The old magic of the woman and the piano and the night and the rhythm being one is gone. But everything goes, one way or another. The ‘20’s are gone and lots of fine things in Harlem night life have disappeared like snow in the sun—since it became utterly commercial, planned for the downtown tourist trade, and therefore dull.
But when Almighty God shall have brought you to our most reverend brother the Bishop Augustine, tell him that I have long been considering with myself about the case of the Anglii; to wit, that the temples of idols in that nation should not be destroyed,. . . . since, if these same temples are well built, it is needful that they should be transferred from the worship of idols to the service of the true God.
The capacity to absorb: Western society’s most salient characteristic, the key to its longevity, the source of its ubiquity. Almost never does Western society reject alternatives outright; very infrequently these days does it engage in one-on-one, head-on Athens-versus-Sparta struggles to exterminate. Not with serious contenders. Albigenses, American Indians, Vietnamese may be attacked with impunity, for they are weak, pose no genuine threat, involve no serious risk. But when big powers collide, there is always less explosion than noise, and always there is reconciliation in the end.
This is especially true of ideologies that pose the real alternatives and offer the real conflicts. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, monarchy and democracy, capitalism and communism: after all the fierce talk, when the boys are finally in the ring they waltz around like overweight prize fighters and suddenly what you thought was a clear-cut choice between mutually exclusive opposites is resolved into a muddled both/and. A middle ground appears, and the sharp distinctions blur ultimately to invisibility; before you know it, Outside is Inside and the powers that be have grown a little fatter.
Pagan temples are rebuilt and dedicated to Christian saints. Harlem jazz is absorbed into New York City social life.
It should be comforting to realize that Armageddon is probably never going to arrive, that the world will not end tomorrow. Since the final whistle today would be the final whistle, we surely ought to be doing everything we can to avoid blowing it. Reconciliation beats confrontation. Still, this wholesale absorption is discouraging. It undermines our sense of winning and losing. The American (Western) fascination with inconsequential sports, elections, ratings, and beauty pageants may stem from this muddling of distinctions everywhere else in life. At least in the World Series somebody wins and somebody loses; the runs, hits, and errors—and winners’ and losers’ shares of the take—are there in the paper, undeniable, unambiguous, palpable, distinct. And for all the if-onlys and what-ifs and shoulda-beens, when the election is over, one candidate goes to Washington and the other returns to law practice.
Reconciliation confounds our sense of definition. Alternatives (political, social, educational, ideological) never turn out to be what we thought they were because ultimately they are all assimilated piecemeal into the establishment and thus made compatible with what is, from which they’re supposed to be distinct.
The game that’s played, as the Stones observed in Street Fighting Man, is compromise solution. It is not a very satisfying game.
Be sure to come again the next time we Republicans have a love-in.
When religion dominated our lives, the game was called scholasticism. When politics dominated our lives, it was called balance of power diplomacy. Today, when commerce calls the shots, the game is known as commercialism, or the big buy-off. Black Power theoreticians called the game co-option, this incessant sucking of life out of revolutions, this absorption of energies. And they spoke out unequivocally, if futilely, against it.
We reject the goal of assimilation into middle-class America, wrote Carmichael and Hamilton in Black Power. Even temporary coalitions were suspect:
In fact, one might well argue that such coalitions on subordinate issues are, in the long run, harmful. They could lead whites [the establishment] and blacks [the alternative] into thinking either that their long-term interests do not conflict when in fact they do, or that such lesser issues are the only issues which can be solved. Both would be equally fatal to the goals of Black Power, which were nothing less than the total reconstruction of society by the creation of alternative, more humane, less racist institutions.
Black Power failed, not heroically, in a shoot-out show of integrity, not in a mushroom cloud that leveled New York City, black and white together, but in Richard Nixon’s black capitalism and in “academically sound” black studies programs. In a federal grant. In the resolution of little issues. In blurred distinctions. In the big buy-off. In the way the system resolves everything: by absorption.
They are discovering new ways to divide us faster than we are discovering new ways to unite.
The establishment uses three basic tactics in dealing with threats to its ascendancy. Each would be persuasive in itself, but together they have proven virtually overpowering.
Tactic A, exercised only when an alternative is exceptionally threatening and exceptionally impotent is the naked rub out. You shoot the bastards, or you lock them in a dungeon eighty miles underground, or perhaps you lobotomize them, or maybe you send them scurrying into self-imposed exile. Like what happened in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Easy Rider, or Cool Hand Luke, or Chinatown. Like what happened in real life to the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, Martin Luther King, Jr. Or to John Kennedy, the first and the most traumatic and the most naked rub out of the sixties, from which many children of the decade never fully recovered.
He knew more than anybody but he didn’t know there was doors to go through and ladders to climb. He thought it was just 1, 2, 3.
This doesn’t happen often, because there are so many other, more genial means of co-option.
Tactic B is the buy-off, usually an unsubtle combination of punishments on the one hand, rewards on the other, with an offer that no sensible person could refuse.
Why, we could really use you, son, and here, have some money, and besides, you wouldn’t want your arm broken, would you now? The kind of trip they laid on Ken Kesey: fame and dough while he behaved; then one bust and then another when he started dabbling too publicly in acid; then the power trip that sent him packing to Mexico; then a pinch by some FBI sharpie when Ken absentmindedly returned to the land of the free; and then jail. And then the big sting: if Ken will do some public-spirited, noble, good, establishment thing like calling all his followers together and telling them to lay off dope and be good Americans, then he can have his freedom.
In music, the buy-off amounted to plenty of air play, television exposure, dough, women, and contracts for good little boys and girls. As long as you cooperated in public, you could do damned near anything in private.
Just think of Satyricon with four musicians going through it, John Lennon recalled of the early (clean) Beatle days. For the not so clean Stones, right from early on (and for Lennon later), and for everyone else who refused to cooperate, air play was restricted, television access was limited, engagements got canceled, hassles were constant, busts were frequent for dope, for obscenity, for whatever (the Stones were busted for pissing against a wall when the men’s room was locked).
Tactic B is remarkably persuasive, the kind of deal you cannot really refuse. Either they buy you off (Elvis Presley) or you disappear (the MC5). Take your choice.
We want people to hear us, said Rock Scully of the Grateful Dead,
but we won’t do what the system says—make single hits, take big gigs, do the success number. . . . So we’ve never had enough bread to get beyond week-to-week survival, and now we’re $50,000 in debt. If you avoided compromise completely, you ended up like Captain Beefheart (Don van Vliet), and who ever heard of him ten years after? (He, at least, had the candor to see the situation for what it was, and the honesty to remain true to himself and pass on Judas Priest’s pile of tens, and the good fortune to write his own apologia in an A&M single: Out of the frying pan into the fire / Anything you say they’s gonna call you a liar.)
I found I was continually having to please the sort of people I’d always hated when I was a child.
Tactic C is no option at all. It is pure co-option, and it goes on every day, every year, so constantly as to be a standardized process. George Melly described it in Revolt into Style:
A local enthusiasm for some form of music gradually crystallizes around a particular group or artist. At this point an entrepreneur, sometimes a local enthusiast with an eye to the main chance, sometimes an outsider led towards the scene by apparently fortuitous accident, recognizes the commercial potential of the group or artist and signs them up. . . . If he is successful, his “property” becomes first nationally and then internationally famous. In the wake, other groups or artists, many from the same local or musical background, some simply recognizing that a particular sound or image has become commercial, swim along feeding on the vast plankton of popular favour. Then, inevitably, the interest and hysteria die away, and there is a variable time-lag before the same thing happens again.
It is this process which led me to paraphrase the line from Thom Gunn’s poem about Presley as the title of the book.He turns revolt into a style,wrote Gunn. And this is what happens in pop; what starts as revolt finishes as style—as mannerism.
This tactic is the most effective and the most commonly exercised of all: you flood the market with cheap, harmless, and manageable imitations; soon enough the original can be neither heard nor recognized. The only trick, and it is one that is easily mastered, is that the style must maintain the appearance of revolt as long as possible.
The trick is to shift the emphasis so that the pop idol, originally representing a masculine rebel, is transformed into a masturbation fantasy-object for adolescent girls (Melly again). This goal is most effectively achieved by liberal use of Brill Building assembly line rock-‘n’-roll lyrics (ground out mostly for major record companies by the employees of Don Kirshner and Al Nevins at Aldon Music) and similarly liberal use of cover songs.
(The use of white covers for black originals was the first form of co-option of rock-‘n’-roll and one of the most vicious. In a chapter of Rock‘n’roll is Here to Pay entitled “Black Roots, White Fruits,” Chapple and Garofalo listed forty-three
cover records and questionable revivals by artists ranging from Perry Como, the McGuire Sisters, Steve Lawrence, and Andy Williams to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, and Grand Funk Railroad.)
In advanced stages, the whole stylized, undifferentiated mess can be resurrected. At the distance of a decade or two, there is no distinction between All Shook Up and Love Letters in the Sand, between Rock around the Clock and Hello, Mary Lou, between I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More and Eve of Destruction, between Get Off My Cloud and Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. They’re all golden oldies, tuneful memories, and few remember that there once was a difference.
Rock is progressive, pop reactionary.
The difference between rock and pop is measured by our response. Does it take us further along or not? Does it press back the frontiers of our collective experience, does it challenge, does it open new worlds? Or does it reinforce old habits, reaffirm old prejudices, settle in comfortably? Does it lead out or back in? That’s the real rating system by which you measure a record or any other work of art. It’s the only way you can tell whether you’ve got a genuine article or a piece of co-opted pop shlock.
The history of the sixties, of rock music, of all human experience is one continual tug between forces pressing out and away and gravity which pulls back. Probably we need both, but rock and the sixties line up unhesitatingly behind the quest for alternatives. It pains us to sit still. It hurts to admit we need an occasional good night’s sleep. It hurts more to see ourselves and others conned by the comfortable, to see exits become entrances, to see how successful the establishment can be in the process of absorption.
Maybe this business is not as overtly sinister as it sounds. Your average record company may be crass; it may be reactionary by managerial instinct; it may turn music into a commodity like cars or refrigerators; but it is not dedicated to God, apple pie, and motherhood any more than it is dedicated to revolution, dope, and free love. The music biz is an ideological whore. It is dedicated to maximum profit, and it won’t wring the neck of a goose that lays golden discs out of pure philosophical differences. But it happens that a smoothly functioning system generates more golden discs than a haphazard non-system, because it turns out the most product for the least effort. And a smoothly functioning system is by nature exploitive, not innovative. It prefers formulas and mass production to experimentation and innovation.
Escape necessitates the expenditure of energy and generates motion. Cooption reduces the expenditure of energy, slows change, freezes motion. Escape is the product of rock. Co-option is a natural product of systems. Cooption means certain death to any generation that predicates its being on motion—specifically, the generation of the sixties. Rule number one: representatives of the system, no matter how genial, are not on our side.
I played Ohio for [Albert Grossman, Dylan’s “dear landlord”] last night and he got angry. He said,What are you trying to do?And I said,Well, actually, if you really want to know, I’m not really trying to do anything. But I think we’re gonna help tear it apart a little bit.And he said,Well, man, you’re just children, and you don’t understand what’s going on.Went into that kind of rap, and I said,Albert, you’re comin’ on hip all the time, but in truth you’re just another old man who’s really got all his marbles in this system. And the real truth of it is, man, I just scared you. You don’t want that system to go.
Rule number two: there is no such thing as half a loaf. There is no such thing as working within the system. All the alternatives developed by children of the sixties were gobbled up.
Music, despite the independent record companies and producers, and the FM stations, and the underground concert circuit, proved particularly vulnerable to absorption. There was a tremendous amount of money to be made selling records, especially after the newly developed teenage market was sold rock-‘n’-roll as “a thing of our very own,” especially during a decade of economic expansion. Thus, not long after the Beatles made their own peculiar alternative popular and profitable, every record company around was dragging the Mersey for four stiffs with guitars and thick Liverpool accents, rushing to cash in on the new sound. Musical innovation turned quickly into musical formula. The wealth of imitation overburdened program directors and DJs. Overworked and maybe underpaid, they were susceptible to pressures other than public demand and to considerations other than good taste and any obligation they might have felt to innovation or art. As a consequence of the big bucks, artists themselves confronted daily a smorgasbord of smothering goodies offered to nobody but nobody else in the world. Politicians, writers, robber barons, even jocks and movie stars—who had money, groupies, dope tossed at them like the Beatles? Even the Order of the British Empire! Satyricon with four musicians.
I know what he was talking about, but at the same time I was sitting there thinking, ‘no, it wasn’t.’ It was as much a dream as anything else is, as much crap as anything else is.
The really surprising thing about the sixties is that so many artists managed to resist for so long, to keep their heads above the rising pile of garbage, to keep pushing up and out when there was such strong gravity pulling back, to maintain their vision and not turn cynical.
Everybody screwed everybody in those days.
In the late fifties and throughout the sixties and the seventies, the biggest single pollutant of rock music was American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark. Bandstand has been glorified in retrospect—as has most other fifties shlock (
the golden age of hype, Nik Cohn called the decade). In fact, it was an almost incredible parade of one South Philadelphia mediocrity after another, many of them reprocessed especially for the occasion: voice lessons, makeup, new clothes, new accents, new teeth, maybe even a good song (although this was incidental—witness Fabiano Forte, Fabian, who went the whole hundred yards on pure image, and nobody ever guessed). Sprinkled among the natives were Auslanders, also mediocrities. Annette Funicello had eight big hits on the Disney label! All were polished smoother than cue balls and hyped to instant stardom by a smooth pitchman who sold to an average of ten million record buyers weekly.
Usually what interested Clark was what could make him (or, occasionally, a good friend) money. Example: the Silhouettes’ Get a Job, produced on the Junior label, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went nowhere. It was bought by Ember Records and the copyright transferred to a company controlled by Bandstand’s producer. Bandstand catapulted Get a Job onto the hit parade. Example: Bill Parsons’s All American Boy was processed by a Clark-owned company; bingo, Bandstand pushed the song, an overnight hit.
Dick Clark got right behind ‘Venus’, enthused Philadelphia’s own Frankie Avalon, who had recorded the song on Chancellor Records, in which Clark owned stock.
It sold 1.5 million copies. He’s the greatest. (Avalon was Bandstand promoted and Beatle buried—along with Paul Anka, Dion, Fabian, Chubby Checker, Deedee Sharp, Bobby Rydell, Freddie Cannon, Bobby Darin . . . the list goes on). Example: Sixteen Candles (Clark owned the copyright) was promoted on Bandstand into a national hit and made Clark a cool $12,000. It’s a dumb song, but no worse than Paul Anka’s Diana, which sold nine million records. Example: between 1958 and 1960, Dick Clark played the eleven records of Duane Eddy well over two hundred times on Bandstand (Clark owned all Eddy’s publishing rights and stock in his record company as well).
Over half the records released by companies in which Clark had an interest—and he dealt himself into thirty-three companies—received air play on Bandstand, and two-thirds of these were heard on Bandstand before they appeared on a Billboard chart. Clark came to control the copyrights to one hundred sixty songs, almost all of them “gifts.” He made a lot of money off these inane lyrics, whose composers hoped, correctly, would be promoted by Clark into big money-makers. It was all very legal.
(While we’re admitting things, let’s also note that Alan Freed plugged Chuck Berry’s Maybellene pretty heavily after he acquired one-third interest in the song. They all did it, although some did it more than others, and some got away with it.)
Dick Clark dumped upon the American musical consciousness an unrivaled amount of mediocre songs. In the beginning Bandstand was tied into some big artists (although Freed, who went down in the payola scandals that left Clark Mr. Clean, had better taste and better artists); things slid progressively downhill into the dog days of the late fifties: the Royal Teens, Ricky Nelson, Connie Francis. The real kicker is that young Dick Clark, freshman Philadelphia disc jockey in 1957, pulled in
at least $50,000. By 1973, Clark, still young and now ensconced in Malibu decadence, was grossing in excess of $5 million a year, dishing out the same stuff.
But how can you fault him? He was a promoter.
You’re a fucking idealist, he reportedly told Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres.
And I’m a whore.
They don’t listen to music, man, they listen to money.
I don’t make culture. I sell it.
I saw her face, now I’m a believer. Remember the song? Think about it for a minute: love at first sight, innocent love without a whisper of sex, nothing earthy or compelling. Hum the tune a few times—light, bouncy, a hint of hard rock, but rock reduced to a musical formula, rock toned down almost but not quite to Muzak level. Look at the words: a bit of wit, the cute rhyme of “believer” and “leave ‘er.” But no bite, nothing new, no challenge of comfortable assumptions, no alternative—especially in 1967, when everybody knew better than this cutsiness.
It topped Aretha Franklin’s recording of Respect, the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, the Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco, the Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, the Airplane’s Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, and the Esquires’ Get On Up, each of them better songs with more to say, important thrusts out of the establishment mode of thought. The conclusion is inescapable: shlock outsells real rock three to one any day; the American record-buying public really grooved to Dick Clark’s kind of sound. (Also ahead of most of those important songs were Lulu’s soppy To Sir with Love, the Association’s Windy and Never My Love, the Monkees’ Daydream Believer, Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid, and Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.)
The success of I’m a Believer was a tribute to the financial effectiveness of flooding the pop market. The Monkees, who recorded I’m a Believer (and Last Train to Clarksville, 1966; Daydream Believer, 1967; Valleri, 1968; and a total of seven drippy LPs) were from the beginning a deliberate commercial imitation of the Beatles, so crass as to congeal the blood of every struggling sixties rock group and of all their fans. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had worked so very well, and made so very much money, that ABC decided the Beatles should have their very own weekly television spot. Not the real Beatles, of course, since they would be unmanageable; and not any existing rock band because they also might create problems of control or want to inject some of their own musical ideas into the program. Something as close to the real Beatles as possible. The Lovin’ Spoonful tried, but they could not fill the bill for a sunshine moptop group. One was created from scratch. From, an oft denied story runs, an ad in Variety.
Talk about crass. And talent, naturally, was never a consideration.
Thus emerged the Monkees. Peter Tork (Ringo), a veteran of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene with musical experience but no background in acting. Mike Nesmith (George), also a musician, with roots in country music. Micky Dolenz (John), a child actor who had served time in the Circus Boy television shows, strummed a guitar and banged a drum occasionally, and had been lead singer with a short-lived group called the Missing Links. And Davey Jones (Paul, the cute one), who had played the Artful Dodger in Broadway’s Oliver and knew virtually nothing about music.
Once a week American television fans got A Hard Day’s Night.
Television pseudo-Beatles, however, required pseudo-Beatles lyrics—mostly, since by 1967 the real Beatles had turned philosophers, early Beatles lyrics. These were provided by Bobby Hart of Hart and Boyce, a professional songwriting team. The word was that, often as not, the Monkees were not even playing the songs they had not even written; it was all done by the best studio musicians money could buy. The only people crying were the legitimate rock artists who knew that they’d just had a large part of their younger audience ripped off.
(The story is not, however, entirely unhappy. When the Monkees realized they had become men who, in Thoreau’s words, had been made “tools of their tools,” they revolted. Learned their instruments and attempted to grow up with a 1968 film Heads. But the movie lost them their youthful audience without really squaring them with the counterculture, and within a couple of years the Monkees were no more. Nesmith returned to country music in a series of relatively heavy second generation country revival albums with the First and Second National Bands. He was a classic bit of counter-absorption, of pop shlock that came in out of the cold.)
The Monkees were not the only imitation Beatles, of course. In the first frantic years of Beatlemania we’d gotten the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, the Mojos, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Undertakers, Tommy Quickly, the Merseybeats, the Big Three, all vacuumed up in Liverpool by record company reps. In 1967, the Bee Gees, London by way of Manchester and Australia, sounded more like the early Beatles than the early Beatles (and certainly more than the 1967 Beatles, who were miles away from I Want to Hold Your Hand, leaving rock’s softer heads yearning for the good old uncomplicated days). The Bee Gees were not without experience, although they lacked imagination and shied consistently away from the musical frontiers. They had performed in England as kids, and they had performed in Australia before returning to England, where they were processed into the Beatles’ mold by none other than Brian Epstein.
The result was another surge of slush, mostly derivative, all very clever and polished fluff, all without redemptive social value: I Started a Joke, Lemons Never Forget, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, Lonely Days. A decade later the Bee Gees were still neck deep in pop shlock, making millions off disco.
Herman and his Hermits present a more difficult case, in part because they were earlier than either the Bee Gees or the Monkees and thus not quite as retrogressive. Still, although their songs are tuneful, nothing compelling goes on in Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter (1965), Must to Avoid (1965), There’s a Kind of Hush (1967), or Leaning on the Lamp Post. Mostly it’s teenage love with a British accent, and very very clean. A lot of Herman’s material covered British hits done in their own country by other groups. It is significant that Herman and his Hermits were virtually unknown in their native land (where they came packaged as the Heartbeats), whereas they cleaned up in America. Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia description is too accurate not to repeat:
Goopy, squishy, adorable bundles from Britain; dear little marshmallow-soft English boys that a girl of thirteen could listen to without effort, bear-hug to death in her Barbie-doll dreams, and scream over without upsetting her mother and, particularly, her father.
Herman was, in short, the masturbation fantasy with which the establishment sought constantly to replace more potent symbols of rebellion. These fantasies proliferated, depreciated the coinage of rebellion, effectively stopped the British invasion, and killed a number of solid British rock groups like the Zombies, the Animals, and the Kinks.
Then there was bubble-gum.
It is difficult for true children of the sixties to deal calmly with bubblegum music. It’s like mentioning Richard Nixon—they start foaming at the mouth, flinging out irrational and often wildly outrageous accusations that are often only half-truths but that together present a very accurate picture.
That’s shit, the Archies; that’s pure, unadulterated shit. When I see and hear stuff like that I want to throw up.
Total lack of nutrition.
Don Kirshner unloaded upon America the Archies and the archetypal bubble-gum hit Sugar, Sugar. Kirshner and Al Nevins were, at the beginning of the sixties, known primarily as the proprietors of the Brill Building, music publishers who had grown fat off the talents of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, and Howard Greenfield, whom they housed in honeycomb cubicles vaguely reminiscent of jail cells, while Kirshner and Nevins made millions peddling tunes. A classic Maggie’s Farm and very profitable: four hundred of five hundred Kirshner-published tunes had by 1970 made the charts. Then there were the Monkees, and the Archies, and In Concert. No concern for art or for content. A restrictive form through which really talented artists might break (Carole King) but one designed more to co-opt emerging musical alternatives, to ride and exploit, than to generate genuinely new and exciting and different sounds.
Tony Orlando (Candida, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Knock Three Times) is no meteor who burst upon the music scene at the dawn of the seventies with sunny vacuity and bouncy tunes. He’d been hanging around for years, looking for his opportunity, lurking in the shadows and in what company you might expect. Childhood hero: Bobby Darin, shlockmeister of the fifties. First employer: Don Kirshner, Darin’s best friend. So Tony Orlando worked out Half Way to Paradise with Carole King and Gerry Goffin, sang the demo (in 1961, at age sixteen) because Kirshner liked his sound because he sounded black, and black was in (pure Presley-style fifties co-option), and Kirshner sold the demo to Epic, and Tony Orlando had contributed one small bacterium to that blight which back there at the beginning of the sixties checked the first flowering of rock-‘n’-roll. Kirshner followed Half Way to Paradise with Bless You, and Tony Orlando was running all over the country with none other than—you guessed it —Dick Clark.
Then came the Beatles, and the second and greatest flowering of rock, a low point for the shlocksters, although ultimately the Beatles gave them a fresh alternative to suck on—as we have seen in the saga of Don Kirshner, Hollywood, the Monkees, and the Archies. Tony drifted into CBS’s music division, worked his way up to vice-president by signing sweet, suffering James Taylor (and also, to be fair Laura Nyro and Blood, Sweat, and Tears). Next thing you knew, Tony picked up the phone; it’s Hank Medress and Dave Appell (producers who in their day and his had handled Bobby Rydell); they wondered whether maybe Tony wouldn’t be into doing a master for them, Candida. And lo, the same flotsam that washed ashore at the outset of the sixties came washing back at the outset of the seventies, with all the same faces and all the same sounds.
In 1973 Tony’s manager summed it up:
I think I know why they’re into Tony’s music. In the sixties musicianship was what counted—the progressive rock artists were musicians first, entertainers second. . . . I think audiences just want to be entertained again. Not that early Dylan, Beatles, or Stones could be accounted high musicianship. But certainly audiences of the seventies were very much into being just entertained again. (It was about this time that sixties people quit listening to pop music.)
The Muzak Corporation was founded in 1934 and has plenty of detailed psychological study behind it. Effects of Muzak on Industrial Efficiency. Application of Functional Music to Worker Efficiency. Research Findings on the Physiological and Psychological Effects of Music and Muzak. With appropriate tunes, Muzak can speed up your breathing, typing, or buying; delay fatigue; improve attention and production and—presumably—worker satisfaction with tedious jobs. Carry you over the early afternoon slump, help teachers with discipline, help students with homework, help Neil Armstrong wile away the long hours to the moon, help employers compensate for those periods when “employees’ residual energy is lowest.” It’s all computerized now, and musical programs can be tailored to any and all parameters.
Music, as the Greeks understood, has direct, measurable, predictable effects on the psyche; Muzak is in the business of measuring these effects and enlisting them in the service of whatever system cares to pay for such services. It is the ultimate musical whore. And it absorbs everything that is usable, because for everything there is a season, and a time for every music under heaven. Thirty thousand compositions in the computer, with three hundred additions each year. No hard rock, however, because somehow it doesn’t lend itself, it’s “a little too obvious,” and fees would be astronomical. No, the rock is rearranged and rerecorded by the best studio musicians—toned down, dry-cleaned “professional rock.”
What’s missing from Muzak is the music that most resists co-option, the best rock. The Beatles and the Stones, who, a Muzak spokesman claims,
do not lend themselves to the Muzak process. The Carpenters, who took off in 1970 with a cover of the Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, were, however, highly popular with Muzak. But the direct, frontal attacks on the system by Frank Zappa, angry Airplane, or protesting Phil Ochs—the sort of music that might make a student pitch his homework out the school window or a worker walk off the assembly line; the sort of stuff that makes the blood pressure rise too high, that turns on the head, that keys the emotions to the point at which a listener does something other than type faster, purchase more, whistle merrily along—for this the computer has no use; it stands outside the Muzak system.
(Which is why the almost ubiquitous Muzak, far from increasing their productivity, drives sixties people nuts. A man knows when his foot is asleep, dammit, and he knows when Maggie’s father is sticking a needle in his vein.)
The marshmallow absorption goes on constantly, on every front. Two years after the Beatles slipped I’d love to turn you on into Sgt. Pepper, we had turned-on colors of lipstick and turned-on flavors of ice cream, and youth turned on to politics and Christ, and you just wanted to forget it. Dick Nixon was doing “sock it to me” lines. Cosmetics and cars were revolutionary, and an Opel would light your fire. The flowers and beads of San Francisco filled glittery Fifth Avenue boutiques, and display windows along Chestnut Street, Michigan Avenue, Regent Street, and shopping malls in Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis.
It is, however, one thing to see cheap rock drive out dear. It’s another thing entirely to see the young, lean, angry good guys turn into fat, well serviced, middle-aged bad guys. Elvis Presley’s life is the best example of the big buy-off.
Right now a proper perspective on Presley is difficult to achieve, what with the apotheosis following his desperate death. Colonel Parker has seen to it that we’ve been Elvis-the-King’d to distraction, which is not surprising because raking in the bills was what Elvis was about during the sixties, and maybe he would have dug the hoopla and the long green sloshing around his grave. In fact, the deification of Elvis, at the expense of historical fact and common sense, began well before his departure from life (but well after his departure from serious rock-‘n’-roll).
Elvis Presley was, right from the start, a compromise: the white kid with the black sound. If you were unkind, you could accuse him of being a cover artist: the first song he ever recorded at Sun Records was the Ink Spots’ My Happiness; his first hit—regional—was Arthur Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right. Hound Dog, Mystery Train, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and many other early Elvis songs were also versions of black originals. The famous Presley hip action, Bo Diddley once claimed, was learned in Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Elvis openly admitted his debts:
I dug the real low-down Mississippi singers, mostly Big Bill Broonzy and Big Boy Crudup. And again, looking back:
When [That’s All Right] came out a lot of people liked it, and you could hear folk around town saying ‘Is he, is he?’ and I’m going ‘Am I, am I?’
And that is precisely what Sam Phillips and Sun Records manager Marian Keisker recognized in the infant King:
The reason I taped Elvis was this: over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’ This is what I heard in Elvis, this . . . what I guess they now call ‘soul,’ this Negro sound. So I taped it. I wanted Sam to know. Elvis was the man of the hour in July 1954.
The reason Sam Phillips was looking for a white man with the “Negro feel” is obvious: a black singer with a black sound was just not going to break into the big dough because the big dough was white and racist. With Presley, Phillips thought he had a chance. The time was, as they say, ripe: already in Cleveland adventurous, white, middle-class kids had taken the initiative in Leo Mintz’s record store. Elvis became the King thanks mainly to American racism and his ability to sing blue-eyed soul.
To his credit, Elvis, like all other covers, did introduce the black sound to an audience it would probably not otherwise have reached. Most Americans who would watch the Ed Sullivan Show would not have sought out the “race” records of Leo Mintz’s back shelves and would not have caught the late night-early morning radio programs of Jack L. Cooper, “Professor Bop,” “Jocky Jack” Gibson, or “Sugar Daddy” from Birmingham, Alabama. Maybe a small percentage of those who heard Elvis on Sullivan fought their way upstream to black originality.
And Elvis did have a certain talent, a certain musical sound. Early Elvis is pretty good stuff: not exclusively a cover of r&b but a fusion of country, blues, and his own style, the very fusion that made rock-‘n’-roll something distinct from r&b and country. It has a certain pop style as well, which is basically what interested RCA Records in the bidding that would take the King away from Sam Phillips and Sun. Heartbreak Hotel was an unusual record for 1956 in that its style appealed to r&b, country, and pop audiences. Elvis’s early recordings were not the “production rock” under which Charlie Gillett classified Presley in The Sound of the City.
But musically Presley went straight downhill from his first Sun hits, Mystery Train and I Forgot to Remember to Forget: more and more ballads, less and less rhythm and blues—and what r&b there was came toned down. Less personality, less dynamics, less roughness. More formula, more polish, more sentimentality. More money. For a few moments the Sun magic held on RCA: Jailhouse Rock (1957) is not a bad song, although the movie is an abomination. All Shook Up is also a pretty fair number, although the beat and vocal mannerisms approach habit. In 1958, with Wear My Ring around Your Neck (backed with Doncha Think It’s Time), Elvis was promoting the same true-blue purity, the same adult-sanctioned teenage mindlessness that his swivel-hipped, black-voiced There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight had assaulted in 1954. By the end of that year Presley was well on his way to RCA production pop: a Christmas album, Viva Las Vegas, A Date with Elvis. Movie after movie after grade B movie.
By the time [Elvis] came back to civilian life again, he was almost as respectable as an Andy Williams or Perry Como.
The difference between Presley and Dylan was that whereas both developed early a relatively individualistic style based on patent imitation of a variety of originals; and whereas the style, still derivative, burst in both cases upon the national scene hyped as something fresh and innovative and very, very genuine, Dylan took his sudden fame as a point of departure for development up and out; Elvis took the long, easy, lucrative road downhill. Where Dylan fought like hell to remain an avenue out, Elvis became in three or four short years an avenue back in. And this he became, to all outward appearances, quite willingly. Not that he deliberately opted for the great American road show in preference to playing the prophet. Not that he made public statements to the effect that look, fellas, it’s all a show anyway, you guys are performing and we’re all performing, and I’m gonna be the biggest performer of them all. It was not a public shuck, because Elvis never really stood above the performance. Nobody believed in Elvis more than Elvis. And the myth of Elvis became a static myth; it became the myth of American consumer society, a myth Presley didn’t invent, a myth that invented him. (As it had invented others long before him and would manufacture others after him and loves and rewards nothing so much as the idols it manufactures because it has them locked in its pocket.)
As he turned thirty and then forty, even when he came back for some cash and flash personal appearances, even when, with the fifties revival, Elvis rejuvenated himself as a museum piece on tour, it was increasingly apparent to everyone that he cast no shadow. Elvis was Elvis when he was onstage; offstage, he was nobody—he was invisible. The motion had ceased somewhere back in the fifties, when Elvis Presley had his hair cut off by the U.S. Army.
All the time he wasn’t onstage for that hour, I guess the man was just bored and trying to find different things to do, Sonny West, one of his ex-bodyguards, declared in an interview following the publication (four days before the King’s death) of Elvis: What Happened? His days were poisoned by an obsession with death and an active hatred of singers he considered competition, which led him on one occasion to shoot out a television screen showing Robert Goulet. (That the King of rock-‘n’-roll considered Robert Goulet competition tells you everything about his descent.) His money went to buy gifts for strangers who might become friends. His life was very much wrapped up in drugs taken not to get high but to sleep, to act, to perform.
The key questions were posed in a postmortem conference held by his bodyguards, his former friends.
Q: Couldn’t you have stopped him from doing all those things?
Dave Hebler: How can you?
Q: He hired you to protect him.
Hebler: Of course, protect him. How do you protect a man from himself?
Q: Was Elvis happy when you left him? Was he a happy man?
Hebler: I don’t think so. I think in many ways Elvis was a tormented man. I think he was a victim of himself, the image and the legend.
The sad part was that he became a product, wrote Chris Hodenfield of Elvis’s movies.
Because an Elvis picture guaranteed easy profits, he was eventually given nothing but the flimsiest of scripts, ground out sometimes at the rate of three a year. But the real tragedy is that Elvis never demanded better. Did he storm off movie sets? Did he challenge the formula of twelve songs a picture? He did not, no matter what he thought to himself.
It was just that Hollywood’s image of me was wrong, he once told Pierre Aldridge,
and I knew it, and couldn’t say anything about it.
Well, you can always say no. Except that you can’t, once they’ve got you, once they’ve turned you into production rock, movie product. The legend of Elvis Presley is told in music by the Band: it is the morality play of Daniel and the Sacred Harp.
Now Daniel looked quite satisfied,
And the harp it seemed to go;
But the price that Daniel had really paid
He did not even know . . .
Then Daniel took his harp and went up high on the hill,
And he blew across the meadow like a whippoorwill.
He played out his heart just the time to pass,
But as he looked at the ground he noticed no shadow did he cast.
This is a stern moral judgment indeed, this business of lost souls. But rock— in fact, the entire culture of the sixties—would offer the Band one justification after another.
One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were, and that’s what I resent.
We do not ride on the railroad, it rides on us.
Nobody was more aware of the price of being a rock star than rock stars themselves. They spoke of it constantly, openly, sometimes in music, sometimes in candid interviews. Tommy is a rock star, off on a power trip, raped and forsaken by his fans, in his end more pitiful than in his beginning.
So you want to be a rock-‘n’-roll star? asked Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. You sell your soul to the company, you make the charts, the girls rip you to shreds, you end up
a little insane with all the money and the hype, and you’re a rock-‘n’-roll star. Maybe you end up dead, like Brian Jones:
What the Stones Sang, He Was, headlined the Rolling Stone obituary. Maybe you clean yourself up or get yourself cleaned up—like Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers or Elvis—or like Ray Charles, washed not quite clean of the blues in the waters of ABC-Paramount for his 1962 hits You Are My Sunshine, You Don’t Know Me, and I Can’t Stop Loving You. Or like the fab moptops from Liverpool, cleaned and pressed, dressed, shampooed, sanitized in 1962 by Brian Epstein.
Maybe you end up broken apart.
It got harder and harder to talk to Artie because we were spending so much time working together that when we weren’t working we’d just as soon not be around each other, explained Paul Simon. The Mamas and the Papas, two and a half years together, burned out in 1968:
The last album was torture to make, just torture. The Buffalo Springfield, Last Time Around, their core disintegrating, isolation slowly engulfing one member after another, one song after another.
Maybe you end up compromised.
You can’t always tell a recording company not to do this and not to do that, Chuck Berry explained, looking over his shoulder at the late fifties,
because they have a little authority over the product they put out, and if they feel that it’s commercial, they can take your name and turn it inside out.
Maybe you just feel pressured by the company or by the public. Pete Townshend admitted,
I’ve often gone on the stage with a guitar and said, ‘Tonight I’m not going to smash a guitar and I don’t give a shit’—you know what the pressure is on me—whether I feel like doing it musically or whatever, I’m just not going to do it. And I’ve gone on and every time I’ve done it. Maybe you feel pressured by society:
The song—Acid Queen—is not about just acid; it’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing wrapped into one big ball, Townshend continued.
It’s about how you get it laid on you that you haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer—or whatever. Society—people— force you. She represents this force.
It hurts to read that Joan Baez played a Las Vegas casino the other night in a sexy dress.
It bugs you when soul music, the best and purest expression of the black community and its new values, turns increasingly formulaic, increasingly neutral, increasingly bland, and ends up finally in Tamla-Motown, whose highest value is success and whose notion of success is, according to Jon Landau,
to be able to put each of its groups into the big nightclub scene.
It bugs you to think that there on the Columbia campus in 1969, right where the heat was busy busting heads a year before, you had the Sha Na Na doing 1950s nostalgia, museum pieces purged of social and political content a decade after their moment: Get a Job, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay, Come Go with Me. One year it’s the revolution against slumlord Columbia fucking over the poor of Morningside Heights, a kind of holy war against institutional racism and insensitivity; the next year it’s Grease under the Stars.
Then to watch the rock-‘n’-roll revival run its inevitable course, from the Garden Party of November 1969, with the Coasters, the Shirelles, Chuck Berry, the Platters, and Bill Haley, to the return of Little Richard, to Ricky Nelson and Dion and a Dick Clark Bandstand retrospective, gathering steam and bucks as it tumbled down the ladder of quality, a grotesque parody, a loop through time-space.
Or Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, following the lead of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, clearing out of San Francisco to live as idle rich in a Marin County special by the ocean, with a redwood deck-enclosed swimming pool, a studio in the basement, a geodesic dome for meditation, a beamed living room ceiling, and a fireplace —Paul busy fixing the place up.
Or Sam Brown, onetime leader of antiwar youth and Eugene McCarthy organizer, in 1978 director of Jimmy Carter’s Action, writing off the Peace Corps, the great sixties Peace Corps, with the flip comment,
This is our country. When we mess up and make mistakes, we ought not to make them in other countries.
Don’t try to get yourself elected: If you do, you had better cut your hair.
Or Rolling Stone’s obituary for Detroit’s MC5:
They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles; he wanted them to be bigger than Mao. And the Five and John Sinclair at each other’s throats over who paid whose bills, and who was using whom, and the group living on a farm out in Hamburg, Michigan, returning to early adolescent dreams of gold-plated sports cars and screwing around a lot.
(The litany continues.)
Jimi Hendrix, pressured by his manager to go commercial, avoid experimentation, pressured by black militants to turn political, caught in the bind of having to please everybody with no time to please himself and getting himself torn into a hundred pieces while so doing.
The Stones, tangled in censorship hassles over “half-assed games,” which was finally cut out in air play in the United States. The Stones, slurring Let’s spend the night together for the Ed Sullivan Show. (Mick Jagger:
They would have cut it off if I had said night.)
Eric Clapton on music charts:
Personally, I don’t think they’re amoral, you know, musically. I think they’re anti-music and anti-progress. They’re obsolete. . . . They bring the whole thing down to a very immature level.
Ravi Shankar on the absorption of Indian philosophy and Indian music into the American experience:
All this big wave of Hare Krishna and beads, bells and joss sticks in their ears or between their teeth like Carmen carries a rose, always sort of hurt me very much. . . . The whole mix-up of sex and spiritual exercise all became one, you know. All of a sudden I saw it was more like a pagan ritual like you find in those peculiar books or those peculiar films, you know, orgies and religious things together. And it makes me sad because I happen to be a Hindu, a Brahmin, and belong to a very religious family and I know what has happened in India and what is happening. And it is absolutely gross, I mean, a distortion of facts.
Paul Simon, the only living boy in New York, rides through the city in a big black Cadillac he rents from a limo service.
The Beatles sue manager Allen Klein for “excessive commissions.” Klein sues George, Ringo, John, Yoko, and Apple for $63 million in damages and future earnings and Paul McCartney for $34 million plus interest. The court battles last almost as long as Lennon’s battle against American immigration authorities.
The gumdropping of counterculture in Hollywood shlock movies: The Activist (1969), The Strawberry Statement (1970), RPM (1970), and a lot of skin flicks full of phony hippie chicks.
Since [the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967] what San Francisco started has become so diffuse, copied, exploited, rebelled against, and simply accepted, that it has become nearly invisible, said Rampart’s/Rolling Stone’s Michael Lydon, August 23, 1969.
There was no doubt that the bourgeoisie loved love and flower power since they were very easily turned into a product. . . . The Plastic hippie was created—from $38.00 sandals to the $15.00 leather handbag, said Joe Ferrandino, 1972.
Woodstock was something we produced out of our own national genius and energy, it was a beautiful experience for hundreds of thousands of our people which we produced ourselves, but the mother-country record companies and movie companies and vampires of all kinds swooped down on it and grabbed it and took it into their factories and cooked the reality of Woodstock down into records and movies and shit which they now sell back to us at $3.50 and $12.00 a shot. We control no part of it, yet it’s entirely produced by us.
Then there was Richard Nixon’s proclamation making October 1970 “Country Music Month,” along with his invitation to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard to the White House. Everybody cringed to think of Nixon’s grey jowls crinkling at the corners to Okie from Muskogee, The Fightin’ Side of Me, and Welfare Cadillac.
Right now I’m pretty busy with the lousy Repression, it’s so real, so operative,explained a “company freak” to interviewer Danny Fields in 1970.It’s a full-time thing, countering the repression. Kokaine Kharma was dropped from WFMU, and that’s supposed to be the hippest radio station in the New York area, and that show was probably the best, liveliest, freshest, hippest show in American radio, with Bob Rudnick and Dennis Frawley. The MC5 is fired by Elektra, which is the hippest record company, and the Smothers Brothers are fired off the hippest network, and Columbia records is dropping its ads in the underground press. The hard rain is falling, it’s falling right now.
Interviewer: Did Alan Freed actually co-author the tune with you?
Chuck Berry: No, that was a very strange thing. He got that money solely for doing us some favors in those days.
April 30, 1970: the FCC ruled that Jerry Garcia was “obscene” on radio and slapped a fine on the educational FM station for broadcasting an interview with him; Peter Yarrow was busted for taking “indecent liberties” with a fourteen-year-old chick.
(And the jocks. Remember the athletes with their fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics? And Jack Scott’s Institute for the Study of Sport and Society? And Dave Meggyesy’s radical Out of Their League, in which he ripped football apart? There is no such idealism today. Only bucks.)
Phil Spector on the record industry:
They’re a bunch of cigar-smoking sharpies in record distribution. They’ve all been in the business for years, and they resent you if you’re young. That’s one reason so many kids go broke in this business. They’re always starting new record companies—or they used to, the business is very soft right now. They start a company and pour all their money into a record, and it can be successful and they’re still broke because these characters don’t even pay you until you’ve had three or four hit records in a row. They order the records and sell them and don’t pay you. You start yelling for the money and they tell you,What-ya mean, I have all these records coming back from the retailers, and what about my right to return records and blah-blah.They look at everything as a product. They don’t care about the work and sweat you put into a record.
Jesse Kornbluth on racism and the majors:
This year someone seems to have decided that the scene is blues, and Columbia Records has signed a Texas albino named Johnny Winter for $300,000, a sum that would buy a dozen black guitarists of equal heaviness.
Do you recall the persecution of the Panthers? The arrest of Huey Newton on October 28, 1967, in Oakland; the raid on Eldridge Cleaver’s home on January 16, 1968; Judge Julius Hoffman’s sentence of forty-eight months for Bobby Seale; the raid of Chicago police on the apartment of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 6, 1969, a murder in the middle of the night. And the policeman who commented,
These guys were denouncing the President, and the courts are supine, never convict; something had to be done.
(Cleaver has taken to campaigning against Soviet bloc countries and calls himself a social democrat these days.)
Abbie Hoffman recalled an incident during the Chicago Eight trial:
A stocky built man about 48 in a chauffeur’s suit stopped us and smiled, ‘Abbie, I’m Mick’s [Mick Jagger’s] private chauffeur. My name’s Al.’ We chatted trial-gossip for a while waiting for the performance to begin and then Al dropped the clunker. ‘It’s really a small world. You know who I chauffeur during the day???’ He paused to suck me in real good and lowered the boom. ‘Judge Julius Hoffman!’
Neil [Young], married for a year now, plans to stay at his redwood hillside Topanga Canyon house, their home since August 1968. He’s even building a 16-track recording studio under the house. [David] Crosby has settled into a ranch in Novato, in north Marin County, and Steve [Stills] is looking for a house in Marin County.
—Rolling Stone in a piece by Ben Fong-Torres on Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Dallas Taylor, and Greg Reeves
Stanley Cohen (Folk Devils and Moral Panics) comments on the commercialization of Mod:
Carnaby Street, Cathy McGowan, Twiggy, transistor radios always on to Radio Caroline (opened on Easter Sunday, 1964), boutiques, the extravagant velvets, satins and colours of the more flamboyant of the early Mods. By the middle of 1964 there were at least six magazines appealing mainly to Mods, the weeklies with a circulation of about 500,000, the monthlies about 250,000. There was also Ready, Steady, Go, a TV programme aimed very much at the Mods, with its own magazine related to the programme and which organized the famous Mod ball in Wembley.
Derek Taylor, former press officer for the Beatles, turned publicity agent for a bunch of top-forty singers:
The myth is that the industry has grown up. All the marvelous elements have come together, all the groovy people are now in command. Okay. But when the awards come out at the end of 1966, you open Record World and what do you find? The top vocalist of the year is Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. I’m sure Barry Sadler is a very good soldier, but what has that got to do with music? All right. The most promising male vocal group is Tommy James and the Shondells. Here’s a group that made one record that hung around for two years because nobody would touch it. Then, by some freak, it sells more than a million copies—Hanky Panky, the all-time definitive piece of crap, a very poor recreation of Be Bop a Lula, a famous Gene Vincent song—and on the basis of that, they’re voted the most promising male vocal group in the single market.
In Cash Box, somewhere on their list is Bob Dylan, who has just beaten out John Gary, but above Dylan is Al Martino. All of which goes to prove that it’s quite untrue that the record industry has grown up. And the reason is that there’s no growing up of the public taste. The same crap is being bought that was bought ten years ago.
(The most promising group of 1966 was the Monkees.)
The accounting we receive from MGM is so bullshit it’s not to be believed. Sales are estimated from 300,000 to 800,000. A suit has been filed and we are auditing their books. . . . I think I would rather not record than go back with MGM.
And the underground press, another alternative become what it was supposed to have been an alternative to.
And John Lennon’s Toronto Peace Festival (“Free. For $1.”) that never was, killed by egos and finances and the bonds required by Ontario police: $875,000 for security, $425,000 for water, $377,000 for sewage, $50,000 for garbage, $1,500,000 for medical care.
So you’ve a right to sing your own song;
No one else can tell you if you’re right or wrong;
Livin’ your own life, that’s what America means.
—This commercial about believing in yourself was brought to you by the makers of Budweiser Beer.
And John and Yoko, busted in their own apartment, taken to the police station by cops with dogs, and booked for grass. October 1968.
That’s what it was, man, the fuckin’ paranoia. The hassles, the unbelievable hassles. You try and keep your head straight, and you can’t. There are rules about everything, and you can’t keep from filling your head with them, because it’s like you do something and you think “crunch, now it’s gonna come,” and it always does come, and you have to keep fighting to keep from saying “well, this time maybe I’d better cool it,” and life becomes one big fight with yourself and with them. You try to keep your head straight, man, but you just get burnt out trying to make yourself ignore the shit.
And CBS squashing Pete Seeger’s Big Muddy over Tom and Dick Smothers’ protest:
It may be your show, but it’s our network.
And CBS squashing the Smothers Brothers with the argument that
someone has to be the judge of the difference between entertainment and propaganda.
And the Chuck Berry-Pete Townshend jam that never was, killed by a show biz squabble over who should get top billing.
And Mick Jagger busted. And Ray Charles busted. And Joe Cocker busted.
And the Airplane fined $1,000 in Kansas City for saying
that’s a bunch of bullshit onstage and forced each appearance thereafter to post a cash bond to be forfeited if there were any
illegal, indecent, obscene, lewd, or immoral exhibition while they were performing.
And Mick Jagger unable to make the Bangladesh concert because he could not get a U. S. visa.
And Phil Ochs, so paranoid that he came to suspect shortly before his death that the CIA and the Mafia had a contract out on him. So he carried a lead pipe, a hammer, a pitchfork around wherever he went. And he made the bartenders in his SoHo bar carry meat hooks, and he kept insisting there were snipers on the roof across the street.
We’ve seen it over and over, in the sellouts and the compromises of our heroes, in the rubouts of our heroes, in the proliferation of shlock, in the reports of bust after bust, in the establishment’s use of political trial as a tool of repression, as a means of punishment. Nobody was immune as long as he posed a genuine alternative to the system. And everyone was forgiven as soon as he repented. And all those who took the one step forward were rewarded a hundred fold, even the cardboard cutouts the system created itself.
(An interesting analogy presents itself. A worker intent on fleeing East Germany faces no real danger these days: either he escapes or he is caught, jailed for two years, and then expatriated. Either way he’s out of the East. The communist position is that the system created him and it can create a million others like him. This fellow is only a troublemaker anyway, uncooperative. Flush him away and make others. American record companies operate on much the same principle.)
There is only one way to deal with this process of absorption: you must keep moving. This is the single most important lesson we can learn about ourselves, about the sixties, about rock-‘n’-roll, about life. You have to put your head down, look neither to the left nor to the right, ignore the threats and the sweetmeats, just assume that you’re going to have to fight a lot of inertia, and keep moving straight ahead. He who’s not busy bein’ born is busy dyin’, sang Bob Dylan; and again,
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
How often has Dylan, at the very height of one phase of his musical career, walked out the door, trucked on down the road, struck another match, and started all over again? At the very top of the heap, when he was number-one folksinger, number-one rocker? At the height of his popularity, when he had audiences and tours and groupies and money and adulation, risked the whole heap of trophies to maintain his artistic integrity, to move closer to the philosophical and musical edge, to go back out in the rain and battle the elements, to put himself on the line again and again, to hear the critics carp and moan about how he’s sold out on protest, or abandoned rock, or obviously misunderstood the dislocations of our crazy times?
It must have been a big, big step for him, ‘cause it’s hard when your people around you are all tuned to one way of life, and then you just come and change it for them. He took a big risk, as an artist, by doing that. A big, big risk. He really deserves a lot more credit. He can’t get anymore, I guess, but that was a big, big step for him to do that. ‘Cause the people really wanted somethin’ else from him.
Dylan was the brightest and the best of the sixties rockers and by far the most perceptive. He realized what Presley and Joplin and Hendrix and Ochs did not, what Lennon and McCartney suggested when they admitted the Beatles knew from the beginning that they could not go on forever being thirty-year old Beatles. Dylan understood that the greatest threat is the threat of image: the enervating sweetness of success, the annihilation of person by role.
Rock was tough enough on the big fish; it was murder on the small fry. It made it all too easy for essentially weak people, loners, not too bright kids with a little talent and a lot of the American dream, kids whose very vulnerability could turn them into symbols with whom a generation could identify; made these loners into stars and sometimes superstars. The danger was taking the goodies you’d always dreamt about, and then believing in them and the role you’d created for yourself or had created for you or fell easily, almost unconsciously into. Only the strongest survived that temptation, and among them Dylan alone rejected it consciously.
The Stones fought absorption with self-parody. The Beatles fought it with dissolution, but only after the myth itself became hollow, only after the dream had turned into a nightmare. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix fought it by living themselves to death. But Bob Dylan was willing to walk away at the moment of triumph to remain his own man.