It’s very cool, very punk-rock, folk-rock, and all the other rockin’ signifiers of hip radicalism, to be going to a commune. Or to hang-out at one for a season. But to actually stay for good is not what rock-tuned set wants.

How do we know that? Well, tell me about a rock song that celebrates living in a commune, and not in the aspirational future tense. Tell me about the song that fondly recounts the year-in year-out life on the communal farm. Hmm . . . can’t think of any? Neither can I. Or, tell me about a rock band that went to live on a commune, or formed on one, and which remained there? I can recall several instances of hippie-era or punk-era rock groups living semi-communally in a band-house for a bit, but nothing long-term.

This is not to say that communes themselves are impossible. They’re hard, make no mistake. To survive for more than a few years, they require strict rules, ingenious contracts, self-sacrificial commitment, and more often than not, a common dedication to a religion. There’s evidence of increasing interest in them in recent years, and more than a few communities succeeding, even without common religion, in part by learning from various mistakes made by the ’60s and ’70s communes. It’s just to say that there’s something about rock’s core spirit that is allergic to them.

Such a divide, such a contradiction, existing at the heart of the ’60s Culture Revolution tells us something important. Was that revolution primarily about communal love? Or about autonomous freedom, i.e., self-expression?  If there seemed to be an attempt to combine these, was it for the sake of eventually affirming one of them as most primary? Or was the true aim to somehow equally affirm both?

Now the 60s counter-culture that gave birth to rock music (not rock n’ roll) may have been pretty proud of its artistic creation, but it was prouder about its determination to seek out an entirely alternative way of life, a big part of which was its practice of fraternal love.Such love had its moments of glory at Woodstock and other happenings, but such were merely festivals, temporary pilgrimage events. They could symbolize the desire for a new way of life, but not stand as evidence of its actualization.

It was the creation of the communes that was the primary sign of the counter-culture’s seriousness. Fraternal love could only triumph over modern individualism and possessiveness if one practiced it at the fundamental level of how and where one lived with respect to nature, property, economy, friends, and family. Assuming free-love in advance, friends (not a few of them bed-mates) would become the family, a local bounty of nature would set the bounds of the economy, and property would become collective.

The careerist job, the suburban house, and the isolated nuclear family unit were the great enemies. Another enemy, that of the City, was added to this list once dissatisfaction with the initial (’65-’67) embrace of bohemian neighborhoods like Haight-Asbury reached a critical point, as Keith Melville’s Communes in the Counter Culture explained:

At first merely the symbolic center of the new movement , by 1967 the Haight was inundated with new recruits from the hinterlands. . . . After a period of tacit cooperation, the city’s public agencies withdrew their services and created a climate of confrontation.Meanwhile the streets and stairwells of Haight-Asbury became clotted, and then, like any over-used artery, it ruptured. By the fall, there was the “Death of Hippie” ceremony and meetings on how to save the neighborhood. . . . The storefronts were covered with sheets of plywood and the streets with broken glass. The Haight became a drug ghetto, a teenage slum. Its former residents had left for the North Beach . . . or . . . Berkeley. And by 1968, the migration to rural communes in Sonoma and Mendocino counties north of the city began. Those who were serious about finding a place for the new culture realized that it was much too fragile to survive in the city. If there was any place where people could get by with a little help from their friends, where they could escape reporters and harassment, it was the country. (emphasis added)

Or as our song for this post puts it:

I’m goin’ to leave the city—got to get away—all this fussin’ and fightin’, man, you know I sure can’t stay.

You can see the temptingly easy thinking here: The reason the scene got so hateful in the Haight (and so quickly!—see Joan Didion for the ugly p’s and q’s) was not due to any faults inherent to the “new culture,” but to the media overexposure, the corrupt politics, and the very nature of the modern city.

Rock music mixed well with the acid, the free love, and even the new spirituality of the counter-culture. There was a greater awkwardness about its mixing with the really serious leftism. Rockers were in tune with the initial “beyond politics” stance of counter-culture, epitomized by the Beatles’ song “Revolution,” but rock remained awkward vis-a-vis Marxism, not least because however suited it was for broadcasting leftist denunciations, rock was only possible in a media-suffused market society where people would buy lots of records, concert tickets, etc.

But whereas the conflict with communistic politics could be finessed or even proudly embraced, rock’s conflict with communalism could not. The communalists not only attacked the consumerism of modernity, but often its very technology. Rock instruments needed electricity, after all. More fundamentally, the entire rock scene/business ran on social electricity, or what we might call the fuel of Fame. Without modern society, its cities like London, its newspapers, nightclubs, radio, television, and jet planes, a phenomenon like The Rolling Stones, which fed upon millions wanting to be like them or scream for them, would have been utterly impossible. The same goes for Bob Dylan, even prior to his electrification. A man like Robert Zimmerman would never have become the “voice of his generation” had he remained in small-town Minnesota. He had to go the city, to the epicenter of modern fame-competition.

Communalism posed you against that, and because it refused to wait until “after the revolution” for social relations to radically change, it did so in present tense. You needed to begin implementing the changes in your own life. If you were serious, that meant you were supposed to be able to be fulfilled when disconnected from the grid of communications. Thoreau felt the last thing you should do upon waking at Walden Pond was go look for your newspaper.

In that light, consider this bit from Pam Hanna’s account of her life in the pioneering Morningstar Commune:

After the first 15 arrests in October. . . . Larry figured he’d be in the next bunch and he wanted to get Siddhartha [his and Pam’s baby] and me out of the way, so . . . we walked to Forrestville to stay for a few days in a small commune of Merry Pranksters—some of Ken Kesey’s bus crowd. These were landed gentry hippies staying in a beautiful old Tudor house with outbuildings and several acres of land. A couple of them even had jobs. They were wired in Forrestville and kept up with the latest Beatles and Dylan and Rolling Stones albums. One of the Forrestville people, Larry Gamble, came regularly to Morningstar and hung out at Don and Sandy’s to discuss Christianity and the Gospel according to Dylan and the Beatles. (emphasis added)

From Pam’s perspective, Morningstar was a serious commune, truly aiming for Walden Pond-like detachment, economic self-sufficiency, and collective property arrangements, whereas Forrestville wasn’t. It was playing at aspects of communalism, but fundamentally depended on the system, on modern capitalism enabling some bohemians to be well-off and share from their bounty. Forrestville’s hippies remaining wired to Rock, and getting into the deep implications of the artistry of Dylan and the Beatles, was a sign of that.

If Morningstar and many other hippie communes began in a flurry of anarchism, many of the communes were very intentional about group togetherness from the start, and all the longer-lived ones found they had to strongly promote it. Few hippie communes ever came out explicitly against an emphasis on self-expression, and most of them said their life would aide self-expression all the more, but obviously, any individual’s desire for self-expression which also thirsted for modern fame could never be satisfied hidden away on some rural commune.

So rock could never just be at the commune.

“Goin’ Up the Country” is good times, but musically, it’s nothing but a little R+B run made hippie-ish by the lazy-fey vocal, the flute, and the lyrics. I admit that lyrically, it is not necessarily about goin’ to communes, even if it can support such an association. It’s more of a vacation song, or a song embodying the idea of just going without any clear idea of where. It doesn’t say a thing about how one is to live in the country. There will be some interesting songs soon enough, ones by Neil Young, Van Morrison, and John Denver come to mind, that made a pitch for a retreat into simple, albeit non-communal, country living. But “Goin’” just expresses a revulsion against the city and a sense of possibility as one drives out of it. I’ve no complaint about that—a hippie-ish accent given the perennial escape-to-the-country song formula, such as used by an earlier generation in the likes of “Don’t Fence Me In” or “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” suits me just fine. The only difference is that those songs accepted their status as fantasy evocations of a lost-past or a magical-place, whereas “Goin’” feels more open to the idea that one might be able to leave modern life entirely behind.

Oh, to live in song, as opposed to reality. Consider this note the sociologist and commune sympathizer Keith Melville copied from one commune’s bulletin’s board:

I hope that this week is the Farm’s lowest point for the summer. . . . I think of this as my (at least) temporary home. And I like my home to be clear of broken glass . . . my tools and supplies put away, I like to keep track of my guests, take care of my animals . . . 

Our average farmer . . . says to himself: “I’m here visiting (for a day, a week, a month, or a year) and I’m not really a part of this farm, just a guest, so I can’t do anything really effective about the Farm’s condition.”

I believe the key to the problem is this: STABILITY LEADS TO A FEELING OF COMMUNITY.

We have very little sense of community here. . . When a stable group of ten lives together for weeks, natural forces work for community feeling. When the Farm is more than 20 per cent tourists, when the family feeling is broken every day by departures and arrivals, I see no hope.

I feel for the guy (it could be a gal) who wrote this—but you see what his missive points to, don’t you? Rules. Lots of them. Many of which draw firm lines between the community and outsiders. The everyone goin’ here and there adventure-stage of the Culture Revolution had to make way for a consolidation-stage. And of course, almost all of the hundreds of hippie communes couldn’t make the switch, and within a couple years from Melville’s 1972 book, they had broken up.

That should push us to ask ourselves a question, especially those of us who feel any affinity with rock music, and even more especially those of us with no affinity for organized religion: back in that time, who would we have been more likely to be like, this stability-demanding farmer guy, or the restless “tourist communalists” that are the main problem his farm has to solve?

Communalism is its own interesting topic, that will take you into great provocative books like The Republic, and mediocre ones like Walden Two, into learning about how a few of the ’60s and ’70s communes survived long-term, and judging why and at what cost to their members, into knowledge of present-day experiments—some of which seem to be far more realistic in limiting their ambitions. One may even find a connection of these to the new agrarianism of Wendell Berry and the Front Porch Republic. (For several of these topics, this book looks promising.) Then there’s the history of Christianity and communalism, early America and communalism, etc. But I need to turn our gaze back to rock. Not mainly because this series of posts is called the Rock Songbook, but because, speaking for 99 percent of us Twenty-First Century folks, we know we’re not goin’ to the commune, at least not to stay. And most of the rock hippies were ready to admit the same thing.

So back to the late ’60s. Since the commune could not remain the directional end of the rock hippies’ “Let’s Get Together” idealism, some other goal would have to take its place. I would like to tell you that young people and rock stars flocked to sit at the feet of Wilson Carey McWilliams, to learn how their plain ol’ American towns (and associations), all those mundane places so many of them once left for the city, might be the best arena for really countering the heart-disease of modern individualism. No-one was thinking more thoroughly about our longing for fraternity in those days than he was, even if, unlike the sociologist Keith Melville, he was not exploring it by visiting the new American communes, but by meditating upon the old American writings.

But alas, McWilliams, whose big book on fraternity wasn’t published until 1974 anyhow, did not get adopted as a guru.  What actually happened, which I’ll detail next time, is the idealism got transmuted back into the reliable old pattern of Marxisant hate. The counter-culture increasingly acted as if the political Left had been right all along: Nothing less than the World had to be the aim, and meantime, nothing would bring the dreamers together better than railing at an Enemy. 

More on: Culture, Rock, Music

Articles by Carl Scott

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