Brief Book Talk

A brief book talk given at the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University, 07 March 2014:

This book began with a seemingly simple question: why did rock music matter so much to participants in the counterculture of the 1960s? I was curious about this because while some of the music was great, to me lots of it did not actually sound that good! Why, then, had rock been so important to so many people?

The more I looked at source materials, the more it seemed that the answer to this question lurked in something that was actually quite complex and unexpected: rock music mediated issues of individual subjectivity and collective social belonging, of what we might call the cultural dimensions of citizenship. And it did so not outside or against but rather within the channels of American commercial and military empire during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. Rock was, in particular, at the cutting edge of the new logic of “hip capitalism,” the selling of rebellion against mass consumerism as a new niche market within mass consumerism. In the key site of San Francisco, ground zero for the domestic US counterculture, rock was the very sound of “hip capitalism,” but in being so, it also fostered awareness of the implications of the hip capitalist turn for democratic citizenship.

Across the Pacific Ocean in the Vietnam War, a kind of parallel tactic to hip capitalism emerged, a sort of “hip militarism,” when the US Armed Forces imported rock in an effort to raise the morale of young, disgruntled GIs. Rock similarly proved to be the sound of cooptation and absorption, but in uses of and responses to the music by GIs themselves, rock also generated spaces and moments of thinking about the war’s injustices and the role of the American citizen-soldier in causing them. Even young Vietnamese got in on the rock action, forming their own bands to make a living in the wartime economy while also using rock to stake their claims to citizenship in the sonic territory of what became known as Woodstock Nation, or more accurately put, since it spanned the world by the end of the 1960s, the Woodstock Trans-National.

In San Francisco, Vietnam, and beyond, rock proved to be serious fun. That is, it was intensely pleasurable for many listeners, but that pleasure was also meant to be taken seriously. This has made it difficult for historians to understand rock’s importance to the story of the “sixties,” for historians are typically not very good at pleasure—neither analyzing it nor, much of the time, even having it. Participants in the sixties counterculture, by contrast, approached the personal and communal pleasures of rock as full of civic possibilities. Indeed, listeners to rock reached beyond rational-critical discourse as the exclusive mode of public engagement in their efforts to work through, and play through, where individuality and collectivity met. They sought out a far broader palette of aesthetic, emotional, sensorial, corporeal, and technological modes of thinking to grapple with what citizenship might be.

In taking seriously their serious fun, my book might best be imagined as something like an intellectual history of how hippies danced—that is, the book attempts to capture and analyze how listeners to rock moved and were moved, how they escaped into the ecstatic release of rock’s sounds, but from that escape also found themselves pulled into contemplating matters of great significance to their own lives and the lives of others. Listening intently to rock music in San Francisco, Vietnam, and beyond, participants in the sixties counterculture found themselves fundamentally embedded within the wavelengths and apparatuses of American commercial and military imperialism. And they tried to rock the meaning of citizenship from that space within.

5 thoughts on “Brief Book Talk

  1. The question you posed – “Why did rock music matter so much to participants in the counterculture of the 1960s?” – is certainly an important one in trying to understand the 1960s. As you say, it is also a difficult one to answer.

    I, however, might be inclined to slightly recast the question as: “Why was the psychedelic music of the mid-1960s music so attractive?” Doing so, in turn, would lead to a statement from Dino Valente of Quicksilver Messenger Service and author, as Chet Powers, of “Get Together” that seems to sum the matter up. He said: “You take this electrical power out of the wall and you send it through the guitar and you bend it and shape it and make it into something, like songs for people and that power is a wonderful thing.”

    Following this line of thought would mean that the attractiveness of the music was in its electricity. (And by this I mean more than just the use of electrically amplified instruments.) Identifying the source of this “electric quality” is where the challenge comes in. While space doesn’t permit a full examination of that issue in this response, suffice it to say that what these people created was a magnetic and spiritually charged new poetic form.

    Understanding this new form then requires us to let it speak for itself as an art form. Failing to see the music as a subjective or experiential (poetic/artistic) reality may be a factor in the difficulty historians have in understanding “rock’s importance to the story of the ‘sixties’ ” that you cite. Starting inquiries from an artistic perspective may help lessen some of those difficulties.

    On the matter of the economy in which the counterculture operated, I think it useful to differentiate those individuals who were there at the start from those who came later in terms of philosophy and motivation.

    Those who were there at the beginning would include Ken Kesey who said: “We were doing things so fast there was no time for deliberation. No spin. No selling soap. Just doing it.” Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead similarly observed: “It wasn’t songs, or entertainment. Most of the time we were playing for salvation. . .playing for it. We weren’t playing for the $3.50, we were playing because that’s what we had to do.”

    What came later was an attempt to package, merchandise and market what had been created by those who developed the early “counterculture.” Profit and exploitation are, however, the hallmarks of American capitalism and won’t be denied.

    The irony in all of this, however, is that without corporate entities such as record companies, booking agencies, and book publishers, many people would not have been able to experience such things as Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Personally I look to the truth or heart of the work rather than the delivery mechanism to determine its value.

    Would enjoy engaging with you on these matters. Sorry this is incomplete.

  2. Harry —

    “You take this electrical power out of the wall and you send it through the guitar and you bend it and shape it and make it into something, like songs for people and that power is a wonderful thing.” Yes exactly! I think that this interest in what kinds of cultural connection were possible within the mass mediations of post-World War II culture was precisely what interested many people in the counterculture. Probably more strikingly than the assumptions many have about the anti-technology wing of the counterculture. I admire Fred Turner’s work on this in From Counterculture to Cyberculture quite a bit.

    I also thoroughly agree with you that the artistic and aesthetic modalities are the key ones here, and that many of the more conventional historians of the 1960s are not particularly good at considering these ways of addressing issues of private and public concern.

    Here’s where I diverge. I think that the attitudes of Kesey and Hart were *exactly* at the cutting edge of a new kind of “hip capitalism.” In this respect, I’m building off of Tom Frank’s work in The Conquest of Cool. Now, I am not blaming Kesey or Hart or anyone else for their bohemian proclivities, I don’t think they were dupes of “the Man” (though Frank sort of does). My point is that even those who were “there from the start” were already wrapped up in larger shifts in capitalism in the US, and those shifts were toward niche markets, including a niche market that was all about “just doing it,” all about the pleasure of a certain kind of bohemian anti-commercialism that supposedly broke through the larger commercial, political, ideological structures of power. Or more accurately put, didn’t care if it did or not. Nadya Zimmerman has written nicely about how the not caring and insistence on “just doing it” was precisely what left the counterculture open to cooptation, incorporation, absorption by commercial forces. I want to frame the issue a different way: what if we relocated the counterculture in mass consumerism from the beginning? What if we got out of the whole assumption that there was an authentic subculture that was commodified and coopted? I think that people in the 1960s, Kesey and Hart included, were already so deep into the larger forces of capitalism that they, and many others, were more interested in what one could do in that murky space where one was within the very machine that was a confusing swirl of liberation and limitation. And that’s were the Dino Valenti interest in electricity perhaps came in. Because electronic culture was “where the action was” for trying to redirect, redeploy, even reprogram both social conditions and self creation.

    This is where I think “hip capitalism” and “hip militarism” (in Vietnam) are really important. Rock music was part of these new directions in postwar US mass consumerism and imperialism, it was even at the cutting edge of them, and it was precisely because of its corrupted qualities, its complicity in larger structures and flows of power, that it generated, sparked, and shocked into being a counterculture about which we still, participants and historians alike, struggle to recognize and reckon with.

    I’ve written more about my take on counterculture and consumerism in a response to Ron Jacobs’s thoughtful review of my book if you are interested:

    Thanks again for your wonderful comments. And hope to continue the conversation.

    All best,

  3. Michael

    I got hold of a copy of Nadya Zimmerman’s book from the library (always looking for new sources on the music). To be honest, I was disappointed and had more than a few problems with it.

    First, the number of factual errors the book contained took me aback. These included:

    Page 12 – “For What It’s Worth” was written by Stephen Stills about/in response to youth riots on Sunset Strip and not Vietnam.

    Page 27 – “Big Nig’s roadhouse (site of Ken Kesey’s first Acid Test)” It was actually the house of a fellow named Big Nig in San Jose and not a roadhouse. It was also the site of the second Acid Test and the first one at which the Warlocks (Grateful Dead) performed or participated (December 4, 1965).

    Page 40 – The Paul Butterfield Blues Band as a whole did not back Dylan in his first electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. That backing group, however, did include three of the Butterfield Band’s members – Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Sam Lay (drums), and Jerome Arnold (bass) – along with Al Kooper (organ) and Barry Goldberg (piano).

    Page 55 – Jefferson Airplane’s RCA début album was Takes Off in 1966 not Surrealistic Pillow in 1967.

    Page 63 – The early history of Jefferson Airplane is convoluted here. Yes, Marty Balin found five, not four, other members to be in the group, two of whom – Bob Harvey and Jerry Peloquin on bass and drums, respectively, were soon jettisoned for Jack Casady and Skip Spence. The group or most of it did move into a house together but not until they were successful and it was the fabled Airplane Mansion at 2400 Fulton Street to which they moved. I also wasn’t aware that the Airplane ever had “house band” status at the Fillmore West. Graham did manage the group for a time after an acrimonious and litigious falling out with first manager Matthew Katz and probably gave them regular bookings at the ballroom.

    Page 75 – Manfred Mann’s 1965 song “With God on Our Side” is actually Manfred Mann’s version of Bob Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side,” which was released on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’.

    Page 79 – “Bass Strings” from Country Joe’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body bears no resemblance to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” All one has to do is listen to it and Big Brother’s version of “Hall of the Mountain King” on Cheaper Thrills to see the difference.

    Page 95 – Dylan does not meet or encounter the Hawks (the Band) until 1965 (not 1963) when he sees them at a club on the recommendation of Mary Martin, his manager’s secretary.

    Page 96 – The error about the Butterfield Band, Dylan, and Newport is repeated.

    Page 113 – I have listened to Anthem of the Sun on many occasions and have never heard the entire side that was devoted to electronic music that Zimmerman says is there. True it is music performed on electric instruments and the album innovatively blends studio and live performances but the side of electronic music simply doesn’t exist.

    Page 143 – Repeats mistake of calling Surrealistic Pillow the Airplane’s first album and compounds the error by labeling After Bathing at Baxter’s the group’s second instead of third album

    Page 158 – Neal Cassady may have been a lot of things but a Beat poet wasn’t one of them.

    Perhaps even more troubling, I found her take on any number of matters and songs to be exasperating, confusing, and just plain unfounded. At times, it seemed as if she listened to the music without hearing it and she often appeared be rushing to some kind of value judgment.

    For example, on page 102, she takes the Grateful Dead to task for using corporate-made sophisticated musical technology to create their music and expresses displeasure that they escaped criticism for it. An understanding of the context in which the nascent Dead created their music, however, exposes the absurdity of her position.

    Emerson tells us that the “experience of each new age requires a new [artistic] confession.” By 1965 when the Warlocks/Grateful Dead were morphing out of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the Beatles and Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home had already turned a number of young folk musicians in the direction of rock ’n’ roll. Dylan was to deliver the fatal blow to the folk movement later that summer with his electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival and his release later that summer of the single of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the album Highway 61 Revisited.

    By that time, Sweet Betsy from Pike and her husband Ike were long gone as was the leftist radicalism of the 1930s. The world’s first atomic generation was taking the stage and seeking its voice. They realized that authenticity for the material they had been performing resided elsewhere with pioneers in Conestoga wagons and black sharecroppers. They recognized their own dishonesty and, at the same time, sensed the direction in which they had to go. The answer to the question of “If the folk are electrified shouldn’t their music be as well?” was a resounding “Yes.”

    And so they turned in their acoustic guitars for electric models, coalesced into bands, and began following Dylan’s lead and writing songs that reflected their world and their feelings.

    Being an electrified rock band required electronic equipment and that equipment, for the most part, was made by corporations (as were acoustic instruments such as guitars, think Gibson and Martin.) So what was a band to do? Where else were they to go for their equipment? Were they to make it themselves using components which likely were also manufactured by corporations? Or were they to remain anachronisms and perform music that was inauthentic? You see the irony.

    She also seems exercised by the fact that the Dead kept building their sound system. This didn’t speak to anything but the band members’ high standards and fanaticism about delivering the best sound possible. This ultimately resulted in the band’s fabled Wall of Sound, which didn’t earn them any more money; instead it sucked up their meager resources. They didn’t earn much from their records, depended on playing live for their main income stream (and they weren’t playing stadiums at this point), went into debt making their records, and had their funds stolen by their manager who was Mickey Hart’s father. It’s insulting to the band and shows a certain ignorance that she tries to portray their playing free concerts, refusing to sign contracts to be filmed or recorded at Monterey or Woodstock, and boosting equipment as somehow phony or just image. She seems to have an axe to grind.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg as I see matters.


  4. Harry —

    Leaving aside the factual errors, which no one wants to see in any context, but especially in a historical one (I noticed many of those errors too), I find much of your critique convincing.

    I do think Nadya Zimmerman (a great last name to have when it comes to 60s rock!) is on to something about the politics of that strain of the countercultural rock scene that was most about disengagement. She describes it as a pluralistic consciousness, something that Nick Bromell also reaches for in his analysis in Tomorrow Never Knows (can’t recall if you’ve read that one; I think it’s got a lot to offer even though there is much to critique in it too). What do we do with this kind of powerful awareness of the radically pluralistic sense of the world that rock, drugs, and other technologies (hey let’s call them that just to sound fancy!) unleashed in the mid to late 1960s for millions of people? What was that, exactly? How do we talk about its energies, its aesthetics, its ideological implications and political repercussions? It is quite difficult, yet it seems essential to grapple with if we are to make sense of the time period historically. Naming that sense of things opening up winds up, in funny ways, closing down, which is kind of missing the point. But to not try to name that feeling that people had, that led them in all sorts of directions in their lives, their sensibilities, their actions is to not reckon with it. A challenge. Nadya Z. argues, so far as I understand her position, that there was a core libertarian sensibility in the SF rock scene and sound which ultimately limited its ideological and political potential; we need to start with this important anything-goes quest for freedom as a key origin point, then think about how it let in lots of bad stuff along with the good. Few in the “scene” would dispute this, I suspect, and many continue to grapple with its perplexities. If anything goes, how do you have any directionality or force at all other than a march toward entropy and anarchy? Maybe that is ok? But for many you can’t build a life out of that energy. So then what? And what were the compromises that the rock scene made: in terms of working both with and against corporations and their control over technologies, means of distribution and production, etc.; what about the really important questions about gender that Nadya raises about the pastoral fantasy put forward in Sugar Magnolia (I love Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s work on this issue of women, gender, and the counterculture in Daughters of Aquarius, What about how it asks us to relate to nature?

    I think the mistake of Counterculture Kaleidoscope is to write about these matters in an “axe-grinding” mode. The challenge we face is to confront the contradictions of the counterculture and rock without either celebrating the music and scene or lambasting it. At least, to me, that’s the great challenge worth pursuing.

    Thanks for your comments. Really appreciate your knowledge and careful scrutiny and thinking about this stuff. Truly so.


  5. Michael

    I read Bromell’s book several years ago and didn’t get much from it. I mostly remember him talking about kids smoking dope in dorm rooms and listening to music and being struck by the fact that a book ostensibly about psychedelics and rock made little or no mention about either the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Amazing.

    Not surprisingly, I don’t think either Zimmerman or Bromell offers anything remotely close to a “powerful awareness” of psychedelic music. We still await its appearance.

    Be that as it may, and to continue this dialogue, now for your question: How do we talk about this little matter?

    If we talk about ideology, then we are dealing with propaganda. If we discuss politics, we are electioneering. If we consider the aesthetics or energies, we will find ourselves looking past the thing itself. As Bob Dylan wrote: “There is no such thing as right wing or left wing. There is only up wing and down wing.”

    So where does that leave/lead us?

    I believe it should have us talking about things such as:

    • The majesty of Dark Star

    • The lava-like brutal honesty of Like a Rolling Stone

    • The dense sonic rumble of the Other One

    • The stately elegance of Love Minus Zero/No Limit

    • The shimmery summer sunshine of some of Garcia’s Dark Star jams

    • The soaring quality of Eight Miles High

    • The pure passion of Ball and Chain

    • The whiplash and velocity of The Other Side of This life

    Well maybe not so much talking as painting word pictures and to do that a name isn’t necessary.

    As Lao Tzu says in the Tao:

    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

    Thanks for the discussion.


    Next: The myth of the monolithic counterculture and the difference between building and squatting.

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