In my first post on Michael Kramer’s Republic of Rock I ruminated on the book’s argument and Introduction. I introduced his key themes (hip capitalism, hip consumerism), and asked a question about the ideas of space and place in the book—which Kramer graciously addressed in the comments.
In today’s post I will reflect on Part 1 of the book. Titled “San Francisco,” this includes chapters 1-3 and focuses, primarily, on hip capitalism—albeit through different contexts. [Note: What follows was updated at 8:30 pm, CST, today.]
In this account of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters (those “technocrats of psychedelic consciousness”), and the Acid Tests, Kramer argues that “the Acid Tests became unconventional conventions, gatherings that sparked intensive investigations of selfhood, democratic interaction, patriotism, and national identity not outside but within mass-mediated and militarized Cold War American culture” (pp. 32, 49). For chronological context, the Acid Tests occurred from roughly 1964-1966—the beginnings of Johnson’s term and precisely when he escalated America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Kramer relays that “the ideal” for Kesey and the Pranksters “had been to discover a winning formula of individual freedom and collective communion that might transform society into a more radically democratic place” (p. 63). Using Wolfe’s observation that the Pranksters led their participants to an “Edge City” that was a “panopticon,” Kramer notes that a “wickedly oscillating dialectic of freedom and control…haunted the efforts by Kesey and the Pranksters” (p. 62). It was the Pranksters’s sense of humor (their “irreverency,” p. 55-56), Kramer argues, that helped them navigate that dialectic. Republic of Rock helps you see their “fixation on citizenship”—that their intentions could be inspiring (p. 63). They sought, in short, to re-imagine the state in the context of a democratic culture through LSD, dancing, and rock music. Crazy as it sounds, it was an attempt at a bold stroke, the kind that are often required to inspire peaceful revolution.
If you have read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kramer’s narration of events will be familiar (if not as colorful!). At the very least, I believe you will find the Kramer’s argument plausible. I found it convincing. I don’t know that anyone could intellectualize the Acid Tests and concurrent S.F. rock scene any better than Kramer. Indeed, his chapter on the Acid Tests has inspired in me a desire to reread Wolfe’s book. Wolfe’s account was so outlandlish and crazily distracting to me the first time around that I didn’t connect the Pranksters adventures to deeper currents and problems in American culture. As has been the case with many others, even Wolfe’s superficial narrative of events was spellbinding.
I had only two minor critical thoughts on this chapter. First, the focus on the aesthetics—the show—of the the Acid Tests results in a de-emphasis on the soundtrack. I found myself wanting to know more about the lyrics and sonic qualities of the songs most used by the Merry Pranksters during the Acid Tests. Second, what of the bad trips—what of “the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,” as Johnny Cash described them in his 1971 song “Man in Black”? What happened to those who couldn’t complete the oscillation “between joy and fear in the name of discovery,” as promoted by the Merry Pranksters (p. 43)?
Hip capitalism emerges at the end of chapter one when Kramer focused on the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of Tribes. The Pranksters participated in the Be-In, but the radical theater troupe the Diggers characterized the Be-In as commercialized and co-opted (p. 65). This nod toward hip capitalism is better developed in the next chapter, wherein Kramer tells of the story of radio station KMPX.
In the course of two years, during 1967-1968, KMPX became a virtual but “crucial sonic space for the San Francisco counterculture” and then suffered a crippling labor strike. Kramer argues that KMPX staff members sought to create “a new kind of commercial radio within the existing system rather than opposing capitalism.” The station’s hippie disc jockeys and staff members promoted a countercultural “leisure culture” via psychedelic rock music but also “confronted the meaning of work” (p. 70).
KMPX was a “pioneering example of hip capitalism” in that it the “station sold its noncommercial sensibility” (pp. 69, 80). The station promoted an “atmosphere of democracy” via its disc jockeys who where “intelligent friends,” laying down groovy tracks while creating an environment of “musical inquiry, debate, and discussion” (pp. 75-75). But the events surrounding the KMPX labor strike signaled that a working-class consciousness existed in its countercultural labor force(p. 71). The labor problems and strike represented a Michael Denning-esque “laboring” of hip capitalism. The strike itself was practically about salaries and creative growth (pp. 83, 86). But the strike also fed the communal imagination—its dreams growing a “community ethos” (p. 90). As is evident, ironies and paradoxes coexisted at the station, within the “tricky logic of hip capitalism” (p. 93).
I confess that this chapter engaged me a bit less than the others in Part One (i.e. chapters one and three). Then again, I found nothing bothersome; no significant critical comments arose in relation to the material presented.
I loved this chapter. Through an event that never was—the Wild West Festival—Kramer shows how the logic of hip capitalism collided with an ethic of cooperative association.
The Wild West Festival (WWF) was not to be merely a rock party. The festival planners sought to “reshape the economics of the entertainment industry through a new cooperative structure.” They wanted participation, creativity, and institutional stability, not mere transitory events. Planners and participants would celebrate all types of “art making” (p. 99). The cooperative structure would remove power from seedy promotes and the greedy pop industry types. This arose when “many in the counterculture [had] begun to question the commercial dimensions of what felt like civic gatherings” (p. 98). That “felt” was the key. The feeling needed a concrete, practical dimension that coincided with the ethic of community.
In the narrative Kramer leads us through failed deliberations, via community meetings, that nevertheless show us the spirit of democracy in the counterculture (pp. 112-115). One of the common characters between chapters two and three is Tom Donohue. He had been a station manager at KMPX before and during the strike. By early 1969 he was helping plan the WWF—hoping for a “‘tidal wave’ of creativity and artistic expression that would transform the Bay Area and spread to other places around the world” (pp. 99, 129). Donohue, with his feet in both worlds (i.e. commercial and artistic), was a representative of the contradictions of hip capitalism (p. 120).
This period of deliberation and negotiation was brief (March-August 1969), but the story “tells” of all the contradictions inherent any effort to organize participants with anarchic tendencies. Again, the story here is less about the music than the music scene. This is indeed the greater part of the story of Part One in Republic of Rock. The scene and the setting for psychedelic rock mattered as much as the sound and the fury of the performers. That scene was definitely aspirational but only indirectly political, which often made it seem impractical and impotent (hence the failed WWF and the dissolution of KMPX as a countercultural haven on the FM dial).
The big lesson in relation to the WWF is that mixed philosophical approaches resulted in an inability to compromise (pp. 121-122). Rock alone as a common denominator would not, or could not, necessarily continue the democratic dreams it inspired. The music can create a scene of possibilities, but it can’t alone foster a new reality.
Coops were supposed to be the solution to the problems of capitalism, hip and otherwise—an alternate form of working and living. But Kramer’s cautionary tale, at the end of chapter three, about the short-lived Family Dog on the Great Highway coop, shows the problems of putting together sustainable alternatives. I wanted to hear more about the practicalities and daily problems of Family Dog, but Kramer is content to let us know, with the WWF failure in mind, that at least some vision of an arts cooperative came into being (pp. 124-129).
This concludes Part 2 of my series. The third and final installment will appear next. – TL