This post seeks to open up a conversation about Michael J. Kramer’s recently released work, The Republic of Rock (Oxford, 2013). This is not a review, but rather an extended reflection on the first third of the book. I’ve only completed the Introduction, chapter one, and chapter two, so I’m only qualified to, well, open up a conversation.
Before going any further, let me offer a disclosure statement: Michael Kramer and I have been friends for just over five years. We first became acquainted through this blog (wherein I’m pretty sure his first entry was a comment on a David Sehat post). I’m now happy to count Michael as one of my closest colleagues in Chicago. We share mutual historical interests in citizenship, democracy, participatory common/shared culture, and, of course, intellectual history. Despite our mutual interests, before reading the book I had seen only parts of chapter two, several years ago via Newberry Library seminar on labor history. Like everyone else, I’m reading the The Republic of Rock now, after publication. Hopefully the text below will show that I’m being a fair reader, even with a friend.
The Common Sense on Sixties Rock and Counterculture
From the 1960s and even down to today, the conventional wisdom, or common sense, on rock music, counterculture, and the 1960s is as follows: Rock music expressed and fed the antinomian ethic of unbridled personal satisfaction that arose in the decade. The subversive musical aesthetic of the sixties continued the ethos of 1950s rock and roll, but drugs (e.g. LSD and marijuana) and permissive sexual experimentation turned a simple ethos of cool and rebellion into something wicked, immoral, and foreign. The Church of Rock-and-Roll replaced traditional churchgoing among the young. Rock and roll subverted traditional family and civic values, turning its acolytes and members into a hedonistic bunch of unruly, anti-intellectual denizens. Rock was, at best, a symbol of other sixties changes that had undermined, that countered, The American Way of Life. At worst it was, at base, a demonic force working in concert with drugs and unrestrained sexuality. This is what the pastors, politicians, and newspaper editorials told us. And we all just know this criticism. It’s been a part of the cultural fabric for forty-plus years.
That wisdom has not been contradicted or universally modified, by intellectuals, historians, and even intellectual historians. In my own work I document how Mortimer J. Adler, a well-known public intellectual in the 1960s, wrote at least two philosophical works to counter what he believed to be the pernicious effects of dissident critics, the counterculture, drugs, sex, and (indirectly) rock music. His 1970 book, The Time of Our Lives, doesn’t explicitly discuss rock music, but Adler does address what one could call the psychedelic ethos:
Many of the critics [of American society], old as well as young, direct their complaints at the wrong objects. … The dissident young … together with the leaders of the New Left … do not hesitate to make moral pronouncements about social evils they think must be immediately eliminated. It is perfectly clear that they do not know or understand the moral principles that would give support to their charges. … Exactly the same principles that might support criticism of the [Vietnam] war … racism, and poverty should lead them to criticize a society that exaggerates the importance of sensual pleasures. … The same principles … would also help them to understand what is wrong with being a beatnik, a hippie, a self-alienated refugee from reason, or an existentialist cop-out—wrong in a way that can ruin a human life—or what is wrong with over-indulgence in sex, what is wrong with psychedelic escapism, with attempts to expand the sensate life but not the life of the mind, or what is wrong with pure emotionalism and the rejection of reason and so on. Whether it results from alcohol, pot, LSD, or stronger narcotics, drunkenness is drunkenness. (TOL, p. 230-231)
Even though Adler would moderate these pointed criticisms in his next book, The Common Sense of Politics (1971), these were his immediate reactions—expressed against the better sense of his friends and colleagues (esp. Charles Van Doren). Psychedelic culture was mere escapism—an interlude from reality.
As for the views of other intellectuals and historians, well, some have not been much different. Here’s what I wrote in my forthcoming book:
Adler was not alone in issuing denunciations, neither then nor later. Indeed, his eye-catching passages [in TOL] resemble the famous diatribes that peppered Allan Bloom’s 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom famously lamented Baby Boomers and their college-aged children who embodied the legacy of the Sixties: the counterculture (“philosophically thin,” in Alice Echols’ words), feminism, rock and roll, the sexual revolution, and the Dionysian longings of youth. Even more sober left-leaning observers of the West, such as Eric Hobsbawm, lamented youthful irrationalism, out-of-control materialism, the decline of faith in progress, over-exuberant displays of “personal liberation,” youth worship (the “juvenescence of society”), antinomianism, and a general fragmentation of the welfare state’s social and political consensus. Some former Sixties youth activists, like Todd Gitlin, wondered later how “spoiled star-hungry children of the Lonely Crowd [could be] harbingers of a good society?” Adler’s misgivings existed on a diverse continuum of alienation.
Kramer states that his own book is an attempt to organize what Howard Brick termed, as late as 1998, the “sketchy forumula” of the counterculture’s significance (pp. 8-9).
This is not to say that there have not been serious attempts to get behind the reasons for the rise of sex, drugs, psychedelic rock-and-roll. “The Sixties,” its music, and its counterculture have been taken seriously by thinkers, then and more recently, for quite some time. Names that come to mind include George Reich, Theodore Roszak, David Farber, and George Lipsitz. Kramer documents other scholarly attempts to get behind “the cultural politics of rock and popular music,” including work by Peter Doggett, Robin Denselow, Ray Pratt, Mark Attern, and Tom Turino (p. 230n30).
Kramer begins his argument on the opening page by engaging the 1967 work of rock critic Paul Williams. Williams argued that rock was at the center of the sixties’ swirling changes—and the key change, or key circumstance, for Williams (and in Kramer’s book) was the Vietnam War (p. 3). Williams spoke of San Francisco’s new rock venues as “induction centers,” and Kramer works to craft that metaphor into a reality. The Vietnam War enabled the kinds of cultural shifts, especially the creation of a counter public sphere, that Kramer documents and upon which he reflects. The counterculture and its rock and roll were the mediums of expression for desired and needed changes. Participants in that movement, in Kramer’s narrative, sought to “revitalize many dead hearts” (p. 4). For Kramer, rock was a key organizer of that cultural renewal and it inspired, at its best in the counterculture, a modified idea of citizenship (p. 9).
The book argues, as its thesis, that San Francisco and Vietnam were “dialectically related,” and “that rock brought them together to render citizenship a defining countercultural issue.” For the counterculture “representation” was “an aesthetic act” that “corresponded to representation as a political fact” (p. 23). Kramer restates his thesis near the end of the Introduction: “In San Francisco, Vietnam, and beyond, rock music inspired a counterculture marked by a robust engagement with citizenship: its norms, possibilities, dreams, and problems.” For Kramer, rock enacted a “polity of sound” (p. 9). It enabled a mindset about being and becoming through listening and response, and this mindset circulated in mass media. Even so “rock was contradictory”; the music “immersed listeners in its paradoxes, circulating a social energy of uncertainty, of doubt” (p. 26). Rock and roll “did not provide any answers or clear guidelines, but it did awaken engagement” (p. 27). Even so, it enabled a counter public sphere, a “motley republic…of freakdom”. Rock’s fans “used the music to grapple with questions of justice, happiness…” (p. 20).
Kramer’s opening is extremely convincing because the argument comes not from him alone, but from his reflective historical actor-thinkers beginning with Paul Williams (p. 3). The marshalling of smart, contextual thinking about rock and the counterculture continues later with Sandy Darlington, who also helps Kramer see contradictory intellectual aspects of rock in the Sixties counterculture. And critic Greil Marcus argued, in 1968, that rock provided people with a “feeling for political spaces” (p. 15). It is clear that Kramer is on firm historical ground in seeing citizenship in sixties rock. 229n21 – Roszak affirms that citizenship was the key issue for the counterculture.
Overall, I very much appreciated the Introduction. I’m jealous of it, in fact—in relation to my own book. Kramer lays out all the practical and theoretical issues, the latter with depth and breadth even while avoiding littering his text with the names of literary critics and philosophers. Indeed, prime evidence that this is a well-thought-out and theory-rich story comes in the notes. The 24-page Introduction is actually shorter than the endnotes when you subtract the Intro’s picture space and consider that its 21 pages of notes are in a smaller font. As a consequence I spent as much time swimming in the notes as I did wading, comfortably, through the Intro text.
Consistent with Kramer’s argument that these questions in rock circulated beyond S.F. and Vietnam, he also posits that these issues transcend the sixties in that “we still struggle to understand the nature of democratic citizenship within the context of American consumerism and militarism” (p. 27). When Kramer introduces how rock music would play with the soldiers, it’s about being a form of resistance. The music enabled a “hip militarism” (pp. 13-17) and an “imagined Haight-Ashbury in Vietnam” (p. 5). I’ll expand on Kramer’s conception of “hip militarism” in a subsequent write-up. But, in short, Kramer’s historical actors encountered a tension with capitalism—the market, merchants, selling, marketing, and corporatization (pp. 4-5). They never really solved the tension between democracy and capitalism. This is because, according to Chester Anderson, the concerns of the counterculture were not practical or policy oriented. Politics were not, for them, the source of lasting change nor the best means for expressing dissent (p. 5).
Returning to San Francisco and Vietnam, I will be curious to see how the Kramer develops the theoretical discussion of place in Republic of Rock. Place does arise as an issue in the Introduction when Kramer says rock helped collapse the distance between Vietnam and San Francisco (p. 16). But the topic wasn’t addressed theoretically, or in relation to the power of place, geography, and landscape in San Francisco. It seems clear, however, that San Francisco itself held forth unique possibilities and realities, even while Kramer acknowledged other sites of counterculture formation in his notes (p. 244n97).
Place and space—especially confined spaces—arose again in my thoughts during Kramer’s discussion of dance and the Acid Test events. I gravitated to those topics because my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, studied dance halls and swing dancing, in two different books, Steppin’ Out and Swingin’ the Dream. In both works he saw the positive possibilities for a democratic culture and social change through dance and music. Or, in Kramer’s words in relation to the sixties, the “polyglot ideal of togetherness” and “democratic longing” (p. 20). Indeed, Kramer even sounded like my mentor (especially in Swingin’ the Dream) when the former spoke of the “psychedelic dance floor” as “a surprising space for bold new experiences of self, intimacy, and larger social relationships that included, but were not limited to, coupling” (p. 53). Parallels with Erenberg other scholarship aside, I’m anxious to see how this plays out in Kramer’s future chapters.
This concludes installment one of my reflections on The Republic of Rock. Look for one or two more future entries, plus another more focused reflection from L.D. Burnett. – TL