U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Using Rock To Think: Opening Reflections on Kramer’s Republic of Rock

Kramer_Republic-of-RockThis 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’s Conjecture(s)

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

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Tim. I will indeed be writing about Kramer’s marvelous chapter on acid rock as the GIs’ soundtrack for the Viet Nam war. What does 60s rock culture have to do with Gilded Age historiography? Find out tomorrow!

  2. Wow this sounds like a really fascinating book! I know the author’s dealing primarily with rock in the 1960s, but I wonder if he’ll also address other genres such as soul and jazz in the 1960s? In many ways I’m asking an unfair question because Kramer is dealing with the genre most associated with the 1960s.

    Of course, I find myself thinking about the subtitle “Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture” and the influences of other genres AND of events such as the Civil Rights Movement would, I’d think, come into play when talking about how rock develops these new ideas of citizenship.

    And, looking to the 1970s (and I’m thinking about Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive” now) I wonder if it could be posited that the Counterculture ideas of citizenship helped to spawn a different formulation of citizenship with the explosion in growth of country music? The ways in which music arguably became re-segregated along race in the late Seventies (an argument mentioned briefly in Cowie’s book based, I’m sure, on the work of other cultural historians that I’m trying to look up in the book right now) poses questions about the types of citizenship Americans have considered since the 1960s, especially when taking into account this book’s thesis.

    In other words, I’ve really got to pick this book up. And I can’t wait for L.D. Burnett’s take on this book and its ties to my second favorite historical era.

    • One more thing: the idea of place and music is also important. It brings to mind for me “Black Star, Crescent Moon” by Sohail Daulatzai, who spends much of the book writing about the relationship between hip-hop and the continued existence of what he calls the “Muslim International”, something that I’d best describe as Pan-Africanism combined with an Islamic framework that encompasses Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In some ways place also shrinks in that book, as places as disparate as Harlem, Cairo, Accra, and Bandung become united through music and the speeches of figures such as Malcolm X.

      • Don’t forget the role jazz played in uniting people from across the globe. As Penny von Eschen shows in “Satchmo Blows Up the World”, jazz had such universal appeal that the United States frequently employed jazz musicians as cultural ambassadors during the Cold War.

  3. 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.

    Disco was the same thing, but better—more diverse, less alienation and squalor. Again, as long as it had sex and drugs, we found we could do without the rock’n’roll. Focus on the essentials.

    • Indeed—buy it—check it out of your local lending establishment. The Intro alone (and reading the notes with it) is worth money to read.

      • Republic of Rock does note that many of the San Francisco rockers came out of the folk revival, but Robert Cantwell, Benjamin Filene, Ron Cohen, and others (including my new project on folk revival on the West Coast) focus more thoroughly on folk as compared to rock.

  4. Hi Tim and other generous commenters —

    Thanks for the close reading of the introduction and first chapter of The Republic of Rock. There are many small points that come to mind for me (such as noting that, yes, Lewis Erenberg’s work has been very influential on my thinking about US cultural and intellectual history, especially about how Americans have, in some rather disconcerting sense, thought through ideas through dancing). But let me focus on your interest in place and geography for now.

    A key point I want to emphasize in the book is that rock’s significance to the formation of the sixties counterculture as an engagement with questions of citizenship emerges most profoundly by thinking about the movement of the music and all that it stood for (which was many things to many people) between San Francisco and Vietnam. There were very real connections between the two places: much of the war was managed from the Presidio in San Francisco; many GIs embarked for their tour of duty from Oakland Army Base or Travis Air Force Base and returned to the Bay Area after completing their year of service in “the ‘Nam,” at which point one of the first places they wanted to visit was the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

    But the symbolic interactions between the war and the music in San Francisco were far more crucial than the material connections. In the sounds of rock circulating back and forth across the Pacific (and moving through countless other locales as well: Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, London, etc.), peace, love, and flowers blended with hate, war, and Napalm. Issues of democratic political philosophy and psychology sprang up in engagements with the music in this context. In particular, deep inquiries into the stakes of citizenship occurred at a moment when what Lizabeth Cohen calls the “consumers’ republic” of domestic mass production/consumption in mid-twentieth century America gave way to countless, segmented niche markets, most especially to the hip capitalism that saw the counterculture commodified in what Tom Frank calls a “conquest of cool” that (quite brilliantly!) transformed transgressive style against “the system” into profits for the system.

    In the “displaced place” of Vietnam, one sees (and hears!) the culmination of the weird tactics of hip capitalism most vividly in what I call the military policy of “hip militarism.” The idea of one unified fighting force increasingly gave way in the face of declining troop morale and a promotion system modeled on corporate American managerial strategies that neatly divided workers from managers and work from play. In its place, a military segmented by age, race, region, class, and, most of all, for the administrators of the war, cultural styles arose, particularly after 1968. Rock was an example of the Armed Forces’ new regime of hip militarism, embraced by the military brass as a way to deliver leisure to younger troops (and potentially connect alienated young white and black troops to each other through imitation Sly and the Family Stone bands). It also smuggled in questionings of the war itself and grapplings with the identity of the citizen-soldier.

    So moving beyond the place of domestic American consumer and civic culture to the state-dominated place of American military culture overseas provides a key insight into the mechanisms of American consumer and military imperialism both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the war was like a kind of hidden transcript haunting struggles over rock music commerce and civic culture, infused into the psychedelic sounds themselves and continually referenced as linked to domestic alienations and problems of democratic existence.

    Overall, then, rock coursed through the entire apparatus of American consumer and military empire during the height of the Vietnam War and during its awful, slow-motion ending after Nixon came into office, reorganized place and space. To harken to navigational terms, the music was able to disorient and reorient listeners. Its sounds offered new territories of belonging that were not geographically based, but rather transgressed, if only momentarily, established boundaries of nation, state, market, ethnicity, race, class, gender, region. What I call, later in the book, not Woodstock Nation but rather the “Woodstock Transnational” arose from the ricocheting energies of rock between the city of the Summer of Love and the country in which the US waged war.

    The appearance of this polity—if we can call it that since it was but a state of being rather than a proper governmental state—is what continues to fascinate me. How did musical and sonic experience sustain the glimmering appearance of what was for many a temporary but enthralling social formation in which they could think through the stakes of citizenship in the modern world? How weird that a form of commercialized popular music could do this! It is a reminder that place is as much a construction as a geographically-fixed entity, a state of mind as well a of locale. This was particularly so in a world that was, by the 1960s (and even more so now), dominated by mass-communications systems.

    For intellectual historians, the story of rock and place in San Francisco and Vietnam is also a reminder that not just highbrow intellectuals, but also everyday people—even the adolescents and young adults who were the most avid listeners to rock in the sixties counterculture—quite actively forge, define, articulate, and shape ideas of place, and ideas in general! Rocking out turned out to be far more than just fun. It was *serious* fun.

    • Michael: Thanks for the long comment. I’m pleased you have the time and energy to monitor the discussion and this post.

      I’m with you, of course, on your point about sonic space and the immaterial (i.e. sound waves) and symbolism mattering more than material topography in in the creation/maintenance/imagination of a Republic of Rock. Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that space and place in S.F. mattered in relation to how much the music “resonated” locally.

      How much did youth know that the Presidio was a command center? How close is Haight-Ashbury to the Presidio? Could each see each when gathering took place in the Haight? How close were the Acid Test events to the Haight and Presidio? Were those venues closer to the Presidio? When one listened to a live outdoor performance in the Haight, could the concert singing/screaming be heard at the Presidio? I apologize if the logisitics of my speculations are impossible. I just don’t know my geography of SF well enough to understand when a song could be literally aimed, as protest, at the military center/base and actually be heard there? Perhaps I just need to Google map both, but I did wonder about these topographic issues while reading.

      And, again, I don’t ask these (simple?) questions to deny your symbolic/sonic arguments (rock most certainly “coursed through the entire apparatus”). Those arguments matter, and I think the connections are aptly shown in your book. I’m on board. – TL

      • Just mapped both. It looks like the Presidio and Haight-Ashbury are about 1-1.5 miles apart, depending on where one ends and other begins. But I know that SF is on a hill(s), so it appears that one could shake her/his fist at the Vietnam War while singing along with a band and looking downhill at the Presidio during an outdoor concert at a park in the Haight ‘hood. – TL

      • I guess all of this goes toward another layer of embodiment of thought—that our bodily gestures might emphasize the inner confusion and protest—in the context of the geography of San Francisco. The intense rock of radical reimagination could literally review the imperial regime during a Haight event.

  5. Hi Tim —

    Alice Echols and a few other scholars have mapped out the spaces of the San Francisco counterculture. The most fascinating stories about this that I came across came from Reg E Williams, who was involved in the revival of the Straight Theater. He writes in his (unpublished) memoir about how powerful it was to watch an endless line of military ships depart out the Golden Gate, presumably on their way to Vietnam. Great Society guitarist Darby Slick has a memorable quote about how using LSD in the SF scene was like a mini-VIetnam War fought out in the brain cells of Bay Area counterculture participants.

    My sense in SF itself was that the war hovered over everything, suffused everything. It wasn’t a direct kind of politics however. That was left to the “politicos” in Berkeley at events such as the Vietnam Day Committee protests in 1965, the Stop the Draft week march on the Oakland induction center in 1967, and countless other protests. The counterculture’s politics were different, they were what Julie Stephens calls a kind of “anti-discplinary” politics, an effort to protest through different means, which is why I try to contrast the term “citizenship” to politics in the book.

    They are, to be sure, linked activities and concepts. But “citizenship” cut deeper, down into core questions of democratic existence that undergirded more straightforward political protest in SF (and elsewhere for that matter). The war was more like a specter haunting the kind of civic engagements I want to recover from rock and the counterculture in SF. But a specter that was way more than phantasmagoric since it placed questions of death and mortality front and center. Hence, perhaps, the crazy drive to live and to dive deep into questions (religious, psychological, economic, etc.) of democratic political philosophy. And all that done, so weirdly, through a genre of pop music!


    • Your first para addresses my question/theme perfectly. Figures that was “another work,” another project. But it does help me, by way of contrast, understand the imaginary/symbolic/phantasmogoric angle you’re arguing. This brings to mind the final Acid Test event where you note that Ken Kesey dressed in a military-style(?) costume (or was that the space-related one?), and that a event-oriented tension existed in relation hierarchy (discipline v aesthetic expression). Still, the exception proves your rule—that rock was a form of anti-discplinary politics.

Comments are closed.