History News Network Reviews The Republic of Rock

Nice review of The Republic of Rock published by the History News NetworkRon Briley, “Review of Michael J. Kramer’s ‘The Republic of Rock,'” History News Network, http://hnn.us/article/154742. Thanks to Ron for engaging with the book so thoughtfully.

Acid Test Muir Beach Crop
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Muir Beach Acid Test Poster Detail, 1965.

One point Ron’s rightfully makes is that I do not concentrate much on the fall or decline of the counterculture. That is a fascinating issue, one that has dominated much of the scholarship on “the sixties.” I would only say that in Republic of Rock, I grew more curious about understanding what the counterculture was, exactly, than about assessing its successes and failures. The historiography of the sixties has often focused on judging it, on registering hopes and regrets about it. This is particularly the case in writing about the counterculture by and in the shadow of a generation of historians who lived through that time period and in much of their work have confronted in one way or another the story of “the sixties.”

There has always been a much disputed sense of how to define the counterculture, and it struck me that the arguments about success and failure (nevermind Bob Dylan’s notion that, to paraphrase, there is no success like failure and failure’s no success at all) rested very much on definitional questions. So what I grew curious about was almost a more elemental question than success or failure: why did rock music matter so much to certain people? Only if we could identify and register the mattering could we begin to put the counterculture in its historical place.

What I discovered, however, was that the counterculture’s historical place was often about trying to leap or flash or jump out of its historical place. The contextualized reception of rock music time and time again revealed instances in which people wanted to unfix themselves, remake themselves, undo themselves, and in the process, reimagine and recast the world around them. To catch their desires and how these longings, emotions, corporeal struggles, and intellectual engagements shaped and were shaped by rock music became a central goal of The Republic of Rock. It kept leading me to the question of citizenship and how investigations of social belonging and democratic freedom saturated the spaces in which rock music was heard. There, in those moments, among those people, rock became a vehicle for new sensations about, feelings for, and comprehensions of social life in a charged historical moment. San Francisco and Vietnam were but two poles of a larger, global proliferation of inquires into citizenship through the unlikely medium of rock.

This circuit was what I hoped to identify and probe to grasp its dynamic and what that dynamic could tell us about the relationship between self, community, nation-state, and global scales of citizenship and civics in the 1960s. Partly by emphasizing the distinctiveness, the “exceptionalism,” of the late 60s/early 70s countercultural moment, I hoped to intervene in continual and very frustrating efforts to fit all subsequent cultural rebellions into its model.

On the other hand there is something—an energy, a charged experience of human activity and engagement—that continues to matter, that surfaced in the sixties counterculture and still seems to pop up, occasionally, in different forms. “There’s something happening here and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” “There’s something happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Rock’s songwriters, from the Buffalo Springfield to Bob Dylan to many others, tried to name this “something” that had a historical force even if it seemed to vanish into thin air when scrutinized through conventional historical means.

It’s the effort to touch that “something,” to catch its power in action, that I think still matters to the telling of history. As much as we can identify the structures of thought and material force that limited or constrained the counterculture, as much as we can note the ironic twists and turns of this and other liberation struggles whose very search for freedom only deepened the forces of tyranny and unfreedom because of their complicity with (hip) capitalism or militarism, with misplaced utopianism, with the forces of patriarchy, racism, classism, and so on, so too we should pay attention to those moments when history cracks open a bit, when other sounds, sights, modes, and moods arise within the edifice of human history. It’s those moments of uncertainty, when something is happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear, that historians need to analyze as well. These “somethings”—questions about self and society, humans and the world in which they live, rather than answers or solutions or statements of fact—are as worthy of historical study as the fact that they usually only flash up momentarily, fleetingly, and then fade away.

4 thoughts on “History News Network Reviews The Republic of Rock

  1. Glad to see your book is being so well received.

    In your blog you make several cogent observations and ask some important questions, which I’d like to address, albeit in abridged fashion,

    You pose the “elemental question” of “Why did rock music matter so much to certain people?” It is not an easy question, but finding legitimate answers is crucial to understanding the sixties. Doing so will require a new paradigm, which in developing we would do well to heed the Grateful Dead’s words: “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Looking in this way will take us past conventional and superficial perspectives and, instead, provide a portrayal of psychedelic music as a story of the American post-atomic frontier told in terms of quantum physics (light), technology, drugs, poetry, religion/spirituality, alchemy, music, dialecticism, and the folk tradition. It’s here we will find the attraction and the “mattering” of the music.

    You state: “[T]here is something—an energy, a charged experience of human activity and engagement—that continues to matter, that surfaced in the sixties counterculture.” While I agree with that and see this “charged experience” most prominently in the music, I don’t think the songwriters or others in that period made any great attempt to define or name this “something.” While they may have attached words to the phenomenon to make matters simple, they studiously avoided trying to explain it.

    So Kesey said of this thing that Kerouac simply called “IT”: “Something was happening at that time, and it was a wave that some of us were able to surf on. And none of us started the wave; I don’t think there’s any way you could start the wave. The wave is still going.”

    Dylan would say of his music: “What I’m doing now – it’s a whole other thing. We’re not playing rock music. It’s not a hard sound. These people call it folk rock – if they want to call it that, something that simple, it’s good for selling records. As far as being what it is, I don’t know what it is. I can’t call it folk rock. It’s a whole way of doing things. It has been picked up on. I’ve heard songs on the radio that have picked it up. I’m not talking about words. It’s a certain feeling.”

    Lastly, Jerry Garcia talked about having “faith in this form that has no form. Let’s have faith in this structure that has no structure.”

    You make the point several times that this charged “something” always “seemed to vanish into thin air when scrutinized through conventional historical means” or that “usually only flash up momentarily, fleetingly, and then fade away.” That’s all in the nature of the artistic beast (and here I’m speaking of the music). It was ephemeral and transitory. Much of it was created live in the moment and for the moment. Once that moment was past the music was gone, too, except for the spark of memory that listeners and musicians carried with them, which is where recordings come into the picture. It’s not like printed words being subjected to New Criticism-style exegesis. It’s immediate and intuitive and the work of pranksters and magicians.

    Writer Eric Stafford points out his difficulty with pinning down the concept of psychedelia in his 1968 essay “Rock as Politics”: “In all that I have said about rock music, at no point have I been able to put my finger down squarely and say: this is why I think it is important. I can point to the parts, but where is the whole?. . .The reason I can’t more neatly sum up the effects of psychedelics and rock seems to me in the nature of what’s going down. The most important quality of the psychedelic revolution – if that’s what it is – is possibly its elusiveness, its essential imperceptibility.”

    I agree wholeheartedly that these “somethings” are worthy of study but with the caution that we must be careful about what we’re doing and how we are doing it and just what it is we are doing it to. Obviously, there is much more to all of this than could be squeezed in here.

  2. Martin,

    Thanks for your comments here. I think we are very much in agreement that rock music and other art forms of the countercultural sixties had a kind of evanescent yet quite powerful quality and that conventional historical modes of analysis don’t do a good job of catching that kind of social magic and cultural alchemy. Of course, as one smart intellectual historian pointed out to me, alchemy didn’t actually work, so maybe we are all chasing rainbows here (nothing wrong with that I think). What I’ve been interested in doing, and perhaps you too, is trying to work between the space that Kesey and the Dead and other practitioners of these forms played in and the more conventional ways we understand history. They wanted to investigate deeply how far you could bend the rules of conventionality, logic, how other kinds of ways of living might be out there, ready for grabbing (though in other ways, they were rather conventional, I think, for instance of the predominant (though not the only) attitude toward women in that whole scene). Typical history, by contrast, is so often about constraints, and often analyzes the past within lots of assumptions about how things connect, about causality and correlations narrowly understood (less interest in synchronicity compared to the Kesey/Dead world for example). The Republic of Rock tries to clarify something in between these two extremes: being really inside the Acid Test mentality and being quite outside it. I think you are probing much of the same arena in your comments and work, yes? Thanks again for your thoughts here. Fun and so intriguing to read your take on these things! Best, Michael

  3. Alchemy may have never “actually worked” per se, but those who practiced the craft probably had some interesting experiences along the way. It all reminds me of the people who say of a Grateful Dead jam that it “doesn’t go anywhere” and who by only focusing on a destination miss the adventures and pleasures to be had on the journey. Lean back and enjoy.

    Maybe that intellectual historian wasn’t so smart after all. (Hope I’m not insulting anyone, just offering a different perspective on the matter.)

    Anyway, the challenges faced in trying to understand experiential realities such as rock music and the Acid Test are formidable and can’t be mastered with outdated and outmoded critical lenses and methods. For example, someone like Christopher Ricks, who seeks an understanding of Dylan’s lyrics by subjecting them to traditional exegetical analysis, isn’t going to get anywhere – particularly in the case of Dylan’s transcendent mid-60s work. There’s no lyrical code to be broken and seeing Blake’s influence on a given song isn’t going to lead us to any sense of how it makes you feel, which is the paramount consideration. How do you analyze pure sound?

    But given that you’re dealing with an experiential reality what sort of approach will deliver us to enlightenment. How can we successfully work in the frontier space that exists between conventional ways of understanding and new forms such as the Acid Test or the music of the Grateful Dead? Where are the new paradigm and the new critical model that will make it possible? Perhaps they exist in some amalgam of literary or artistic criticism and historical analysis or even something else. I don’t know.

    Nevertheless, we are left with the question: “How do you explain the unexplainable?” Even if our alchemy won’t be successful, that’s no reason to stop.

  4. Hi Martin — I just saw your comment. Sorry I missed it! I am with you 100 percent on this. The conventional literary analysis approach just isn’t going to get us there, though it may get us partly there. Our alchemy conversation makes me think of Allen Ginsberg’s wry, brilliant photograph and caption of Harry Smith, alchemist, transforming milk into milk: http://www.harrysmitharchives.com/2_artwork/photos/milk.html. — Thanks for all this! Michael

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