Sunday, August 16, 2009

Woodstock and its Aftershocks

So much has been written about Woodstock, it's an open question whether anything of value can still be taken from it. In reality, it was the death knell of Aquarian idealism as we understand it.

It was also the last, great explosion of a truly Dionysian counterculture. A lot of these great musicians got their start playing all-night raves in small dancehalls and clubs- a truly underground phenomenon. In San Francisco and other cities, the music was the spear's point of a multimedia experience that united a relatively small, well-educated and culturally-aware vanguard who were just naive enough not to see the wolves at the gate, or to realize that many- if not most - people don't want to be enlightened.

Personally, Woodstock wasn't really my scene- I would have rather been at Monterey Pop. That was before all of the really bad vibes set in; the bad drugs, the assassinations, the Mansons, the Weathermen and the Angels, you name it. At Monterey, kids still felt that if only the rest of the world could feel what they felt in their music, then their lives too would be changed. Of course, this was the naivete of a generation that knew no real hardship, and to this day sees itself as the apex of American civilization. But once the Establishment started to push back in '68, things changed. And Woodstock was soon followed by the horror show at Altamount.

From what I've been told, Haight Street and Sunset Strip were nightmare zones by 1969, besieged by runaways and thrill-seekers, quickly followed by an army of thugs, sickos and pushers ready to feed on the sheep. Acording to Mikal Gilmore's article "Summer of Loss," it had been headed that way since 1967. The Diggers, who represented the original SF freaks, went so far as to declare "The Death of Hippie" mere weeks after the Summer of Love ended.

It's become a truism among certain Conspiranoid sects that it was all a setup from the start, but that's not how it works. The countercultures that resonate arise from a handful of marginal types who can't find a place in the popular culture of the time. They coalesce and build it all up from scratch. Several attempts at doing so have failed, but the ones who succeed often become easy targets for the ripoff artists. And if they're really unlucky, fodder for the spooks.

At the very least, yesterday's rebels often become today's superstars and tomorrow's establishment. Those are just the facts of life. If you're smart and talented and charismatic, someone is going to try to make a buck off of that. Very few artists can resist the siren call of success forever. Particularly when they have expensive drug habits to support.

Much has been made out of the military and intelligence lineage of a lot of these artists, overlooking the fact that the entire country was militarized 20 years before, and nearly everyone's father was in the military. If your father was smart or media-savvy, he ended up in intelligence or in the officer corps. This argument also overlooks the obvious reality of generational rebellion- certainly true in the case of Jim Morrison, who was completely estranged from his family.

Which is not to say that they were not wolves set among the sheep- that's been going on since countercultures first appeared. But the whole "Sixties Counterculture as psyop argument" comes originally from the extreme right wing (Birchers, LaRouchies, etc), and their attitudes are predetermined by their hatred of anything progressive or liberal. And unfortunately, a lot of these types are still out there, posing as counterculture rebels while peddling regurgitated disinfo.

Of course, LSD was at the center of all of this, which is a whole other story.
There can be no reasonable argument that Gottlieb and his MK Ultra boys weren't involved in LSD experiments, and were possibly using the drug to send the various youth movements off the rails.

I never liked LSD but a lot of people took it responsibly and have been enriched by that experience. It could well be that those positive experiences were the threat, so the experiments and the bad drugs (like STP and angel dust) flooding the streets were part of a kind of aversion therapy meant to turn people off to whatever revelations the drug could offer.

But it could also be that there a lot of stupid people out there who can't control themselves. As Robert Anton Wilson said, in the Sixties the positive drug revolution in the colleges was derailed by the idiot drug revolution in the streets. Which, one could argue, was the idea all along. Whatever the case, the media were certainly always on hand to whip up hysteria.

When I was a young punk rocker, I was extremely resentful of Woodstock and the whole generational mythology around it. It seemed like a great big party that didn't bother to pick up after itself- and left behind a whole lot of trash. And being a student of counterculture history, I was always irritated that the Baby Boomers acted as if they created all of it, when they merely consumed what the media provided them.

The musicians were largely war babies, a different breed altogether from the 50's born Boomers. And they were drawing on musical idioms created before even they were born. For my money, the people who I felt really laid it down in the Sixties- Kubrick and Kirby and Roddenberry, to name just a few - were of a different generation altogether. And previous countercultures like the Dadaists and the Victorian occultists were a lot more rigorous in their rebellion, and risked a lot more than their 60s descendants.

And most of the vaunted social experiments of the time ended in failure. The lip service paid to starry-eyed idealism (and flat-out bullshit) you see everywhere in the Woodstock documentary is as wince-inducing as seeing these kids roll around in septic mud. And tragic, in light of where it often led.

The nightmarish end to the hippie dream- Jefferson Airplane at Altamount

But for better or worse, the "Sixties" equal "counterculture" to most people. And maybe the last gasp of it, since what we see now are endlessly mutating subcultures. But there were a lot of ideas that followed in the aftermath- the personal computer movement, alternative communities, health consciousness- that are still viable. The next steps we need to take will follow in that example, never mind 'revolution' and the 'masses' and the rest of it. That has always led to disaster and always will.

In the end, the Sixties left us a lot of great music, and not just the hoary old standards you hear on classic rock radio.
I've been listening to a lot of Sixties Psych, and the depth of talent even in bands I'd never heard of is mind-blowing. We'll probably never see that kind of embarrassment of riches again, but it's worth working towards a building a culture that at least has the potential to do so. And to get there, I think we all need to build strength in mind, body and spirit. And perhaps at some point, begin to create intentional communities along loose cultural affinities, just as countercultures have always done throughout history.