Like a Rolling Stone
By Ralph J. Gleason, American Scholar
Forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways.
Plato said that.
There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there tellin’ me I’ve got to beware. I think it’s time we STOP, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s goin’ down.
The Buffalo Springfield said that.
For the reality of politics, we must go to the poets, not the politicians.
Norman 0. Brown said that.
For the reality of what’s happening today in America, we must go to rock ‘n roll, to popular music.
I said that.
For almost forty years in this country, which has prided itself on individualism, freedom and nonconformity, all popular songs were written alike. They had an eight-bar opening statement, an eight-bar repeat, an eight-bar middle section or bridge, and an eight-bar reprise. Anything that did not fit into that framework was, appropriately enough, called a novelty.
Clothes were basically the same whether a suit was double-breasted or single-breasted, and the only people who wore beards were absentminded professors and Bolshevik bomb throwers. Long hair, which was equated with lack of masculinity—in some sort of subconscious reference to Samson, I suspect—was restricted to painters and poets and classical musicians, hence the term “longhair music” to mean classical.
Four years ago a specter was haunting Europe, one whose fundamental influence, my intuition tells me, may be just as important, if in another way, as the original of that line. The Beatles, four long-haired Liverpool teen-agers, were busy changing the image of popular music. In less than a year, they invaded the United States and almost totally wiped out the standard Broadway show—Ed Sullivan TV program popular song. No more were we “flying to the moon on gossamer wings,” we were now articulating such interesting and, in this mechanistic society, unusual concepts as “Money can’t buy me love” and “I want to hold your hand.”
“Societies, like individuals, have their moral crises and their spiritual revolutions,” R. H. Tawney says in “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.” And the Beatles appeared (“a great figure rose up from the sea and pointed at me and said ‘you’re a Beatle with an “a” ’ ”—Genesis, according to John Lennon). They came at the proper moment of a spiritual cusp—as the martian in Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” calls a crisis.
Instantly, on those small and sometimes doll-like figures was focused all the rebellion against hypocrisy, all the impudence and irreverence that the youth of that moment was feeling vis-a-vis his elders.
Automation, affluence, the totality of instant communication, the technology of the phonograph record, the transistor radio, had revolutionized life for youth in this society. The population age was lowering. Popular music, the jukebox and the radio were becoming the means of communication. Huntley and Brinkley were for mom and dad. People now sang songs they wrote themselves, not songs written for them by hacks in grimy Tin Pan Alley offices.
The folk music boom paved the way. Bob Dylan’s poetic polemics, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” had helped the breakthrough. “Top-40” radio made Negro music available everywhere to a greater degree than ever before in our history.
This was, truly, a new generation—the first in America raised with music constantly in its ear, weaned on a transistor radio, involved with songs from its earliest moment of memory.
Music means more to this generation than it did even to its dancing parents in the big-band swing era of Benny Goodman. It’s natural, then, that self-expression should find popular music so attractive.
The dance of the swing era, of the big bands, was the fox-trot. It was really a formal dance extended in variation only by experts. The swing era’s parents had danced the waltz. The fox-trot was a ritual with only a little more room for self-expression. Rock ‘n roll brought with it not only the voices of youth singing their protests, their hopes and their expectations (along with their pathos and their sentimentality and their personal affairs from drag racing to romance), it brought their dances.
“Every period which abounded in folk songs has, by the same token, been deeply stirred by Dionysiac currents,” Nietzsche points out in “The Birth of Tragedy.” And Dionysiac is the word to describe the dances of the past ten years, call them by whatever name from bop to the Twist to the Frug, from the Hully Gully to the Philly Dog.
In general, adult society left the youth alone, prey to the corruption the adults suspected was forthcoming from the song lyrics (“All of me, why not take all of me,” from that hit of the thirties, of course, didn’t mean all of me, it meant, well... er...) or from the payola-influenced disc jockeys. (Who ever remembers about the General Electric scandals of the fifties, in which over a dozen officials went to jail for industrial illegalities?)
The tv shows were in the afternoon anyway and nobody could stand to watch those rock ‘n roll singers; they were worse than Elvis Presley.
But all of a sudden the New Yorker joke about the married couple dreamily remarking, when a disc jockey played “Houn’ Dog” by Elvis, “they’re playing our song,” wasn’t a joke any longer. It was real. That generation had suddenly grown up and married and Elvis was real memories of real romance and not just kid stuff.
All of a sudden, the world of music, which is big business in a very real way, took another look at the music of the pony-tail and chewing gum set, as Mitch Miller once called the teen-age market, and realized that there was one helluva lot of bread to be made there.
In a short few years, Columbia and R.C.A. Victor and the other companies that dominated the recording market, the huge publishing houses that copyrighted the music and collected the royalties, discovered that they no longer were “kings of the hill.” Instead, a lot of small companies, like Atlantic and Chess and Imperial and others, had hits by people the major record companies didn’t even know, singing songs written in Nashville and Detroit and Los Angeles and Chicago and sometimes, but no longer almost always, New York.
It’s taken the big ones a few years to recoup from that. First they called the music trash and the lyrics dirty. When that didn’t work, as the attempt more recently to inhibit songs with supposed psychedelic or marijuana references has failed, they capitulated. They joined up. R.C.A. Victor bought Elvis from the original company he recorded for—Sun Records (“Yaller Sun records from Nashville” as John Sebastian sings it in “Nashville Cats”)—and then bought Sam Cooke, and A.B.C. Paramount bought Ray Charles and then Fats Domino. And Columbia, thinking it had a baby folk singer capable of some more sales of “San Francisco Bay,” turned out to have a tiny demon of a poet named Bob Dylan.
So the stage was set for the Beatles to take over—“with this ring I can—dare I say it?—rule the world!” And they did take over so thoroughly that they have become the biggest success in the history of show business, the first attraction ever to have a coast-to-coast tour in this country sold out before the first show even opened.
With the Beatles and Dylan running tandem, two things seem to me to have been happening. The early Beatles were at one and the same time a declaration in favor of love and of life, an exuberant paean to the sheer joy of living, and a validation of the importance of American Negro music.
Dylan, by his political, issue-oriented broadsides first and then by his Rimbaudish nightmare visions of the real state of the nation, his bittersweet love songs and his pure imagery, did what the jazz and poetry people of the fifties had wanted to do—he took poetry out of the classroom and out of the hands of the professors and put it right out there in the streets for everyone.
I dare say that with the inspiration of the Beatles and Dylan we have more poetry being produced and more poets being made than ever before in the history of the world. Dr. Malvina Reynolds—the composer of “Little Boxes”—thinks nothing like this has happened since Elizabethan times. I suspect even that is too timid an assessment.
Let’s go back to Plato, again. Speaking of the importance of new styles of music, he said, “The new style quietly insinuates itself into manners and customs and from there it issues a greater force... goes on to attack laws and constitutions, displaying the utmost impudence, until it ends by overthrowing everything, both in public and in private.”
That seems to me to be a pretty good summation of the answer to the British rock singer Donovan’s question, “What goes on? I really want to know.”
The most immediate apparent change instituted by the new music is a new way of looking at things. We see it evidenced all around us. The old ways are going and a new set of assumptions is beginning to be worked out. I cannot even begin to codify them. Perhaps it’s much too soon to do so. But I think there are some clues—the sacred importance of love and truth and beauty and interpersonal relationships.
When Bob Dylan sang recently at the Masonic Memorial Auditorium in San Francisco, at intermission there were a few very young people in the corridor backstage. One of them was a long-haired, poncho-wearing girl of about thirteen. Dylan’s road manager, a slender, long-haired, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” youth, wearing black jeans and Beatle boots, came out of the dressing room and said, “You kids have to leave! You can’t be backstage here!”
“Who are you?” the long-haired girl asked.
“I’m a cop,” Dylan’s road manager said aggressively.
The girl looked at him for a long moment and then drawled, “Whaaaat? With those boots?”
Clothes really do not make the man. But sometimes...
I submit that was an important incident, something that could never have happened a year before, something that implies a very great deal about the effect of the new style, which has quietly (or not so quietly, depending on your view of electric guitars) insinuated itself into manners and customs.
Among the effects of “what’s goin’ on” is the relinquishing of belief in the sacred-ness of logic. “I was a prisoner of logic and I still am,” Malvina Reynolds admits, but then goes on to praise the new music. And the prisoners of logic are the ones who are really suffering most—unless they have Mrs. Reynolds’ glorious gift of youthful vision.
The first manifestation of the importance of this outside the music—I think—came in the works of Ken Kesey and Joseph Heller. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with its dramatic view of the interchangeability of reality and illusion, and “Catch-22,” with its delightful utilization of crackpot realism (to use C. Wright Mills’s phrase) as an explanation of how things are, were works of seminal importance.
No one any longer really believes that the processes of international relations and world economics are rationally explicable. Absolutely the very best and clearest discussion of the entire thing is wrapped up in Milo Minderbinder’s explanation, in “Catch-22,” of how you can buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents in Pianosa and make a profit. Youth understands the truth of this immediately, and no economics textbook is going to change it.
Just as—implying the importance of interpersonal relations and the beauty of being true to oneself—the under-thirty youth immediately understands the creed patiently explained by Yossarian in “Catch-22” that everybody’s your enemy who’s trying to get you killed, even if he’s your own commanding officer.
This is an irrational world, despite the brilliant efforts of Walter Lippmann to make it rational, and we are living in a continuation of the formalized lunacy (Nelson Algren’s phrase) of war, any war.
At this point in history, most of the organs of opinion, from the New York Review of Books through the New Republic to Encounter (whether or not they are subsidized by the C.I.A.), are in the control of the prisoners of logic. They take a flick like “Morgan” and grapple with it. They take “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night” and grapple with those two beautiful creations, and they fail utterly to understand what is going on because they try to deal with them logically. They complain because art doesn’t make sense! Life on this planet in this time of history doesn’t make sense either—as an end result of immutable laws of economics and logic and philosophy.
Dylan sang, “You raise up your head and you ask ‘is this where it is?’ And somebody points to you and says ‘it’s his’ and you say ‘what’s mine’ and somebody else says ‘well, what is’ and you say ‘oh my god am I here all alone?’ ”
Dylan wasn’t the first. Orwell saw some of it. Heller saw more, and in a different way so did I. F. Stone, that remarkable journalist, who is really a poet, when he described a Herald Tribune reporter extracting from the Pentagon the admission that, once the first steps for the Santo Domingo episode were mounted, it was impossible to stop the machine.
“Catch 22” said that in order to be sent home from flying missions you had to be crazy, and obviously anybody who wanted to be sent home was sane.
Kesey and Heller and Terry Southern, to a lesser degree in his novels but certainly in “Dr. Strangelove,” have hold of it. I suspect that they are not really a New Wave of writers but only a last wave of the past, just as is Norman Mailer, who said in his Berkeley Vietnam Day speech that “rational discussion of the United States” involvement in Vietnam is illogical in the way surrealism is illogical and rational political discussion of Adolf Hitler’s motives was illogical and then obscene.” This is the end of the formal literature we have known and the beginning, possibly, of something else.
In almost every aspect of what is happening today, this turning away from the old patterns is making itself manifest. As the formal structure of the show business world of popular music and television has brought out into the open the Negro performer —whose incredibly beautiful folk poetry and music for decades has been the prime mover in American song—we find a curious thing happening.
The Negro performers, from James Brown to Aaron Neville to the Supremes and the Four Tops, are on an Ed Sullivan trip, striving as hard as they can to get on that stage and become part of the American success story, while the white rock performers are motivated to escape from that stereotype. Whereas in years past the Negro performer offered style in performance and content in song—the messages from Leadbelly to Percy Mayfield to Ray Charles were important messages—today he is almost totally style with very little content. And when James Brown sings, “It’s a Man’s World,” or Aaron Neville sings, “Tell It Like It Is,” he takes a phrase and only a phrase with which to work, and the Supremes and the Tops are choreographed more and more like the Four Lads and the Ames Brothers and the McGuire Sisters.
I suggest that this bears a strong relationship to the condition of the civil rights movement today in which the only truly black position is that of Stokely Carmichael, and in which the N.A.A.C.P. and most of the other formal groups are, like the Four Tops and the Supremes, on an Ed Sullivan TV-trip to middle-class America. And the only true American Negro music is that which abandons the concepts of European musical thought, abandons the systems of scales and keys and notes, for a music whose roots are in the culture of the colored peoples of the world.
The drive behind all American popular music performers, to a greater or lesser extent, from Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, on down through Pat Boone and as recently as Roy Head and Charlie Rich, has been to sound like a Negro. The white jazz musician was the epitome of this.
Yet an outstanding characteristic of the new music of rock, certainly in its best artists, is something else altogether. This new generation of musicians is not interested in being Negro, since that is an absurdity.
The clarinetist Milton Mezzrow, who grew up with the Negro Chicago jazzmen in the twenties and thirties, even put “Negro” on his prison record and claimed to be more at home with his Negro friends than with his Jewish family and neighbors.
Today’s new youth, beginning with the rock band musician but spreading out into the entire movement, into the Haight-Ashbury hippies, is not ashamed of being white.
He is remarkably free from prejudice, but he is not attempting to join the Negro culture or to become part of it, like his musical predecessor, the jazzman, or like his social predecessor, the beatnik. I find this of considerable significance. For the very first time in decades, as far as I know, something important and new is happening artistically and musically in this society that is distinct from the Negro and to which the Negro will have to come, if he is interested in it at all, as in the past the white youth went uptown to Harlem or downtown or crosstown or to wherever the Negro community was centered because there was the locus of artistic creativity.
Today the new electronic music by the Beatles and others (and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” is, I suggest, a three-minute masterpiece, an electronic miniature symphony) exists somewhere else from and independent of the Negro. This is only one of the more easily observed manifestations of this movement.
The professional craft union, the American Federation of Musicians, is now faced with something absolutely unforeseen—the cooperative band. Briefly—in the thirties— there were co-op bands. The original Casa Loma band was one and the original Woody Herman band was another. But the whole attitude of the union and the attitude of the musicians themselves worked against the idea, and co-op bands were discouraged. They were almost unknown until recently.
Today almost all the rock groups are cooperative. Many live together, in tribal style, in houses or camps or sometimes in traveling tepees, but always together as a group; and the young girls who follow them are called “groupies,” just as the girls who in the thirties and forties followed the bands (music does more than soothe the savage breast!) were called “band chicks.”
The basic creed of the American Federation of Musicians is that musicians must not play unless paid. The new generation wants money, of course, but its basic motivation is to play anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Art is first, then finance, most of the time. And at least one rock band, the Loading Zone in Berkeley, has stepped outside the American Federation of Musicians entirely and does not play for money. You may give them money, but they won’t set a price or solicit it.
This seems to me to extend the attitude that gave Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan such status. They are not and never have been for sale in the sense that you can hire Sammy Davis to appear, as you can hire Dean Martin to appear, any time he’s free, as long as you pay his price. You have not been able to do this with Seeger, Baez and Dylan any more than Allen Ginsberg has been for sale either to Ramparts or the C.I.A.
Naturally, this revolt against the assumptions of the adult world runs smack dab into the sanctimonious puritan morality of America, the schizophrenia that insists that money is serious business and the acquisition of wealth is a blessing in the eyes of the Lord, that what we do in private we must preach against in public. Don’t do what I do, do what I say.
Implicit in the very names of the business organizations that these youths form is an attack on the traditional, serious attitude toward money. It is not only that the groups themselves are named with beautiful imagery: the Grateful Dead, the Loading Zone, Blue Cheer or the Jefferson Airplane—all dating back to the Beatles with an A—it is the names of the nonmusical organizations: Frontage Road Productions (the music company of the Grateful Dead), Faithful Virtue Music (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s publishing company). Ashes and Sand (Bob Dylan’s production firm—his music publishing company is Dwarf Music). A group who give light shows is known as the Love Conspiracy Commune, and there was a dance recently in Marin County, California, sponsored by the Northern California Psychedelic Cattlemen’s Association, Ltd. And, of course, there is the Family Dog, which, despite Ramparts, was never a rock group, only a name under which four people who wanted to present rock ‘n roll dances worked.
Attacking the conventional attitude toward money is considered immoral in the society of our fathers, because money is sacred. The reality of what Bob Dylan says—“money doesn’t talk, it swears”—has yet to seep through.
A corollary of the money attack is the whole thing about long hair, bare feet and beards. “Nothing makes me sadder,” a woman wrote me objecting to the Haight-Ashbury scene, “than to see beautiful young girls walking along the street in bare feet.” My own daughter pointed out that your feet couldn’t get any dirtier than your shoes.
Recently I spent an evening with a lawyer, a brilliant man who is engaged in a lifelong crusade to educate and reform lawyers. He is interested in the civil liberties issue of police harassment of hippies. But, he said, they wear those uniforms of buckskin and fringe and beads. Why don’t they dress naturally? So I asked him if he was born in his three-button dacron suit. It’s like the newspaper descriptions of Joan Baez’s “long stringy hair.” It may be long, but stringy? Come on!
To the eyes of many of the elder generation, all visible aspects of the new generation, its music, its lights, its clothes, are immoral. The City of San Francisco Commission on Juvenile Delinquency reported adversely on the sound level and the lights at the Fillmore Auditorium, as it those things of and by themselves were threats (they may be, but not in the way the Commission saw them). A young girl might have trouble maintaining her judgment in that environment, the Commission chairman said.
Now this all implies that dancing is the road to moral ruin, that young girls on the dance floor are mesmerized by talent scouts for South American brothels and enticed away from their happy (not hippie) homes to live a life of slavery and moral degradation. It ought to be noted, parenthetically, that a British writer, discussing the Beatles, claims that “the Cycladic fertility goddess from Amorgos dates the guitar as a sex symbol to 4800 years B.C.”
During the twenties and the thirties and the forties—in other words, during the prime years of the Old Ones of today— dancing, in the immortal words of Bob Scobey, the Dixieland trumpet player, “was an excuse to get next to a broad.” The very least effect of the pill on American youth is that this is no longer true.
The assault on hypocrisy works on many levels. The adult society attempted to chastise Bob Dylan by economic sanction, calling the line in “Rainy Day Woman,” “everybody must get stoned” (although there is a purely religious, even biblical, meaning to it, if you wish), an enticement to teen-agers to smoke marijuana. But no one has objected to Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” which is about gin, or to any number of other songs, from the Kingston Trio’s “Scotch and Soda” on through “One for My Baby and One More [ONE MORE!] for the Road.” Those are about alcohol and alcohol is socially acceptable, as well as big business, even though I believe that everyone under thirty now knows that alcohol is worse for you than marijuana, that, in fact, the only thing wrong about marijuana is that it is illegal.
Cut to the California State Narcotics Bureau’s chief enforcement officer. Matt O’Connor, in a tv interview recently insisting, a la Parkinson’s Law, that he must have more agents to control the drug abuse problem. He appeared with a representative of the state attorney general’s office, who predicted that the problem would continue “as long as these people believe they are not doing anything wrong.”
And that’s exactly it. They do not think they are doing anything wrong, any more than their grandparents were when they broke the prohibition laws. They do not want to go to jail, but a jail sentence or a bust no longer carries the social stigma it once did. The civil rights movement has made a jailing a badge of honor, if you go there for principle, and to a great many people today, the right to smoke marijuana is a principle worth risking jail for.
“Make Love, Not War” is one of the most important slogans of modern times, a statement of life against death, as the Beatles have said over and over—“say the word and be like me, say the word and you’ll be free.”
I don’t think that wearing that slogan on a bumper or on the back of a windbreaker is going to end the bombing tomorrow at noon, but it implies something. It is not conceivable that it could have existed in such proliferation thirty years ago, and in 1937 we were pacifists, too. It simply could not have happened.
There’s another side to it, of course, or at least another aspect of it. The Rolling Stones, who came into existence really to fight jazz in the clubs of London, were against the jazz of the integrated world, the integrated world arrived at by rational processes. Their songs, from “Satisfaction” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” to “Get Off of My Cloud” and “Mother’s Little Helper,” were antiestablishment songs in a nonpolitical sort of way, just as Dylan’s first period was antiestablishment in a political way. The Stones are now moving, with “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” into a social radicalism of sorts; but in the beginning, and for their basic first-thrust appeal, they hit out in rage, almost in blind anger and certainly with overtones of destructiveness, against the adult world. It’s no wonder the novel they were attracted to was David Wallis’ “Only Lovers Left Alive,” that Hell’s Angels story of a teen-age, future jungle. And it is further interesting that their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, writes the essays on their albums in the style of Anthony Burgess’ violent “A Clockwork Orange.”
Nor is it any wonder that this attitude appealed to that section of the youth whose basic position was still in politics and economics (remember that the Rolling Stone Mick Jagger was a London School of Economics student, whereas Lennon and McCartney were artists and writers). When the Stones first came to the West Coast, a group of young radicals issued the following proclamation of welcome:
Greetings and welcome Rolling Stones, our comrades in the desperate battle against the maniacs who hold power. The revolutionary youth of the world hears your music and is inspired to even more deadly acts. We fight in guerrilla bands against the invading imperialists in Asia and South America, we riot at rock ‘n roll concerts everywhere. We burned and pillaged in Los Angeles and the cops know our snipers will return.
They call us dropouts and delinquents and draftdodgers and punks and hopheads and heap tons of shit on our heads. In Vietnam they drop bombs on us and in America they try to make us make war on our own comrades but the bastards hear us playing you on our little transistor radios and know that they will not escape the blood and fire of the anarchist revolution.
We will play your music in rock ‘n roll marching bands as we tear down the jails and free the prisoners, as we tear down the State schools and free the students, as we tear down the military bases and arm the poor, as we tattoo BURN BABY BURN on the bellies of the wardens and generals and create a new society from the ashes of our fires.
Comrades, you will return to this country when it is free from the tyranny of the State and you will play your splendid music in factories run by the workers, in the domes of emptied city halls, on the rubble of police stations, under the hanging corpses of priests, under a million red flags waving over a million anarchist communities. In the words of Breton, THE ROLLING STONES ARE THAT WHICH SHALL BE! LYNDON JOHNSON —THE YOUTH OF CALIFORNIA DEDICATES ITSELF TO YOUR DESTRUCTION! ROLLING STONES—THE YOUTH OF CALIFORNIA HEARS YOUR MESSAGE! LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!!
But rhetoric like that did not bring out last January to a Human Be-In on the polo grounds of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park twenty thousand people who were there, fundamentally, just to see the other members of the tribe, not to hear speeches—the speeches were all a drag from Leary to Rubin to Buddah—but just to BE.
In the Haight-Ashbury district the Love Generation organizes itself into Job Co-ops and committees to clean the streets, and the monks of the neighborhood, the Diggers, talk about free dances in the park to put the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore out of business and about communizing the incomes of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
The Diggers trace back spiritually to those British millenarians who took over land in 1649, just before Cromwell, and after the Civil War freed it, under the assumption that the land was for the people. They tilled it and gave the food away.
The Diggers give food away. Everything is Free. So is it with the Berkeley Provos and the new group in Cleveland—the Prunes—and the Provos in Los Angeles. More, if an extreme, assault against the money culture. Are they driving the money changers out of the temple? Perhaps. The Diggers say they believe it is just as futile to fight the system as to join it and they are dropping out in a way that differs from Leary’s.
The Square Left wrestles with the problem. They want a Yellow Submarine community because that is where the strength so obviously is. But even Ramparts, which is the white hope of the Square Left, if you follow me, misunderstands. They think that the Family Dog is a rock group and that political activity is the only hope, and Bob Dylan says, “There’s no left wing and no right wing, only upwing and down wing,” and also, “I tell you there are no politics.”
But the banding together to form Job Co-ops, to publish newspapers, to talk to the police (even to bring them flowers), aren’t these political acts? I suppose so, but I think they are political acts of a different kind, a kind that results in the Hell’s Angels being the guardians of the lost children at the Be-In and the guarantors of peace at dances.
The New Youth is finding its prophets in strange places—in dance halls and on the jukebox. It is on, perhaps, a frontier buckskin trip after a decade of Matt Dillon and Bonanza and the other tv folk myths, in which the values are clear (as opposed to those in the world around us) and right is right and wrong is wrong. The Negro singers have brought the style and the manner of the Negro gospel preacher to popular music, just as they brought the rhythms and the feeling of the gospel music, and now the radio is the church and Everyman carries his own walkie-talkie to God in his transistor.
Examine the outcry against the Beatles for John Lennon’s remark about being more popular than Jesus. No radio station that depended on rock ‘n roll music for its audience banned Beatles records, and in the only instance where we had a precise measuring rod for the contest—the Beatles concert in Memphis where a revival meeting ran day and date with them—the Beatles won overwhelmingly. Something like eight to five over Jesus in attendance, even though the Beatles charged a stiff price and the Gospel according to the revival preacher was free. Was my friend so wrong who said that if Hitler were alive today, the German girls wouldn’t allow him to bomb London if the Beatles were there?
“Nobody ever taught you how to live out in the streets,” Bob Dylan sings in “Like a Rolling Stone.” You may consider that directed at a specific person, or you may, as I do, consider it poetically aimed at plastic uptight America, to use a phrase from one of the Family Dog founders.
“Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” Martha and the Vandellas sing, and Simon and Garfunkel say, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, in tenement halls.” And the Byrds sing, “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late,” just as the Beatles sing, “Say the word.” What has formal religion done in this century to get the youth of the world so well acquainted with a verse from the Bible?
Even in those artists of the second echelon who are not, like Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones, worldwide in their influence, we find it. “Don’t You Want Somebody To Love,” the Jefferson Airplane sings, and Bob Lind speaks of “the bright elusive butterfly of love.”
These songs speak to us in our condition, just as Dylan did with “lookout kid, it’s somethin’ you did, god knows what, but you’re doin’ it again.” And Dylan sings again a concept that finds immediate response in the tolerance and the antijudgment stance of the new generation, when he says, “There are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.”
Youth is wise today. Lenny Bruce claimed that tv made even eight-year-old girls sophisticated. When Bob Dylan in “Desolation Row” sings, “At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do,” he speaks true, as he did with “don’t follow leaders.” But sometimes it is, as John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful says, “like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout a rock ‘n roll.”
Let’s go back again to Nietzsche.
Orgiastic movements of a society leave their traces in music [he wrote]. Dionysiac stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns [—dig that!—] or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. So stirred, the individual forgets himself completely. It is the same Dionysiac power which in medieval Germany drove ever increasing crowds of people singing and dancing from place to place; we recognize in these St. John’s and St. Vitus’ dancers the bacchic choruses of the Greeks, who had their precursors in Asia Minor and as far back as Babylon and the orgiastic Sacea. There are people who, either from lack of experience or out of sheer stupidity, turn away from such phenomena, and strong, in the sense of their own sanity, label them either mockingly or pityingly “endemic diseases.” These benighted souls have no idea how cadaverous and ghostly their “sanity” appears as the intense throng of Dionysiac revelers sweeps past them.
And Nietzsche never heard of the San Francisco Commission on Juvenile Delinquency or the Fillmore and the Avalon ballrooms.
“Believe in the magic, it will set you free,” the Lovin’ Spoonful sing. “This is an invitation across the nation,” sing Martha and the Vandellas, and the Mamas and the Papas, “a chance for folks to meet, there’ll be laughin’, singin’ and music swingin’, and dancin’ in the street!”
Do I project too much? Again, to Nietzsche. “Man now expresses himself through song and dance as the member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk, how to speak and is on the brink of taking wing as he dances... no longer the artist, he has himself become a work of art.”
“Hail hail rock ‘n roll,” as Chuck Berry sings. “Deliver me from the days of old!”
I think he’s about to be granted his wish.