Friday, October 3, 2008
There's a Riot Going On
Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the '60s
By Peter Doggett
Canongate; 598 pages; $27.50
If the authentic take on the '60s really is being unable to remember
it, does that also mean being doomed to repeat it?
Willingness to ponder a mind-numbing paradox of competing cliches is
not required for the enjoyment of Peter Doggett's new book, "There's
a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall
of the '60s." But it is recommended.
As to whether a repetition of the era's many upheavals would
constitute being doomed, surely that depends on each reader's disposition.
To those who would go in grumbling "Not another '60s history," 600
dense pages might not seem like a persuasive answer. No one would
deny there's much to say, and anyone has a right to wonder whether
it's been said already.
Doggett is undaunted. And his prose is brisk and lively. That, plus
having done the research and taken good notes, still isn't exactly a
narrative strategy, though, so the book becomes a survey lecture by default.
What's more, the occasion for this exhaustive volume is conspicuously
commercial: It's been an even four decades since the banner year of
1968, when all that the '60s signified came to a boil. Handy, then,
that conspicuous commercialism should figure so prominently in
Doggett's analysis of the period's cultural legacy.
He writes in his foreword about political activists retrospectively
co-opted as nostalgic properties, "blunted and neutered, stripped of
their humanity and power." Presumably he intends his book as a
corrective to this tendency. Sometimes, unfortunately, it seems like
an enabler thereof.
For better and worse, Doggett apparently is a writer who came to
scholarship through music appreciation. Better in that his real
subject, not immediately clear from the book's title and subtitle but
very sharply addressed, is what the music meant to that political
moment, and vice versa. Worse in that the revolutionary eruptions to
which he devotes the most of his attention - violent insurrections in
American city streets, pacifists lighting themselves on fire outside
the Pentagon and the United Nations, groupies making plaster casts of
rock stars' penises, what have you - always are, foremost, the ones
with the killer soundtracks.
True, that's most of them, but still the nagging suspicion remains
that even for its commendable breadth of scope, "There's a Riot Going
On" has elided some essentials.
Or at least reflected a single, fixed perspective. Bob Dylan and John
Lennon, famously chimerical though they may be, come into clearer
view than, say, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther leader
Huey Newton. (Doggett does provide enough details about each man's
fate to remind revolution nostalgists not to become overly warm and
fuzzy about their memories.)
To be fair, there are reasons more people know of Lennon and Dylan
than Hoffman and Newton. Doggett has a great knack for knowing how
songs magnetize emotions - and subject themselves, therefore, to all
manner of political interpretation.
That's where the commercialism comes in again. "The lesson of
revolutionary rock," Doggett writes, "is that the music, and its
idealistic ideology, was compromised and sold in the very instant
that it was made."
Actually, it's in the rock talk that Doggett's writing shows its
teeth: "In an era when Bono, the hand-in-glove darling of the global
political establishment, and Bruce Springsteen, the personification
of cozy liberalism, are revered as rock's most potent protest icons,
it's timely to be reminded of an era when artists were prepared to
court unpopularity (and worse) for their ideals."
"There's a Riot Going On" is at its most profound (and, perhaps, its
most depressing) when tracking the changes between those two eras. It
has a message of sorts, which might strike some readers as grimly
moralizing: Tempting though it is to imagine otherwise, popular music
is not the place to go for political and social responsibility.
Maybe it's a little easier to hear from David Crosby, who so
succinctly observed, "Somehow Sgt. Pepper did not stop the Vietnam
War." Or from Mick Jagger: "Basically, rock and roll isn't protest,
and never was." Maybe it's what Dylan in his cranky way had been
telling us all along. How's that for prophecy?
Doggett's book shares its title with a 1971 album by Sly and the
Family Stone, which to the author's eyes and ears did a better job of
aborting revolution than provoking it. "From its Stars-and-Stripes
cover design to its entirely silent title track," he writes, "the
album reeked of exhaustion and boredom - with America, with the
revolution, with activism, with optimism, with the hope of redemption."
Clearly it needn't take 40 years to become cynical about the '60s. If
Doggett is right that the era's anthemic siren songs "bewitched and
then betrayed a generation," that its push for progress was in fact
"a golden age of democracy" but also, ultimately a dream from which
we had to wake, it's fair to wonder: Where are we now?
Jonathan Kiefer is a writer in San Francisco. E-mail him at