We have paraded, we have picketed, we have petitioned our government, we have fasted, we have “sat-in”—yet for over two years American military involvement in Vietnam has escalated relentlessly. Many of us are filled with a growing sense of weariness and despair.
When the anti-war movement realised that conventional protest was being ignored by the White House, pressure grew for a more radical solution to the Vietnam crisis. From 1966 onwards, the campaign against the war began to merge with the crusade against racism, the first stirrings of feminism and the quest for liberation from the morals and methods of capitalist society.
This crush of causes squeezed protestors out of their comfortable liberalism, into a state of consciousness where revolution—of the mind, body and spirit—became not only a dream, but a necessity. Over the next two years, this impulse would grow to the point where it seemed that only a cataclysmic attempt to overthrow the state would ease the pressure.
A Great Society
In the seven-second flurry of bullets that ended his life, President John F. Kennedy was translated into the realm of sainthood. In its shock and horror, America preferred to remember their lost leader as a symbol, not a flawed human being who had failed to deliver on his promises about civil rights, and steered his nation closer to its fatal entanglement in Vietnam. Older, uglier, a dirty-nailed squabbler in the political mire, his successor struggled to escape Kennedy’s shadow. In the months after the assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson searched for a magical phrase, a statement of purpose, which could sprinkle the glitter from Kennedy’s Camelot over his own presidency. JFK had informed the American public that they stood “on the edge of a new frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”
By 1964, with Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery and tidings darkening on every horizon, Americans were fearful that the “threats” were no longer “unfulfilled.” That March, a TV interviewer enquired whether LBJ could offer Americans a replacement for JFK’s New Frontier. He scratched around for a moment, and said: “Well, I suppose all of us want a better deal, don’t we?”
That wasn’t the poetry that history demanded. In April 1964, Johnson tried again during a speech in Chicago. “We have been called upon . . . are you listening?” he interjected, to highlight the significance of what he was about to say—“. . . to build a great society of the highest order, a society not just for today or tomorrow, but for three or four generations to come.”
It was enough—a Great Society, a purpose that could be bent to every vision of the future, a beacon bright enough to call out to the doubtful, but yet so vague that it could be reshaped as circumstances required. It was enough to win Johnson the election in November 1964: that, and the threat, reinforced by Johnson’s slick TV advertising campaign, that his Republican challenger might lead America blithely into World War Three. Yet even the most loyal Johnsonite must have struggled to recognise the President’s dream at the dawn of 1966. In the aftermath of Selma and Watts, the civil rights issue simmered just below the surface, waiting for the first spark of spring to renew the inferno. Meanwhile, it was increasingly difficult to boast that the war in Vietnam was going to plan. More than 800 Americans had perished there between August and December. As the year began, 120,000 US fighting troops were installed in South-East Asia, plus more than 60,000 euphemistic “advisors.” Generals had already informed LBJ that the war was unwinnable unless he committed at least 400,000 soldiers to it, and even then it would take years, not months. The financial burden was decimating Johnson’s welfare campaign; Vietnam was now costing the USA more than $35,000,000 per day. Johnson now realised that “If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home.” With each passing month, the bitch sank her nails deeper into Johnson’s back.
The president’s exhaustion was slowly suffocating his land. Anti-war protestors had naively expected the moral force of their argument to bring the conflict to an immediate end. Meanwhile, civil rights activists sighed at the prospect of another year of begging for an end to segregation and prejudice, while all across the Southern states African-Americans were still denied the opportunity to vote. “Negroes are defined by two forces, their blackness and their powerlessness,” noted the charismatic SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael. In Folsom Prison, Eldridge Cleaver drew the connections: “The link between America’s undercover support of colonialism abroad and the bondage of the Negro at home becomes increasingly clear.” All this smacked of Marxism, declared David Noebel of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade.
It was not Vietnam or civil rights that had sapped young people’s optimism, he alleged, but the entertainment they were fed by the Communist conspiracy. “Throw your Beatle and rock’n’roll records in the city dump,” he begged. “Let’s make sure four mop-headed anti-Christ beatniks don’t destroy our children’s emotional and mental stability.” Listen to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”, he added, as it was “obviously aimed at instilling fear in our teenagers as well as a sense of hopelessness. ‘Thermonuclear holocaust,’ ‘the button,’ ‘the end of the world,’ and similar expressions are constantly being used to induce the American public to surrender to atheistic international Communism.”
Meanwhile, the draft loomed over “our teenagers,” who from February 1966 would for the first time be eligible for military service even if they were college students. America was a nation edgy with impatience and frustration, and increasingly riven on generational and racial grounds. Within the civil rights movement, anger at the slow pace of change was hardening attitudes and identities. Some African-American protestors were beginning to resent the presence of young white supporters in their midst. The influx of white liberals into Mississippi in 1964 had brought national attention to the racism inherent in Southern society. Two years later, however, as activist Andrew Young recalled, “There was a decision on the part of some of the blacks in SNCC that we don’t just want to get people free, we want to develop indigenous black leadership.”
“The disagreement over whites was not on having whites,” explained Stokely Carmichael, who took over the leadership of the most confrontational civil rights organisation, SNCC, in April 1966. “The disagreement was on having white leadership. White liberals could work with SNCC but they could not tell SNCC what to do or what to say.” Carmichael was also responsible for SNCC’s decision in January 1966 to highlight the direct link between America’s homegrown racism and its imperialist foreign policy. Other civil rights groups, who had not given up hope of exerting peaceful persuasion on the Johnson government, moved swiftly to distance themselves from SNCC’s more militant line.
General Motors Fascism
Peter Coyote of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theatre group that had grown out of California’s burgeoning hippie scene, looked blearily at the chaos around him. He predicted: “We’re passing now into a time of death, and we have to confront death with the vision of life.”
He saw an “ideology of failure” that was gripping the nation: “There are internal contradictions in the society that have become heightened to such a degree that the country has become the equivalent of fascist. It’s General Motors fascism. That’s out front. Our lives are in fact revolutionary within the context of General Motors fascism. We expect to live our lives and to defend them. We have been cultural outsiders in this civilisation. We will become the political dynamic of the new society because we are living a new civilisation.”
Asked what he saw ahead, he replied starkly: “Civil war, with some attendant trips.” But which way would the country crack first?
Faced with the prospect of open warfare between black and white, of annihilation in the jungles of Vietnam, of losing one’s soul in “General Motors fascism,” many young people reached for an alternative. Peter Coyote’s “attendant trips” exerted more pull than his “civil war.”
Instead of risking death on the battlefield or at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, millions chose to consider a different adventure—a journey into the void of their own souls. There was, according to Time magazine in March 1966, an epidemic of drug use among the young, who were choosing to lose their identity and (so Time suggested) risk their sanity by swallowing a chemical compound called lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or “acid.”
The patron saint of acid experimentation was a former Harvard psychologist called Timothy Leary. He declared that political involvement was meaningless: “Any external or social action, unless it’s based on expanded consciousness, is robot behaviour.” LSD was the common currency of mind expansion through the mid-1960s. Along with rock music, it became the most important ingredient of the development of the counter-culture known variously as flower power, the hippie movement or, simply, as a historical cliché, “The Sixties.” Dr Leary formed an organisation called the League of Spiritual Discovery, to normalise the use of LSD. In California, hippies organised “acid tests,” at which an LSD “trip” would be accompanied by suitably psychedelic music from the Grateful Dead, one of the many rock bands who set out to reproduce the acid experience in sound. Fame and wealth provided no refuge for “cultural outsiders.”
In February 1966, John Lennon invited journalist Maureen Cleave into his plush home in the stockbroker belt. She admired his playthings, but couldn’t help but notice the spiritual emptiness that they represented. This was the other extreme of “General Motors fascism”—the endless consumerism available to the rich, objectified in Lennon’s life by his cars, his tape recorders, his television sets, “the telephones of which he knows not a single number.”
It was alienation personified, and Lennon knew it: “There’s something else I’m going to do, something I must do—only I don’t know what it is. That’s why I go round painting and taping and drawing and writing and that, because it may be one of them. All I know is, this isn’t it for me.”
Cleave reported that Lennon was “reading extensively about religion.” Lennon’s studies and his relaxed relationship with Cleave led him to make one of the most notorious public statements of the century: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right, and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first—rock’nroll or Christianity.”
His comments passed without notice in Britain, where a certain amount of bohemian eccentricity was expected from its celebrities. But when the interview was reprinted in the US teen magazine Datebook, it prompted an outbreak of antipathy that made David Noebel’s criticisms sound mild by comparison. Lennon’s ennui chimed with his bandmate George Harrison, who chose the year commonly regarded as the pinnacle of 1960s pop to lament that only Indian music turned him on these days: “It makes Western three-or-four-beat type stuff seem somehow dead.”
As Lennon noted in another 1966 interview, “We are all old men.” The Beatles’ escape routes—the recording studio, hallucinogenic drugs, the trancelike music of India, and soon Eastern spirituality as well—took them inward, at the moment when Vietnam and racism defaced the external, physical, political world. Academic Nick Bromell has argued that the acid generation’s excursions had a subtle political effect. “After getting high or tripping,” he wrote, “60s users realised that their belief in a core self was naive, their faith in stability was foolish, and so they were fully prepared to see through everything, including truth, justice, and the American way.”
All astute watchers of America’s travails in Vietnam shared that lack of “faith in stability,” but there were other ways of coming to mistrust “truth, justice, and the American way”—avoiding ambush by Vietnamese guerrillas, for one, or facing down crazed racists in Mississippi.
Pretentious Folk Front
In 1966 America trudged deeper into the swamp of South-East Asia, convinced that with every step it was reaching higher ground. Meanwhile, the American nation looked on, bewildered. Anti-war protestors were equally mystified and jaded. Individual events drew massive crowds: International Days of Protest in March brought 50,000 people onto the streets of New York, and as many again in other US cities. Yet with Students for a Democratic Society having abdicated responsibility for the peace movement the previous year, there was no organisation strong or courageous enough to direct a prolonged campaign of disobedience and dissent.
In Berkeley, the Vietnam Day Committee kept the faith, working towards Jerry Rubin’s high-profile but electorally unsuccessful bid to become the city’s mayor. The VDC continued to stage low-key benefit concerts throughout this period, calling on the services of Country Joe McDonald and guitarist Barry Melton, who was now performing with Joe as “the Fish.” In September 1965, McDonald had contributed to a record called Songs For Opposition, which featured the original versions of two of the most memorable protest songs of the era. “Superbird” (its title borrowed from Mac Gerson’s satirical play) lampooned the president as a low-budget superhero, devoid of special powers. “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” combined the title of one vintage blues tune with the melody of another, as a backdrop to savagely comic commentary on the war. The result was an unforgettable 1960s anthem, still potent enough four years later to enliven 500,000 stoned hippies at the Woodstock festival. For the moment, though, both songs were scarcely heard beyond the San Francisco bay.
Country Joe & the Fish mutated from a duo into a folk-rock band by early 1966. The extended line-up included Berkeley activist and bassist Bruce Barthol, and Paul Armstrong, whose penance for evading military service was to work in a center where the bodies of dead American soldiers were shipped from Vietnam. Thinking politically was second nature to the band. “At a rally for a radical candidate for Congress,” explained the duo’s manager Ed Denson, “we saw the Fugs put on what was then a really mind-blowing show. The audience was stunned, and we were overjoyed. Contacting them, we arranged for a concert on the Berkeley campus presented by the Pretentious Folk Front.”
McDonald reeled off his new protest gems, while the band sported T-shirts bearing peace symbols, and Melton proudly displayed a sweatshirt featuring the face of Beethoven, and the simple caption: “Marx.”
“We thought we might be arrested for singing our songs,” Denson recalled.
But as Barthol explains, “There was no fantasy of rock stardom on the early San Francisco rock scene. The ‘air guitar’ scenario hadn’t been invented yet. The band was never intended to be anything more than a minor underground happening. Everything that happened after that took us by surprise.”
Down the coast in Los Angeles, the avant-garde elite gathered for a Concert Happening at Aerospace Hall in February 1966. Alongside a programme of experimental pieces by John Cage and Schonberg, Joseph Byrd performed a “composition” entitled “The Defense of the American Continent from the Viet Cong Invasion.” After several years working alongside artists such as George Maciunas and Yoko Ono in the Fluxus group, Byrd had formed the New Music Workshop with Don Ellis. His composition was inspired, Byrd recalls, by “the absurdity of the US Defense Department (no longer the ‘War Department’) entering into a longer and more protracted war in South-East Asia.”
Within the skeletal “score” of Cage’s Notations, Byrd arranged for eight musicians, “representing ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] units, to improvise airplane sounds on their instruments, i.e. drones. They should start softly, and build until they intercepted the Viet Cong bomber threatening California. At whatever time each player reached the target, he would stop improvising, and begin playing a chorale arrangement I’d written of ‘America the Beautiful,’ which repeated until everyone had completed the mission. So there was a gradual transition from drone to hymn.”
Byrd remembers that “the piece went by virtually unnoticed.” But another performance that night provoked a fiercer reaction. “I’d scheduled one of Nam June Paik’s ‘Playable Pieces,’” he explains, “which are mostly concept art, not playable at all. There was just one that could be performed: ‘Cut your left forearm a distance of 10 centimeters.’ It was performed very much like any solo concert piece. I walked onstage, removed and hung up my jacket, rolled up my sleeve, and cut. I’d expected it to be painful, but it wasn’t. The problem was, the initial cut wasn’t deep enough for blood to flow, so I had to repeat it. The blood slowly trickled into a stainless steel bowl, and the entire procedure took less than a minute. And that should have been that.
“Only it wasn’t. The audience became increasingly disturbed. By the time I was finished, people had walked out, others were booing, and some cheering, but no one was unaffected. And it became a cause célébre. It was a revelation for me as well. Here, at a time when my country was bombing and napalming villages, with only a fringe domestic opposition, people could be revolted and horrified by a small, self-inflicted wound and a little blood! It definitely made me re-embrace the Fluxus approach that art could be a factor in revolution.”
But, as Byrd admits, “Fluxus—which was about the synthesis of radical art and radical politics—was in real life performed by, and for, a sophisticated elite.”
Aware of the paradox of attempting to effect political change via an elitist medium, Byrd began to consider the subversive potential of experimental music rooted in the rock tradition.
Another attempt to cross-pollinate artistic genres in the name of protest was marked by the unveiling in New York of the first ever rock musical, Megan Terry’s Viet Rock, at the Open Theater in Café La MaMa. The production was staged in several New York locations during 1966, to the bafflement of the city’s drama critics. “Not one cogent thing is said about our involvement in Vietnam,” moaned Walter Kerr in the New York Times, while Harold Clurman in The Nation dismissed the play as “an irregular chain of improvisation, in feeble rock’n’roll style.”
Terry’s script certainly encouraged the free expression of ideas and actions, combined with the kind of scything satire previously heard from the Fugs and shortly to enter the commercial mainstream via Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention.
These were isolated events, though, in a year when Vietnam seemed to merge into the American landscape. The only concerted artistic attacks on US foreign policy during 1966 came from poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Phil Ochs. In a leap into the fantastic that would have impressed his poetic mentor, Walt Whitman, Ginsberg celebrated St Valentine’s Day 1966 by composing “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” He tore into the empty rhetoric of America’s military leaders, page after impassioned page, lamenting that, “almost all our language has been taxed by war.” Then, “In this Vortex named Wichita,” Ginsberg experienced his revelation, a conceptual declaration of peace:
I lift my voice aloud,
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!
To reinforce his one-man cessation of hostilities, Ginsberg issued a press release: “As US language chief I hereby use language to make a unilateral declaration of the end of the Vietnam War. The poet says the whole war’s nothing but black magic caused by the wrong language & authoritatively cancels all previous magic formulas & wipes out the whole war scene without further delay.”
As his friend and biographer Barry Miles notes, “That was a typical gesture for Allen to make. It supported Shelley’s notion that poets are the real legislators, not politicians. So if he proclaimed that the war was over, it counted as a prophecy, because he was a poet. Poetically, he had ended the war.”
Ginsberg’s coup de théâtre left little mark on the American public, but it resonated with Phil Ochs, who would soon borrow the concept.
Meanwhile, Ochs mounted his own “unilateral declaration” of opposition to America’s overseas adventures. The latest target was merely “South-East Asian Birmingham,” as he had noted astutely in his late 1963 song “Talking Vietnam,” written in the wake of the shambolic coup that claimed the life of South Vietnamese president Diem. In a sardonic and strangely prophetic couplet, Ochs sniped at the US Army’s claim to be acting as advisors: “Well, ‘training’ is the word we use/Nice word to have in case we lose.”
A later verse provided the inflammatory punchline: “Friends, the very next day we trained some more/We burned some villages down to the floor.”
By the time Ochs recorded I Ain’t Marching Anymore in 1965, he was grappling with a more personal struggle: maintaining his integrity in the face of his own minor celebrity. His public wanted to imagine him as an unimpeachable symbol of political virtue and righteous outrage. But Ochs was already showing signs of the cynicism and despair that would torture him later in the decade. He enjoyed a relationship with fame that was, at best, ambiguous.
Paul Rothchild, who produced both his early folk albums, described Ochs as “a fucking heavy duty capitalist.” In an unguarded moment, the singer told New York Times reporter Robert Shelton: “I want to be the first left-wing star.” In a prose poem he posed himself the question: “Do you really believe in what your songs are saying?”
His protest anthems, ringing with fire and anger, made any answer superfluous. But the compulsively truth-telling Ochs was also capable of informing the Village Voice: “There’s nothing noble about what I’m doing. I’m writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political.”
His manager, Arthur Gorson, is adamant that he was simply being provocative: “Phil wasn’t motivated by money. He was very pure in his politics—his attitude was, ‘We are right, so we will win.’ That was his real motivation.”
His songs certainly spoke in his defence. “His potency was the confrontational nature of his material,” Gorson believes. “He used to stand at the edge of the stage for a quick getaway, because he was always convinced that someone would kill him because of the power of his words. If he didn’t believe that he had danger and impact, then it wasn’t worth his carrying on.”
I Ain’t Marching Anymore included another cutting piece of black comedy, “Draft Dodger Rag.” Ochs described the scenario: “In Vietnam, a 19-year-old Viet Cong soldier screams that Americans should leave his country as he is shot by a government firing squad. His American counterpart meanwhile is staying up nights thinking of ways to deceptively destroy his health, mind, or virility to escape two years in a relatively comfortable camp. Free enterprise strikes again.”
The album nailed a dozen other targets with the same stiletto wit—Mississippi’s racism, arms dealing, unemployment lines, the Harlem riots, capital punishment, right-wing union bosses, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, rural poverty, and more besides. Ochs was convinced that the perils of contemporary world politics would become too urgent for any entertainer to ignore; war would replace love as the common currency of the popular song. In the future, he wrote in his programme notes for the Newport Folk Festival, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an album called Elvis Presley Sings Songs of the Spanish Civil War, or the Beatles with The Best of the Chinese-Indian Border Dispute Songs.”
Burdened by his country’s sins, Ochs increasingly lost faith in its ability to mend itself and purge the world of its crimes. In the same interview in which he envisaged political superstardom, he stepped over the line between revolt and what could legally be classed as treason. “The Vietcong are right,” he declared, “because they provide an extreme answer to the extreme problems of poverty, famine, disease.”
Then, in case any of his readers thought he had become one of “Them Commies,” he added: “We should support Ho Chi Minh as the last workable bulwark against Communist China in Asia”—this at a time when official US policy was that South Vietnam, not the North, was the final defence against Asia and Australia toppling domino-fashion into Communist hands.
Ochs was now writing protest material faster than he could record it. In the final months of 1965, Vietnam inspired two new songs. “Cops of the World” took a satirical swipe at America’s role as global policeman, while “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” chimed with Stokely Carmichael’s much-quoted remark that the war was “white people sending black people to make war on yellow people in order to defend the land they stole from red people.”
As he had in “Talking Vietnam,” Ochs provocatively envisaged his nation suffering defeat: “We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.”
Both songs were in Ochs’ repertoire when he lined up alongside a galaxy of folk stars at the Sing-In For Peace at Carnegie Hall, in September 1965. The one absentee from the protest pantheon was Bob Dylan, who allowed his name to be quoted as a member of the organising committee, but made sure he was elsewhere on the night.
That month, Ochs and Dylan clashed ideologies in a meeting that has been mythologised beyond the reach of accurate recall. The essentials are these: Ochs lectured Dylan about his social responsibilities; Dylan demurred, and played Ochs a new song (either “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” or “One of Us Should Know,” accounts differ). Ochs replied that it wasn’t one of Dylan’s best songs; Dylan dismissed Ochs’ own songwriting with a damning phrase that haunted him into the grave: “You’re nothing [or perhaps ‘You’re not a songwriter’] but a journalist.”
At some point, there was a car journey, from which Ochs was expelled after goading Dylan once too often. Dylan biographer, Anthony Scaduto, got the story first-hand from Ochs, who also remembered Dylan telling him: “The stuff you’re writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. It’s all unreal. The only thing that’s real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you’re writing about, and you’ll see you’re wasting your time. The world is, well . . . it’s just absurd.”
Absurdity was the dominant tone of Dylan’s songwriting during this period: even when he employed a cast of real people, from T.S. Eliot to William Shakespeare, he manipulated them like plasticine puppets into surreal poses. You could listen to “Tombstone Blues” or “Desolation Row,” both from Dylan’s mid-1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, and conclude that a society capable of creating the Vietnam War and the Ku Klux Klan was indeed as comic and mutant as Dylan’s verse suggested. But nowhere did Dylan offer a solution to either problem, or even acknowledge their existence as anything more than another level of black comedy. With that incisive wit and emotional distance, Dylan maintained a healthy—for him—gulf between social commentary and social responsibility.
In private and in public, he disclaimed all connection with politics, protest, socialism, liberalism, anything but his own skewed vision of the universe. Joan Baez remembered him prowling around his dressing-room in December 1965, goading anyone who attempted to drag him back into the political cockpit: “Hey, man, if ya gonna bomb Hanoi, whyn’t the fuck, man, they bomb Hanoi? I mean, I don’t give a fuck if they bomb Hanoi.”
Even at his most cynical, Phil Ochs would have been incapable of maintaining such a pose. But neither was Ochs willing to follow folk-singer Joan Baez’s route from outrage to civil disobedience. It was one thing for Ochs to spout pro-Vietcong slogans in interviews; another for Baez actively to defy the American government. In 1965, she informed the Internal Revenue Service that “I am not going to volunteer the 60% of my year’s income tax that goes to armaments.” Her rationale was simple and incontrovertible: “I do not believe in war. I do not believe in the weapons of war . . . I am no longer supporting my portion of the arms race.”
She established a foundation in her adopted hometown of Carmel, California, called the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. In retrospect, this was worth a lifetime of revolutionary posturing; in the mid-1960s, as she recalled, she “bashed on regardless, slipping Gandhi in between songs and winning a few hearts and minds and annoying the ‘radical’ left with my ‘moderate’ ideas.”
Between Dylan’s withdrawal of support from the radical left, and Baez’s equally stark abdication of responsibility for the American war machine, Ochs attempted to fashion a revolution of his own—artistic, political, or some strange hybrid of the two. In November 1965, he toured Britain for the first time, haunted from town to town by questions about his relationship with Bob Dylan. Ochs had already suggested that the hysteria surrounding Dylan had become so intense that Bob might soon find it impossible to perform.
It was ironic, to say the least, that when Ochs turned off his conscious mind during a long drive between UK shows, and allowed a remarkably visionary set of lyrics to come through, he should title the finished song “Crucifixion.” He believed it was about JFK, and interpreted it that way until he died, but many lines could just as easily have been written about Dylan. On his In Concert album, the singer juxtaposed his playful new protest tunes, and his more visionary compositions, although he reserved “Crucifixion” until he felt more confident that there was an audience for something so richly metaphorical. “It was a thing of beauty, which didn’t rely on a specific political message,” remembers Arthur Gorson, “so he was slightly wary of what the audience reaction would be.”
Instead of penning his own liner notes, Ochs chose to reprint seven poems by the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Tse-tung. Underneath he posed the question: “Is this the enemy?” One critic wondered pertinently whether Chairman Mao would have allowed a similar gesture to go unpunished in China.
There was retribution in America as well, as Arthur Gorson explains: “It definitely caused us problems. Record stores didn’t like it, and some refused to stock the album. But Phil had a point to make which had nothing to do with whether you agreed with Mao or not, which was: Is it art? How does it affect the common man? Phil was touched by the beauty of the poems, and he wanted to share them with his audience.” The episode was an effective piece of what Tom Wolfe would later call “radical chicé.”
The Opening Shots
Revolutionary role-playing was in the air. Jerry Rubin, Ochs’ comrade from the Vietnam Day Committee demonstrations of 1965, was simultaneously running for the office of Mayor in Berkeley, and facing investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his anti-Vietnam demonstrations. “I began thinking about HUAC as theater,” he wrote. “I knew that I could not play on their stage, because they hold power in their gavel. I had to create my own theater to mindfuck HUAC and capture the nation’s attention.”
So he attended the hearing dressed in full costume from the Revolutionary War, just like the US pop band Paul Revere & the Raiders. “We went back to Berkeley,” he remembered, “where we were greeted by cheering mobs.”
It was a lesson not lost on Rubin or his associates. In the carnival of California 1966, Rubin’s theatrics blended in with the pioneering lights shows at dance halls such as the Fillmore and the Avalon, the face-painting and body decoration, the beads, the feather boas, the tie-dye shirts, the mind-expanding music, the chemicals that introduced their users to colours not found in the spectrum.
The ethos of free jazz, if not its musicianly discipline, was being introduced into rock, as performances extended to match the receding horizons of the acid trip. It was a time of fearless experimentation, when the effortlessly hip folk-rock band the Byrds could share a bill at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium with Dutchman, LeRoi Jones’ provocative drama about murderous racial confrontation, and nobody would find the juxtaposition absurd.
In the midst of this hedonism, there was little space for the cold realism of conventional political protest. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (alias Mobe) was formed in autumn 1966, with its energy focused on a long weekend of dissent in early November. But its initial demonstrations suffered the same depletion of numbers and enthusiasm that had sapped recent events by the Vietnam Day Committee.
To persuade young white kids to take to the streets, you needed an issue that hit them where they lived. On Sunset Strip in Hollywood, police continually harassed the middle-class youths who spilled onto the streets out of clubs such as the Whisky and Gazzari’s. When the cops abruptly closed down a meeting-place called Pandora’s Box in December 1966, hundreds of kids battled them on the Strip, launching several nights of sporadic but furious fighting.
In response, Buffalo Springfield leader Stephen Stills, a Southern-born blues freak with minuscule patience for prejudice or pettiness of any kind, penned the first rock protest anthem of the psychedelic era: “For What It’s Worth.” “I wanted to write something that had to do with the guys in the field in Vietnam,” Stills explained years later, “and how they had very little to do with the policy that put them in harm’s way in the first place. And then I ran into this ridiculous situation on Sunset Boulevard and the two things just came together, and I wrote the song in about 15 minutes.”
As an anthem, it was anything but revolutionary: the song’s protagonists carried signs saying “Hooray for our side,” while the “young people speaking their minds” were facing merely “resistance from behind.” But Stills did successfully conjure up an air of suspicion, a fear that people were being manipulated by mysterious forces beyond their understanding—a mood that translated the song into an all-purpose commentary on strange times.
At least one observer watched the Riot on Sunset Strip (as it was celebrated in a hastily shot movie) and imagined he was witnessing the beginnings of a revolution. John Wilcox, never far from the counter-cultural frontline as the publisher of the peripatetic newspaper Other Scenes, reported: “The opening shots were fired in California last month in a war that is going to engage America’s attention increasingly in the next few years. It is going to be a civil war that may or may not be bloodless, but that will certainly revolutionise the lives and habits of everybody in America and, eventually, the world. That’s assuming, of course, that the world doesn’t blow up first.”
What was this civil war—the struggle between communism and capitalism, or between black and white? Not according to Wilcox: “It’s the war between what Tim Leary calls the middle-aged whisky drinkers and the young people. And the young people, with plenty of time on their side, will inevitably win.”
Wilcox displayed a faith in the inherent radicalism of youth that would be severely tested by the end of the decade.