Sixties Trips II

Part two of an essay that begins here.

Richard Goldstein’s approach to the sixties was shaped by his sense “race was at the core of nearly everything.” But his lucidity about race matters is most evident when he’s writing about “revolution.” As rock ‘n’ roll turned into rock, Goldstein’s pop life got whiter.

He allows he wasn’t deeply into the blackest music of the sixties, noting he never interviewed James Brown.  Jerry Wexler—the Atlantic record man—once spent an afternoon tutoring him about R&B history, but Black Atlantic music’s roots and branches weren’t going to be Goldstein’s beat for long. His interest in pop music shrunk once it ceased to serve as a vector for the counter-culture.[1]

Robert Greenfield, though, is one of Wex’s children.  You trust him when he tells you the Stones’ show at Leeds—which was recorded and recently released (as part of the “enhanced” Sticky Fingers package)—wasn’t one of the best gigs on their 1971 tour of England, though it’s a blast to hear the horny version of “Satisfaction” the Stones were playing then with help from saxophonist Bobby Keys and trumpeter Jim Price.  Greenfield doesn’t stint when it comes to Stones’ sidemen. He starts his trip by digging Nicky Hopkins’ liquescent piano. (Hopkins’ runs at the top of “Live With Me,”—which you can hear now on another ex-bootleg recording from the 71 tour that’s now legal—confirms Greenfield was listening—not just partying—hard during his stretch with the Stones.)  He’s all over the essence of the Stones’ sound when he zeroes in on the interplay between drummer Charlie Watts, Richards and bassist Bill Wyman:

 Although Charlie was the steady throbbing heart of the band onstage, the Stones themselves did not follow him when they played. Because Charlie followed Keith and was always a bit behind while Bill Wyman tended to be in front, thereby causing the overall rhythm to wobble at times, it was not unusual to see Keith charge over the drum kit in the middle of a song while screaming at Charlie to pick up the beat.

There’s a sweet spot in Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye, when Greenfeld wins over the conscience of the Stones—ex-member and permanent roadie Ian Stewart. Stu (as he was known) didn’t cotton to Greenfield when the young journo joined up with Stones for their “last” tour in England. He apparently figured Greenfield would turn out to be someone like, well, Richard Goldstein—another American city/hippie boy who lacked Stu’s own commitment to black music qua music. But then Stu overheard an over-tired, motor-mouthed Greenfield telling another member of the Stones Tour Party about his trips to the Apollo where he went so often that one evening he was asked to substitute for an M.C. who’d gone missing. (An honor that enabled Greenfield to identify later with Bill Graham when the impresario avowed it was all downhill for him after he won an amateur Latin dance contest at the Palladium: “Why should I ever want to be president of the United States?”)  From the moment Greenfield prattled on about his Apollo nights: “I am okay with Stu.”

Stewart’s own R&B back story is one of those tales that deserves to be in any true sixties canon. He liked to joke he was the deposed but rightful laird of a Scottish hamlet. Per Keith Richards, however: “He might have been the laird of Pittenweem, but his left hand came out of the Congo.” Stu was a pianist who played a heavy role in getting the original Stones’ lineup together, only to get kicked out of the band (by Brian Jones) once manager Andrew Loog Oldham decided he looked too old to charm teens. He stuck around, though, driving Stones’ vans (at a “vast rate of knots”) and “wiping their asses” (per Richards again).  He also played boogie woogie piano at recording sessions of Stones songs without (what he termed) “Chinese chords.”

Richards’ first one-on-one meeting with Stu, which went down before the Stones’ first rehearsal in a room above a bar on a street filled with strip joints, lives large in his memory of the 60s. The best version of that encounter is in Stanley Booth’s Keith:

I hear this piano playing, so I follow that. I walk in and there’s Stu sitting there and the piano is against the window and he’s playing beautifully as Stu always did when he thought no one was listening. That’s the area where he really breaks out. To hear Stu play under observation is only half of what he is capable of. He was never a showman. It locks him up, to have people watch him, he is his own audience.

So he’s playing this Pinetop and St. Louis Jimmy shit and I’m following this piano walkin’ and there is Stu in little leather shorts.  He’s playin’ this shit but obviously he’s not particularly thinkin’ about it—he’s staring intently out of the window and I don’t know… I’m tryin’ to figure out what the fuck it is. I didn’t want to disturb him ‘cause he’s playing great and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to be doing there because I already know I’m the Chuck Berry player and he don’t think shit of me. I know this, I mean I already got the vibes from the other guys that I’m some rock ‘n’ roller and I’m not a bluesman. It’s touch and go…and I realize that he is staring at his bicycle which is propped up against the wall across the street so that nobody steals it. (He could do that. He could play security and incredible boogie-woogie at the same time.) I still haven’t said anything: I just slipped into the room and he doesn’t know I’m there. I got the guitar under my arm, still watching him. I don’t want to break this music, and I hear him go, ‘Cor, look a’ that.’ I crane my neck around him a bit, and here’s one of the strippers walking down the road, and he hadn’t dropped a beat.

I’d just seen him a couple times…he would come up and do a couple numbers, but to me this guy is The Boss. I’m just a kid crawling in, and I don’t even have the balls to cough, or go back out and knock. So I’m just standin’ there five to ten minutes and every now and then he would go, ‘Oh, look at that.’ Immediately I’m in love with the guy and I’m still not really sure to interrupt him, because I’ve already found out more about him, in just a few minutes…I mean now I’m really fucked up because I’ve got to get out of here and now I’m like spying. It’s like catching some guy jerking off. Finally he stopped and turned and said, ‘Oh, you’re the Chuck Berry artist,’ I knew I was under heavy penalties.

But it was Stu who was fated to go under when the Stones (who’d started out aiming to be R&B missionaries—Jesuits for the blues ((and Berry))) sensed they might become teen idols after the Beatles broke.

Richards’ story of his first encounter with Stu calls out to be paired with the Scot’s tale of the first time he bumped into Mick Jagger:

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Mick…Cause I could only see his head above the crowd of people and I thought, “Fuck me, there’s a guy who’s gonna go a long way.” Cause he looked so good even then, he didn’t just stand there and sing, he moved. Mick can’t sing to save his fuckin’ life but he’s a fantastic performer.

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Stu & Mick Jagger in their youth.

II

Both Greenfield and Goldstein are alive to the tension between Stu-ish strains in sixties culture and charisma that was made for the stage. That tension played out in realms pretty far removed from pop’s high tide and green grass. Consider how anti-war liberals were of two minds—they responded to Eugene McCarthy’s recessive ways and to Bobby Kennedy’s candlepower.  And then there was the strategic gulf (which seemed to have a moral component) between Bob Moses’ undergrounded style of radical will and Martin Luther King’s spectacles of righteousness. (Born performers in the sixties sparked resistance even among those who loved them. King’s more militant comrades in SNCC mocked him as “de Lawd”; Jagger’s homies in the Stones dubbed their front-man “Brenda.”)  In the wake of triumphs of method actors in the 50s, many boomers were most attuned to cultural and political figures who seemed to have interiority at their fingertips. Bob Moses didn’t testify like King or other preachers who served as spokesmen for the Civil Rights Movement, but Moses’ self-possession made him the object of hero-worship among white students who went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer in 1964 (which Moses organized along with Allard Lowenstein). Down the line, in a bid to quash hagiographic takes on a “new Moses,” he changed his name (for a time) to Bob Paris. That other sixties culture hero, Bob Zimmerman, by contrast, was intent on becoming—and staying—a star when he reinvented himself as Bob Dylan. Though before the end of his sixties trip, he too picked up on dangers of his own charisma. The inherent vice for Dylan wasn’t the same one that got under Moses’ skin. The organizer worried fame would make it harder for him to get through to the grassroots. Dylan, OTOH, wanted to maintain distance from fans. He may have been a glory hog, but he always seems to have regarded fame as a means to an art-life not a denouement. Dylan learned early, with a little help from Andy Warhol, to go big without surfacing too much. (Pace Michael Millner.)  He’d fade into his own parade as his scene went mass.

The counter-culture seemed for a time to have come up with an authentic alternative to mainstream entertainment’s star-making machinery. But the Monkey-mind wouldn’t be denied.  Phonies made a comeback and money changed everything (as ever).  Greenfield attends to bottom lines in Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye. The Stones had been pop stars for years but they were dead broke in 1971.  They didn’t get back in the black on their “last” U.K. tour where they played broken down town halls and small theaters in skint cities.  But the shows Greenfield documented beat the hell out of later stadium extravaganzas that would make the Stones multi-millionaires. The nitty-gritty ecstasies he witnessed in tight-like-that venues rock ‘n’ rolled me back to the summer of 1966.

That’s when I saw the Stones play for an audience of about 1,000 in a tent outside Salt Lake City (where my dad had a teaching gig for the season at the University of Utah). Me and my brother were the only long hairs there. We had a table close to the stage and Jagger played up to us a bit since we were with him right away unlike the bulk of the crowd who would’ve preferred, say, the Beach Boys. But it was the music the Stones made not the illusion of Jagger’s regard that makes 50 years disappear when I hear Brian Jones’ dulcimer on “Lady Jane.” I recall Jones’ royal jingle jangle in that swainsong even better than Jagger’s artful part. (Melody tops irony when you’re ten and a half.)  Not that the Stones’ sound in ‘66 was about solos or virtuoso turns. And they weren’t that loud either. It was all in the meld.  The power in the band’s compactions seemed to come through strongest on “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction.” Though I’m not sure now about my takeaway when it comes to the Stones’ signature song.  For years I’ve had Jagger easing off the stage when the show peaked with “Satisfaction”—leaving the crowd locked on the riff that came to Keith Richards in dreams. But it turns out I may have dreamt all that. There’s a bootleg recording from the final show (in Honolulu) of the Stones’ 1966 summer tour of America and in that gig Jagger came back up front to take the song home. It’s not likely they did it differently at that tent show in Utah, but I’d rather stick with the legend in my mind. (And—what the hey—someone else seems to have picked up on the concept in my unheard music. Dwight Yoakam used to close his shows in the 90s by leaving the stage to his back-up group, who may have been the…greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world at that time. Led by guitarist Pete Anderson, they’d find the groove in “Suspicious Minds” or “Long White Cadillac” and drive the crowd crazy, though the star of the show was long-gone.)  When I told a friend about my false memory of Mick Jagger’s eclipse at the end of “Satisfaction,” he recalled how an acapella group, The Persuasions, ended a gig in the sixties by inviting audience members up on stage to harmonize with them. Then, one by one, members of the group stepped off, leaving their fans to sing on without them.

III

Goldstein probably dug The Persuasions’ common touch.[2] He sang doowop, after all, as a kid in the Bronx. But in the Manhattan Goldstein evokes in Another Little Piece of Heart, The Persuasions’ sweet exit might have seemed out of time/place. The New York Island was all about encore-mongers, not modest hearts even when the counter-culture was in vogue. Goldstein—a striving straddler from the boroughs—comes clean about his own need for attention. He wasn’t above self-promotion in his column, “Pop Eye,” though he tried to make sure his professional life wasn’t ruled by New York imperatives, i.e.: “Fuck you! or Fuck me!

Goldstein found it easier to table his own I-me-mine mindset when he left New York for working vacations in California. Out west, among hippies, Goldstein lost himself (and his antacids/anxieties) in sex, acid and psychedelic rock.  Cali was the place where he could be here now. Though he admits he once had a run-in with Emmett Grogan, leader of Diggers and one of the deeper proponents of the Cali-based counter-culture’s collective idea. Diggers—named after radical British communitarians from the 17th C.—looked after hippies in need and invented an anti-bourgie politics of altered states and anarchism. In resistance to bi-coastal promo-men, they tried to stay anonymous.  When Goldstein wrote a piece that effectively outed Grogan, the Digger-in-Chief responded with scary, “snarled” threats. Yet Goldstein isn’t grudging when he notes Grogan later wrote a memoir under his own name[3]: “Not many people who spent their productive years in service to the counterculture were left with much to sell except their name and their memories.”

Grogan’s fighting side, notwithstanding, he was something close to the antithesis of Norman Mailer, who also figures in Goldstein’s memoir. Mailer, of course, was never shy about talking himself up in the sixties. Goldstein admires the candor of Mailer’s Armies of the Night—that famous work of New Journalism inspired by the 1967 anti-Viet Nam war protest at the Pentagon. But he contends Mailer’s bout with the Establishment (and conflicted alliance with the counter-culture) resulted in a “show of pure me.” 

“Armies of the Night” is about a great American writer and media sensation going through changes, but the event it describes was about the struggle to end an unjust war. Ordinary kids were more important than Mailer in that battle, and far less insulated from the violence that ensued…[Armies] met my standard of engagement, but its effect was to make his experience more important than the action, and his persona the most fascinating thing of all. As artful as the book was, it seemed like a violation of the counter-cultural ethos that I’d come to share. We kids saw politics as a collective activity, something we did together. Radicals in Mailer’s generation had struggled to maintain their individuality, but we fought to maintain community.

Goldstein knows the counter-culture’s ethos was inspired by beloved communities formed in the crucible of civil right struggles. He also knows it was traduced from within.  He sees the future darkly through back and forths between Otis Redding and the crowd at the Monterey Pop festival:

No R&B singer could achieve the perfect lack of edge, the casual insularity, that these people displayed. I was witnessing the birth of a new class, pretending to be classless, and it was imperial at the core. The descendants of this bangled illuminati now dine on free-range meat and artisanal cheese. They colonize neighborhoods, driving out the poor and turning slums into Potemkin villages of art. You know these hipsters by the tilt of their fedoras, but their ancestors flashed peace signs.

IV

Goldstein’s projections bring to mind the striking prophecy in a hippie-bashing rant from back in the day posted last year by Paul Campos who blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Campos came across this document, “which appears to have been some sort of crude mimeograph,” while he was doing archival research in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. Produced by somebody calling himself The Last True Leftist, it was dated August 8th, 1974.  Read the whole thing (as they say):

If there is anything that can drive a genuine leftist to despair, it’s narcissistic self-indulgent pseudo-radicalism of today’s youth. Over the last decade, it’s become increasingly clear that people born after the second world war are under the impression that radical politics, like sex, drugs, and rock and roll, didn’t exist until they came along, and that their elders were nothing but a bunch of conformist squares, whose idea of political progress was a successful UAW strike. To set the record straight:

A few decades ago, left wing politics meant getting your skull cracked by company goons rushing a picket line, not listening to Disraeli Gears while doing bong hits. It meant getting millions of people to cast their presidential votes for a man who the U.S. government feared enough to put in prison, not for a former bomber pilot whose leftism consists of being more liberal than Richard Nixon (No offense to McGovern . . . BUT COME ON PEOPLE!)

Left politics meant dangerous on the ground organizing of workers in the face of straight up corporate and state violence, not theater of the absurd bullshit like “levitating the Pentagon.”

Seriously, political marches are fun, they’re energizing, they have their place—but they’re just marches. Afterwards everybody goes home and nothing much has happened.

But with this new generation, it’s all marches, and slogans, and posters, and “protest songs,” all the time. At best! Because kids today talk as if going to a three-day music festival where everyone smokes dope and then throws up in the mud is also a revolutionary act. A “cultural revolution.”

But the worst is yet to come. Forty years from now today’s kids will have become the biggest pain in the ass generation of old people ever. If only because there’s so many of them! Their kids (and grandchildren) will never stop hearing about the good old days, when “we” “stopped the War” and a bunch of other equally preposterous claims. Through sheer demographic force, they’ll probably ensure that some kid born in 1995 can sing along to Beatles and Stones songs, if not Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad!

At this rate, they’ll end up electing Ronald Reagan president, without ever noticing the Summer of Love ended a long time ago.

Dirty fucking hippies…

Last True Leftist’s refusal to reduce the American organizing tradition to expressive “activism” remains relevant today. And he wasn’t wrong to guess boomers would overvalue the soundtrack for their own ecstatic days.  It’s the prediction about Reagan becoming president, though, that makes Last True Leftist hard to dismiss. But. He’s still a false prophet.

Anecdotes aren’t evidence but there’s a sequence in One Step Away that implicitly contradicts his version of rad lineages. Harry Hippie turns out to have been a red diaper baby and we meet his Communist father in one scene, which reveals the apple didn’t fall far from the rotten tree. The father is a horror too. He voices a Vanguard Partier’s surety and stupidity, talking up Lenin and Mao—whose name he pronounces like the clinic or Hellman’s.

Last True Leftist might have disdained Communists as much as he hated hippies. His nod to Socialist Eugene Debs may be telling on this front. But you can’t make too many excuses for a spin on America’s leftist tradition in the 20th C. that upholds Debs’ presidential campaigns but leaves out, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or SNCC’s drive to register black voters in the South. Last True Leftist’s economism compares unfavorably with Goldstein’s nuanced class consciousness. While Goldstein never lost the edge that came with growing up working class, he didn’t trash all politics of identity.

V

My own (former) identity as a “dirty fucking hippie” once got me a public shaming in the Boston Globe where an old school acquaintance wrote a Reagan era piece in which he looked back in pathos on his time hanging tight with me and other long hairs who often got bullied by “greasers.” The author, journalist Daniel Golden (who went on to win a Pulitzer prize for his good reporting about corrupt admissions processes at elite colleges) presented himself not as a “true leftist,” but as a vital centrist whose future had once rested on his break with his old pitiable hippie friends. This was BS since Golden was bred for Harvard and there was never any chance long hairs would strangle up his mind. (The sixties barely impinged on disingenuous Dan. He never grew his hair out, wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller, etc.) At the risk of bolstering his case 30 years on, let me say a little more about why his version of the sixties with apologies didn’t ring my bell.

He accused me and my crew of dim insularity and faux-radicalism. His case was based on a tendentious account of a (less than) friendly game between our local school’s 8th grade basketball ball team and a squad of thirteen-year-olds that included, along with Golden, a trio of players who’d been kept off that team by a coach who didn’t like hippies.  I organized the hippie team and set up the game, which made me, according to Golden, the incarnation of sixties silly seasons—the irreal deal.[4] Our team surely got our heads handed to us and, no doubt, we were doomed from the jump though it mattered one of our three best players bailed on the day of the game due to (what he allowed later was) a hysterical illness. But in Golden’s rush to nail me and our team as fantasts, he forgot to note our, ah, big three all ended up playing on school teams in later years. Truth is, that trio of hippie ballers was dissed in youth by a tight-thinking coach. There was nothing wrong with our counter-cultural impulse to take on that biased jock. Golden’s claim we were wack smacks of victor’s justice, especially when I think of how one of us losers got his head slammed into a locker by a muscle-bound winner after the game.[5]

Golden’s schema (The-Hippies-that-Failed) required him to insist our team’s loss meant we were on the wrong side of history. But I recently came across a news story—not on the sports pages—that hinted how our nemesis in 1970 might have been fated to be an enemy of promise. That hippie-hating coach belonged to a large, working class clan rooted in the Pioneer Valley (and, further back, French Canada). I don’t want to imply family is destiny, but I was struck (though not shocked) when I found out a young man with his surname had been convicted of burning down a black church in Springfield—the big city in the Valley. He committed this bias attack (in Western Massachusetts!) on the night of Barack Obama’s re-election.

VI

In the newspaper account of the arsonist’s sad life, there were tropes many have come to associate lately with the unraveling of America’s white working class. (The guy was addicted to pain-killers.) Barack Obama, in one of his characteristic acts of contrarian humanism, recently urged African Americans in Howard University’s graduating class to empathize with…

the white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.

Obama’s call speaks to transformations in power relations between sectors of what was once the Democratic Party’s coalition. It has an extra resonance at a time when the fraught alliance between LBJ and MLK is fodder for Broadway and HBO. One thinks of how King had to heed the U.A.W’s President (which, in turn, left him open to Bob Moses’ charges of opportunism) when Walter Reuther threatened to stop Big Labor’s donations to civil rights organizations if King backed the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Atlantic City Convention.

Not to worry if that sentence is too long to unpack! Point is, things done changed.  African Americans have much more clout in the Democratic Party than they once did. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.)

The fall of the House of Labor, though, isn’t a boon for the Black nation, as our president knows. Obama has always been a double truther when it comes to race and class. He may have celebrated the rangy nature of African American experience at Howard, underscoring blackness contains multitudes, but it wasn’t a fluke when he bowed to a solid sister of the working class:

There’s a young woman named Ciearra Jefferson, who’s graduating with you. And I’m just going to use her as an example… Ciearra grew up in Detroit and was raised by a poor single mom who worked seven days a week in an auto plant. And for a time, her family found themselves without a place to call home. They bounced around between friends and family who might take them in. By her senior year, Ciearra was up at 5:00 am every day, juggling homework, extracurricular activities, volunteering, all while taking care of her little sister. But she knew that education was her ticket to a better life. So she never gave up. Pushed herself to excel. This daughter of a single mom who works on the assembly line turned down a full scholarship to Harvard to come to Howard. And today, like many of you, Ciearra is the first in her family to graduate from college. And then, she says, she’s going to go back to her hometown, just like Thurgood Marshall did, to make sure all the working folks she grew up with have access to the health care they need and deserve. As she puts it, she’s going to be a “change agent.” She’s going to reach back and help folks like her succeed.

Obama’s Howard tribute to black solidarity chimes with another demonstration of African American pride in D.C. witnessed by Goldstein. He dozed through speeches at the March on Washington, but he didn’t miss the moment:

What I remember vividly is the sight that greeted us as the bus passed through the white suburbs of D.C. Every store was boarded up, every window shut tight, and the streets were deserted.  But once we got to the black inner city, every stoop and porch was full, and people were waving American flags. It was a stunning image since we lefties wouldn’t have done such a thing. For us, the flag was a symbol of Moloch, never to be displayed. But here was all this red, white and blue proudly flying. It suddenly occurred to me I was a foreigner, a spawn of the dregs of Europe who left there because they couldn’t own land or practice most professions; because they were implicitly and sometimes explicitly in danger. I belonged to that old world, at least as much as the new one where I lived. No amount of assimilation would change that. I would always be an immigrant, ungrateful to my country for rescuing me. And these black folks, with their star-spangled banners and their rock ‘n’ roll, they were the real Americans. [6]

I’m tempted to leave it there. But that freedom high came early in the sixties. And Goldstein’s trip takes me back to a sensation I’ve long associated with the end of that era so…

My movement of mind on this score conforms in some ways to narratives that equate the counter-culture’s unmaking with the “return” of class conflicts that had been damped down in (relatively) flush times. Not that I was entirely blank about class matters during the sixties.  I grew up in a Massachusetts college town, Amherst, where most folks picked up on class aspects of town vs. gown conficts. There was also scratchiness between déclassé kids who lived on Amherst’s edge and middle class, center-of-townies. Early in high school—as a young Marx freak rocked by Viet Nam Veterans Against the War (before John Kerry put a preppie face on the prole-iest anti-war group)—I twigged to the idea hippies might align with “alienated” greasers. Wasn’t a happening thing in Amherst, but I’ve long been stuck on an on-the-fly alliance that occurred after I was called to the office by a guidance counselor (who’d never been in my corner). She’d been jolted by news I’d done well on the verbal S.A.T., despite my less than stellar grades, and seemed to be trying to process her bewilderment by pairing me with another student whose high score had confounded her. My score, by the way, was sort of a scam.  I’d realized there were sample test booklets that enabled you to study for S.A.T.s, which few kids did back then in the pre-Kaplan age. That other classmate who’d done well on the verbal test hadn’t prepped. He was a working class boy who’d always been in top reading groups in elementary school—we used to exchange Hardy Boys books—but he eased out of higher tracks later because he wanted to stick with his buddies in the back of classrooms. No-one in our local high school should’ve been wowed by his way with words since everything in his elementary school record had predicted he’d be a reader. But our unsmiling counselor seemed more angry than ashamed at her own cluelessness. She couldn’t hide her pique at us for surprising her.  Once we got out of there, my secret sharer joked he’d been worried she was going to give us detention after our victory lap. His wit distilled his history of resistance to genteel fools—the clean-cut working class kid knew more about the meanness of the meritocracy than the dirty hippie did.

Though, by then, I was an ex-hippie. It was 1973 and I’d already cut my hair (in the spring of that year). I looked respectable enough to have been recruited along with a couple buddies to do volunteer work for a union linked with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party that was out to organize Latino farmworkers in the Valley. Our task was to serve as liaisons from the union to teenagers who came up from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to pick tobacco during their summer vacation from school. I won’t forget my first visit with those kids whom I met along with another volunteer when they’d come back from work to their barracks, which were hidden away near the fields. (Though some of them were also put up in empty student dorms at UMass.)  I’ve never been further away in my thoughts from my hometown—from myself—than I was the evening I walked around their camp.  They were in my valley (though they wouldn’t get a break to ramble on the piney path or read in cool rooms at the Jones Library or eat a butter-crunch cone at The Creamery or swim in the Brook or bike down green green streets where leafy trees overrode the sun that beat down on tobacco fields) but I was the internal exile.  I felt as marginal as Richard Goldstein on his trip to Chocolate City (even if I was a WASP, not an unmeltable ethnic). I still can see the faces of those working boys—mainly white teens but some black kids too—in the half light.  The force of reality in their presence, which brought me near an America beyond my neck of New England, made me suspect I’d been living in a bubble (even if the sixties had blown up in and around it). Those kids were mildly curious about what me and my comrade had to say about the union, but we were the ones getting educated in that magic hour.

It changed the life of the guy who came to the camp with me. This son of a philosophy prof ended up blowing off college the next year. He headed for Chicago instead, where he joined a radical sect, “Rising Up Angry,” though I don’t think he was driven chiefly by rage at bosses or capitalism. My friend had taken the measure of his life (through the far-away eyes of those kids we’d met) and wanted to give it a different meaning. Once he was settled in Chicago, he got close to the inner circle of Ed Sadlowski who led a democratic insurgency within the United Steelworkers of America. My friend apprenticed as a machinist and then spent a few years setting up printing presses all over the Southern Hemisphere. He went to school in the 80s to get credentials to become a union officer. But, as working class institutions have lost juice, it’s been hard for him to sustain a life in solidarity. My friend has found himself switching between gigs with unions and jobs with a venture capitalist who looks to invest in businesses with good labor relations. My friend is aware folks who know where he’s coming from might be skeptical of his trajectory. I myself may have teased him at one time when he took on a Midwestern accent that had him sounding more like the son of a Slovak worker than a son of a prof. But forget me. My old comrade’s decision to go to Chicago was ballsier than any move I’ve ever made. His journey there, which amounted to an act of self-invention, seems like a classic sixties trip even if it’s now bound up in my head with the end of that decade

 

Notes

1 Goldstein has a lot in common with Ellen Willis and Richard Meltzer, two inventors of rock criticism who left the field to others. Goldstein recalls how he once had a pretty serious physical fight (over a woman) with Meltzer, though he chooses not to mention the latter’s name. (Meltzer has written up the incident himself in his collection of music writing, A Whore Like All the Rest—another truth attack on the sixties without apols crowd). I’ll allow I worry Goldstein’s reticence to say Meltzer’s name is another example of the tendency among ex-Voicers to white Meltzer out of the rockwrite canon. Meltzer’s shots at ventriloquizing the avid essence of sixties rock—it’s “tongue pressure”—were truly sui generis.  Nobody came closer than him to getting it on the page (as I’m guessing Goldstein might allow).

2 Bob Moses, who was Frankie Lymon’s math tutor in the 50s, might have dug The Persuasions’ pop demos too.

3 Grogan also wrote a thriller about a terror attack on a nuclear plant that I hope isn’t prescient.

4 Though he changed the name of the guilty. (I became “Nick.”)  And perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much since he called me graceful. He also claimed I attracted girls who improvised hippie chick cheers at our game. More jive, though I don’t blame him if he was channeling scenes in Meatballs: “It just doesn’t matter…It just doesn’t matter.”

5 In the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death—and the rise of Warriors whose extremely beautiful game would’ve left moldy jocks in a fog back in the sixties—I’m reminded how Golden passed on thinking through the counter-culture’s engagement with sporting life. That’s a large subject, of course. And, to be real, Golden wouldn’t be an obvious choice to take it up as the counter-culture was always opaque to him. OTOH, Golden did have a rich sporting life and a strong competitive streak. B-ball wasn’t his game, but he was an exceptional little league pitcher. (I believe he threw out his arm before middle school.) He was also the best ping pong player I ever saw until Nixon went to China.

6 Goldstein is focused on the left’s issue with patriotism but he’s also implicitly talking back to Sarah Palin’s version of the Real America. His account of his trip to D.C. amps up the howler in Palin’s report on her family’s visit to the nation’s capital in 2012:

When Piper laid the wreath at George Washington’s tomb this afternoon, I wished that every American school student could be here to see and feel the spirit of our nation’s first father. Even Piper was able to grasp the significance of being in the presence of our first President—who had such diverse interests—when she told me later “how hard he must have worked to keep that farm going!”

A Note on Authorities

Goldstein provides crisp takes on the sixties’ most famous public intellectuals. I’ll begin this quick survey of his notes on the talent in the room with the final line of his critique of Mailer’s Armies of the Night: “It was all signature, and I learned little from it except for the example it offered of the kind of writer I didn’t want to be.”

Goldstein resisted Joan Didion’s writing, which was “all signature” too. Tom Wolfe’s new journalism, by contrast, served as Goldstein’s model of reportage, though he was put off by Wolfe’s mockery of radical chic, which he believes prepped readers for Reaction.

Susan Sontag was another one of Goldstein’s heroes. He provides a fair overview of her work (and a sketch of her bitch-goddess persona), though I think he overvalues her sixties essays.

He’s spot on, OTOH, about the uselessness of Marshall McLuhan: “The fact no one outside of media studies courses reads McLuhan today says something about the quality of his thinking.” His biggest beef with McLuhan had to do with rock: “My generation hadn’t been shaped by tv, as he claimed. It was a distant second to music…he ignored our primary mode of expression.” Goldstein recalls how an academic captured his attention, if not his imagination, by taking rock—or, more to the narrow point, The Beatles—seriously in the pages of Partisan Review. His citation of that piece by Richard Poirier reminded me Benjamin DeMott (my father) took Poirier apart (in passing) in a piece, “Rock Saves,” which first appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 1968. Talk of Partisan’s (paltry) rock move points to the originality of Charles Keil’s classic ethnography, Urban Blues—a “serious study of currently popular entertainers who earned good livings with electric guitars” (per a Village voice), which was first published in 1966.  I wrote about Keil’s politics of culture last year and I won’t hammer on here, but I recently came across this thoughtful article which evokes the nexus that helped generate Urban Blues and laments the failure of academics to pick up on it.

Though Keil’s book has never gone out of print and remains popular among blues audiences, it has not secured a prominent place in the academy. Once the civil rights movement began to fade from public consciousness in the early 1970s, “Urban Blues” ceased to be identified as a transformative agent in the study of music, African American culture, and urban ethnography.

Goldstein teaches “The Sixties” as a professor at Hunter College and I commend Urban Blues to his attention if he’s forgotten it. I hope he’s giving Richard Meltzer some too! (Cf. Note 1.)

Goldstein’s account of mind in the sixties might have been even fresher if he wasn’t locked on usual suspects.  I wish he’d taken in the work of Keil or Meltzer or (Sorry!) DeMott, whose sixties essays treated themes close to Goldstein’s Heart.  (I’m flashing now on DeMott’s essays about “McLunacy” and homosexual writers.) Excuse me for pressing the case for my father’s stuff, but—maybe, just maybe—Goldstein’s asking for it. When he goes after the elite being born at the Monterey Pop festival—“a new class, pretending to be classless, and it was imperial at the core”—he seems to echo the terms of analysis in DeMott’s The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class.

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