It was good for a time; then we went so far that we lost it.
Overwhelming as the establishment loomed, it was not pop shlock alone that ultimately undid rock—and the counterculture—at the close of the sixties, but three inside enemies: artiness, absurdity, and excess. The drive toward artistic expression took children of the sixties out of the arena of real social and political struggle, and into the fairy-tale world of hypothetical people, problems, and solutions. The late sixties sense of the absurd—however justified by the madness of the world—leveled indiscriminately, until any commitment seemed futile. And the excesses of artists, revolutionaries, and drug freaks led not to more freedom now but to a conservative reassertion of the safe, sane, Republican center.
You’ve got yourself to blame.
The least expected, least guarded against internal flaw was the tendency of the counterculture to turn itself into (self-conscious) pop art and of rock music to turn itself into fine art. What fine art has become in the twentieth century is too often obscure art about art, or pure style. In reviewing “The Lollipopping of the West” for the New York Times in 1977, England’s George Steiner talked about modern art:
The claim that the modern arts have completely rejected common human needs and understanding is silly. But there is something to the widespread sentiment that ordinary men and women, in their daily existence, can no longer draw from the great springs of the imagination the strengths, the delights, the bracing hopes they once did.
Paintings are opaque scrawls; sculptures seem to be lumps of ugly matter; music banishes melody. Modern writing is so often autistic, technically demanding, defensive (the schism between poet and public, which dates back to Baudelaire and Mallarme, has not been healed).
Such is indeed the case. And was certainly the case during the sixties, when the counterculture, which initially had been gloriously indifferent to fine art, began moving in all of its aspects in the direction of artiness. Political rappings turned into the Theater of Ideas. Rock guitarists became musicians. Rock concerts became theatrical or operatic performances. Rock lyrics became, or attempted to become, poetry.
I sincerely believe in the generalization that there is not very much of what I would call valid artistic expression, you know, anything to do with a higher plane of expression, in any present-day progressive or rock music. In most cases it hasn’t even reached the point of being a true craft, which is a stage through which it must go before it can become art.
In the long run, the Beatles were not good for rock-‘n’-roll. —Nik Cohn, Rock from the Beginning, 1969
As the sixties unfolded, rock—real rock—grew increasingly obsessed with becoming an art. This trend had several effects on rock, some of them good, many of them detrimental. For one thing, rock became much more sophisticated musically, lyrically, structurally, in every way imaginable. To a point this development was healthy because you can go only so far on three chords, “let’s dance, do-wop.” And by incorporating new sounds, new styles, and new instruments rock opened new worlds to the generation of the sixties. For another thing, art is sometimes the only form of subversion tolerated by the uncomprehending toughs hired by the establishment to defend itself. So artiness might not have been such a bad tendency but for some other effects it had on rock.
Like squaring it with the critics and teachers, who often legitimize what has been revolutionary. When the Beatles are taught in schools, cooed over by serious music critics, and published in poetry anthologies, you know that something’s been lost for something gained.
Or like consuming in the creation of art energies that might better have been expended in creating real social or political alternatives. Sixties life was being intellectualized. Art rock tended to produce discontented thinkers. Simple, proletarian rock-‘n’-roll produced discontented doers. Substitute one for the other, and there goes your motion.
The great moment of awakening, when the sixties suddenly realized that rock could have form and shape, could be an artifice, could fill itself up with imagery and metaphor and tensions and ambiguities, was the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it was the folk music flowering of the early sixties, and folksinger Bob Dylan in particular, that underlay Sgt. Pepper and rock’s impulse to become art.
This is not to say that folk music, protest songs, or even the young Dylan were inherently artsy. In fact, all three were anti-artsy, preferring homemade, unpolished simplicity to the sophistication of professional art. Folk music is nothing if not un-self-conscious; protest songs obviously place social considerations ahead of aesthetic concerns; and folksingers, Bob Dylan included, always try their best to be untutored hayseeds from the North Country. Dave van Ronk recalled Dylan blown in from the Midwest:
Being a hayseed, that was part of his image, or what he considered his image at the time. Like, once I asked him,Do you know the French symbolists?and he said,Huh?—the stupidestHuh?you can imagine—and later, when he had a place of his own, I went up there and on the bookshelf was a volume of French poets from Nerval to the present. I think it ended at Apollinaire, and it included Rimbaud, and it was all well-thumbed with passages underlined and notes in the margins. The man wanted to be a primitive, a natural kind of genius. He never talked about somebody like Rimbaud. But he knew Rimbaud all right. You see that in his later songs.
As long as the folk songs themselves remained old border ballads, union songs, and Woody Guthrie dust bowl laments, the quality of the music was largely untouched by its environment. But when the popular verdict came down, around 1962, in favor of allowing folksingers to perform their own material—written in the middle of the Village in the middle of the twentieth century—then the door was opened to a new kind of folk music. Then the climate of the Village and the college campus—intellectually charged, artistically sophisticated—would almost inevitably infiltrate not only folk music but the mind of the nation as well.
Folk music’s inherent emphasis on words as meaning turned popular music in the direction of art and poetry. Fifties rock-‘n’-roll was rarely big on words. With the conspicuous exception of Chuck Berry, most rockers viewed them as something to hang, well, not a tune but some noise on. That was groovy, but it would never be poetry or art. Folk songs come closer to art just because their lyrics are more central to their message, so folksingers spend more time on their words. In fact, ballads and blues lyrics and other folk songs have been considered poetry (“art”) for some time now by curators who relegate pop music, including rock-‘n’-roll, to the kitsch heap. Rock lyrics approached art only after the Byrds fused folk and rock in 1965.
(The folk music they chose to electrify leaned heavily on Bob Dylan, who by 1965 was well into his French symbolist period. Musically the Byrds had a hard, crisp edge that sounded very artistic.)
The proto-poetic qualities of folk music can be seen in Michael Row the Boat Ashore, which the Highwaymen sang into the top ten in 1961.
River Jordan is chilly and cold,
Chills the body but not the soul,
The song is allusive, symbolic, understated, loaded with hidden meaning. Like traditional folk music it’s slightly biblical, slightly rural, and slightly dated. The same thing could be said of Poor Wayfaring Stranger and House of the Rising Sun and most of the other folk songs that filled the song bags of Village folkniks in the early sixties.
The intensification of poetic qualities in folk music by the climate of the sixties is obvious. You can’t help connecting Bob Dylan’s story about playing an East Orange coffeehouse, where he was constantly interrupted by chess players and he dreamed of being paid in chess pieces (the story, with a muffed punch line, is recorded on a bootleg tape), with his song on the death of Medgar Evers: Only a Pawn in Their Game. It becomes obvious where Dylan got his metaphor, and it becomes obvious just how much the Village environment influenced folk music.
Other Dylan folk songs are nearly English class exercises in such standard poetic techniques as symbol, simile, metaphor, irony, and alliteration. In Blowin’ in the Wind the symbols are so conventional as to hurt: white dove (peace) and cannon balls (war), roads and seas (hardship). In A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, the imagery is more original and more prominent. Word pictures hang like clusters of ripe grapes, a whole handful in each stanza, a potential song in each line. Fresh or clichéd, however, the images and metaphors are everywhere, along with ironies and ambiguities, and rhyme and alliteration, pictures in pure sound—everything, in short, Dylan needed to make him the poet he wanted to be.
Other Village folksingers were busy transforming folk music into poetry. Phil Ochs, at the time Dylan’s peer, was a major source of topical protest lyrics and another repository of imagery, rhyme, alliteration, and hidden meaning (but not too hidden, since Ochs was writing protest songs). Paul Simon, English major, former rock-‘n’-roller, part-time folksinger, was beginning to write his own poetic folk songs, very strongly influenced by the themes and techniques he had studied in college. And his partner, Art Garfunkel, was critiquing Simon’s work in prose that sounded suspiciously like literary criticism:
I confess that Bleecker Street (finished in October 1963) was too much for me at first. The song is highly intellectual, the symbolism extremely challenging. The opening line in which the fog comes like a “shroud” over the city introduces the theme of “creative sterility.” But it is the second verse which I find particularly significant:
Voices leaking from a sad cafe,
Smiling faces try to understand;
I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand
On Bleecker Street.
The first line is a purely poetic image. The second touches poignantly on human conditions of our time.
In 1964 Simon wrote Sounds of Silence, an elaboration of the failure-to-communicate theme broached in Bleecker Street and a (delayed) hit with the college set. In 1965, with I Am a Rock, Simon was recognized as a folk rock poet.
By the time 1966 arrived, rock lyrics—well, some rock lyrics—were well on their way to being poems, and thus art. Ralph Gleason, soon to become a pillar of Rolling Stone magazine, wrote in the album notes to Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966):
The New Youth of the Rock Generation has done something in American Popular song that has begged to be done for generations.
It has taken the creation of the lyrics and the music out of the hands of the hacks and given it over to the poets. . . .
That Simon and Garfunkel—and the other representatives of the new generation’s songwriters, an elite which includes Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Sebastian, Marty Balin, Dino Valenti, Tim Hardin,
Al Kooper, Smokey Robinson, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, John Phillips and others—have succeeded in putting beauty and truth and meaning into popular song, fractures the stereotyped adult view that the music of youth is at best only trivial rhymes and silly teen-age noise, and at worst offensive.
This generation is producing poets who write songs, and never before in the sixty-year history of American popular music has this been true.
Although others were willing to debate the issue—most notably Robert Christgau, Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe), which appeared in Cheetah in 1967—rock was clearly headed in the direction of poetry by the end of 1966. In fact, the Byrds had taken some verses from Ecclesiastes (Turn, Turn, Turn), Simon and Garfunkel had copped a poem from E. A. Robinson (Richard Cory), and Phil Ochs had set to music an Edgar Allen Poe poem (The Bells). Bob Dylan had written Desolation Row (1965), with its reference to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower and its imagery (mermaids singing below the sea) borrowed from Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And he had written Love Minus Zero/No Limit (1965), with its fire and ice imagery borrowed from Frost’s Some say the world will end in fire, / Others say in ice.
The man is his own man, has his own statement to make and makes it. He’s a universal poet. He’s not trying to be white or colored. The man is just a great poet. And I admire him very much.
(It is a little-known fact that in addition to his pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie, Dylan also made a pilgrimage in 1964 to Carl Sandburg, retired in North Carolina:
You’re Carl Sandburg. I’m Bob Dylan. I’m a poet too.)
Paul Simon had written Dangling Conversation (1966), with its reference to poets Frost and Dickinson, and A Simple Desultory Philippic, with poets Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Poet Leonard Cohen had set his poem Suzanne to a folkish tune, and singer Judy Collins had recorded it on In My Life (1966).
None of these borrowed poems and none of the references to literature class poets seemed particularly out of place because rock lyrics had become poems themselves or as like poems as to make the differences negligible. The fact, of course, was not recognized at the time, and most art rock came packaged somewhat inaccurately as folk rock. It was not widely played on AM radio, so it did not crack many of the top-forty lists; however, it had an enormous following on college campuses and among pop musicians, many of whom did enjoy substantial AM air play and had collected vast legions of fans. This mid-sixties art rock was influential out of all proportion to its record sales and—after the Beatles came over in 1966 and 1967—proved to be the cutting edge of sixties rock.
Many of these songs of the late 1964 to late 1966 period remain even today some of the best art rock available. They are mature without being overripe, artistic without being artsy, poetic without being overly sophomoric or overly opaque.
The best of it came from Dylan—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde: Subterranean Homesick Blues, Gates of Eden, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Memphis Blues Again, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and a couple of dozen others that Dylan freaks know by heart, long years after their release.
John Lennon once claimed that he didn’t get most poetry, but he always understood Dylan, there was never any shadow, it was all right there. And this is true, even if it’s surreal and beyond explanation on a “first this, and then this, and then this” basis. But Dylan’s lyrics from this time are also intensely personal. He belongs with the so-called confessional poets (Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell), who look in to look out. Like a Rolling Stone is first and foremost about Bob Dylan. And Maggie’s Farm and Visions of Johanna as well. Dylan had left the protest movement, which was busy pointing fingers at other people, and had begun to point a finger at himself. He had departed from external reality for the landscape of his own soul, the smoke rings of his own mind.
Most of these are songs of personal torment and frustration, loaded with absurdist vision and strange apocalypse and obvious paranoia. They are filled with hate, ridicule, and scorn, but it’s all internally directed. For all the talk of departure and escape, there are too few moments of actual freedom, too little exaltation of the Like a Rolling Stone variety. Often the escape is into art (
the harmonicas play the skeleton keys that spring Dylan in Visions of Johanna; the Tambourine Man’s magic swirling ship is first and before all else a tambourine), and often it is only partially satisfactory.
More often there is no exit at all. Better climb down a manhole, Dylan concluded in Subterranean Homesick Blues. Can this really be the end? he asked desperately in Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. In Desolation Row he had lost even the desire to escape.
As portraits of frustration, these songs were somewhat ahead of the times. It is true that the nation felt confusion and frustration following the assassination of President Kennedy: Lyndon Johnson was an unknown quantity, and the tremendous uplift Camelot had given the national psyche was neutralized in an absurd, totally incomprehensible instant. For one blinding, unnerving blink, the irrationality of things had been made unmistakably clear. Even strong men winced. Civil rights, the Peace Corps, all the other dreams of social reconstruction hung precariously. Chaos threatened.
But failed to materialize. Not in 1964. Not to the extent suggested by Desolation Row or Stuck inside of Mobile. Next to 1968, 1964 was good times politically, socially, economically. The insanity of Dylan’s lyrics, though certainly a foreshadowing of the apocalypse to come, stemmed more from his own personal problems as a reluctant and confused leader, and from the nightmare visions of the poets he was imitating, than from social realities.
Some rock artists of the 1964-1966 period imitated Dylan’s dark vision. In 1966 Phil Ochs wrote Crucifixion, an allegorical elegy on the death of John Kennedy, with obvious transmutation of politician into Christ figure:
Then his message gathers meaning, and it spreads across the land.
The rewarding of the fame is the following of the man.
But ignorance is everywhere and people have their way,
And success is an enemy to the losers of the day.
In the shadows of the churches who knows what they pray.
And blood is the language of the band. So dance, dance, dance, teach us to be true.
Come dance, dance, dance; ‘cause we love you.
In an allegory that swept across two thousand years of history, Ochs traced the process of co-option. His only consolation lay in the cyclical nature of this process: Crucifixion ends where it began, with the birth of a new hero and a new sacrifice.
(The critics were unimpressed.
To the land of the art song [Ochs] is certainly a stranger, chirped Boston Broadside. However, teachers of poetry rallied to Crucifixion, including it in two or three late sixties anthologies of modern poetry.)
The most remarkable aspect of Crucifixion, however, is the elaborate musical arrangement by Ian Freebairn-Smith and Joseph Byrd and the baroque production job by Larry Marks: atonality, electronic gadgetry, strings, brass—all the developing artiness of art rock. (And, shades of things to come, a significant step in the transformation of protest into art.) The music sounds cosmic, descending out of and then receding into the great recesses of the galaxy to reflect the concentration and then the diffusion of holy goodness in the sacrificial victim. Crucifixion is a good poem and an involving head trip.
Yet it was the Beatles who were crucial to the development and popularization of artiness in rock music. For better or worse, their conversion to art rock turned all of rock into self-conscious art around 1968, which is exactly why people who liked their music heavy, loud, and mindless, expressed ambivalence toward the mop tops and their effects on rock-‘n’-roll. Dylan commanded the musicians and the intelligentsia; the Beatles commanded everyone—in England, in America, around the world. And in the middle sixties they commanded absolutely: where they led, their audiences would follow without hesitation.
The albums Rubber Soul (December 1965), Yesterday and Today (June 1966), and Revolver (August 1966), and songs like Nowhere Man (February 1966), Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby (August 1966), All You Need Is Love (October 1966), and Strawberry Fields Forever (February 1967) were seminal. Somewhere between game and earnest, the Beatles moved from the amateur, formulaic, lyrically and musically limited I Want to Hold Your Hand and I’m Happy Just to Dance with You to the realm of the serious song.
The best of these memorable tunes, wrote Ned Rorem in the New York Review of Books in 1968,
compare with those by composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc.
The remarkable song Tomorrow Never Knows, wrote Wilfrid Mellers in 1967,
begins with jungle noises very similar to Coleman’s or Coltrane’s ‘free’ jazz, and employs both vocal and instrumental techniques which we may find both in Ornette Coleman and in Stockhausen! Richard Poirier summed things up for readers of the Partisan Review in 1968:
Well, sometimes they are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s.
Then I was consciously writing poetry, and that’s self-conscious poetry.
The Beatles’ thematic range had expanded immeasurably: from handholding and dancing they moved on to taxmen and paperback writers, nowhere men and pill doctors, and the (bittersweet) human condition. Love was more ambiguous, less naive, and certainly more than just holding hands. Lovers quarreled, girls teased, affairs came and went with all the magic and all the impermanence of Norwegian Wood. Some people never loved at all, living like Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie within a world of each other. Philosophically the Beatles had grown up.
As their range of subjects broadened, the Beatles’ technique—musical and verbal—also developed. Quickly. Instrumentation became increasingly exotic, increasingly arty. The sitar was introduced in Norwegian Wood, the cello in Eleanor Rigby. Rhythms and chord progressions became increasingly subtle, increasingly rich. Lyrics broke out of the simple stanza-refrain form, or the old Tin Pan Alley pattern of melody A, repeated melody A, melody B, and then melody A again. Lennon’s “Joycean verbal play” (the phrase is Poirier’s) became increasingly prominent and increasingly subtle (She Said She Said), with the result that
no one is ever in danger of reading too much into the lyrics of their songs (again Poirier). Most obviously, the Beatles began offering explicit philosophizing on the one hand (Turn off your mind; relax and float downstream) and hard, concrete, visual details on the other (picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been). Early Beatles lyrics are noteworthy in their avoidance of concrete images, literary allusions (like, for example, the pennies on the dead man’s eyes in Taxman), and heavy themes. Their songs from Revolver-Rubber Soul days are full of all three. The Beatles were writing poems, serious songs.
The Beatles themselves were not all that holy about their art, however, not even about the great songs like Norwegian Wood and Strawberry Fields Forever and Eleanor Rigby. Or, to extend the narrative into the golden age of sixties art rock, about all those other complexities on Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper and the white album of 1968. John Lennon:
It’s nice when people like it, but when they start “appreciating” it, getting great deep things out of it, making a thing of it, then it’s a lot of shit. It proves what we’ve always thought about most sorts of so-called art. It’s all a lot of shit. . . . It all becomes a big con.
We’re a con as well. They’ve given us the freedom to con them. Let’s stick that in there, we say, that’ll start them puzzling. I’m sure all artists do, when they realize it’s a con. I bet Picasso sticks things in. I bet he’s been laughing his balls off for the last eighty years.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite—the Beatles tell us straight-facedly—came directly off a wall poster. Good Morning, Good Morning was a television commercial. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was from a drawing by John’s son Julian. Hunter Davies’s biography is full of stories of how Beatles lyrics supposedly got composed: John and Paul have a tune and a name, A Little Help from My Friends. John sings, Are you afraid when you turn out the lights? Paul suggests a song that is a series of questions and adds, Do you believe in love at first sight? Then, No, it hasn’t got the right number of syllables. What do you think? Can we split it up and have a pause to give an extra syllable? Then Paul comes up with Do you believe in a love at first sight? John sings it back and adds, Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time. Then they are stuck and they begin “larking around,” stomping out Can’t Buy Me Love and Tequila. Then John’s back with What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine follows easily. Then more horsing around, and they call Ringo to tell him the song is done, which it is not, and off they go to the EMI studios. And that’s how With a Little Help from My Friends, a very important song in the story of Sgt. Pepper and his band, got composed.
Lennon and McCartney are the only rock songwriters who combine high literacy (as high as Dylan’s or Simon’s) with an eye for concision and a truly contemporary sense of what fits.
So the Beatles became artists. And if the collective wisdom of a generation of pop critics is to be trusted, they became very good artists, maybe in spite of themselves, maybe just by sticking things in. And thus it was that the Beatles, and rock, and the sixties came to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released to an expectant world on June 1, 1967.
Sgt. Pepper was the album of the decade. It contained more instruments, more tracks, more concrete images, more word play, more metaphysics, more money and time (the first Beatles album took one day and £400 to record; Sgt. Pepper took four months and £25,000). The rhyme and meter and rhythm (and tone) are complicated, the old Tin Pan Alley AABA form warped far out of recognizable shape.
For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques Fair
What a scene.
Over men and horses hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K.
Will challenge the world!
Perhaps most unusual, Sgt. Pepper is not simply a collection of hit singles or of potential hit singles: it has a beginning and an end and a middle, a central idea, a governing metaphor. It told a story. It was a concept album.
We realized. . . . that someday someone would actually be holding a thing that they’d call “the Beatles’ new LP” and that normally it would just be a collection of songs or a nice picture on the cover, nothing more. So the idea was to do a complete thing that you could make what you liked of; just a little magic presentation. We were going to have a little envelope in the center with the nutty things you can buy at Woolworth’s: a surprise packet.
The notion of a concept album is self-conscious and artsy. But when the concept of the album is what everyone called “the Beatles’ Waste Land” a thematic and structural equivalent of Eliot’s poem, there is less madness and more art in the wind.
In the waning months of 1967, throughout 1968, and on into 1969 came the whirlwind of art rock. The generation had come philosophically and musically of age and it was ready. (A few joints or a tab of acid didn’t hurt any, either.) Rock exploded in lush images and lusher arrangements. Album covers turned to rococo ornamentation, and lyric poems were routinely printed either on jackets or on inserts. Here was Poetry with a capital P, Art with a capital A.
Some was good and some was bad. Some was good for rock and for the sixties; some was not so good because now the dangers of artiness showed more clearly than they had before.
The first and most obvious danger was that art lured some very solid folksingers or rock-‘n’-rollers who just weren’t cut out to be artists in the Beatles’ or Dylan’s or Simon’s fashion and who fell disastrously, embarrassingly on their faces trying to be artsy. The Rolling Stones are an important case in point. Mick Jagger is not John Lennon, and the Stones chose to break from producer Andrew Loog Oldham and go it on their own at the very moment they chose to follow the Beatles into high art; the result was Their Satanic Majesties Request, a flop on all counts. Suddenly the songs are full of images and colors. The album jacket features a three-dimensional photo of wizard Jagger and his psychedelic companions among the flowers and the planets (more the fool on the hill than a mystical Sgt. Pepper). The air is thick with Eastern mysticism, a result of the Maharishi and a Taoist classic Jagger had been reading called The Secret of the Golden Flower (or was it simply debased George Harrison?).
The poetry is strictly junior high school; the jamming, mediocre. The cops from Sgt. Pepper are obvious on a first listening: the dubbed bits and electronic distortions of On with the Show, the use of Sing This Song Together to open and close side one of the album (as the Beatles had used Sgt. Pepper to frame their album), similarities between She’s a Rainbow and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. And for a theme, the two human companies of the damned and the elect, a kind of Eleanor Rigby-Yellow Submarine set piece.
Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, called the album a culmination of
all the pretentious, nonmusical, boring, insignificant, self-conscious and worthless stuff that’s been tolerated during the past year, and as far as the Stones’ music was concerned, he was right. In the fall of 1968 they got themselves together and hired a producer and returned with Beggar’s Banquet to the mother lode of rhythm and blues: Love in Vain, Prodigal Son, Midnight Rambler.
(The aftereffects, however, were some time in wearing off. Street Fighting Man, from Beggar’s Banquet, straddles a thin line between actual violence in the streets and violence sublimated into playing for a rock-‘n’-roll band. It is coy the way earlier Stones songs are not coy.)
Joan Baez was another not really suited to high art. She was magic singing a folk song and starlight doing young Bob Dylan’s protest songs. But Baptism (1968), subtitled “A Journey through Our Time,” was not a good idea for either Joan or the times: a collection of songs and poems designed to be a collage of the age, a portrait-anthology in poetry. All the important names are there: Whitman, Ferlinghetti, Joyce, Blake, Rimbaud, Rexroth, Yevtushenko, cummings, García Lorca, even John Donne (No Man Is an Island) and Countee Cullen. But it did not, could not generate the kind of reaction Baez’s earlier work had produced. (Neither could Any Day Now, an album full of Dylan’s songs, also released in 1968. The interpretation of songs like I Pity the Poor Immigrant, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and Dear Landlord is shallow, and it proved again that nobody sings Dylan like Dylan except maybe the Byrds.)
The second danger of increased artiness was obscurity.
Obscurity, of course, has been a problem in all modern art: people just do not understand modern art, and artists rebelling against being expected to be understood make it a point to defy understanding. Most poets—during the sixties especially—seemed to pride themselves on their obscurity. The imagistic poem made it particularly difficult at times to tell the difference between a work of genius and pretentious imitation. Until the end of 1967, art rock had been intent mostly on making a statement. It made its statements subtly, indirectly, with a sophistication absent in earlier rock-‘n’-roll, but it made statements. After the close of 1967, art rock became more obscure.
This trend is fairly obvious in the work of rockers trying to be artists, say, the Rolling Stones in Satanic Majesties. It is less obvious in a song by, say, the Beatles, who generally made good sense. But the Beatles came increasingly to offend in this matter of obscurity, in albums like Abbey Road (1969) and in songs like I Am the Walrus (1967): Crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess boy you been a naughty girl. This makes no sense. Overdub it a few times with somebody chanting everybody’s a hunchback or everybody turn on or turn me on, dead man or whatever he was chanting (a question the answer to which lies lost in the cistern of Beatles’ history), and somebody else reading from Shakespeare’s King Lear (a serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress as badness would desire. What, is he dead? Sit you down, father, rest you.), and somebody else mumbling God knows what about the English garden, and you have a small monument to sticking bits in. I Am the Walrus falls just short of being a parody of art rock because it demands we take it seriously. Which makes it closest of any major Beatles lyric to pure poetic pretense.
Just as obscure are songs like Cream’s White Room (1968) and Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale (August 1967), set to J. S. Bach’s Sleepers Awake.
She said “There is no reason,
And the truth is plain to see,”
But I wandered through my playing cards And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might just as well been closed.
This is all very literary, to be sure. So is Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses. And very subtle musically, with the Bach and all. Blood, Sweat, and Tears were musically sophisticated, too, with Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie (1969). But what was being said?
Maybe it would be more accurate to accuse the Beatles and Cream and Procol Harum and BS&T of pretension rather than deliberate obscurity. A lot of people considered the Doors pretty pretentious, especially when they took an old Morrison high school poem titled Horse Latitudes and read it to audiences and purchasers of their second album, released in October 1967. Or when they filled their lyrics with Freudian symbols and sexual imagery and Lennonesque word play (She’s a Twentieth Century Fox, oh yes she is . . .).
Most pretentious of all, however, was Van Dyke Parks, the king of sixties artiness, whose ambitious Song Cycle was released in November 1967 after seven months of production and plenty more money than Warner Records ever made from it. Parks had earned his shot at an album by writing and producing songs for Harper’s Bizarre and by collaborating with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson on the great lost album of rock music, reportedly highly artistic and slightly pretentious itself, tentatively called Smiles, never seen or heard except for a single tantalizing Wilson-Parks fragment, Heroes and Villains, on the Smiley Smile album. Parks was a session man of undisputed talent, burdened with a certain musical and philosophical profundity. When he got his chance, he blew it big.
Song Cycle credits no fewer than sixty-five musicians, not including engineers, “musical advisor and conductor,” “contractor,” and sound effects men. It features a violin solo and a viola solo, a harp, four percussionists, a couple of dozen strings, half a dozen woodwinds, and reeds, brass, an accordion, a few balalaikas, drummers drumming, pipers piping, and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s got everything you can think of, and it sounds as little like rock music as do the Moody Blues’ offerings. If you listen closely you can pick out musical allusions to Beethoven, Debussy, Ives, Stravinsky, Bartok, Mahler, Stockhausen, Nearer My God to Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Star-Spangled Banner, saloon piano, silent movie music, Hollywood film music circa 1947, Hawaiian serenades, blue-grass and Black Jack Daisy, sung by Steve Young of Gadsden, Alabama. Its lyrics are a verbal analogue of its music: neo-waste land, full of vaulting fragments, juxtapositions, ironies, and ambiguities.
Back to the academically beautiful, observed Sandy Pearlman, looking back at the album in 1970.
And we note that the ideal for this stuff’s words is most of the poetry we had to learn in the seventh through twelfth grades. Perhaps that explains its high dullness potential.
(Song Cycle was Parks’s first and last album.)
A third problem with art rock was that it tended to emasculate the movement for social reform. This is important because rock and folk protest traditionally had worked to strengthen social and even political revolution. Rock made you dance, and sometimes it made you smash things. Folk protest made you march and shout. It made you angry. But art rock tended to tangle you in complexities and engage your mind rather than your fists.
Paul Simon’s The Boxer, for example, is really a protest song, and a warning, and a demand that something be done. The poor boy has been kicked around, used and abused, bought off time and again for a pocketful of mumbles, lies, and jests. No job, no bread, no clothes, just the bleeding New York winters. And yet underneath the wiped out, docile, impotent exterior lurks a fighter who remembers every cut and every bruise and every embarrassment and is one day gonna even up the score. There is something totally unnerving in the “lie la-lie” chorus as it grinds to a tooth-rattling crescendo, and maybe for just an instant you sense what Simon is trying to say. But The Boxer is a subtle song and a work of art. It makes its point obliquely, and there is a very real danger that its point is missed entirely, and what happens then? (The same might be said of other songs on Bridge over Troubled Water, like So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright or El Condor Pasa.) So if the protest is lost in the art, then isn’t maybe an earlier, less artistic work like Sparrow or Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. a better song? Or one more useful to the movement for social reform?
The same argument, of course, could be made for Bob Dylan’s art protest songs like Subterranean Homesick Blues and Highway 61 Revisited. It could also be made about the Jefferson Airplane’s Sgt. Pepper-influenced concept album After Bathing at Baxters (1968), in a song like Rejoyce. War is good business, so invest your son, sings Gracie Slick satirically, and it should be impossible to miss the point. Except that there is so much else going on in the song, most of it having to do with artiness, that the antiwar message gets lost in the explanation that Rejoyce means “re Joyce,” that is, James Joyce, author of Ulysses, which contains characters named Stephen (that’s the Stephen mentioned in the line Stephen won’t give his arm to no ghost on mother’s farm) and Molly Bloom, who is having an affair with a man named Blazes Boylan (also mentioned) and who talks a lot about arms and legs (also mentioned) and whose husband sleeps at the bottom of the bed, which explains a line about all that, and isn’t this truly an amazing song?
Artiness did not help movement singer Phil Ochs, either. In the old days of
I’ve got something to say, sir, and I’m gonna say it now it was pretty easy to grasp what Phil was protesting against. Even Crucifixion is fairly direct, as are some of the later art protest songs like I Kill, Therefore I Am (cops) and White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land (Vietnam). In a song like The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns (1969), however, Phil tended to leave the real world of social struggle for the fantasy world of art. His theme is a subject he used earlier in another song, The Thresher: the nuclear submarine that disappears into the void, not a trace, not a toothbrush, not a cigarette to be seen. Here the ship becomes a symbol for a new lost generation, the Vietnam dropouts.
Radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you ever wanted will be waiting by the door,
We will forgive you, we will forgive you, we will forgive you.
But no one gives an answer, not even one good-bye.
The silence of their leaving is all that they reply.
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying, tell me I’m not dying. . . .
There exists nowhere a more articulate statement of the painful choices that confronted sensitive young Americans in 1967 and of the anguish felt by everyone—establishment and counterculture—when large numbers of men chose to depart in silence. But what’s dangerous about The Scorpion Departs is the way the real world turns poetically surreal; the song almost (but not quite) becomes a song about a song, not about draft evasion.
The schooner ship is sliding across the kitchen sink
My son and my daughter, they won’t know what to think
The crew has turned to voting and the officers to drink. . . .
Isn’t the problem with Yellow Submarine and all other art protest songs that they slip into fairyland? When you come face to face with the Blue Meanies in real life, they don’t evaporate the way they do in the movie. You discover the hard way that it’s you who’s been living an illusion all along, the illusion of art. Then you must make a choice: either you opt for the world of social and political reform or you climb into the world of art. Ochs, at the close of the sixties, climbed into art. In Rehearsals for Retirement he took his tattered colors from the tournament and went home. A year or so later we find him in isolation at an imaginary rest home for artists.
I’ll talk, I’ll talk, they live by the sea
Surrounded by a cemetery.
If you have time stop by for some tea
With Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and me.
(The choice—and the decision—were those of another artist-revolutionary to whom Ochs alluded in one of the finest art rock songs of the sixties, William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed. Yeats was a leader of the fight for Irish independence and a major poet in whom Ochs saw parallels to himself. Building around Yeats’s work the way Slick built around Joyce’s Ulysses, Ochs recounted the disorders of Chicago, 1968, called indirectly for a revolution, tied the struggles of 1968 with the struggles of Ireland in 1917 and himself with Yeats. The song is a tour de force, but it is art, not revolution.)
Leonard Cohen released his own masterful album of art songs in January 1968. A poet and novelist of some reputation (and quality) before beginning his career as a singer, Cohen wrote songs that are legitimate works of art, real poems. Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy, Stories of the Street, later The Story of Isaac and Last Year’s Man and Joan of Arc. His song-poems, moreover, are not as utterly removed from the scene of the sixties social and political reformation as are songs like Whiter Shade of Pale and most poetry of the decade. The Story of Isaac was especially on target in 1967 when it was written.
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it any more. A scheme is not a vision . . .
The point is that like most poets, Cohen saw many sides of an issue and was therefore less absolutely, dead-on certain than your standard SDS ideologue. When it came to activism, Cohen—like most poets—passed.
He is frozen-in an anarchist’s posture, but unable to throw his bomb, wrote William Kloman in the New York Times.
At the time of the Bay of Pigs . . . he was unable to determine which side to fight on. Both sides were evil, both causes were holy. So Cohen didn’t fight. In Stories of the Street he retreated from the issues in a medieval ascent to the spheres.
We are so small between the stars,
So large against the sky
And lost among the subway crowds
I try to catch your eye.
The last problem with art rock was that it tended to produce professionalism, which discourages innovation, lay participation, and content while encouraging elitism and style. And that ultimately separates rock musicians from their audiences. Like rock-‘n’-roll and folk music, rock never intended to be professional. Sophisticated, maybe, but professional, never.
Again, Dylan and the Beatles present cases in point, especially the Beatles because the white album that followed Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour is so obviously professional. It is so professional that every one of its thirty songs is absolutely first-rate, and it is so ultimately disappointing because of its eclectic professionalism. You want a calypso? Okay. You want a country ballad? Okay, too. How about a heavy blues? We can do that as well.
Professionalism of any sort was death to the sixties. It meant a tighter rein on emotions and commitment, a cool remove. It meant more organization and delegated authority, it meant more system and more boxes for people to be put in, it meant more of everything the sixties—and rock—held suspect.
These tendencies that vitiated rock and the movement of the sixties may have been just what made Bob Dylan turn his back on artiness and professionalism and at the close of John Wesley Harding adopt the simplest, most hokey, most unpoetic and unprofessional music of all, country music. Along with its assorted metaphysical progressions through guilt, confession, atonement, and grace, and along with its musical progression from rock to country, came a farewell to high poetry. On side one of Harding Dylan sang one of the most metrically perfect, thematically and metaphorically clear poems in rock, , I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine. But what in heaven’s name was Dylan doing when he closed Harding with that big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon? And on his next album sang, Peggy Day stole my poor heart away, by golly, what more can I say. And: I’d be sad and blue, if not for you. And all that absolutely sloppy, totally unprofessional singing on Self-Portrait—is it not a deliberate denial of art? A complete rejection of professionalism?
John Lennon would follow, at a distance of a couple of years, giving over
consciously writing poetry for the simple, unpoetic, proletarian Working Class Hero and Power to the People. A few others would follow as well, at even further remove, but a great deal of rock continued in the tradition of art rock, drawing itself and its audiences further and further from the arena of social and political activism. Looking back one has to admit that although great, great art came out of rock in the sixties (dozens of Dylan lyrics, Beatles lyrics, Leonard Cohen songs, albums like Sgt. Pepper and John Wesley Harding and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends), in the long run art was not good for rock. Poetry was not good for rock. The sixties were too real for poetry.
Another art form that attracted rock toward the end of the sixties was theater. Of course rock had had theatrical aspirations ever since the days of Alan Freed, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. The Beatles were told in Hamburg to “make show.” They did and they got famous. The Stones always made show because they were imitating black high strutters who made show. There was no show equal to the show made by soul brother number one, James Brown. And Little Richard was the granddaddy of show. Even folksingers and the San Francisco groups that made a show of not making show were acting out very rigidly defined roles. So you had to dress it up a little, to get people interested, to get the message out. Otherwise you were lost.
The danger is obvious: the same substitution of style for content worked by poetry. But the risks of show are infinitely greater because for every American conned by poetry and classical music ten are conned by Las Vegas flash. Donovan got further with his flower power spectaculars, and Elvis and Sinatra infinitely further with their floor show theatrics, than did Van Dyke Parks with his two dozen violins or Phil Ochs with his allusions to Yeats and Whitman. Those who got the furthest were those who took rock directly to big theater: the Who with Tommy, Broadway with Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar, Alice Cooper with rock theater.
The marriage of rock and theater—real theater now, not just making show—began with Jim Morrison and the Doors. Morrison was an artsy sort, UCLA drama and arts department, specialty in the classics. One volume of published poetry, another circulating in manuscript among intimates.
Very serious about being a poet, a friend recalled. Also about film. But above all about avant-garde, Living Theater-type drama: characters out of Jung and Freud developing relatively free-form performances out of shorthand scripts, moving as the occasion and the audience and the spirit allowed, a drama of psychological rather than narrative truth, a drama of myth and idea more than story and character. A drama close to the primeval roots. Morrison wrote:
In its origin the Greek Theater was a band of worshipers, dancing and singing on a threshing floor at the crucial agricultural seasons. Then, one day, a possessed person leaped out of the crowd and started imitating a god. At first it was pure song and movement. As cities developed, more people became dedicated to making money, but they had to keep contact with Nature somehow. So they had actors do it for them. I think rock serves the same function and may become a kind of theater.
In 1967 the Doors gave rock the semitheatrical The End, a ritual enactment of the Oedipal complex, performance of which resulted in the group’s expulsion from the Whisky-a-Go-Go. In 1969 it was the Freudian Soft Parade. In 1968 Morrison and the Doors came up with the epitome of rock as serious theater, Celebration of the Lizard, subtitled “Lyrics to a Theatre Composition by the Doors.”
I am the Lizard King
I can do anything
I can make the earth stop in its tracks
I made the blue cars go away
Even today these pieces come off as plot summaries for improvisational performances in some weird, psychomythic theater. But for them really to come alive you needed Morrison himself
in a blue flame (all right, so it was only a blue light shining on him!) above the audience’s head on the scaffold left over from the Hair set, as Harvey Peer of the Los Angeles Free Press remembered him in 1969 or
along the misty littoral of Southern California, facing the setting sun leading a hippie tribe in their shamanistic rites, as Albert Goldman pictured him. Offstage and on record there was too little of either rock’s joy or theater’s catharsis to make the song-dramas work.
The best of rock theater was undoubtedly the Who’s Tommy (1969), although it’s been gummed up since by a symphonic performance, a Broadway musical, and a superflick produced at a cost of $3.5 million with a cast of Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Ann-Margret.
Pete Townshend had been moving toward opera-theater for some time. Tommy can be traced ultimately to “La-La-La-Lies” on the My Generation album (1965), a dramatic monologue recounting an abortive seduction. Then came A Quick One While He’s Away in 1967, heralded by Lillian Roxon in her Encyclopedia as
a very complicated twelve-minute rock opera. A Quick One is the story of Ivor the engine driver, an illicit child, and a quick one while hubby’s away. Hubby returns, of course, in the middle of things, but all is forgiven. Tommy fans will recognize the germ of Tommy’s story in this scenario, and from A Quick One to Tommy was largely a matter of time and scale.
So along came Tommy with overture and recitative and chorus and all the trappings of classical opera. Mod made the Met in New York, and the way was opened for the aforementioned Broadway play and the cinematic spectacular, and the ascension of the Who into the establishment’s artistic heaven.
Most people’s pinball machines are their cars . . . it’s the same fascination with machines.
But Tommy did not start out on the inside; in fact, for all the ballyhoo about opera, there is infinitely more mod than Verdi in Tommy, and more Who and more rock and more social commentary. These elements, rather than the artsiness and the heavy man’s-inhumanity-to-man or lack-of-communication themes, explain Tommy’s success: flash and bash and cash, the apotheosis of pinball, the vibrations, and the Sensation.
There is much less of this in Hair and even less in Superstar, the two other major sixties productions in rock theater. Hair actually predated Tommy, opening on October 17, 1967, in the old Astor Library in the Village, thence to the Cheetah discotheque, thence to Broadway’s Biltmore, and thence to the world. It was enormously popular: cast albums alone sold over five million copies. And it had enough of the counterculture flavor to elicit the usual put-downs: no point, no quality, no sophistication, no acting, no art, the end of musicals, of stage, of art, of civilization. For some, at least, Hair was an exit, but most of those who thronged to the Biltmore were suspiciously paunchy and damnably affluent. Children of the sixties found Hair but one more co-option of countercultural forms and life styles, suitably sanitized by the establishment mostly to make money. (As for the music, as Tom Topor noted in Rolling Stone, Galt MacDermot’s tunes are no more rock than the music of a toothpaste commercial.)
Superstar was even further from home. It has one major moment: I Don’t Know How to Love Him, sung by groupie Mary Magdalene. Though purporting to be a fresh way of looking at Christianity, Superstar is bad theology and worse rock. And unlike Tommy it failed to confront any of the many complex, pressing issues facing rock, the movement, the country in the sixties.
Godspell, composed by John-Michael Tebelak in a nonstop frenzy after a boring, pro forma Easter vigil at Pittsburgh’s Anglican cathedral, is infinitely better theology, music (not really rock either), and theater.
Well, once opened, the door to rock opera and rock theater let pass the rock Two Gentlemen of Verona and Inner City. And also Iphegenia, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Company, Follies, The Survival of St. Joan, Tarot, Stomp, Blood, The Me Nobody Knows, Salvation, Your Own Sweet Thing, Sambo, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. Do you remember Jethro Tull and A Passion Play? Some of this was good news; some, bad. Tarot even used real rock musicians from the Grateful Dead and Country Joe’s Fish. But if rock was ever going to make it as Broadway theater, then somebody had to lie: rock wanted to assault audiences, to take them out of their seats and everyday lives and habitual modes of thinking and acting. Broadway theater had by the late sixties become too much a reinforcement of habit to coexist with real rock. The result was that real rock theater drew no audience, and the rock theater that did make a go of it was inevitably pop shlock.
Nobody wants rock theater, observed Richard Fields in 1972.
He threw over Tarot (it folded in six weeks) to return to 1776-style Broadway musicals.
The solution was a new kind of theater, an antitheater, that had little to do with rock music but that embodied, as did rock, countercultural formlessness, sexuality, spontaneity, and direct frontal assault on the establishment (in this case usually the audience). Hair was a pale, musical, commercial version of this theater, just as it was a commercial version of rock. The real stuff was Futz, or Dionysus in 69, or the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s brand of guerrilla theater, or the Living Theater.
All were attempts to break the barriers between actor and audience, between play and life, and to level the other unwritten assumptions about theater.
The drama, wrote Eric Bentley,
is felt to be dead, and the new theater is looking elsewhere for its ideas: to action paintings, to light shows, to street happenings, to tape-recordings, to movies and TV, and then again to social events outside show biz altogether. The result was that
life is all one. Group therapy, parties, and theater have merged.
And so along came Futz, the farmer who loved his pig, complete improvisation, nudity, audience participation, obscenity, scurrility, mimed sex acts, action, and general mindlessness. And along came Dionysus in 69: artier, with large doses of Euripides, and an audience set to watching the show from the rough-hewn towers of Thebes or participating in the show itself, and nude Pentheus getting it on (or as far on as she’d allow) with a woman from the audience, obviously impromptu, a
visual-verbal participatory game, a
form of communal celebration. (A combination of parodied SDS participatory democracy and Jim Morrison’s primeval theater of communal celebration.) And along came Oh! Calcutta! a nude revue, which made the most money, although most of its coin was minted off what Lenny Bruce called
tits and ass, scarcely revolutionary in 1969.
The Living Theater’s Paradise Now was a mixture of propaganda, art and encounter group. First a haranguing, chanting, shouting recitation of everything that ails the establishment (I can’t travel without a passport, I can’t take my clothes off, I can’t stop the war), then a gentle laying on of hands (“holy forehead,” “holy thigh,” “holy breast,” “holy ass”), then a bit of pot, then acrobatics as the troupe spelled out bodily “anachronism,” then audience participation—complaining, disrobing, political argument, confrontation, coaxing, more haranguing, feeling, acting, and reacting. Jack Richardson, Commentary’s theater critic, most remembered a bare-assed and free seventeen-year-old blonde girl being fondled by a dirty old midget, raincoat folded over his groin. Says liberated blonde to midget, “Don’t pinch now.” There was one sense of the sixties in a phrase.
More formal (they used scripts) and more political than the Living Theater was the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which set out to straighten American heads through radical, didactic, propagandistic theater performed in Bay area parks, streets, schools, shopping malls, and factories throughout the sixties. In 1967, L’Amant militaire, a 105-minute, antimilitaristic grotesquerie transformed the U.S. presence in Vietnam to the Spanish Imperial Army in Italy and preached from there. Standard antiwar gags included a would-be deserter who dresses himself in women’s clothes only to be arrested as a fairy and a pervert; GIs going through rifle drills on crutches; and a puppet leading chants (audience participation) of “Hell no, we won’t go.”
Later came Olive Pits, an attack on agribiz. And Viet Rock, America Hurrah, Modern Minstrel Show: Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, BART (the Bay area subway system), The Independent Female, children’s theater pieces, and Meter Maid, in which the troupe demonstrated how to use aluminum can tab tops to rip off free time from parking meters and to sabotage them. And Ripping Off Ma Bell, in which the troupe demonstrated how to bill long-distance phone calls to the Bank of America by giving a very real, working, genuine credit card number.
Yes, sir. With a credit card you could place the call at your employer’s expense.
Yes, sir. Suppose for example you worked for the Bank of America here in San Francisco. When the operator came on the line you would simply say, “Operator, I wish to make a credit card call. My credit card number is S-756-0400-158.” And the call would go through without any further ado.
What was that code again, operator?
S as in Sabotage, 756-0400-158.
(Ripping Off Ma Bell was published in Ramparts, August 1970, and distributed across the country. They do not make magazines like that anymore.)
Throughout the United States hundreds of groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe were presenting similar guerrilla theater. They were subversive, or tried their best to be. According to Henry Lesnick in Guerilla Theater, the idea was to educate:
Through theater we seek to unite all people against a system of profit and racism which exploits the earth and the people. Whether the challenge was political agitation, political confrontation, audience participation, or simply the demand that people do something for a change, the new theater sought to shake audience presuppositions and public lethargy.
The ultimate danger was the confusion of life and theater, so that while theater became increasingly “real,” real life became increasingly theatrical, and the whole confused mass turned into an absurd playground in which anything was possible as long as it was done in play. Though the confusion may have revitalized theater, it undermined serious attempts to reform America.
The scene is 1969, college campus, politicized, largely antiwar, a witch’s brew of Young Americans for Freedom, Students for a Democratic Society, ROTC cadets, hippie and Yippie crosscurrents. The local guerrilla street theater company is about to do a number on the ROTC boys as they march from lecture hall to parade ground. Masked to resemble pasty Richard Nixons, half the company has deployed itself in the shrubbery lining the walk; the rest are three stories up, just inside the open windows of a vacant classroom. As the boys in green march by, the toy Nixons leap suddenly from concealment brandishing toy machine guns, dancing madly about the surprised cadets like so many voodoo doctors intent on exorcising a demon, and shouting “ambush, ambush” and “akk akk akk” and “surprise, surprise!” Their confederates release a shower of paper scraps bearing the single word “Napalm.” The green lines hesitate, flush, then continue determinedly—and virtually unaffected—toward the drill field.
They have just survived their first ambush, complete with napalm. It was painless. As painless as the nightly television news reports that have so numbed the sensibilities of the country that the unthinkably inhumane has become a matter of national policy. The guerrillas consider this piece of radical propagandizing (repeated, with variations, all across America during the late sixties) a strategic victory because it “brings the war home.” In fact, it makes the war even more surreal, more fictional than it has already become.
Other street theater pieces attacked sexism, racism, slum landlords, and robber barons. In GI, the San Francisco Red Theater left the verdict on arch villain Uncle Sam to the audience. A simple thumbs down would end U.S. militarism instantly. Talk about deception! Paradise Now offed clothing and the war and audience hang-ups inside the theater, but the evening proved a game: people left the Brooklyn Academy of Music with their clothes (and hang-ups) back on.
(Even more vitiating to the sixties movement was the happening because it lacked all political and social activism. As Gerald Weales observed in The Jumping-Off Place,
The happening, in its attempt to bring life into art, tends . . . toward dehumanization.)
The inverse of theater-as-life was life-as-theater, performed by the Chicago Eight in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman:
That is the best statement I have heard here during the trial. You said you enjoyed being here.
It’s good theater, Your Honor.
The sense of the absurd, along with artiness and excess, helped bring down the sixties and rock. The sixties grew up with an awareness of life’s absurdity. Every age creates its own apocalypse, which it either outlives or outgrows. If it’s not the Romans who are coming, it’s the Ostrogoths, or the Mongols, or the Danes, or the Catholics, or the Moors, or the Chinese, or the Germans, or the communists, or the plague. Each cataclysm so threatens society with instant, complete, and undeserved annihilation as to make all the carefully constructed systems of cause and effect, rules, rewards and punishments seem absurd. Modern doctrines of absurdity were developed largely to explain the paradoxes of World War II, to provide metaphysical sustenance during a nasty and chaotic time.
The apparent absurdity of life is always with us.
But in the twentieth century the accelerated pace of technological development has vastly increased the speed and the thoroughness with which the world could be leveled. The possibilities are limited only by the fertile imaginations of scientists.
“How—how does the Universe end?” said Billy. “We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.”
Mostly we continue playing at stock options, graduate degrees, and social security as if the cloud were not there. But at times we are compelled by the thought that tomorrow may be too late. At times we are reduced to a dark laughter at our own high seriousness. The important thing, we tell ourselves, is not to be uptight and not to give a fuck because in the end it doesn’t matter anyhow. At times we are overwhelmed, blasted not to dignity or humane decency or heroic stoicism but to nervous exhaustion.
The sixties watched John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. There followed ten years of absurd shootings, of the election of goons to high office and the incarceration of men of conscience, of the stupefying spectacle of Americans traveling thousands of miles to swat at flies with sledgehammers—and missing—flattening whole forests, subcontinents, peoples, lest Vietnam fall, and thus Laos, all of Southeast Asia, and thus Japan, and Hawaii, and they’d be right off the coast of southern California. Was there any absurdity more Catch-22 than “we have to destroy it to save it”? Than Mayor Daley’s
the policeman is not there to create disorder, he is there to preserve disorder?
Would I rather be a Vietnamese who was being ‘saved’ by the American Army, or a Czech who was being ‘saved’ by the Russian Army? Of course I would rather be the Czech.
(Black Americans, of course, had known only too well and too long the absurdity of America. I think immediately of Ellison’s Invisible Man, a book discovered by the sixties: young blacks titillated and humiliated by a naked, blonde stripper, encouraged to pound each other senseless in a boxing ring, then to scratch and claw for money on an electrified rug, all for the entertainment of paunchy whites at a stag party. At the end of the evening, the Invisible Man presents a speech on humility as the key to racial progress, still spitting blood from the boxing match. He receives from the whites a scholarship to the state college for blacks.)
Blow-Up was the first film by a major foreign director to enjoy immediate national distribution and popularity in America. This made it the first art film many young Americans ever saw, so Blow-Up was the subject of unending hours of analysis, interpretation, viewing and reviewing. It opened the door to a phenomenon largely unknown in the United States: a popular film with artistic quality and intellectual bulk.
Through photographer Thomas, Blow-Up captures the essence of one sixties scene: hip, cool, trendy London, very much on the surface of things. The party at which Thomas stumbles through doped-up guests trying to get his doped-up host to come with him and verify a murder is pure sixties. So, too, is the nude romp with the aspiring models. And the camera’s lens, through which Thomas sees life with arty detachment, becomes a perfect metaphor for the distance that fine art interposed between the movement and some sixties heads.
The most overpowering element in the film is the statement it makes on the way reality disintegrates into ambiguity and, finally, into absurdity. Each detail of the movie cuts relentlessly into the smooth, bright, careless surface of camp London to expose the dark, ambiguous, terrible underside of the sixties.
The story is an accident, really, unfolding out of some photographs Thomas takes in a park: a romantic interlude, intended to give a light ending to an otherwise heavy volume of pictures, develops upon successive enlargements into a murder. Apparently. A gun protrudes from behind the park fence; there is a look of terror in the woman’s eyes as her middle-aged companion slumps heavily against her. But constant enlargement transforms the crisp black and white photographs into something resembling the abstract painting Thomas tried to buy earlier in the film from his artist-neighbor. Details are fuzzy and the hard evidence isn’t so hard.
It’s like one of Bill’s paintings, a voice observes.
You can’t recognize anything.
Thomas acts to confirm that what he saw was what he saw, that he photographed what he thought he photographed. He rushes back to the park and, sure enough, in the moonlight he sees the corpse, palpable, real, conclusive.
From this point, however, reality disintegrates until Thomas no longer knows truth from illusion. When he returns to his studio, Thomas finds that the blow-ups have been stolen, along with the original pictures and the negatives. The telephone number the woman gave him turns out to be phony. Thomas determines to photograph the corpse and rushes off to fetch a writer-friend to go with him. But he is diverted first by—he thinks but is not sure—the woman, whom he follows into a discotheque before losing her in a small riot, and then by his friend’s party. There he lingers among the marijuana and the music and the other accoutrements of mod London, falls asleep, and awakens only the next morning. By the time he returns to the park, the corpse is gone. The grass looks completely undisturbed.
Now, something serious obviously has happened. Thomas thinks, we think, everyone thinks something has happened. But whatever it was, it is now beyond verification. Every shred of evidence is gone, lost in the campy, op art photos Thomas takes of plastic girls, in his nude romp with the young hopefuls, in the talk and the running about, in the pot party, in Thomas’s own cavalier attitude that turns—or attempts to turn—every personal encounter into a cliché. And it has been so utterly lost that we’re not entirely sure in retrospect it happened to begin with.
Blow-Up ends with a return of the clowns who careened madly across the screen in the film’s opening scene. This time they are playing a pantomime game of tennis. Thomas—and the movie audience—watch the make-believe ball as it bounces from one side of the net to the other. Then a stray shot flies over the fence and rolls toward Thomas. The camera tracks this invisible sphere, bouncing, rolling to Thomas’s feet.
The mimers turn, look at the photographer expectantly. In an act of acquiescence to this make-believe, to ambiguity, to absurdity, Thomas picks up the nonexistent ball and tosses it to the players. The camera pulls back for a long shot, and Thomas dwindles into nothingness.
The vision of Blow-Up was also found in rock music, both in rock’s critique of the establishment and in its conceptualization of the possible. At its best, a sense of the absurd fathered all the virtues Camus and Sartre expected it would:
Something inside of me gets greatly disturbed at seeing this absurdity; and this is probably the root of my songs. . . . The reward is the act of the struggle itself. In other words, even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make the attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion, that’s art, that’s life. (Phil Ochs, with Crucifixion and Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, made the attempt.) The Fugs, masters of the absurd, did the same thing with Kill for Peace, on their second album. Bob Dylan did the same thing in Highway 61 Revisited.
Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored
He was tryin’ to create the next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it out on highway 61.
A sense of the absurd could also mean just plain fun, as in Dylan’s early I Shall Be Free No. 10:
Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And went and did the Cat instead.
He’s a weird monkey, very funky.
As in the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. And in their Happiness Is a Warm Gun:
The man in the crowd with the multicoloured mirrors
On his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy
A soap impression of his wife which he ate
And donated to the National Trust.
As in Arlo Guthrie’s delightful Alice’s Restaurant and the less known but equally delightful Motorcycle Song (I don’t want a pickle, just want to ride on my motorcycle).
(At the other end of the decade, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper were presenting absurdist happenings promoted as rock concerts. As theater they were mediocre, as rock they were worse. As absurdity they were mostly asinine.)
But for all its virtues, for all its fun, the absurdist vision could be a turnoff, especially when it expressed itself in satire, where it leveled indiscriminately. The Mothers of Invention (the mother lode of absurdist vision in so-called rock) are a case in point. The dozen records that Zappa and the Mothers packed into the years between 1966 and 1972 are absurdist albums that leave virtually nothing to believe in. Zappa suffered few illusions and made fewer commitments, which was not really very sixties, but it allowed him to throw darts in all directions at once.
Those kids don’t love each other, he once told an interviewer when accused of being part of the hippie revolution.
They’re in that because it’s like another club—it’s like the modern day equivalent of a street gang. It’s clean pachucoso, a little hairier perhaps. But it’s not right. And again,
The whole hippie scene is wishful thinking. They wish they could love, but they’re full of shit.
So what was not full of shit? So what was right? Zappa left no ground on which to stand. You couldn’t even be a Mothers fan—they sent you a cheesy mimeographed letter that pimped you around. And if you persisted, you heard Zappa saying things like this about you:
I got tired of beating my head against the wall. I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons.
Where do you clap in America Drinks and Goes Home?
It’s now time to close! . . . I hope you’ve had as much fun as we have! Don’t forget the jam session Sunday! . . . Mandy Tension will be by, playing his xylophone troupe! It’ll be a lot of fun! Monday night is the Dance Contest Night . . . Twist Contest . . . We give away peanut butter and jelly! . . . I hope we’ve played your requests . . . the songs you like to hear . . . Last call for alcohol! . . . Drink it up, folks . . . Wonderful! . . . Nice to see you . . . oh, “Bill Bailey”? . . . we’ll get to that tomorrow . . . “Caravan,” with drum solo? . . . Right! . . . We’ll do that! . . . Wonderful! . . . Nice to see you again! . . . Yeh! . . . la, la, la . . . Down at the POMPADOUR A-GO-GO. . . .Vo-do-de-oo-pee-pee . . . Shoobe-doot ‘n-dadada, ada-da-daahh . . . Nya-da-da, nya-da-da . . . ‘NITE’ ALL!
There is, in fact, no right reason to clap, no right place to clap, for every reason and every place is wrong. Straight or hip, you had your earnestness thrown in your face and if you had no earnestness, that was held against you, too:
If the kids who are destined to take over the country could somehow acquire the sense of responsibility . . . they could tell everybody where it’s at, but they won’t. The whole entire world was absurd, everything was a freak-out. Which, after a very short while, can get to be a drag.
The most memorable of all promoters of the absurd, however, used neither cinema nor record. They used life. They were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s followers, members of the Youth International Party, Yippies. Here was absurdity as fun, absurdity as protest, and—slightly beyond the end of the sixties—absurdity as turnoff. Here was all the distinctive flavor of the crazy late sixties: Steal This Book, Revolution for the Hell of It, and Do It! Far out!
Abbie Hoffman grew with the sixties. His first demonstration was at Caryl Chessman’s execution in 1960—a polite, genteel, coffee and doughnuts with the warden affair. (By coincidence, William Kunstler, who would defend the Chicago Eight in 1969, wrote a book about the Chessman trial, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?) Later Hoffman spent time organizing Friends of SNCC groups up north and then involved himself with the Poor People Corporation of Mississippi. His moment of radicalization came when ten drunk cops unloaded on Poor People organizers, their booth, Abbie’s skull.
He worked for a while doing sales promotion for pharmaceutical houses, paying doctors for endorsements, “five year studies that took five minutes,” which were written up and published in “medical journals” and taken around by Hoffman to show other doctors that his company’s product was better than other companies’ products. The job took maybe four or five hours a week, and he augmented his $15,000 a year salary by “stealing like crazy” and forging motel receipts. It was fun, profitable, and an opportunity for Hoffman to exercise his imagination.
But it was not revolutionary, and Hoffman was turning cynical and corrupt. He grew restless and left the wife and kids and a job in the suburbs and dropped out into New York’s Lower East Side.
Then Abbie read Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative.
The revolution will come through joy and not through sacrifice, it said, and the pieces all fell into place. The moments of radicalization and dropout were followed by the moment of Yippie!
There ought to be fun in revolution, Hoffman thought.
If fun was subversive, if we could define what fun was, if it wasn’t going to the golf course or drinking a martini, if we could redefine what fun really was, in terms of fun being fighting for what you believe in, and fighting for the future—if that could be fun— wow! The first revolutionary fun act (long before the official founding of the YIP) was to throw money among the money brokers at the New York Stock Exchange, a demonstration that moved the exchange to enclose itself in a $20,000, bulletproof glass cage
because they were afraid we’d come back and throw money out again. It was followed by others, each scheme more outrageous than the last, until Hoffman and Rubin and other Yippies mailed out thirty thousand Valentines on Valentine’s Day, 1969, to persons unknown—each containing a joint. Terrific holy goof protest. Terrific sense of absurdity (and theater).
In New York at about the same time, April 1968, I was present at a Yippie meeting in Union Park at which a department store loot-in was being planned. “We’ll choose a shop. About twenty of us will go in, select the stuff we want, hand the cashier a flower and head towards the door.”
The crowning achievement of Yippie absurdism was the Festival of Life at the 1968 Democratic national convention and the subsequent trial of the Chicago Eight:
22,000 feet over Hazed square Vegetable planet Floor
Approaching Chicago to Die or flying over Earth another 40 years
to die—Indifferent, and Afraid, that the bone-shattering bullet
be the same as the vast evaporation-of-phenomena Cancer
Come true in an old man’s bed. Or Historic
Fire-Heaven Descending 22,000 years End th’ Atomic Aeon. . . .
“Join us in Chicago in August,” the underground invitations ran. Some came to oust Johnson-Humphrey and to cheer the White Knight from Minnesota. Others came with other ideas, in response to another invitation.
Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball! Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists. . . . A new spirit explodes in the land. Things are bursting in music, poetry, dancing, movies, celebrations, magic, politics, theater and life styles. All these new tribes will gather in Chicago. We will be completely open. Everything will be free. Bring blankets, draft cards, tents, body paint, Mrs. Leary’s cow, food to share, music, eager skin and happiness. The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley and J. Edgar Freako will not stop us. We are coming! We are coming from all over the world!
Here would be an answer to the death dealers and the politicos, a real freak-out revolution, acid in the drinking water, chants, songs, peace symbols, wandering tribes of hippies, the nomination of a pig for president (with the aid of Phil Ochs, who—with the MC5—was the only rock singer to make the scene), the whole of the counterculture dumped on Johnson’s (Humphrey’s) front lawn and plastered across the television screens of millions of American homes.
Well, we all remember the story. How the underground pulled back, how the singers stayed away, how the projected fifty thousand Yippies turned out to be “only” a few thousand Yippies, hard-core radicals, and McCarthy supporters. But it didn’t matter, really. There was a spirit loose at the convention that Mayor Daley and the Chicago cops could not help sensing: speeches, dope, irreverence, high jinks, freedom. And of course they could not cope, and of course there was a police riot, great clouds of orange teargas flaring in the police spotlights, the Blue Meanies clubbing everything that moved, and a lot of demonstrators swatting back at the Meanies (and at streetlights and windows), and chaos everywhere, all plastered across the television screens of millions of American homes, and the fumes drifting into the houses of sleeping families on State Street, and wafting into the posh Pump Room down along the Gold Coast, and Chicago’s most noted citizen, Hugh Hefner, unrecognized in the street, suffering with the flower children and the radicals and the McCarthy people and the Yippies, the situation outdoors completely out of control, the Democratic Party conducting business as usual indoors.
But the absurdity of 1968 was only a prelude to the absurdity of 1969, when the federal government charged a grab bag of undesirables with violation of (ready for this?) a section of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. These eight, the government claimed, did
combine, conspire, confederate and agree together on or about April 12, 1968 . . . to travel in interstate commerce with the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot. The trial, as everyone realized even then, was a joke. The ultimate triumph of the YIP was the reduction of the American system of justice to complete absurdity in the proceedings against the Chicago Eight. Nobody was serious, except for Judge Hoffman and prosecutors Foran and Schultz.
For Abbie and Jerry, on the other hand, the courtroom was a new theater, perhaps a purer kind of theater than anything in previous Yippie history. More than any of the other defendants, they wanted to create the image of a courtroom shambles.
There was Bobby Seale, tied to his seat, his mouth taped, an incredible image of what it means to be black In America, and the judge assuring reporters and jury that
the steps taken here are to insure a fair trial. There was Jerry Rubin, frisking the court marshals who had just frisked him. There was Abbie Hoffman, giving
the Woodstock Nation as his place of residence and, when asked where that might be, replying that it was a state of mind. There was Julius the Just, reduced unwittingly, almost acquiescently, to just Julius, a fumbling and rather pathetic figure in a courtroom melodrama completely out of his control, handing out contempt of court sentences like the Red Queen calling for heads (and with much the same effect). There was the defense, asking prospective jurors whether their female children wore brassieres all the time, whether they considered marijuana to be habit forming, and whether they knew who the Jefferson Airplane, Phil Ochs, and Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish were. Seale, short-circuiting the usual courtroom procedure, directly addressed the court and Just Julius:
I would like to speak on my own behalf. How come I can’t speak in behalf of myself? I want to defend myself. And Dellinger, calling the judge
Mr. Huffman and observing,
I believe in equality, so I prefer to call people Mister or by their first name.
The Witness (Abbie Hoffman): Everybody dressed as Keystone cops and we went to Stony Brook to arrest all the whiskey drinkers.
Mr. Schultz: Objection.
The Court: I sustain the objection.
The Witness: You missed a good story.
The defendants, observing the Moratorium of October 15 with NLF flags on the defense table and an attempt to read the names of the war dead. The birthday cake for Bobby Seale, with “Free Huey. Free Bobby” in icing across the top. Hayden, in parody, directing the court stenographer,
Let the record show the judge is laughing. And Jerry Rubin,
Let the record show that Foran is a Nazi. And Judge Julius shouting,
Everything you say will be taken down, and Davis hooting,
This court is bullshit. Allen Ginsberg, chanting to the court in tennis shoes, leather vest, and jeans,
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, playing his harmonium, and reciting his own poetry and Whitman’s.
The Court: Mr. Ochs, just answer the questions directly. You are a singer, but you are a smart fellow, I’m sure.
The Witness (Phil Ochs): Thank you. You are a judge, but you are a smart fellow too.
The appearance in court of Mayor Richard Daley, blue-suited and stone-faced, followed by the forces of life: Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Country Joe singing and it’s one two three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam. And it’s five, six, seven . . . And the whole trial capped by one Hoffman telling the other he was a disgrace to the Jewish race and would have served Hitler better, accusing him in Yiddish of behaving disgracefully in front of gentiles, and shouting in the government’s face,
You know you can’t win this fucking case! The only way you can win is to put us away for contempt. We have contempt for this court and for you, Schultz, and for this whole rotten system!
It was a trial straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Good theater, Your Honor, as Rubin had put it.
Yet it was the beginning of the end. After surrealism, the next stop is anarchism. After the absurdity of the convention and the trial, what was left but chaos? If you follow absurdist thought to its logical conclusion, you either leap off the edge or turn around.
Most Americans were not about to leap off the edge, which is why a little bit of the absurdist vision can go a long way. Which brings us to the third trend that weakened the sixties from within: excess—excess of protest, excess of art, excess of absurdity, excess no and excess yes, excess dope, excess sex, excess violence, maybe even excess music.
Within a movement, excess creates problems as the vanguard gets too far out in front of the troops: suddenly you discover you’re out there alone, naked, with nobody behind or around you, and you get yourself picked off. When whole movements turn to excess, they tend first to shrink and then to isolate themselves from the rest of society. Isolation in turn breeds impotence. Always. The lesson cannot be overstressed because it is a lesson the sixties bought dearly. And when there is an excess of causes, or an excess of reform, or an excess of criticism, you get reaction. Some people you overwhelm, and they shrug their shoulders and ask, “What’s the use?” Others you irritate to the point of counterrevolution or active resistance.
One of the reasons the sixties fell apart is that the movement went too far too fast. The front got way ahead of the main body, and communications became a problem. Increasing numbers of Americans, young Americans, wrote movement leaders off as wild, excessive, crazy people. Increasing numbers of Americans found themselves worn out, burnt out, exhausted.
The sixties never learned the art of temperate, deliberate growth. It’s not characteristically American to begin with, not characteristically romantic, not characteristically young. It certainly was not characteristic of the times, which thought of themselves as born to be wild. We want the world and we want it now. Tomorrow was not a part of the sixties mentality.
Excess is encouraged by the mass media. Our co-optive system exploits through its electronic and news media whatever it can grab: ideas, movements, talent, fads, styles. Allow a year for discovery of an idea or a talent, a year for promotion, and two years for exploitation. This process moves you along quickly, and if you want to hang in there you soon learn that you need to go further and further to keep in the public eye. Every artist, every television personality, every public figure understands this game.
People in rock and in the movement understood it as well, and to promote the revolution they cleverly attracted media attention through increasingly outrageous behavior.
That rock was commercial seemed only a benefit, Rolling Stone’s Michael Lydon observed looking over his shoulder: through the establishment’s media the movement would subvert the establishment. But life in the media put political revolutionaries, rockers, hippies, and Yippies in a tight spot: on the one hand, absorption; on the other, the excess needed to maintain visibility. If the right one didn’t get you, then the left one did.
What undid most parts of the sixties that successfully resisted absorption and artiness and absurdity was media-fueled excess: more and more radical postures, finer and finer art, kinkier and kinkier scenes, larger and larger crowds, more and more causes, transcendence from the beautiful to the sublime, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the ridiculous to the desperate.
I want to take you Higher!!!
How quickly, in retrospect, the movement came and went, and how superficially. It never had the time, really, to deal with much other than its own growth, its own being. The tiny band gathered against Chessman’s execution or HUAC’s Berkeley session in 1960, the sit-ins and the freedom rides, even the first Ban the Bomb marches—these were very small-scale, isolated acts of four, a dozen, maybe a hundred or a few thousand people. They were mighty, important, and symbolic, but they engaged the active participation of but a fraction of a percent of the population. There was little premeditation and virtually no need for coordination across the country.
Then, so quickly, the rush of people and of ad hoc organizations. An explosion of numbers: 5,000 demonstrating against nuclear testing in Washington, D.C., 1962; 200,000 there the following year in the civil rights march; 6,000 students involved to varying degrees in the SDS-led Berkeley free speech movement, 1964; 25,000 in the SDS-led protest against Vietnam in 1965. And in November 1965, 200,000. In New York 250,000 came together in April 1967 at a rally sponsored by the Spring Mobilization Committee. Not one, not two, but dozens, scores of college campuses went up in 1968 and 1969. In 1968 unnumbered thousands of Americans milled about the Pentagon and demonstrated in New York and Chicago and Washington and Boston and the world—supporting black power, student power, gay power, Black Panthers and White Panthers and Grey Panthers and Lavender Panthers, and women’s liberation, for every cause a dozen organizations: CORE, NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, AFSC, CCCO, SLA, CNVA, SANE, FSM, National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Another Mother for Peace, National Committee to Abolish HUAC, May Second Movement, North American Congress on Latin America, Sexual Freedom League, New University Conference, United Farmworkers Association, Freedom and Peace Party, National Conference for New Politics, Peace and Freedom Party, Weathermen, Witches, hippies, and Yippies.
This list overwhelms us with letters and causes and names and places. It is unmanageable. It is incomprehensible. It is excessive.
It also made fairly stale copy unless each demonstration, each new organization pressed a little further toward the edge. And in a very short time
we came very close to the edge.
We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails, demanded the Black Panthers (with one eye on the media).
We want free birth control, free pregnancy leave for working women, and free child care centers, demanded the women.
We want academic credit for ‘life experiences,’ demanded college students.
We want the state of Maine, demanded the American Indians in the early seventies with perhaps the most justification of all.
And we were motherfucking bad. We were dirty, smelly, grimy, foul, loud, dope-crazed, hell-bent and leather-jacketed. We were a public display of filth and shabbiness, living in-the-flesh rejects of middle-class standards. We pissed and shit and fucked in public; we crossed on red lights; and we opened Coke bottles with our teeth. We were constantly stoned or tripping on every drug known to man. We were the outlaw forces of Amerika displaying ourselves flagrantly on a world stage. Dig it! The future of humanity was in our hands!
About this time the numbers started dwindling. The movement had grown big and quarrelsome. Leaders were too far in front of followers. More and more people started thinking, “This is crazy.” And off they walked to feel their way back toward some kind of normalcy.
Carl Oglesby, onetime president of the SDS, made just that point in writing about the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. You have to be careful or you lose your following.
It is just that Left politics in America is hard. There is not much room for movement in that direction. Not much is possible. Play to secure the marginal victory and avoid central defeat.
So it comes down to the famous bird in the hand. . . . Don’t demand the final salvation of the whole world tomorrow. Demand, instead, the end of the War today. Don’t demand socialism tomorrow. Demand, instead, that capitalism, starting today, begin creating for itself a more human heart. Don’t demand for tomorrow that real democracy establish itself in our society. Demand, instead, that the old elites at once start behaving better.
That is how Oglesby, romantic revolutionary, outlined the compromise position. And then Oglesby, romantic revolutionary being true to himself, rejected the compromise position. He wanted the whole loaf, and a big loaf. No compromises anywhere. The result was that the left went down in flames, and Gene McCarthy got dumped, and the Hump got dumped, and America and the movement and rock and the world got Richard Nixon and
Spiro Agnew because people looked at their television sets and said to themselves,
Things may be terrible, but this is fuckin’ crazy.
The excess that undercut protest during the sixties had been undermining fine art for some while, and it finally filtered into rock music—the music of the revolution and of the people—and rock found itself losing altitude and audience quickly.
Evidence: the disintegration of form in Beatles songs, from the exciting, riotous experiment of Sgt. Pepper to the baroque overripeness of Hey Jude to the glorious collage of meaningless fragments, many of them half finished, on the flip side of Abbey Road.
We did it this way because both John and I had a number of songs which were great as they were but which we’d never finished.
Evidence: the Mothers of Invention song Son of Suzy Creamcheese, with four bars in 4/4 time, one bar in 8/8, one bar in 9/8, then 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, and then 4/4 again. And their concerto for farts and violin. And Lumpy Gravy, strictly instrumental with a cocktail bar flavor and weird voices weaving their way through piano strings in the style of the Beatles’ Revolution 9 and the Stones’ On with the Show.
Evidence: the Moody Blues, with the London Festival Orchestra and a lot of pseudo-poetry, on one musical sojourn after another: Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, On the Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children, A Question of Balance, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (a mnemonic children use to remember lines of the G clef, E G B D F), and Seventh Sojourn.
Evidence, King Crimson (read Robert Fripp), who had little background in pop rock and was artsy from his first album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), an “observation” on the state of the world in five lengthy, relatively tuneful songs, full of metaphors and symbols and heavy themes, behaving the way students of the sixties thought poetry ought to behave, in basic Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison manner. And some bluesy rock mixed in with the then popular allusions to jazz and the mighty mellotron.
But Fripp flipped, and before you could say King Crimson three times the group was beyond the edge of night. Experimental, full of long, rambling solos on the mellotron, overproduced, impossibly obscure.
Go Polonius or kneel
The reapers name their harvest dawn
All your tarnished devil’s spoons
Will rust beneath our corn.
Now bears Prince Rupert’s garden roam
Across his rain tree shaded lawn
Lizard bones become the clay
And there a swan is born.
The end was reached in 1973 with Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, an album strictly for the musical gourmet, indistinguishable from “classical” music, an excess far removed from rock. Not even head food.
Further evidence: Paul Simon’s first solo album, so completely and so subtly artistic as to be entirely misunderstood. Everything Put Together Falls Apart, Jon Landau headlined his Rolling Stone review and bombed the album. And nothing proved the fact more than the review, which Simon claimed completely misinterpreted his songs.
A lot of the lyrics they thought depressed and pessimistic are really ironic and funny, a Columbia Records spokesman told a New Yorker reporter interested in meeting Paul
to clear up some of the lyrical confusion. Armistice Day appears to be a protest number in the style of early Phil Ochs. But not so, said Paul.
Armistice Day is not a protest song—protest songs are a little trite at the moment. And you thought Mother and Child Reunion is a witty, wistful, impressionistic throwaway. Turns out it’s about death!
So the album confused Landau and the New Yorker, and it baffles me even today. Art—especially that old favorite of the literati, irony—had become so subtle that what appears to be is not, and what appears not to be, is. Message had been lost, sophistication gained. But so much sophistication that some very intelligent people could not make heads or tails of the album.
Further evidence: Deep Purple (which in 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall recorded Concerto for Group and Orchestra, the orchestra being the Royal Philharmonic), Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Jethro Tull, and the group Yes.
Further evidence from this side of the Atlantic: Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, which made its name touring with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Though the Underground avoided the Victorian heaviness of King Crimson, the Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, it could not escape the equally mannerist, avant-garde pop world.
You’re not powerful enough. You’re just an idiosyncratic fringe group like the Anabaptists. You don’t have the capacity even to close down the universities.
Excess swells the numbers and confuses the focus. It pushes leaders on out front, and then the middle ground gets lost. The cities they are broke in half, and the middle men are gone, lamented Leonard Cohen, and he was right. Given the choice, at the close of the sixties, between political radicalism or conservatism, between art rock and shlock, between complete freedom (anarchy) and complete repression (tyranny), between Abbie Hoffman and Richard Daley, many thoughtful sixties types did just what you’d expect them to do: they walked away. They made no choice. They dropped out.
The field was left to the generations of the fifties and the seventies, which opted without delay for conservatism and shlock. The centrifugal forces of the sixties are the main reason for the centripetal forces at work during the seventies.
Now I’m doing my level best as a saboteur of values, as an aider of change, but when it comes down to blood and gore in the streets, I’m takin’ off and goin’ fishin’.
It was fashionable by 1972 to claim that rock, like the movement and the sixties, was dead. Several emblems of death by decadence stick in the minds of everyone who endured the painful transition from sixties to seventies: the Lincoln Park massacre, the trial of the Chicago Eight, the shootings at Kent State, the wedding of Tiny Tim on the Johnny Carson Show, the Charles Manson insanity, with its perverse guru and misled flower children, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont.
As emblems of death by excess, Joplin and Altamont make the best claim to purity: both were counterculture conceptualized and counterculture executed. Both were very clearly dysfunctions of the counterculture itself. There could be no finger-pointing and no debate. Even the most passionate partisan had to admit defeat.
Janis Joplin was the motion of the sixties. Action. Dynamics. Efflorescence. Change. For three short years, between Monterey in 1967 and her death in October 1970, a constant blur.
No two pictures of her ever looked the same, said Bruce Steinberg.
Not only was her normal, conversational face dynamic and constantly changing, but even statically she just looked completely different from any new angle. A Roman candle, an explosion.
A symphony of violence, the great Southwest unbound, wrote Mimi Fariña in her elegy, In the Quiet Morning.
Excess. Loud, ballsy, aggressive, liberated, screaming and yelling, inciting, demanding that the audience join in her riotous assault on life.
When they reach a certain level, you know they want to be lifted but they’re scared. Then all you gotta do is give the old kick in the ass, a big fucking kick in the ass, man. Janis drumming time in front of her, harrying her mortality lest it harry her.
All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik, meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, having a good time, that’s all I ever wanted. Dope, Southern Comfort, loud music, sex.
“You ought to watch it in the next couple years.”
“The pace. Slow down, you finally realize you’re doing yourself in.”
“I figured that out a long time ago. I also figured this out: I gotta go on doin’ it the way I see it. . . . I am here to have a party, man, as best as I can while I’m on this earth. I think that’s your duty too.”
Superwoman Janis, with the old kozmic blues, challenging the whole goddam world to have another little piece of her heart, driving ahead full tilt boogie lest in her time of dyin’ she discover that she’d never lived, trading her tomorrows for a few todays. A hard life, an earthy life, a Rabelaisian life she’d created piece by piece, vice by vice, liberation by liberation out of the fifties and out of Port Arthur, Texas, where she’d grown up, out of her own fragile, straight self.
A new myth.
I used to ask guys I was balling, ‘Do I ball like I sing? Is it really me?’ That’s what I wonder sometimes when I’m talking. Is this person that’s talking me? Ultimately Janis turned into her own carefully cultivated myth of constant motion and in so doing became the personification of the sixties.
Yeah, I get tired of being in the same place. I hate boredom.
A wave of electrical sound, Country Joe MacDonald called her,
a flashing light.
The light flashed, the music went round and round, and Janis rocketed from place to place and lived harder and harder and harder until on October 4, 1970, the motion stopped, and the woman who had lived on the outer edge of probability overdosed on heroin.
In the quiet morning there was much despair, Mimi Fariña wrote.
Jagger screams ‘Hello!,’ springs into the air and slams down in a split, as the Stones start bashing out Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The audience, recoiling in audiovisual shock, not only screeeeeeeeeams, but starts climbing the furniture, dancing in the aisles and charging the unguarded stage. Tasting the crowd’s warm, salty blood, Mick the Jagger goes mad, tears off his belt, flogs the stage floor, incites the mob to riot and offers himself as their superhuman sacrifice.
The most disheartening blow of all, however, was the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. Mick Jagger was one of us. We knew him, we loved him, we revered his satanic majesty, the role he played between game and seriousness. The Rolling Stones were no pack of crazies out there in the desert, and they were not uniformed National Guardsmen on an Ohio college campus or establishment pigs along Lake Michigan. They were counterculture. So were their fans, who reveled in this taunting, androgynous personification of the good in evil and the evil in good. This was ritual theater, good game, great show, super music.
And the Hell’s Angels, playing security guard for $500 worth of beer, were the very embodiment of the angry no that the counterculture had espoused from the beginning, grown-up greasers, Teds, rockers—mythic heroes to angry young men, protesters, and dropouts. They were misunderstood rejects of society who would, given any chance at all, prove their innate decency. So what were they doing up there clubbing people with pool cues, smashing the head of Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, kicking and stabbing Meredith Hunter to death? Four dead, a hundred injured, thousands freaked out on bad acid, bad vibrations, the whole bad scene.
There were kids being stabbed and heads cracking the whole time. We tried to stop it the best we could by not playing, but by the time we got into our fourth song, the more we got into it, the more people got into their fighting thing.
The Airplane, stopping
up against the wall, motherfucker to tell the Angels to cool it, and Marty getting smashed, and Paul Kantner nearly getting whacked, and then back to
up against the wall—talk about absurdity!
Tim Leary, stoned out of his head, watching bad trips all around him in complete passivity.
A hundred Angels in total control of the stage, utterly intimidating the audience, which hated them, arrogant, indecent, indifferent, violent, threatening even Jagger, whom they’d been hired “to protect.” “Hey brothers and sisters, come on now. Cool it. Everybody cool down.” Then Sympathy for the Devil. Then an abrupt stop and “Hey, we need a doctor here.” Then more Sympathy for the Devil, as Hunter was stabbed to death in front of the stage.
The violence seemed just another stage setting for the Stone’s routine, wrote Sol Stern in Altamont: Pearl Harbor to the Woodstock Nation.
They continued to play, mostly uninterrupted, while the fights flared again and again across the front of the stage. The truth is that Jagger was himself terrified, helpless, threatened as anyone else by events absolutely and completely out of his or anyone else’s control, the whole scene gone berserk, a game become suddenly, threateningly, terrifyingly earnest.
The socially conscious, the politically active, the music freaks and the drug freaks, the hippie apostles of the new love and freedom, the mean-mother Angels, the young of youthful California, the rebels, the redeemed, the elect—everybody was there, everybody was a part, everybody contributed to the death of the Woodstock myth.
What made matters worse, of course, was that Altamont was to have been the cinematic high point of the Stones’ American tour, a Mick Jagger
Woodstock that could be staged cheaply and earn bundles. Throughout the murder of Meredith the cameras rolled; in fact, you almost got the impression that it was for the cameras that all the rest rolled, all the satanism and the taunting and the bad vibrations. Not enough planning, not enough medical help, not enough legitimate security, too much inducement, too much show, too much commercialism.
The Stones Have Not Acted Honorably, charged Rolling Stone, accusing them of refusing to face up to their responsibility for the disaster.
(All the bad vibrations showed right on through Gimme Shelter, the film released with no apparent remorse in 1972. That may have been the most dishonorable act of all.)
We’re finally on our own, Neil Young had exulted after the shootings at Kent State, as if he expected to dispel any lingering illusions about the intentions of the establishment and to send the counterculture off into a new America. But those four deaths did not liberate anyone. Neither did the deaths at Altamont. This is the kind of excess that freezes motion in iced terror, that elects a Richard Nixon to keep the peace, that of necessity reestablishes rules and regulations, that kills rock concerts and festivals, that forces the world to conclude that
this is fuckin’ insane. That runs the freewheeling, wild, magnificent sixties into the sober, circumspect, temperate seventies.