Friday, February 24, 2012
The '68 Renascence
The rock master narrative is full of myths. One of the myths is this: after the dominant rock songwriters and performers spent a year of deep and positive engagement with the counterculture in '67, in '68 they came back down earth and explored their musical roots again. The truth is much more complex- that many of the most authoritative responses to the counterculture in '67 were negative, and that what is seen as the '68 renascence actually constitutes not a disengagement but another means of exploration. All of the bands that have been previously dealt with (Beatles, Stones, Doors, Velvets, Kinks) released albums in '68. The only flat-out disappointment in the group, artistically, were the Doors. Waiting for the Sun, a hodge-podge of leftovers, studio compositions, and bubble-gum singles, was a retreat from the seriousness and cinematic moodiness of Strange Days that the Doors never completely recovered from. The Doors toured Europe for the first time in '68, but the tour was marred by Jim Morrison's problems with drugs and alcohol. Over on another side, Bob Dylan broke a two-year silence in '68 with the largely acoustic John Wesley Harding. Dylan's songs were loaded with allegories and Biblical imagery, but did not tackle any then-current issues head-on. Nor did any of the songs seem to imply a critique of the counterculture. The Band's Music from Big Pink was lauded into a position of influence by early rock critics that year- it's rustic, domestic charms occupy the position in the rock master narrative of showing rock, in '68, where it needed to go next. The songs' lyrical opacity dwelt on many of the themes Dylan's '68 lyrics dwelt on. But the way the music sounded, with all the members of the Band pitching in equally, made them an instant community-signifier, a musical metaphor for a political reality which many were trying to realize. Or so it was said.
Perhaps the biggest rock leap forward in '68 was the Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet. Of the key tracks, "Street Fighting Man" was the one which lingered on the theme of the counterculture and what could be done for it. In his best lyrics, Mick Jagger is a master of equivocation, and this response equivocates in such a way that it is clear that between '67 and '68 Jagger had changed his tacks. Beggar's Banquet-era Jagger sympathized not with the need for community (necessarily) but with the impetus to change things violently. The protagonist of the song is clearly Jagger himself, in his position as rock star, as he surveys the violent protests which happened that year in Paris and elsewhere. The verses describe the scenes of these demonstrations in sympathetic terms, backed with energetic hard rock music, but the chorus says everything Jagger needs to say- "But what can a poor boy do/ 'cept to sing for a rock and roll band/ cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for/ a street fighting man." Rather than pointing the finger, as in "2000 Light Years from Home," at the space-cadet hippies, Jagger spoofs himself and his own political impotence. What's key to remember is that Jagger doesn't seem to be merely critiquing violence in the name of politics- he actually tries to identify with it. And because his '68 response is more personal and more sympathetic than his '67 response, the renascence is to a sense of attempted, if thwarted, community with the European protestors of '68. This is even as the rest of Beggar's Banquet brings back the musical roots which had been lost on Satanic Majesties- the straightforward blues of "Prodigal Son," the mock-country of "Dear Doctor," even the gospel-tinged "Salt of the Earth." "Sympathy for the Devil," the other lyrical showpiece of the album, points a finger at religion as a source of societal ills- "as heads is tails/ just call me Lucifer," God and the Devil are the same thing (in Jagger's construct), and if the song is only tangentially related to the counterculture, it upped the Stones ante as iconoclastic figureheads.
Truth be told, what happened with the Beatles in '68 was even more interesting, simply because everyone in the Sixties was always waiting for what the Beatles would say or do next. John Lennon's "Revolution," released first as the B-side of "Hey Jude" and second on the Beatles double-album (The White Album), presents a response so ironic, detached, and (even) condescending to the counterculture that it makes Lennon's own countercultural activites in the Seventies seem suspect. Lennon's basic stance, in this lyric, is of someone listening to a revolutionary spell out to him the changes he or she plans to enact. Lennon rejects violence outright, but doesn't, as a lyricist, offer any alternatives, and ends on a platitude. It's an underwhelmed and underwhelming response, and deflates any sense that the Beatles were going to step up as a political force to be reckoned with. The Beatles, the eponymous '68 double-album, side-steps political themes and in a sense desperately gropes for some sense of cohesion. The diffuse nature of the four sides makes it so that the album is always cutting into its own momentum; it zig-zags, rather than builds energy. The music is not lavishly produced as Sgt. Pepper was, and many of the songs are simple and blunt. That having been said, it certainly can't be called a return to the Beatles' roots, and the sound collage "Revolution #9" takes the Beatles even further than "A Day in the Life" did into avant-garde territory. If there is a renascence here, it's to the idea of "unstaged" Beatles music, which Magical Mystery Tour had extended after Sgt. Pepper.
If the Kinks and the Velvets are less notable in terms of the "renascence myth," it's because their '68 releases worked as natural extensions of what they were doing in '67. White Light/ White Heat was a foray into the heart of the musical beast for Lou Reed et al, with the seventeen-minute epic "Sister Ray" swelling into realms of pure avant-noise and intense sludge where no rock band had gone before. It maintained the theme of sexual deviance from the first Velvets' album. Ray Davies, on The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, developed the idea behind "Waterloo Sunset" into an entire album- the songs explore memories, the past, aging, conservation of psycho-affective resources, and the like. Davies and Reed continued to write in such a way that what they were courting was a kind of timelessness. The '68 recordings of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and Velvets have aged well, and what they demonstrate is a development past the notion of countercultural engagement into a more inward, introspective space. "Street Fighting Man," especially, is definitive, because in it Jagger can be heard to sing for the rest- the idea is that musicians and artists can only have a limited amount of political efficacy. They play and they write- what else can they do? Looking at what has followed in rock from '68, rock musicians have yet to wield any significant political power in the West. It may or may not be a good thing, but it's a fact.