A look at when rockers and political renegades fueled each other as
they shared the '60s stage.
By Zachary Lazar
October 19, 2008
There's a Riot Going On
Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the '60s
Canongate: 598 pp., $27.50
WHAT DO we do in 2008 with Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Stokely
Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? As cultural icons, they
remain fascinatingly vivid, 40 years after their heyday. And yet as
models of political action, they offer less than nothing -- less,
because their weaknesses for hyperbole and self-aggrandizement still
dog what cannot even be called the "Left" anymore, so far has our
culture moved to the right. Witness the recent attempts to connect
Barack Obama to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers. It
seems the radical left lives on mostly now as a demon for conservatives.
Peter Doggett's encyclopedic "There's a Riot Going On" -- the title
references the 1971 album by Sly & the Family Stone -- highlights the
relationship between such 1960s radicals and 1960s rock 'n' roll. The
picture that emerges is of two groups mirroring each other: radicals
mimicking the charismatic star quality of musicians; musicians
reflecting back the energy, rage, conviction and sarcasm of the
In the years of Vietnam, race riots and assassinations, this
mirror-play had a powerful context. But why do these images remain so
powerful now? They are still sexy, funny, utopian, poetic, militant,
nihilistic, violent, apocalyptic. We've been told there's a void at
the center of this exploding star, but we can see that it's a beautiful star.
As early as 1964, Bob Dylan foresaw this supernova and began
rebelling against the rebellion. Out were the protest songs, and in
were the dark, surrealist masterpieces that begged interpretation
even as they defied it. "Something is happening here, and you don't
know what it is," Dylan asserted in 1965 to a craven "Mr. Jones," who
might have been straight America, or, just as plausibly, the earnest,
folk-music lefties Dylan had turned his back on.
In one of Doggett's most fascinating vignettes, Newton, leader of the
Black Panthers, seizes on that Dylan song, "Ballad of a Thin Man," as
a political credo (much as Charles Manson would later fixate on the
Beatles' "White Album"). If anything, "Ballad of a Thin Man" is an
exploration of nothingness, a pulling back of veil after painted
veil. But Newton believed it was something different, a statement of
Black Power. His cohort Bobby Seale was skeptical: "I could hear the
melody to this record," he recalled. "I could hear the sound and the
beat to it, but I didn't really hear the words." Newton played the
record again and again, explaining and explaining.
As would happen later, when he was tried as one of the Chicago Eight,
Seale turned out to be right. He understood that the song was more
than words -- it was not just meaning, it was sound.
Doggett covers the waterfront in "There's a Riot Going On." He traces
the whole history of 1965-1972: People's Park, the Chicago riots, the
Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont, the Manson murders, Kent State.
But like any good rock writer, he's at his best when he keys into the
visceral, as in this description of the Black Panthers' first public
appearances in early 1967: "Most importantly, in terms of their
national impact, they imposed a strict uniform code: an impossibly
hip combination of black beret, worn at a cocky angle, blue shirt,
black leather jacket, black trousers and black shoes. With that
single gesture, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense guaranteed
its immortality as a symbol of rebellion."
For all their excesses and absurdities, the Panthers come across as a
cut above the other radical groups of the 1960s. They were not too
grandiose to work for some prosaic but practical good -- providing
school breakfasts to poor children, for example -- and they were the
bona fide victims of a paranoid and lethal law-enforcement culture.
The murder of one of their leaders, Fred Hampton, is a case in point.
But Hampton, who might have been a signpost for this book -- a major
figure on which to build an argument -- is quickly lost in Doggett's
global chronicle. The confusion of the period is muddled by the
book's own confusion about what it wants to say.
Before long, we find ourselves spending more than equal time with the
tedious and woodenly self-righteous Weather Underground, who, despite
their rock-star looks, sneered at rock 'n' rollers, canceling a rock
show at their National War Council of December 1969 in favor of a
recital from the Weather Songbook, every bit as hymnal as it sounds.
To the tune of "Maria" from "West Side Story": "I've just met a
Marxist Leninist named Kim Il Sung, and suddenly his line seems so
correct and so fine . . . Kim Il Sung, say it soft and there's rice
fields flowing, say it loud and there's people's war growing."
There may be humor there -- I hope there is. But the Weathermen were
also great fans of Charles Manson and the fork his follower Patricia
Krenwinkel left in the stomach of Leno LaBianca.
"There's a Riot Going On" is a rock 'n' roll book that wants to
address themes of politics and history, but unfortunately, its thesis
is vague and its encyclopedic approach often exhausting. The rock
stars of the 1960s -- who were never politicians, much less
revolutionaries -- are now more clearly than ever great artists, to
be discussed in the same way "serious" people talk about jazz
musicians such as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.
At its best, Doggett's book is a further step in that direction. It
may also be a step toward drawing a distinction between the fanatic
and the visionary, the image and the substance.
In one of the most compelling passages here, Doggett details a 1967
speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Let us save our national
honor -- stop the bombing. Let us save American lives and Vietnamese
lives -- stop the bombing. Let us take a single instantaneous step to
the peace table -- stop the bombing. Let our voices ring out across
the land to say that we are not vainglorious conquerors -- stop the bombing.'"
Would that we had a voice like that always.
Zachary Lazar's most recent novel is "Sway."