Tell us, father, about the sixties.
A whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion
People in motion
Time it was, I have a photograph)
Photographs of the sixties flash through my memory: working with SNCC, sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in rural North Carolina with two white friends and a young black journalist, not being served, and refusing to leave until we were served, and still not being served, angry, righteous, anxious, desperate for the courage to continue the journey we had mapped out three hundred miles ago. Knocking on Philadelphia doors, passing out leaflets, and “just talking to people about the war” and about the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy for President of the United States. Rapping with Phil Ochs after a coffeehouse performance in Bryn Mawr. Teaching Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War at an antiwar teach-in in 1967. Hearing Sgt. Pepper, stoned, for the first time. Marching and talking and singing, in large groups and small, in front of cameras and in the solitude of the night, in Philadelphia and Washington and Appalachian villages, on the streets of London, Berlin, Paris, and Rome.
It is, although it has never known a depression or a world war, a tough generation. It arrived in the late forties to understaffed and overcrowded maternity wards and postwar economic dislocations. In childhood and adolescence it fought its way through schools unequipped to deal with either its numbers or its abilities. When, in the middle sixties, it went looking for a college education, it found too few seats in too few universities, so it busted ass to get in and busted ass to stay in. When, diplomas in hand, it went looking for work, it watched a seller’s market evaporate overnight and real income begin the protracted decline from which it has never recovered. Now it hustles jobs as it once hustled college dormitory rooms, fighting to hang in there.
When it comes to be buried, it will no doubt find short space at astronomical rent in America’s cemeteries.
Which will be no surprise, for it is a generation toughened by fighting for space in a world built two sizes too small, two decades too old.
A generation light on its feet, accustomed to dreaming, experimenting, building and rebuilding, hearing put-downs and watching retreats, and not getting too punched out of shape about them.
(It is in this respect unlike all other generations of native-born, white, middle-class Americans.)
It is a soft generation, kind and generous, contemptuous of this world’s goods as only people who take them for granted can be.
The best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known, wrote the author of the Cox Commission report on the disorders at Columbia University. It loves hard and plays hard, just as it works hard. It would like to be hopelessly romantic, just as it would like to be nonviolent, tolerant, and pure. But Vietnam, Charles Manson, and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, opened eyes and lumps on the head, have necessitated accommodations. “What we learned in the sixties,” a friend told me, “is to help people . . . and kick bastards in the balls.”
The generation that grew to maturity during the sixties is a generation given over to some of the noblest causes and some of the most indefensible nonsense in history. It is a generation of great faith and great folly.
It is a generation of experimental rebels. It began by rebelling against irritations close at hand, and before the decade was out the rebellion had spread to virtually all areas of American life. Most of all, it rebelled against the humdrum of middle-class life that annihilated the self in narrowness of vision and smallness of heart. In the end the rebellion of the sixties denied the very essence of Western civilization: liberalism, organization, morality, reason, and deferred gratification.
But negation stands, as William James observed, at the very core of life. While the generation of the sixties was busy denying, it was also busy creating visions by which life could breathe, visions of social justice and personal liberty, Edens of peace, love, freedom, and joy. No to racism meant yes to respect—if not fraternity—among the races. No to militarism was yes to social welfare; no to moral earnestness, an invitation to Rejoice. And the whole fractious, rebellious mass of the decade was lurching its irrational way toward some new and as yet incomplete becoming.
On the way, the generation of the sixties quarreled with everyone and everything—including itself. Weathermen split from Students for a Democratic Society, and women split from Weathermen. SNCC outradicaled the NAACP, and then the Black Panthers outradicaled SNCC. Bob Dylan split from protest folk music for rock-‘n’-roll, then split from rock for country, leaving at each exit booing fans and baying critics. Black Panthers denied drugs and flower children denied the Panthers. Abbie Hoffman and Pete Townshend, mythic embodiments of the new American and British orders, quarreled bitterly and openly at the Woodstock Festival, that emblem of the new consciousness, that celebration of love and understanding.
In Ramparts the more ideological New Left militants viciously attacked their ethereal hippie brethren as “liberals gone wild” and “bourgeoisie”:
They conform to the reactionary formula of vague protest, hopelessness and fatality. . . . Their work is essentially anarchistic; despairing and destructive . . . rooted in bourgeois individualism. Ramparts, in a critique of hippie culture, turned around the Family Dog motto (“May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind”—a men’s room graffito): “Open your mouth and shut your mind.”
For their part, counterculturalists often lumped New Left spokesmen with all other politicians, liberal and conservative, seeing in them only more empty politics and more tedious rhetoric. In introducing For What It’s Worth at the Golden Gate Park Vietnam Moratorium, Stephen Stills proclaimed the bankruptcy of all politics and the truth of his own music:
Politics is bullshit! Richard Nixon is bullshit! Spiro Agnew is bullshit! Our music isn’t bullshit!
In the great mix that was the sixties, two strong-willed and irreconcilable alter egos predominated. Hermann Hesse had identified both thirty years before in a novel that children of the sixties made their own: Narcissus and Goldmund. Narcissus, the father and the thinker, the monk, the disciplined moralist, stern and terrible and eternal. Goldmund, the child and the sensualist, the wandering poet and lover, the dreamer and quester locked in his own illusions, incoherence, and spirituality. Each recognizing in the other a completion of his own partial self, each reverencing yet challenging the other, the pair together resonating through periods of separation and conjunction, two truths that are one, two voices that are one. Children of the sixties recognized in both a portion of themselves and in the novel a portrait of their own psyches.
For all the decade’s multiplicity, in retrospect one grasps immediately, intuitively, that something did happen and continues even now to happen that sets people of the sixties apart from the fifties or seventies generations. But it is not the no or the yes, not the syllogisms of the New Left or the Dionysian vibrations of the West Coast: the heart of the sixties was motion and its concomitant, change. Motion made politicians out of folksingers, radicals out of pacifists, activists out of university professors, and dropouts out of businessmen and lawyers. It torched buildings and whole cities, clogged —if only momentarily—the wheels of the war machine, brought love and peace to the Haight, death to Kent State University. The sixties may have said no to everything including itself, but the greatest no of all was to stasis. On that everyone agreed. It was motion and change, constant change, change now, that made the sixties as heady and terrifying as they were.
I can’t take boring things.
In insisting on change as wholeheartedly and immediately and constantly as it did, the generation of the sixties insured nothing so much as its own exhaustion and eventually its own demise. People wearied of chaos and confusion. The built-in brakes described by Alvin Toffler in Future Shock are real and operative, and they grip us even today. The pendulum does swing, and ultimately the Lyndon Johnsons and Dick Daleys were right in sensing that all they had to do was outlast the kids in the street. The dream Of Woodstock turned almost inevitably into the nightmare of Altamont. The explosion of energies dissipated quickly into multiple causes, increasingly trivial, increasingly narrow, and increasingly untenable.
To tell the truth, whenever I hear anyone talking about instinct and being and the secrets of human energy, I get nervous; next thing you know he’ll be saying that violence is just fine, and then I begin wondering whether he really thinks that kicking someone in the teeth or sticking a knife between his ribs are deeds to be admired.
Motion generated motion, change followed upon change, escalating constantly, until the impossible was demanded as a matter of course. Ultimately the orgy of experimentation led from the modest demand of Dr. King for the right of blacks to vote and to ride in the front of the bus, through the adamant call by Black Panthers for freedom for all black people in federal, state, and city jails, to the theatrical absurdity of the Yippies (
Give me two hundred thousand dollars, and I’ll split town—Abbie Hoffman). Beyond “free everything” could lie nothing but a reassertion of Middle America, the silent majority, the sane center of blue-suited organizers and managers, the defenders of the establishment.
While he had existed in perpetual motion, Spector had been invincible. The moment he slowed down, he was lost.
But things are not so simple. If the sixties thought that a circle of chanting hippies could raise the Pentagon three hundred feet in the air or exorcise its demons, if they believed that flower power would have political force in terms of elected candidates and revised federal budgets, if they expected the seizure of a library here or a dean there to shake a university’s commitment to the Institute for Defense Analysis, then certainly the sixties are dead. However, if the essence of the sixties was not program per se but experimentation, gathering fresh evidence, doing a new and beautiful thing just to show how and that it can be done, then the sixties were not empty sound and fury. We discovered new myths, a new set of heroes and villains. The sixties gave us fresh ways of thinking and talking and behaving.
And we have the music.
A product of the new technology against which both the music and the sixties rebelled, which both it and the sixties took for granted, pop music is the most accurate reflection of the generation in motion. Folk, country, soul, but most of all rock are not merely a record of the age, they were the age in all its multiplicity.
For the reality of what’s happening today in America, we must go to rock-‘n’-roll, to popular music.
Rock and roll was the basic revolution to people of my age and situation.
Rock-‘n’-roll music is the energy center for all sorts of changes evolving rapidly around us: social, political, cultural, however you want to describe them. The fact is, for many of us who’ve grown up since World War II, rock-‘n’-roll provided the first revolutionary insight into who we are and where we are at in this country.
Besides being a lot of fun, rock and folk and soul music taught us the sixties, brought us vicariously to Woodstock, Berkeley, Washington, and San Francisco. Where is the sixties child who actually stood outside the gates of Berkeley in 1964 and again in 1969, at Columbia in 1968, at Montgomery in 1963, at Washington in 1963 and 1967, here, there, everywhere the histories and interviews and media recollections take us. He does not exist; certainly he is not you or I.
Moreover, our chronologies are fuzzed. We came at different times to the Movement.
I never read newspapers until 1968, recalls one child of the decade,
and I stopped again in 1970/71. How was she to know on March 24, 1965, that a teach-in had been held at the University of Michigan that would set the tone and structure for much anti-war protest over the next five years? She could not. She did not. And neither did most of America’s youth—not even those passionately committed to the peace movement. In time, of course, she attended a teach-in. Somewhere, sometime. But not in Ann Arbor on March 24, 1965. And whatever was said and done on that date by Dr. Spock, Senator Gruening, Norman Thomas, Norman Mailer, Dick Gregory, Malvina Reynolds, and Phil Ochs, though it may have been archetypal, was simply not a part of her experience. The arc of history is a fabrication.
At this point the music of the sixties saves us. It offers the most accurate record of persons and places and spirits. More important, it provides a common history. We may not have been in Montgomery, Alabama, but we have all sung or heard sung We Shall Overcome. We Shall Overcome created a sense of unity among diverse peoples and purposes, a community of pacifists and hippies and whites and blacks, a bridge between 1962 and 1969. The songs of the sixties give support to sixties history and sociology.
For most children of the sixties, music is inseparable even today from action. Bopping at the hop was itself a form of teenage rebellion. The curious moral ambivalence of a protest demonstration yoked with a folk or a rock concert makes no sense at all, nor does the screaming of fans at a concert for starving children in Bangladesh. But middle-class white youth of the sixties borrowed a tradition from the poor and the disenfranchised of other ages and other cultures, and college libraries across the country were seized to the strain of guitars.
Greetings and welcome Rolling Stones, our comrades in the desperate battle against the maniacs who hold power. The revolutionary youth of the world hears your music and is inspired to even more deadly acts. We fight in guerrilla bands against the invading imperialists in Asia and South America, we riot at rock-‘n’-roll concerts everywhere: We burned and pillaged in Los Angeles and the cops know our snipers will return. . . .
We will play your music in rock-‘n’-roll marching bands as we tear down the jails and free the prisoners, as we tear down the State schools and free the students, as we tear down the military bases and arm the poor. . . .
The music of the sixties was very much aware of its role, self-critically aware, making itself a news bulletin board, interpreting and arguing in song the way medieval scholastics debated in Latin, denouncing imposters and poseurs, commenting on itself as participant and reporter: Dylan’s My Back Pages (1964), the Who’s Quadrophenia (1973), the Stones’ Street Fighting Man (1968). White Panther leader John Sinclair’s proposed symbol of
the particular nature of our movement for the liberation of the youth colony was two crossed sticks representing
a rifle (on the left) and a guitar (on the right), with a peace pipe full of the righteous sacrament crossing them and bringing those two elements together. We can’t have the guitar without the gun or we won’t survive, we can’t have the gun without the guitar or else we’d just be more of the same old shit we are trying to do away with; and without the sacrament that gives us our vision neither the guitar nor the gun would amount to anything worthwhile.
We have to differentiate between songs that really make a point like Hattie Carroll and songs that make vague philosophical points that can be taken any way by anybody.
The sixties live on in music. The songs do not merely survive, they continue to speak, to vibrate. The movies are quaint, television is pathetic. Most of the books are dead, from Soul on Ice to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to The Greening of America to Steal This Book.
But the music lives, in record shops and private collections and golden oldies programs. In K-TEL’s forty-nine oldies for only $6.95, $8.95 tapes, care of this station, not available in any record store. On warm spring days blasting from college dorm windows. That’s where the sixties are found, the mythology and the commotion of the great decade. It’s still sung, still played, still believed despite the years, creating its own synapse through time.
Those who came of age during the sixties find in each song a moment and an attitude we cannot bury, a contact with the self and an experience with others, a vision we can dance at the flip of a record changer.
And to those who ask wide-eyed about the great, good times, who have unlearned in so short a period all that once seemed precious, who have sold out or been sold out or perhaps have just not understood—for you I switch on the record machine, to see whether you will dance, to see whether your feet will move and your asses fidget and your brain bounce, maybe to show you a vision and trace its birth and death, to brag a little. To remind you.
So listen all up, right away, children, give ear. Let us have at it a while, let us crank up our brains and our record machines real loud, and let us hear what is to be heard and learn what is to be learned and let the good times roll all night long.