In song, at least, the ’60s Culture Revolution began rather beautifully, with a call to smile upon your brother. Your brother was assumed to be all of mankind. We might call that the “external program” of the Counter-Culture, circa 1965-1968, posed as an alternative to the way the New Left activists of the day were staking so much upon political action, with an intensity that ran into ever more radical stances. By contrast, the Counter-Culture proposed to embrace the way of love right now (not, mind you, “after the revolution”). What allowed this was, to use a slogan from Allen Ginsburg, a “revolution in consciousness.” This was the internal program of free-love, artistic creativity, pantheism, and of course, LSD. You say you’ll change the constitution, well-ell, you know, you better free your mind instead.
If you were really serious about all this, you might even wind up on a commune. But as discussed in my last post, communal life was too hard for most folks, and the lesser ideal of the radical bohemian urban neighborhood, proved to have serious practical shortcomings in the 60s. More broadly, as we saw when we considered “Alone Again Or” the feeling of being in love with everyone, even if it seemed to have its moments of realization, such we saw in Taking Woodstock, couldn’t ultimately satisfy one’s heart nor be sustained by it.
Honestly considered, the hippies’ feeling of fraternity was felt most strongly when the “everyone” was narrowed down to a certain “us” who accepted the basic creed. Would that “us” and that creed be defined in a way that excluded the minds that hate? Despite the initial Counter-Culture witness, encapsulated by the lyrics of Lennon’s “Revolution,” it would not be. By 1969, hippies were muting their criticism of radical politicos, and vice-versa. The Counter-Culture became less defined by a positive understanding of the alternative culture it offered, and more by a general antagonism towards the “Establishment.”
We see it in song. If in 1966 The Jefferson Airplane issued an invitation for one and all to “Get Together” in 1969, after Woodstock’s apparent triumph and momentum (and just before the Altamont debacle), they released “We Can Be Together.” It’s addressed to the various counter-cultural “freaks,” on one hand, and the various radical political types, on the other. It is they who are to get together, and for the sake of some kind of revolution (the refrain in the companion-song “Volunteers” is got a revolution, got to revolution) against the Establishment, that is, against “Amerika.” Wikipedia tells us that legal threats from the Salvation Army keep them from titling the Volunteers album the way they wanted, Volunteers of Amerika. Because when the locals use zoning laws to bully a commune, or the feds conduct a drug bust, or Democratic Party divisions get Richard Nixon elected, it’s just like Nazi Germany, you know? Because, Vietnam! In any case, the song’s spirit of opposition, and unity on the grounds of that, is clear enough without that special “k”:
We can be together.
Ah, you and me,
we should be together.
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America:
in order to survive we steal, cheat, lie, forge, f$%#, hide, and deal.
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young.
We should be together!
Come on, all you people standing around!
Circa late 1969, the Airplane seems to sense that the generalized radical community needs some encouragement, a pep rally of sorts to get them past all the spirit-draining confusions that had been piling up, and all the minor divisions radicals had made between one another in the course of late-’60s intensity, you know, naturalist communalists v. wired hipsters, pacifists v. biker gangs, Hare Krishnas v. Shamans, old-school SDS-ers v. the new Weathermen-types, angry feminists v. “Ramblin’ Man” swingers, Black Panthers v. white hippies, Maoists v. anarchists, health-foodies v. druggies, etc., etc., and to focus instead on the big divide between all of them and the Establishment. It is a moment of sensing both the possibility of political power, whether in an actual Revolution or a McGovernite electoral victory, and the possibility of the whole movement falling apart. So once more into the breach!
We are forces of chaos and anarchy
everything they say we are, we are!
And we are very
proud of ourselves.
Up against the wall,
up against the wall(motherf%$#er)!
Tear down the walls!
Tear down the walls!
Do I have to report that the “up against the wall” line, which the boomer rock sages solemnly tell us caused controversy, was a reference to a radical Weathermen-aiding anarchist group and a quote from an Amiri Baraka poem? I guess so. Wow, a deep gesture there, perhaps calculated to provoke a censor’s response. To the extent we can take it seriously as a political statement, what it amounts to is what “desire for power” philosopher Michel Foucault said in 1971, as quoted in Mark Lilla’s fine book The Restless Mindnote that Foucault liked to speak in those days of the proletariat being joined in revolution by “women, prisoners, homosexuals, psychiatric patients,” and of course student activists and counter-culture freaks:
The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war . . . because, for the first time in history it wants to take power. When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection could possibly be made to this.
Had America actually been ripe for a political revolution, and such had succeeded, I have a queasy feeling that the likes of the Airplane’s Paul Kantner and Grace Slick would have been among the Party’s willing executioners.
Look, the whole thing’s just as dismal as can be. Lyrically, it shrugs off the better lessons from the Counter-Culture’s own songs(they’re singing songs, and they’re carrying signs, most of them say, hooray for our side) and baldly declares how proud of themselves the hippies should be. “Hey, mainstream America is being mean, and so to punish and confound them, let’s adopt as positive terms the very words they’re using to damn us!” So reactive, so juvenile. (And, so Republic book VIII.)
Musically, the less said the better. Sluggish beat, muffled sound. “Volunteers,” at least has that anthemic fight-song thing going for it, nor is there any denying the power of “Good Shepherd.” But “We Can Be Together” is weak, and all-in-all, the glorious Airplane of the first two albums is a distant memory on the Volunteers album. The overall feel is forced, and decadent.
How did we get from the voice of Joan Baez, which contained the promise of a flowering for everyone who listened, and from the overall love-stream vibe of the Jefferson Airplane’s first LPs, to this? But really, much of the ugliness was there from the beginning, and just needed time and confidence to fully unfold. As I showed early on in the Songbook, the wistful idealism of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Songbook #6) was linked at the hip with the Lenin-like demonizing of his “Masters of War.”(Songbook #8) There was something remarkably un-peaceful about ’60s peace-and-love from the get-go.
Oh, it sounds so gentle when the likes of Lennon say I hope one day, you will join us, and the world, will be as one. But for every “us,” there is a “them,” isn’t there? Wise advocates of fraternal love face that fact, and seek to keep the human instinct to demonize the other in check. Wilson Carey McWilliams said that “The political process is an effort to unite men in the pursuit of a common goal and vision. Politics, then, involves two questions: the question of ‘with whom,’ and the question of ‘for what.’ Furthermore it involves these questions in precisely that order.”
But those who do not accept the to-some-degree given character of our political communities, who want to reverse McWilliams’ order and “start the world anew” on the basis of a creedal community, and who ultimately seek to unify the world into such, must divide all mankind into two groups, of which one group will absorb the other. They will find, no matter how peaceful-sounding their songs, or anti-authoritarian their slogans, that they wind up with minds that logically have to hate. They will think that most everything that goes wrong must be blamed upon a them, upon the likes of Richard Nixon or the Koch Brothers, and that the most patriotic thing one can do for the sake of America’s future is to regard its past and present as largely worthy of the tag “Amerika.”
In sum, what the hippies found is that when the call to love one another isn’t being matched enough by the actual feeling (and doesn’t even seem to be working for the really radical ones out on the commune), and when the life immersed in drugs, hedonism, festivals, personal drama, and song can no longer keep one from noticing this, there’s always the old stand-by, the enemy, which can be evoked to bring “us” together.