It may not be the Sixties, but nothing’s the Sixties anymore.
It is a thing beyond comprehension, the trepidation with which guardians of the old order approached the seventies. In December 1968 the Ford Foundation sponsored a symposium at Princeton, with George Ball, Daniel Bell, Sam Brown, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Allard Lowenstein, Norman Podhoretz, and eighty others. The record of that conference, published in 1970 as The Endless Crisis: America in the Seventies, is a mirror of Establishment anxieties:
All life is balance, argued Francois Duchene in summarizing three days of discussion and argument,
and there are dangers even in progress: broadly speaking, the current ones seem to be those of undirected anarchy capable of leading, if unchecked, to the disastrous habits of self-assertion of the early twentieth century. Participants feared world war on the one hand, repressive fascism on the other.
Benjamin DeMott, in Surviving the Seventies (1971), spoke for the common folk, but he voiced the same numbed confusion:
How much New Thought can actually go down in a stable middle life? How can a human being (as opposed to History in the large) cope, in his own local, limited head, with the tilts of assumption and belief now occurring regularly in all comers of culture? What to do when the world is unraveling, when the earth is rumbling and the sky crumbling? When, as far as DeMott (or the conferees at Princeton) could see, the dislocations would continue, extended and accentuated, through the seventies?
Here, surely, was the end of civilization.
Here was the Second Coming.
The nearer your destination,
The more you’re slip-slidin’ away.
Well of course it didn’t happen, and maybe we should all be plenty thankful, although maybe we shouldn’t, because things have been just a little too quiet in the seventies.
In fact, on its surface the decade was as placid as a retirement home, which is exactly the way Phil Ochs predicted it would look in his song Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me. The paranoia of the old order seems as naive, as remote, as incomprehensible as the paranoia of the New Left: a CIA agent in every pot, two Army Intelligence officers in every garage. What ever were these people thinking about?
The danger is that once a revolutionary state has been created, a new conservative bureaucracy tends to form around it.
If partisans of the fifties found the sixties chaotic, barbaric, unsettling, a slum of a decade almost beyond endurance, children of the sixties found the seventies virtually uninhabitable: law ‘n’ order, structure, the death penalty, lowered hemlines and lowered speed limits, Proposition 13, Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois, a lot less dope and a lot less casual sex, punk rock and disco that was not only bad but ridiculous, Performance with the capital P: image without substance, illusion, formula, form without content. Precious few
tilts of assumption and belief, except in the direction of orthodoxy. In the high schools: dress codes, formal dances, and Basics. In the colleges: fraternities and beer bashes. Jocks and cheerleaders, football and tits and ass shows and all the star-spangled vulgarity of a Dallas Cowboys halftime show. Less ecology and more big business. Less eccentricity and more uniformity. Less spontaneity, madness, vision, experimentation and general craziness. Diminished expectations and diminished accomplishments.
A lot of commotion with no real motion.
The Voidoids described the generation of the seventies on a record album of the same title as a Blank Generation. The Rolling Stones took one long look at the whole debacle (concentrated, as always, in New York and Los Angeles) and concluded their 1978 retrospective album Some Girls with a declaration of bankruptcy:
What a mess. . . . Go ahead, bite the big apple, don’t mind the maggots. My brain’s been battered!
Now the things [the Beatles and Bob Dylan] sang about—love, peace, and the courage to explore our own minds—so often seem to have passed into suspension.
Now there’s just so much crap going down. I don’t enjoy any of it. I’ve always thought that the next thing that’s gotta happen—I think it could possibly be a singer or a group—in 74 is going to be that start of a new band, a new Elvis, Beatles. . . . it’s been long enough.
A friend of mine received a letter in 1978 reviewing his book and, gratuitously, the sixties:
I participated in my first demonstration during the Cuban Missile Crisis—when was that, ‘61? And I marched right to the end. The March on the Pentagon was one of the most dramatic events I’ve ever been part of. It’s hard for me to realize how deep we are today in political repression and regression. Sometimes I wonder if the Sixties ever took place. . . . Kent State is one of the most important events of Post-War America. It is the event, THE event of the Seventies. It ended the Sixties. It ranks with the Rosenberg Assassination.
There has been a curious sense of déjà vú to the seventies. One of Johnny Carson’s more perceptive guests commented,
There is no seventies. In ten years people will try to do nostalgia things on the seventies, and they’ll discover there was nothing going on then but the fifties.
What really bugs sixties heads about the public climate of the seventies is not so much Michael Jackson and the mindless disco or the mindless television/film nostalgia (filled with the worst elements of the sixties—mini skirts and Dick Clark shlockrock—and absolutely purged of most of what’s been recreated in this book), but the sense that socially, politically, educationally, and philosophically the seventies have been a retreat to the fifties. This pain we feel each time we look around is the grey, remembered pain of adolescence, the remembered pain of the fifties.
The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s exactly the same. Reverend Charles Boykin has his Baptist flock burning rock records because they’re immoral. The Sex Pistols are banned from every stage in England. Dick Clark smiles at us from our television sets (
Dick Clark is superb, he’s the best, enthuses Bob Shanks, vice-president at ABC-TV). A 1977 survey shows that 85% of high school seniors interviewed favor increased or sustained levels of defense spending (the figure stood at 8% at the dawn of the decade); 66% favor the death penalty (up from 33%). Support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which in 1969 would have cakewalked from Maine to Mississippi, had decreased dramatically. And nearly half of those young people interviewed thought that maybe military intervention in Third World politics might not be such a bad idea, especially if the Pentagon had evidence that the commies were already messing around in the area.
We have been here before, eh?
There are critics, of course, and there are still countercultural freaks. There are Paul Goodman’s
early resigned and
early fatalistic, but there are precious few of them, while letting the generation party, party, party. Most of the newly disenfranchised young believe passionately in the very system that disenfranchises them. The resigned, the fatalistic, the angry few are deep underground, and you have to go looking for them. Social and political criticism is found mostly in the comedy of Saturday Night Live, a late seventies version of Steve Allen. The fifties again. Only this time we are, in the words of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson (adapting a Chuck Berry line), too old to rock-‘n’-roll, too young to die.
And the ashes of the dreams
Can be found in the magazines,
And it seems that there are no more songs.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Somewhere around 1970 the public climate in America began a prolonged retreat to normalcy, which for sixties people amounted to a great turning out of lights, a profound sleep. It is, in fact, this sharp contrast in the social climates of the sixties and seventies that denies any attempt to write our present anxieties off as a “passage” from youth to middle age: yes, we have changed, yes we have grown older and a bit slower . . . but the difference between 1968 and 1978 is not in our heads, it is in the world. The lights have dimmed outside, not inside.
In 1973 the Who released Quadrophenia, a brilliantly conceived successor to Tommy (although far too reflective for the date of its release), and probably the most important album of the decade. It is a retrospective study of the sixties—all they were and all they were not—and of the early seventies in all their unsatisfactory fuzziness. The album raises the Ultimate Questions that so concern us now: What happened? Who were we? What are we? Why doesn’t it happen any more? The album offers only hard answers, answers that make us toss in our sleep, think bad thoughts about ourselves.
Quadrophenia tells the story of Jimmy, aging Mod, trying to piece himself together. His shrink tells him he’s not insane, his father tells him he’s schizophrenic, his mother says he’s nutty but don’t worry, son, it runs in the family. Part of Jimmy is strongly suicidal. Part of him is an angry young man who will steal anything, rape anyone, cut anybody who crosses him. Part of Jimmy is just a straight working-class kid who would like to get on with his folks and doesn’t mind taking an honest job for a few days. Like the sixties, Jimmy contains multitudes.
Most of all, Jimmy is Mod: scooter, bird, pills, dance halls, Who concerts, the scene on Brighton Beach. It’s the Mod in Jimmy that precipitates the crisis between Jimmy and his folks: mom discovers his stash of pills, and dad—pissed out of his head on stout—throws him out of the house. Jimmy spends a couple of bad nights sleeping under the Hammersmith overpass, then tries work as a trash man. Neither appeals to him. The ultimate blow comes when he catches his girl (one of his fondest memories is the night they spent in a sleeping bag on Brighton Beach the summer previous) with his best friend Dave. Feeling plenty brought down, he totals his scooter and takes off on the train for Brighton (high as a sunflower and sandwiched between two pin-striped-suited, straight-as-a-cigar banker types) to recapture some of the old, magical vision which seemed once so very much within reach.
At Brighton Jimmy meets the leader of yesteryear’s rebellion, the geezer with the sawed-off shotgun under his jacket who took on two Rockers and pounded them both, who actually smashed the doors of the Brighton Hotel during a Mod riot reported earlier on Quadrophenia in some taped footage from BBC 1. And there is this same Mod working, would you believe it, as a bellboy at, believe it my brothers, at the very same afore-mentioned Brighton Hotel.
Me folks had let me down, Jimmy recalls.
Rock had let me down, women had let me down, work wasn’t worth the effort, school isn’t even worth mentioning. But I never thought I’d feel let down by being a Mod.
And that is the question, isn’t it, fans? What becomes of aging rebels? That question echoes all across Quadrophenia. In “The Punk Meets the Godfather (a mini opera with real characters and plot)” the Who suggest that everything, even the revolution, is a sell. In truth, the Who themselves are the song’s “real characters,” the phony leaders, the punk with the stutter (“mmmmmmmm my my my my Gggggggg g-g-g-generation”), the Godfather who told lies (no surprise), the punk in the gutter. The future is all broken glass on dance floors, torn seats in cinemas, broken faces, a big zero. It is all a con, and who is in a better position to know that than the rock superstars themselves? So turn cynical, pull in the horns, be cool.
In Helpless Dancer, the Who suggest that the only sensible thing to do is quit: when, contrary to what you’d expect, you do not end up further along just by putting one foot ahead of the other (because things are not so simple),
You stop dancing.
In The Dirty Jobs, the Who say it right out: you’ve been screwed again, and if you let them do it to you, you’ve got yourself to blame. Remember how to fight.
Bell Boy tells Jimmy to sell out, get a job, settle for the superficial gilt and flash, carry the bloody baggage out and keep the lip buttoned.
You could learn a lot from a job like mine, says the former Leader of the Pack to Jimmy.
So the gods are dead, and Jimmy, driven to distraction and just plain not caring, tries suicide. Some revolutionaries get jobs, some drop out completely, some become cynical, some kill themselves.
The last voice in Quadrophenia, however, belongs to Pete Townshend, and it is a voice different indeed from the voice he used during the high sixties. Borrowing, like the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper and Bob Dylan in Desolation Row, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Who transform the water of Jimmy’s suicide into the water of rebirth, a baptism of the group with built-in aggression into the world of Love:
On the dry and dusty road
The nights we spent alone
I need to get back home to cool cool rain.
The nights are hot and black as ink
I can’t sleep and I lay and I think
Oh God, I need a drink of cool cool rain. . . .
Some revolutionaries get religion.
Quadrophenia implies repeatedly that the debacle of the seventies is directly attributable to failures of the sixties: excess, inconstancy, distraction, perhaps some of the old will to lose, an infatuation with youth and the moment. If something has gone wrong, if a new decade is a wasteland and the new generation is indeed the Blank Generation, if there is nothing in here moving (Dylan), if we honestly believe that
we blew it (Easy Rider), then we have only ourselves to blame.
We all get tired and feel the need to relax a bit.
The three men I admired most,
The father, son, and holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
At this time I feel I can no longer refuse myself the time and the leisure and the privacy to which any man is rightfully entitled.
I’ve just been lazy, Jann. I’ve been just getting by, so I haven’t really thought too much about putting out anything really new and different.
I just don’t have the energy to do it, to say it sucks.
So there sits the generation of the sixties, old at thirty, in a retirement home at thirty-five.
The sense of loss infuses virtually all other serious seventies works, albums like the Stones’ Some Girls and Bob Dylan’s magnificent Blood on the Tracks, and individual songs like Jackson Browne’s The Pretender and Paul Simon’s American Tune. Borrowing a melody from the Good Friday hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Simon examined the world he saw in 1973:
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the nation’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed . . .
American Tune is one of the most beautiful, insightful, important songs of the seventies, and Paul Simon’s analysis had much currency early in the decade. A little weary now, holding on, knocked around a bit much, gathering strength, he suggested, just resting up for another assault on the old order. Wait until tomorrow. Today I am resting. All I need is someone to awaken me, Graham Nash sang in his sixties retrospective, Wild Tales: Much of me has gone to sleep and I’m afraid to wake up.
Somewhere around Kent State and Altamont the generation of the sixties came up against the outer edge of possibility. It had gone further and Furthur, and then it had either to step over the edge or to turn around and come back. In the opinion of Quadrophenia, of American Tune, of Blood on the Tracks (an album of tremendous personal and public devastation), of Some Girls, and of many who lived through the sixties and seventies, we retreated. When it came time to make the big move, children of the sixties disappeared right back into the system they had made so much noise about leaving. They got tired and quit, or they got absorbed, or they got worn down, or they just got confused and thought they were going forward when in fact they were slip-sliding away.
Clearly they did not throw themselves upon the bayonets of the Establishment in two, three, many Columbias; two, three, many Kent States; two, three, many Chicagos. Although many just hunkered down in countryside anonymity, most of them work today on Maggie’s Farms everywhere, their thirsty boots and tired caps tossed somewhere in the closet, the open road something of a memory, all absorbed into the System’s tedium, Blacks with Whites, women (who traded Maggie’s Pa’s ranch house in the suburbs for one of Maggie’s Ma’s corporate operations in the city—for less freedom, and probably for not much more real pay) beside the men, young beside the old. The seventies are indeed times of lower expectations.
This is not to say that sixties people have changed their hearts entirely. It is merely to observe that they have become more private in their affairs, for whatever that brings. There is a difference between disappearing into the system and disappearing beyond it. If the Equal Rights Amendment failed because most people thought half the nation’s populace does not deserve equal rights, that is one major league problem; if it failed because large numbers of people thought that changing laws would not change much, although changing people might . . . well, that’s another thing entirely. Many sixties people came to that outer edge and stepped neither over it nor back from it, but through it. They internalized the revolution and ceased to care enough about externals even to protest against them.
Everybody’s just got to look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say ‘Fuck it.’ Instead of demanding humane social, political and economic structures or sensible educational programs or a just legal system, they determined to live humane, sensible, just lives themselves and let the systems happen as they happened. They began to worry about “quality of life”—their own free lives.
“We are leaving,” these people said publicly time and again, and they meant it. Now at last they have left. As non-participants they are responsible for the Public Zero of the seventies only in that they refuse to care enough about the Zero to rescue the times. The media are mindless because people with talent simply don’t care enough about television and radio and the movies to save them. Justice is a joke because folk who formerly would have kept it on its toes now fill their heads and lives with writing poems or throwing pots or refinishing furniture.
So the mentality of the sixties remains buried in the psyches of a million individuals. The values remain, but they are no longer public values. The times are dull; individuals are not.
There is, however, a danger in this internalized revolution: the times catch up with you. Sleep can last too long, become a habit, become not a rest but a forgetting.
The task of the new generation is to see the humanity in all men, and to work for the renewal, the rebirth, the return to life, of all men.
Internalized revolution leads to self-sufficiency, and thence to self-satisfaction, and thence to complacency, and thence to death. It is difficult to maintain private virtue in the face of public vice. It’s hard to remain individually alive and moving in a stagnant and repressive society. It’s dangerous to feed your own head, and maybe the heads of a few close friends, and leave the future of America to the seventies generation. It is unwise to become too private, to remain silent too long, lest the new generation lack teachers.
Periodically men must come from the shadows so that we and they and everyone else know that there are still men in the shadows, that the values remain alive, that the bow can be strung again at any moment and the bowman may at any time loose his arrows. We have a certain moral obligation, to ourselves and to our children, who deserve a better public climate than they have received.
And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow,
Let it be.
I think it is time we came from the shadows. It is time the values of the sixties became public values once more: energy, vision, charity, experimentation, variety, generosity, imagination, candor, community, impatience with injustice and with corruption and with sloth and with stupidity in high places.
What the generation needs to do is look behind, and then look ahead. In fact, it needs to look behind in order that it may look ahead. It needs to learn the proper use of the past.
We have a lot of past these days, a lot of the fifties and even a great deal of the sixties, in our music, our talk shows, our movies, our books. Nostalgia stalks the land like a raging lion, devouring whole populations. When we go looking for our old mentors, we need look no further than magazines, newspapers, and late-night television. They are all there, those who have not killed themselves, elder statesmen now, grand old men and women at the age of forty, trotted out to lend ceremonial weight to otherwise trivial occasions, or, more cynically, to make a few grand off the nostalgia boom. The less sophisticated act out their old roles, grotesque self-parodies, overweight and greying surfers. The more clever analyze their old personalities and the scene they once created. Few attempt to recreate not the old scene, but the old energy. Thus we find our lives filled with artifacts instead of ideas: old records, old interviews with the old heroes, histories of rock-‘n’-roll that draw no lessons and make no statements, a Rolling Stone tenth anniversary television special, a movie of the play of the album Sgt. Pepper, coffee table books with plenty of photos and stories about the old guys and Reader’s Digest-level perceptions, golden oldies programs without the uncomfortable ones, without Dylan, without Ochs, without the hard Beatles and Stones.
Our lives are full of pieces of the past, full of fragments of the fifties and sixties. But this is not the past we need: pure nostalgia is enervation. It is looking back without looking ahead. If we use our past only as nostalgia, we run the risk of becoming prisoners of old dreams and old triumphs.
Prisoners of weariness.
Prisoners of satisfaction.
Prisoners of cynicism and broken dreams.
Prisoners of age.
Prisoners of compromise.
Prisoners of responsibility and irresponsibility.
Prisoners of recrimination for all we are.
Prisoners of recrimination for all we are not.
Prisoners of history.
Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now, warned Stephen Stills in Suite: For Judy Blue Eyes. I have found that the more I talk about things, the less I do, stated Buffie Sainte-Marie in an interview. In reviving the past as nostalgia, we sacrifice the spirit of the sixties to artifacts of the sixties, which denies the very spirit of the times, which was forged out of an irreverence for history and myth and artifact. Our tradition, as a generation and as a nation, is a tradition of rebellion, innovation, cutting loose and breaking free. It is a tradition of no tradition, a tradition that throws tradition in the trash.
The past, old socialist-folksinger-poet Carl Sandburg used to say,
is a bucket of ashes. It would be consummate irony for a generation that began in open and glorious rebellion against the habits of its elders to entomb itself in its own habits.
What we need to recover from the sixties is the sense of public motion that made the decade happen, the capacity to act publicly and together, to move, to march, to say decisively “Now,” to impose ourselves upon our environment and clean up the times.
Our model, once again, must be Bob Dylan, the leader who knows we do not need leaders, who keeps refusing to be a leader, who keeps turning out to be a leader anyway. The old master constantly self-renewed, who himself slept momentarily at the beginning of the decade, who again and yet again during the seventies has tried to shake the times out of their sloth. First it was the heroic tour of 1974. Just when you thought you’d never see Dylan onstage again, there he was with some old songs and some new songs and a benediction for the people and the times: May you stay forever young.
For me, it’s just reinforcing those images in my head that were there, that don’t die, that will be there tomorrow, and in doing so for myself, hopefully, also for those people who also had those images . . . the same electric spark that went off back there could still go off again—the spark that had to be moving.
Then it was Rolling Thunder in 1975, no more of Dylan the deity up there in front of all those votive candles in the dark, just a spiritual reunion of early sixties people—Dylan, Baez, Dave Blue, Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg—to rekindle the spirit of community and commitment and movement these same people had set off a decade and a half earlier.
Everyone has some room on stage, Joan Baez told reporters.
Bob has sworn off attention for himself. The group played backup for individuals in the group, the songs were fresh and pointed, social commentaries (Oh Sister), political commentaries (Mozambique), personal confessions (Sara), even topical protests again (Hurricane). Good vibrations shook the Northeast and the Midwest and the South, and we got another remarkable Bob Dylan album, and you had a hope that perhaps, with Dylan and Jimmy Carter and Tom Hayden and Sam Brown, you know, maybe the ice was beginning to melt.
The thing is to keep the Rolling Thunder spirit alive, said Ginsberg.
And that is the thing, as Dylan discovered in 1978.
To remain, as Paul Simon put it, still crazy after all these years.
And that is the thing.
To remain irreverent, uncowed, unimpressed with power, unimpressed with authority, unimpressed with history, unimpressed with our own sweet selves. To remain
And that is the thing, that is the thing.
We need the past and the memory of the past; certainly we need a sense of history. But the past cannot become an album of photographs or a cabinet full of records that we can pull out and pop onto the music machine and, with any given song, retreat to the comfort of August 1965 or September 1968. The uses of the past are two: to inspire and to challenge. To remind us of what we are and to show us what we are capable of doing. To make us move, together, again. To make us throw ourselves passionately, heroically, communally against the institutions, against the repressions, against the bullshit times, against our own mortality.
What I’m asking you to do is take some risks. Stop paying war taxes, refuse the armed forces, organize against the air war, support the strikes and boycotts of farmers, workers and poor people, analyze the flag salute, give up the nation state, share your money, refuse to hate, be willing to work . . .in short, sisters and brothers, arm up with love and come from the shadows.
(It’s been a long and lonely winter)
America can move again, it will move again, whether in politics or in music or in the underground press or in something entirely different, in alternatives explored and unexplored, in alternatives yet to be conceived. And it will be the generation of the sixties—not the generation of the seventies—that will make America move, a generation older and wiser for its years, but still young, still crazy. I believe in that generation, in people in motion, in passion and intensity, as I believe in rock-‘n’-roll, as I believe in America, as I believe in the ultimate Yes of life. And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and life in the world to come.