Nice review by Blake Maddox, published 24 June 2013 in Dig Boston. I’m pleased about three things: first, Blake is already quite knowledgeable about rock in the sixties but feels The Republic of Rock revealed surprising new stories and perspectives on the topic; second, Blake feels the book is accessible to readers beyond academia even as it addresses more specialized debates among professional scholars; and finally, I like the (almost psychedelic!) experimentations with format in the review and its multimedia approach. Thanks Blake for the careful reading of the book.
Note, 2020. The original review is no longer online, so Blake asked me to publish the text here.
Review: The Republic of Rock
By Blake Maddox
24 June 2013, Dig Boston
Given my particular interests in history in music, I cracked open The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture thinking that I would be more reminded than enlightened and informed. I was pleasantly surprised to have been incorrect in my expectations.
Author Michael J. Kramer does not simply regurgitate information about Timothy Leary, Woodstock, and peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
Rather, Kramer provides whole chapters about Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests (which he quotes Jerry Garcia as describing as events at which “formlessness and chaos lead to new forms. And new order. Closer to, probably, what the real order is.”); the abortive San Francisco rock festival called Wild West, which “many at the time anticipated would become the definitive countercultural gathering of the era”; and how rock music affected not only the American GIs fighting the war in Southeast Asia, but also the Vietnamese citizens who had to suffer through it unarmed.
The book also answered a rudimentary question to which I was never sure of the answer: Why San Francisco? Why was it the case that, as Kramer quotes the underground paper the Berkeley Barb as writing, “There would probably be no Haight-Ashbury without the war”? The answer, while not requiring an entire chapter, is deeper than merely because it was headquarters for Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Kramer is a history professor at Northwestern University, so it did not surprise me that he interpreted some pretty cool topics in a somewhat scholarly fashion. I, however, read The Republic of Rock from neither a scholarly perspective nor the perspective of a scholar. Therefore, I did not fully grasp the concept of citizenship that he mentions in the subtitle. My guess is that most casual readers will not either.
However, I did appreciate Kramer’s inquiry into the dual – and not necessarily opposing – forces of “hip capitalism,” a term that he did not coin (and does not claim to have) and “hip militarism,” a term of his own making.
As for the first term, think of the business hippie from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the one who “understand[s] the concept of supply and demand.”
Kramer devotes the second chapter to San Fran radio station KMPX , which he calls a “pioneering example of hip capitalism.” The staff of KMPX – “however much they espoused antimaterialist hippie values on the surface” – “went on strike not only to demand better wages and working conditions, but also greater artistic freedom and creative control.”
Why? Because “[i]n the new dynamic of hip capitalism, the serious business profit and the zany pleasures of countercultural joy were linked.”
A similar perspective, that the counterculture should have a puff of the joint that they helped roll, was what preemptively closed the curtain on Wild West, the festival that initially “so overshadowed Woodstock that one underground newspaper simply referred to the New York concert at ‘Wild East’.”
On the other hand, by allowing American GIs to embrace rock ’n’ roll, “hip militarism emerged in Vietnam as a tactic for raising morale with the US Armed Forces.” (Another strand of hip militarism “relaxed regulations for hair length, facial hair, and uniforms” for members of the Navy.)
Hip militarism may have also been the gun that the American politicians and military leaders used to shoot themselves in the feet.
As anyone who knows anything about the 1960s – or has seen Forrest Gump – knows, the soundtrack to the Vietnam era wasn’t exactly all Stewie- Griffin-at-Woodstock-type songs.
Therefore, Kramer writes, hip militarism “raised morale in the immediate moment, but it did so by delivering music to GIs that accentuated their alienation from the war effort.”
Another interesting result of the influx of American popular music into Vietnam was the emergence of a popular Vietnamese group called the CBC Band. The letters stood for Con Ba Cu, meaning “Mother’s Children,” and the band partially consisted of siblings from the Phan family. Phan Lihn and his wife Phan Marie Louise became known as the “the Yoko Ono and John Lennon of Vietnamese rock music,” and the CBC Band was very popular with the mixed American and Vietnamese audience for whom they performed.
The imported American music was also so popular that in May 1971, South Vietnam hosted the Saigon International Rock Festival, at which “bands from South Vietnam, Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and elsewhere performed at the Saigon Zoo for roughly 7,000 fans.”
Thus, what started out on a San Francisco street corner in 1967 had, almost two full years after Woodstock, become “a global counterculture.”
The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture taught me a great deal about the era and topics that it covers. That is what made it slightly more difficult to read than I had anticipated: I had to actually learn about stuff that I thought I already knew about. Despite the groovy subject matter, Kramer’s book is not necessarily a casual read. However, it is also never so dense as to turn off those who (like me) are history buffs and music who are immediately taken in by the title.