments, that Country Joe McDonald was, after all, Country Joe—nobody but nobody was doing honest to Opry country in the mid-sixties. Not Sweetheart of the Rodeo stuff (Byrds, November 1968), not Flying Burrito Brothers or Johnny Cash, Los Angeles or Nashville country music. Country rock emerged at the close of the decade, right along with the return to America’s rural roots.
And the metaphysics of the music were—initially at least—almost exactly the same as those of hippie refugees and radical reformers tired of smashing their heads into billy clubs: a desire to return to fundamentals, to purge the head of accumulated shit, to simplify, to get down to bedrock upon which to build.
(To the original sixties heads who joined communes, experience taught the necessity of organization, and hard work imposed from within the group through participatory democracy. The advantage of commune over straight society was not that there were no rules, but that rules were self-imposed. But children of the seventies proved unable to distinguish self-imposed structure from externally imposed structure and settled comfortably into the Nixon era. Likewise, the metaphysics of country rock were all too quickly lost on a generation for which country music became not a metaphor for the genuine and the homemade but an easy, formulaic, shlock simplicity.)
It was with Harding, you will recall, that Dylan broke through his own nightmare visions to the quintessentially Nashville sound of I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight). Both the philosophy and the country music continued on his next album, Nashville Skyline, which found him dueting with Johnny Cash (who also wrote the jacket notes), which freaked out everyone because this was 1969, the year of Abbey Road, Crown of Creation, Woodstock, Altamont, the beginning of the end. What was this shit?
He’s lost touch with the distressing reality of our psychotic times, said New Left spokesman Carl Oglesby, expressing the consensus.
The innuendos of Lay, Lady, Lay and Country Pie—really not characteristic of country music—could not save the unbelievably bad, clichéd, stupid language of one thing is certain, you’ll surely be a-hurtin’, and love to spend the night with Peggy Day, and turn my head up high to that dark and rolling sky.
Then came more of the same in New Morning, this time without the puns: I’d be sad and blue, if not for you. Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re grand. Many people turned Bob Dylan off, and many more wrote him off.
In the trajectory of New Morning, however, lay an explanation for those who cared to listen, and it was precisely that offered by the heads on the country communes. This album opens with Bob receiving his honorary doctorate at Princeton University. The song Day of the Locusts is reminiscent of pre-John Wesley Harding lyrics. Here in the album’s beginning is a nightmare reminiscent of Blonde on Blonde, and in the old manner Bob Dylan clears out: Sure was glad to get out of there alive. Next song finds Dylan where he’s cleared out to: up in the mountains, where time passes slowly and people try hard to stay right. Country living is an antidote to the city’s poisons. In Went to See the Gypsy, it’s a little Minnesota town (Dylan going back to his roots). In New Morning it’s a place down the road a country mile or two. In Sign on the Window, it’s a cabin in Utah, a wife, a bunch of kids, rainbow trout. That must be what it’s all about, .concludes Bob Dylan the temperate man, someone who has thought long and hard and tortuously about it.
Similar long and hard and tortuous thinking had been done by the best of the turn-of-the-decade followers of Dylan into country music. It certainly underlay the conversion of some of my friends: “Look, it’s cliché and shit and all, but at least it’s honest cliché. There’s no pretension, no promo, no phony hype.” That may not be the case today, but it’s certainly what Bernie Leadon of the Eagles was driving at when he told Rolling Stone in 1975,
There’s so much bullshit in the pop world. So much of it is just lower-chakra music. No finesse. It’s just sexually oriented. That’s a form of escape. I like to think our band is more than that. That there’s some thought, some living behind it. The kind of thought and living behind John Sebastian’s Nashville Cats or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s I’m a Country Girl Again (1969). Or the Eagles’ take it easy, take it easy, don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy. What country meant to Joan Baez, who, having spent a life in the movement, married a draft resister, walked the protest lines, refused to pay her federal taxes, visited Hanoi under Nixon’s bombs, could see in the country life qualities of honesty and decency that would make her fill David’s Album (1969) with Green, Green Grass of Home and Hickory Wind and My Home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains; and One Day at a Time (1970) with country stylistics and the in-1964-heretical Take Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South. Or to Stephen Stills in Colorado and Fallen Eagle and Colorado Rocky Mountains saved my senses.
What the country meant to the Who in a song like Gettin’ in Tune to the Straight and Narrow or Baba O’Riley:
Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals,
I get my back into my living;
I don’t need to fight
To prove that I’m right,
I don’t need to be forgiven.
What country meant to the Band. And to those who made it their business in the fifties and sixties and even the seventies to support folk festivals from Big Sur to Monterey to Newport and a hundred fiddlers’ conventions and a thousand bluegrass jamborees the establishment was too busy and too jaded to notice.
The feeling of the music, as well as the sounds and the words, and the voices, reflected a smokey fire and stonewall atmosphere. When the Band went on stage it was instantly obvious that this was no Hollywood studio group in buckskin and beads playing what they had learned off Carter Family records. Whatever this band played was real. It was honest and true and it was them.
While some sixties heads went stampeding for the farm, others were stepping out into the future. I mean the far-out future—science fiction, space exploration, technology, fantasy. Superman comic books. Star Trek (much more popular as a rerun than as a bright, new hopeful). J. R. R. Tolkien. 2001. Kurt Vonnegut. Philip José Farmer. Even C. S. Lewis.
The Jefferson Airplane’s manager, Bill Thompson, explained the transformation of Airplane into Starship, and Grunt Records, and Blows against the Empire (1970):
For one thing, you learn that you can’t change people by beating them over the head, or bombing, or whatever. That’s the old style of revolution. You try it, it fails, you move on to something else. The notice on Empire said it better:
We intend to hijack the first sound interstellar or interplanetary starship built by the people of this planet. A time of 3-7 months will be needed for tantronic conversion of the machinery to make it usable for practical travel—involving light years. We need people on earth now to begin preparing the necessary tools. There will be room for 7000 or more people. If it seems that your head is into this please write & talk about something for a bit. You will not be contacted immediately. Please just prepare your minds & your bodies. . . . Search out Atlantis.
The album features egg-snatching Mau Maus come to bestow upon Dick and his grade b movie star governor and their entire silent majority race a baby tree on “an island way out in the sea” that would presumably repopulate the world; another Pooh song (Wave goodbye to Amerika, say hello to the garden); and Hi Jack, in which the great caper actually comes off: seven thousand people zipping past the sun, free minds free bodies free dope free music, past Uranus and Pluto and a thousand other suns that glow beyond. With Starship we discover ourselves light-years from earth, heads locked onto Andromeda, a million pounds lighter and all the clinging years melted off our bodies, forgotten like the snows of long ago.
If I do come back at all
The silence of their leaving is all that they reply
Here was, as Paul Kantner explained, one solution to the population problem:
It’s the only way it’s all going to get together and work. Unless we have a war or a big disease or a famine, there’s just too many people, and they’re going to have to get off the planet. This is my way of starting off earlier. You don’t have to stay anywhere, we’ll land wherever we want and then take off again.
You can see why Starship albums, mostly Slick-Kantner projects, soon started popping up on clearance racks, any record for $1.79. Earlier in the sixties the Airplane had spoken for the San Francisco scene, for a whole tribe of 1966, 1967, 1968 heads; the Starship was a (fragmented) band of loonies and wild visionaries way out in front of—of not very many freaks. And this was just not a well thought out plan such as might attract followers of the science fiction writers acknowledged in Empire’s printed lyrics: Sturgeon, Vonnegut, Heinlein. In fact, Empire is pretty stupid, and it’s maddeningly, alienatingly, self-assuredly mindless at that. About the only thing good on the album is the music—weird approximations of the sounds of outer space, or what Slick Kantner and Jerry Garcia imagined space sounds to be.
(Footnote on the Starship: with Sunfighter it landed back on earth, returning to revolution, communes, and radical, tough-talk profanity. Thereafter it took off only intermittently, the most notable voyage being Gracie Slick’s Hyperdrive on Dragon Fly, 1974.)
There was other space rock around. The genre, in fact, can be traced to the days of Telstar and Walter Brennan’s sticky Epic Ride of John M. Glenn (1962). Those were the days when space was a great adventure, a new frontier, and a sigh of relief after the scare of sputnik. As the sixties wore on, however, space lost a lot of its glamour, both in fiction and in song. Science fiction writers especially used space more to examine moral dilemmas than to spin Buck Rodgers adventure tales. Rock headed in that direction as well. And as it did, space rock lost much of its tinsel.
By 1968, for example, the Grateful Dead had found space slightly ambiguous, a Dead Star. The frontier is open, but it’s dead, and the song alludes to T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock: Shall we go, you and I, while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds? The Byrds’ Space Odyssey (on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, also 1968) is a cool, dark, unenthusiastic piece of music. The year 1969 brought the shlock rock In the Year 2525, promoted as
a terrifying glimpse into the future from two bright young poets. (Well, the first claim was right, anyway: in 2525 the world looked plenty bleak, plenty inhuman and inhumane, plenty frightening, although for no identifiable reason.) In 1970 Pearls before Swine contributed The Use of Ashes to the symposium on space. By 1972 Elton John’s Rocket Man was finding his interplanetary voyaging just another job, lonely, isolated, a drag. (Mention might also be made of the British group Hawkwind’s In Search of Space—a veritable catalogue of alternative realities, none of them having much to do with space as a glamour business—and Tom Rapp’s For the Dead in Space, which deglamourized space travel with dead astronauts the way the Grateful Dead had deglamourized it with dead stars.)
Whereas the ride of John Glenn was greeted with musical applause, the lunar landing of Neil Armstrong in 1969 aroused a chorus of yawns, so-whats, boos, and hisses. John Stewart, in Armstrong, pointed out what heads all over America were saying: kids are dying in Calcutta, black children in Chicago grow up in a world of patent double standards, the globe is suffocating in its own pollution, and the United States puts a man on the moon. So what? Why? In Moonshot, Buffy Sainte-Marie taunted NASA with her Indian boyfriend who could call her up anytime without a telephone.
The best space rock was probably David Bowie’s, although it lies somewhat beyond the pale of the sixties in both date and concept (no self-respecting child of the sixties would have been caught too deeply inside Bowieland, you better believe). Most important were the albums Space Oddity, Diamond Dogs, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. (This last with Ron Davies’s It Ain’t Easy and Starman circling above us in a light-filled starship.) Like science fiction writers, Bowie saw in space the opportunity for moral statement. Ziggie’s is the familiar story of a rocker who can’t endure stardom; his is also the tale of a modern Everyman confronting his own past, terrifying present, and the bleak, intergalactic amplitudes of the future. Diamond Dogs borrowed from George Orwell’s 1984 to paint a world in which man cannot accept what is, cannot change from anything except what is. It is an album of frustration with the sixties and almost zero hope for the future although its despair is infinitely more intelligent than Kantner’s naive hijacking. (In the early seventies Bowie decked himself in what Melody Maker called
Vogue’s idea of what the well-dressed astronaut should be wearing and—word had it—was preparing to play Heinlein’s hero in Stranger in a Strange Land.)
Insofar as they examine moral dilemmas and philosophical possibilities, children of the sixties found these albums attractive. But as escape, which space and the future tended too easily to become, they seem more characteristic of the seventies, more reflective of the impractical whims of the heirs of the revolution. Sixties types viewed the space program on the one hand as an element of their own romantic quest, and it caught their fancy; on the other hand, they saw in it conclusive proof that the establishment had determined to ignore pressing social issues at home and to dazzle the poor and the disinherited with technological sideshows. Born in the fifties, they were, after all, practical about their own impracticality: if they were to escape, it would have to be to something they could actually reach, something they could actually do. They were not about to be conned by grandiose interstellar visions.
But I do not really think children of the sixties ever fully intended to escape. It’s true that in drugs, Black Power, sex, country communes, the multimedia acid test head shows, and a hundred other lesser devices they sought alternatives to the establishment they considered hopeless, on the verge of collapse, or already dead. Still, sixties people could not bring themselves finally to leave, to cut the rope and walk off. Their younger brothers and sisters, who as adolescents had written off both the establishment and countercultural causes, were more than happy to grab whatever kicks could be had, speculate about whatever worlds were exploitable, and then split. Children of the sixties kept threatening, “We’re leaving, we’re leaving,” but departure was a trump card that could never be played. Beyond leaving could lie only doing nothing, and they could not resign themselves to that fate.
It was the generation of the seventies that actually dropped out: politically, socially, educationally (and musically).
The biggest deterrent to the progress, expansion, and success of contemporary music is Top-40 radio.
The sixties were not, generally speaking, an era of important novels or of significant glossy magazines. Memorable examples of both (and of theater) come to mind, of course, but Ramparts and Rolling Stone aside, the print media belonged to the older generation. Sixties people invented their own vehicles: the cheap poster (political, or dayglow mind-bender, or a combination thereof); the underground press (in which emerged the new journalism that accounted for the best books of the decade, Mailer’s Armies of the Night and Why Are We in Vietnam? and Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test); the light show-plus-rock-concert-plus dope-in-plus be-in, born as the San Francisco Trips Festival and cloned throughout the universe in a medium of strobe lights, loud music, projected oil emulsions, and good vibrations; and rock music. (To these might be added the music festival, the protest march, and guerrilla theater.) Through these vehicles, all forms of pop art, the sixties expressed themselves.
In each case the medium, as well as the message, was revolutionary because each medium was exploratory. In each case the sixties constructed in relatively virgin land something new and strange, which in each case was ripped off by the establishment. (This was the most discouraging thing of all, for when medium is message, and you have gone to great lengths to develop new media for new messages, and they get slurped up so quickly, well, then you’re bought off before you even know you’ve been bought off.)
Alternatives also developed during the sixties to standard methods of creation, production, and dissemination of pop music because in the struggle for control of the medium of music lies one of the brightest and the darkest stories of the decade.
American radio is the product of American business! It is just as much that kind of product as the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the automobile, and the airplane.
What the major record company wanted was not alternatives to establishment-think but product that would sell—defined as music that appealed to public taste, which the record company thought it could manipulate; radio broadcasters, whom it sought both to please and to purchase as tools for manipulating public taste; and media moguls, some internal (corporate execs, the artist and repertoire men) and some external (the FCC). This father-knows-best approach saw the artist as somebody who would show up Tuesday at 11:00; sing twelve songs that company wise men had selected, set to arrangements cranked out by company arrangers and played by company-hired studio musicians; walk out the door at 4:00; and leave editing, promotion, album design, jacket notes, and public appearance scheduling to daddy. These robots could pick up a (modest) royalty check every now and then, but they had better keep quiet and do as they’re told. And she fines you every time you slam the door, Dylan added. (Record companies did, too.)
It’s a fact of life that all artists who try to work for a living are in the same boat. The musician may in some respects be better off than many other artists: songs are more marketable than paintings, easier to take directly to the public than a movie or a television show or a book. Still, there is a lot of built-in structure and a lot of pressure to conform. The odd, the new, the kinky, the politically or socially (or musically) subversive is filtered out before the record is cut. So rock artists sought alternatives to big record companies owned by bigger conglomerates, to big music publishers, and to big radio.
The simplest, and in some ways the most important, step in circumventing the majors is to set up a music publishing company. You need almost no equipment, few employees, virtually no capital beyond the incorporation fee. You farm out the dirty work to someone who has an offset machine— or maybe you mimeograph your own lyrics. Copyright law does not much care how a song is published, only that it has been published and is somehow commercially available to the public. You won’t sell many songs this way, though, unless you happen to be a big star, whose every song is going to be recorded (by yourself) and rerecorded (by your imitators and interpreters and the Muzak shlockmeisters) and sold in the hundreds of thousands and even millions of copies to loyal fans. Then the two-or three-cent royalty per song per album will start to mount up: royalties on a $6.95 album may be only 24 cents, but a million records means $240,000, which is nice change even for a rock star. They all own their own publishing companies (with terrific names like Dwarf Music, Siquomb, Faithful Virtue, Canaan, Barricade Music), along with a lawyer or two to keep track of all those pennies flowing in.
Of course, artist-owned music publishing companies could happen only because rock developed big stars who wrote their own material. Most of them did, as a matter of artistic integrity. But none of the fifties big names wrote their own stuff, not Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or Patti Page. Record companies found and arranged their songs for them, so that A&R men relied heavily on Tin Pan Alley and ASCAP for their tunes, which meant that rock-‘n’-roll challenged not only the Legion of Decency and the KKK, and major record companies, and Republican ascendancy, but ASCAP and Tin Pan Alley as well, which meant bloody battles indeed, including the payola scandals in which Alan Freed, Dale Young, and Tom Clay—but not Dick Clark—went down. Ultimately what broke Tin Pan Alley was the emergence—or reemergence—of an alternative recording structure and the development of AM and later FM radio programming that would carry these alternative sounds to the consciousness of America.
Between 1946 and 1952, one hundred sixty-three records were million-sellers in the United States. Of this number one hundred fifty-eight had been released by the six major record companies: Columbia, Capitol, Decca, Mercury, MGM, and Victor. The smaller, independent companies (of which, Nat Shapiro estimated, there were probably four hundred in the forties, maybe one hundred in 1952) settled for those tiny markets the majors deemed too insubstantial to merit their attention (you guessed it, the r&b and country audiences in which white teenagers of the fifties discovered everything that was vital and meaningful in American music). Most of the majors had been around a long time (Columbia and Victor had survived both the Depression and World War II), and they were set up to outlive any given generation of stars, perpetuating easy listening and profits in a gently rising curve from here to eternity. (They did, incidentally, survive the fifties, and the sixties, and they should survive, as programmed, forever.)
Since I have been with Mercury, things haven’t been going too well . . . I have kept in constant contact with Chess Records. I like little companies because there’s a warmer relationship between the artist and the executive. I shall be going back soon, to Chess Records [and so he did].
Meanwhile, independent record companies came and went. During the twenties they came; with the Depression they went or got bought out by the majors. With the War they came again, as the majors yielded up marginal markets under the duress of wartime shortages of materials. After the War they went again, as the majors moved in to swallow up the industry. Country singer Hank Williams rang up eleven million-sellers for MGM, and the market settled into fifties orthodoxy.
Until the rock-‘n’-roll revolution, that is. Here independents exerted an influence out of proportion to their size, eventually forcing the majors to buy into rock-‘n’-roll by the standard expedient of purchasing contracts (Decca bought Bill Haley from Essex; RCA, with considerable fanfare, bought Elvis from Sun; and so on. It’s worth noting that none of Presley’s many million-sellers came on the Sun label). Still the independents maintained their suddenly enlarged share of the market: by 1958 the biggest of the big—Columbia, RCA, Decca, and Capitol—had seen their share of the Billboard top sellers dwindle from 75% in 1948 to 36%—despite Haley and Presley. The companies having the impact were Chess, Atlantic, Imperial, Vee Jay, Aladdin, Specialty, King, Savoy, Peacock, and over a hundred other small operations concentrated in Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York.
The independents had the impact they did because they were different and vital, and because the demand (created, in part, by pioneer DJs like Al Benson, Jack L. Cooper, Dr. Jive Gordon, Ed McKenzie, and Alan Freed) was for something fresh and vital. They offered, in short, an alternative. And after they had been gobbled up by the majors (often offering themselves not unwillingly) the sixties generated new independents to provide new alternatives following the 1958-1963 drought.
The independents had several advantages over the big companies. They were willing to listen to and offer something different. They could give personal attention and freedom to their artists. And they had a better sense of local taste, which allowed them to tap an audience the majors could not even identify. These were virtues much prized by the sixties, and by the beginning of the decade record producers as well as artists were going independent. By the end of the sixties maybe 75% of all rock records were being produced by independents.
I’m fed up with arrangers and people. We’ve done all the music ourselves.
Some of the new groups are good, but a little crazy. They are absolutely noncommercial and have to be taught to conform a little to make money.
The best artists in the business—the aristocracy—are moving into positions of power. They’re making fewer compromises with commercialism. There’s hardly anything interesting happening outside of this exclusive circle—but what’s happening inside may be the most remarkable story of our time.
Traditionally, good rock artists began with the independents, where they could develop style and personality; made it big; and then opted for the promotion departments and studio equipment and cash offered by the major record companies. But majors can’t promote hundreds or even dozens of artists at once (Capitol had trouble promoting two—the Beatles and the Beach Boys; the Beach Boys always felt like the slighted child of the house), and for whatever is gained something’s lost. The late sixties witnessed the remarkable spectacle of big-name artists leaving the majors for their own or independent record companies. Chuck Berry returned to Chess in 1969. The Beatles formed Apple in 1968. The Stones left Decca to form Rolling Stones Records in 1970. The Mothers of Invention formed Bizarre. The Airplane alias Starship formed Grunt. The Beach Boys formed Brother Records.
We’d just get that much more control over everything, Paul Kantner told Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone in contemplating Grunt Records. Grace Slick added,
So the band makes the music and the tapes go away, and they come out as records. But RCA is too big to even refer to. It’s like saying, ‘Well, how are you dealing with the government?’ I mean, what dealing? You don’t deal with the government at all.
(One thing the Airplane wanted control over was censorship of things like “motherfuckers” in We Should Be Together. Censorship fights, when they arise in a major company, are always won by the company. The Airplane, by the by, once contemplated pirate radio as a means to bypass the FCC, something
to circumvent whatever repressions we feel from corporations or the government.)
The move toward complete independence and self-control led the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and the Airplane/Starship to dump their managers and handle their own affairs on a cooperative basis. This worked for a short while:
There were thirty of us making a creative effort. After all, it was our thing (Rock Scully of the Airplane congratulating himself and others on their northwest tour of 1968).
The generation of the sixties also experimented in rock music programming. This effort was important since radio plays a crucial role in rock music as a vehicle of communication. The disc jockey and the program director exercised enormous power over artist and record company alike. In order to sell, a song must be heard; to be heard, it must be played. And here the odds are against most singles and the vast majority of albums.
A four-hour top-forty radio show, for example, will air the same list today, tomorrow, and the day after, and maybe for several weeks, as long as the records remain in the top forty. In one week the record industry will generate upward of two hundred singles, all trying to break into that top forty and thus into public consciousness. Odds, then, are five to one against—only they are considerably poorer because hit records hang around for plenty longer than one week. The only way to beat the odds, and get through to the audiences, was (or so record companies thought until they discovered late in the sixties the alternatives of rock festivals, free concerts, and hype in the underground rock press) either to get your song “broken” by a key disc jockey on an important station or to plug into American Bandstand.
If WABC [New York] or KHJ [Los Angeles] goes on a song, Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo reported,
it has been proven again and again that that means a minimum of 50,000 units of additional sales, almost automatically. If a major chain makes a commitment to a song nationally, sales will be boosted several hundred thousand units.
During the early and middle fifties, AM radio programming was fairly decentralized, which had advantages and disadvantages. On the good side was pluralism: somewhere somebody was bound to play your record once, maybe twice, and you could get maybe a local hit without paying off too many people. On the bad side was provincialism: to get a really big national hit, you had to contact plenty of disc jockeys on plenty of stations and maybe slip them an extra twenty or fifty. It took lots of time and lots of money and gave rise to the system of payola sanctimoniously unearthed by Congressman Owen Harris (who was, it developed, himself on the take) in 1960.
In 1955, however, Todd Storz pioneered the concept of top-forty programming, an idea he’d gotten at lunch one day after hearing the same tune played again and again and yet again on the jukebox: if people wanted to hear their favorites, he reasoned, why not play their favorites for them? Again and again and then one more time. So Storz picked out the top forty tunes each week and played them endlessly—first on radio WTIX in New Orleans, then all across the South, then all across the country. As Billboard charts became more sophisticated, Storz had a ready-made top forty and an easy answer to the problem of how to break new records into that magic XL. In fact, the Storz formula worked so well, was so rigidly adhered to, that Storz’s stations came through payola scandals virtually unscathed: since the play lists were out of their hands, since they had so little to do but shout and push buttons, there was no point laying a sawbuck on Storz disc jockeys or program directors.
Then Bill Drake, ABC radio and Metromedia, got hold of the Storz formula and developed the standard we all grew up with: boss radio. Top forty was cut to thirty-three records picked from Billboard’s Hot 100 and standard top-forty lists. Three of these were “hit bound,” which marked them for heavy play. Mixed with the thirty and three transients were four hundred golden gassers, knocked out nifties, moldy oldies, which were sprinkled across the airwaves at preset intervals. Music was programmed at one, three, seven, eleven, sixteen, and 20 minutes in the half hour, sandwiched between fewer commercials, less talk, shorter jingles, self-promotion for a station “where the hits just keep happening.” Drake’s formula also took into consideration “momentum” (comers receive more air play than goers) and “pacing” (two similar-sounding records—for example, two female vocalists, two acid rock songs, two Bob Dylan-style ballads—should not follow each other). The list of thirty-three magic singles was carefully balanced to cover all musical possibilities, no matter who had or had not produced a good single in the past month. The trick that artists and record companies had to master was timing: if everyone else was releasing heavy blues, you could slip a mediocre country rock song into that slot in the boss radio formula.
You don’t have to have these formulas in front of you to recall that mid-sixties radio, even the top-forty radio of the fifties, played a lot of junk. It was good as long as the singles were good. But it tended to filter out the new and the vital and anything over two minutes and thirty seconds (although AM radio could request—and receive—shortened versions of longer songs from record companies eager to please and to sell). It tended to discourage experimentation and—the worst crime of all—it tended to ignore the embarrassingly obvious fact that what was left was bad. Bad as the singles might have become, top forty and boss radio just kept pumping them at you, telling you how dynamite they were.
AM radio became a leveler.
Top-40 radio, as we know it today and have known it for the last ten years, is dead, and its rotting corpse is stinking up the airwaves.
This bankruptcy of AM radio gave rise in the late sixties to FM or underground radio. Progressive rock programming was the experiment of Russ the Moose Syracuse on his midnight-to-dawn shift at KYA. In the long hours of the night time, Moose played what daytime AM radio ignored: albums, music that hadn’t made or wouldn’t make the charts, songs that were too politically or socially charged to pass the AM censors—Dylan, Baez, the Dead, the Airplane. He reviewed new material, took time off from the fast talk to become a radio personality. And he clicked instantly with college kids, the generation of the sixties.
Then into the Bay area came Larry Miller from Detroit, with an all-night program on KMPX-FM, a play list of two or three hundred records, and telephone requests, and ultimately Tom Donahue as the program director of what has come to be recognized as the country’s first free-form, twenty-four-hour-a-day, progressive FM station. By the end of the decade, Donahue’s evening show on KMPX topped everything else in the San Francisco area—including AM radio.
By the early seventies there were about four hundred free-form FM stations in America. And there were many, many more FM stations on college campuses, some of them part of public broadcasting, underwritten, ironically, by the federal government. Free-form commercial radio also spread quickly to college radio.
Initially, then, FM programming was an alternative. Like all other sixties alternatives it opened up new possibilities: the chance to hear Satisfaction or the uncut version of Light My Fire or the Chambers Brothers’ The Time Has Come or Phil Ochs or Joan Baez or long Bob Dylan songs or maybe a whole side of Sgt. Pepper without interruption. The chance also to hear bluegrass or jazz or the Kinks or the Mothers of Invention. Time for a disc jockey to talk seriously about music in other than eight-second slogans. The chance for a broadcaster and even a listener to stamp upon the program her own personality. To circumvent the FCC (not until FM radio began attracting big advertisers and audiences did FCC censors really tune in, although when they arrived, they arrived with their pistols loaded). An opportunity to experiment.
Naturally some great things were done—tough, creative, unpolished, kinky scenes, but great. FM radio was a world full of surprises, like the world of early television or the world that Jean Shepherd found in the late fifties when he spun his radio dial away from New York and tuned in America.
Ultimately FM went the way of every other sixties innovation, but not before it helped independent producers, independent companies, and independent artists turn popular music on its ear. In the mid-fifties classical music was the bread and butter of record companies; popular music was only a sideline. Today, for better or worse, the situation is reversed. Record sales in 1955 totaled not quite $300 million; record and tape sales in 1973 totaled over $2 billion. That $2 billion topped the movie industry ($1.6 billion) and all sports events combined ($600 million). Combining record and tape sales, radio advertisements and concerts, and tape recorder and stereo and radio sales, the music biz grosses more than $7 billion annually.
Progressive radio as a whole didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I’m disappointed. There’s too much FM rock, too much competition, too much bad music. We’ve turned into what we wanted to be an alternative to.
And, in the end, FM rock stands naked. It is, after all, just another commercial radio station.
Big, big dollars draw establishment types. They made rock a big business. And rock music, like every other alternative developed by the sixties, like the very generation of the sixties, found itself a victim of its own success. Because it succeeded, it drew the packagers and the handlers, the formulizers and the merchandisers, who had built the grey machine against which the music and the generation rebelled. In the end the music and the generation found themselves absorbed by the system against which they had revolted.