(Double) Daily Dose: The Byrds & Green Day

The 8th grade class with which I graduated in 1998 was given a choice for soundtracking its graduation ceremony: stay within tradition or go rogue. For 30+ years my Southern California middle school played “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds as their 8th-graders symbolically left the nest for high school hallways and beyond.  After extolling the virtues of taking our place within the rank and file of students that had come before us and were to follow, senior faculty members added an aside that we could, if we chose to break with tradition, select a contemporary song by which to remember that year of change. We were then allowed to vote.

Understanding what it meant to the faculty, some of whom were alumni of that very school, our class overwhelmingly voted for “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day and instantly incurred the disappointed wrath of our home room history teacher. For what it’s worth, we didn’t mean to disappoint; we were just too young to want what others wanted for us just because they wanted it. Generation X, Y, Me to the core.

Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies

Jack Kerouac was a staunch conservative, religiously and politically; this is not the memory on which we prefer to dwell. I was hesitant to post this clip of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” because Kerouac is clearly drunk, but I believe it speaks to the issue of cultural memory. Kerouac, and the Beat movement he helped to craft, is often lumped into the prevailing narrative of the 1960s: idealistic youths taking back control of their country through alternative lifestyle choices in politics, music, drugs, sensuality, literature, etc. Although Kerouac and his Beat contemporaries emphasized the importance of fundamental freedoms and brought the of right of choosing a freer road to the forefront of popular discourse, Kerouac himself was a devout (if forever lapsing) Catholic. Much of his work focused on understanding his roots and what had compelled him to stray so far from them, an intensely narcissistic journey that was concomitantly fueled by a desire to intimately understand the American landscape at large and his canuck lineage.

As the video clip makes clear, even during the 1960s Kerouac seems to be referenced as some sort of cultural authority on the counterculture despite the fact that he obviously detests Ed Sanders, the token politically engaged hippie. Ed Sanders himself is interesting here if you note his reaction to Kerouac’s offer to lick strawberry preserves off him: the homophobia-tinged reply that he is married, as if that was necessary to state for the record. This shows the pitfall of collective memory. How can a left wing protester be macho? Also of interest to me is Kerouac’s opinion on the conflict in Vietnam, which he hung on a Vietnamese desire to import jeeps. Jeeps. For what is more American than a jeep and who wouldn’t want to start a war solely to receive mass importations of classically American goods. And then there’s Ginsberg, off camera, the ever loyal defender of Kerouac’s public persona who is partially responsible for the mislabeled Kerouac myth; again, this highlights another issue with collective memory: the myth of Kerouac was forged not by himself, the fumbly off-color Ti Jean, but by the creators of myths whom he called friends.

So how does this relate to collective cultural memory? I believe people who are acculturated to the present form of liberals make the mistake of categorizing whole movements according to individual examples of leftist ideologies. Assumptions fill in gaps with which memory is riddled. We base assumptions on what we deduce from tangibles, things we can examine in our grasp. Add a tendency to romanticize the past, the crutch of nostos algos, and what is created is a generalized account of a post World War II counterculture that lumps two parties who had vastly different motivations into the same cultural movement and, unfortunately for Kerouac, onto the same stage under the guise of William F. Buckley, Jr. Anti-war protesters came in many washes and sizes replete with their own discriminating natures, as did the Beats.

It is irresponsible to forget that crucial factor, and with that we’ll close with Kerouac’s parting words: Beware False Prophets.

The Black Angels Source

Every time I listen to The Black Angels I immediately think of that scene in Apocalypse Now where Willard stares at the ceiling fan and we instantly know it’s a metaphor for helicopter blades, because it always is when talking about Nam. I blame my Undergrad thesis for this.

I was majoring in History, emphasis in 20th-century American, when the new millenium began. While I don’t regret choosing this major, I eventually took issue with the way history is traditionally studied, which is restrictive as opposed to the way students within the Humanities analyze the cause and effect of the world as it’s been given. Hindsight is 20/20. Which brings me back to my thesis and it’s failure.

Well, not failure: I swung a B+, but until that point I had only ever aced papers. You see, I couldn’t restrain myself to mere historical interpretation; I had to explore the Vietnam War in relation to the cultural. This, I believe, is the only responsible way to weigh the scope of history. Studying the historical narrative using only dates and broadly defined movements is insufficient if you cannot view it through a cultural lens. For example, Jackson Pollock’s seemingly incoherent No. 5 or William S. Burroughs’ brazen Naked Lunch speak with more immediacy of a postwar generation attempting to redefine its worldview than consumer trending or presidential elections.  This is not to say the cultural is raised above the historical in importance, they are symbiotic; one cannot exist without the other.

With this in mind, my thesis attempted to explain the impact of the Vietnam War through an analysis of music made both during the conflict and in the years that followed as a way of explaining the lasting effects it had on not just one American generation but on MANY generations to come, generations that had no direct link to the event except to its fallout. Naturally, The Black Angels album Passover was the lynchpin of my argument. I even played the song Young Men Dead during my thesis presentation, which served two purposes: it illustrated my hypothesis in a stimulating way, and shortened the amount of time I had to speak in front of the class. I hate public speaking; I sweat and say inappropriate things when I’m nervous, and public speaking makes me very, very nervous. Although this paper was good, my arguments sound, it did not stay within the confines of traditional historiography: it was a Humanities paper. My professor did not consider Passover a source document, and I did; this is a valid difference of opinion.

If you read this blog regularly (fat chance) you’ll see that I continue to understand American history in the context of music because these are the two great loves of my life. Plus, it makes sense. History is the study of interacting civilizations, which, by definition, are groups of people who have attained a heightened level of cultural and technological development, and feel the need to document their accomplishments through the written word and the maintenance of records. Think of the Romans or Greece, think of the Japanese, think of England. To be civilized is to exude the characteristics of a state of civilization, mainly taste, refinement or restraint–all three of which are vital to the artistic process. Art is created when we fragile beings internalize our surroundings, digest their significance, and give them meaning by reformatting our conclusions in a physical way, manifesting as a movie, a song, a dress, a novel, a photograph, a sculpture, an oil painting, and so on. Since history is an amalgamation of decisions made by people, it’s logical to study it from personal perspectives.

Art, by its very nature, is more emotive than battle plans or congressional hearings. Art exists because we synthesize our surroundings and our surroundings synthesize us; it grabs us, it wants us, it needs us. We emotionally invest in the things to which we can relate, and we relate to things we think pertain to us because vanity is a very real thing. Pertinence happens when something is multilayered and offers the simplistic along with the profound; this is the key to engaging people in the study of history. Using a song by a contemporary band like The Black Angels, who you can see at The Fillmore tonight (5/17/2013), was a way to unconsciously draw my audience into the connectivity of history. Some may have walked away from my presentation liking the music, and may have downloaded it later that night. Hopefully I had planted a seed that perhaps, for a few, precipitated an investigation into the legacy of the music–how it related to the present because it was rooted to the past. It was a devious way of immersing them in the ongoing historical narrative.

Passover could have been released in 1969 just as easily as it was in 2006, the War in Iraq draws certain comparisons with the War in Vietnam, and what does that say about the continuity of history and the relevance of art? Go to The Fillmore tonight and find out for yourselves.

For more commentary on this topic, read these older posts: The Black Angels, Young Men Dead and Not So Tame Impala.

Not So Tame Impala

Admittedly, I’m late to the Tame Impala party.

Sometimes it takes a few listens to truly appreciate a band; this describes my relationship with Tame Impala. I first saw them at Outside Lands last year, and I blame festival fatigue for the delayed attraction. My Fella, however, was instantly entranced as was the rest of San Francisco, apparently, for their November 15th show at The Fillmore sold out clean. As for their current tour, the May 29th show at the Fox Theater in Oakland is also unavailable to we ticket purchase procrastinators. In fact, you’ll have to scroll three stops down the tour and travel to Tennessee in order to see them live.

Since our journey through the outside lands within Golden Gate Park last summer, Tame Impala has become the unofficial fifth member of our household and I was forced to love them. And I do, I really do. The aforementioned Fella sat me down for a listen to the song “Elephant” some months back, taking great pains to point out the ingenious word-play at 2:50 to 2:55 in the song. Yes, this is what we do in our free time. It’s driving rhythm evokes an early time when you could be chemically enhanced in public and no one would pay you mind. Come to think of it, that time is still alive and well in San Francisco.

Which brings me to the synchronicity of their show at The Fillmore, an essential landmark in the psychogeography of 1960s San Francisco. During this epic decade, anyone who was anyone in Haight Ashbury saw shows at Bill Graham’s nascent venue. Going to a rock concert at the Fillmore then was similar but different to what we experience now. Musicians played with their backs to the audience because they were not the visual component of the show. This makes sense since most of them weren’t much to look at (David Crosby anyone?) unless they had a lead singer like Janis Joplin, the spasmodic scene-stealer, or Jim Morrison, who always offered a potential pop of his manhood through those famous leather pants. Instead, concertgoers feasted their eyes on a psychedelic liquid light show produced by the Brotherhood of Light, which was formed by Brian Eppes, Brother Ed Langdon, Marcus Maximist and Bob Pullum in 1968.

These light shows attempted to visualize the music to further stimulate the crowd (not that many of them needed further stimulation). Using overhead projectors, a combination of color wheels, liquid dyes on slides, clips from 16mm movies and flashing still images, they created a phantasmagorical or horrific (depending on what drugs you took), constantly changing, “multi-sensory musical experience” behind the band. No two light shows were the same, just as no song is performed live the same way twice. During their tenure at the Fillmore, the Brotherhood of Light enhanced performances by legendary acts such as Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Doors, among others.

Although this type of display is common in its digital form today, the first versions were innovative artistry that helped to define an entire genre of music. Watching the official video for Tame Impala’s “Elephant,” it’s easy to see how they fit into and extend this legacy with this “perfect song,” as it was dubbed by stoned You Tube commentarians. The Brotherhood of Light may no longer be a fixture at The Fillmore, but you do still receive the traditional free poster at the door when you leave the venue after the show. And in Tame Impala, whose lead singer performs shoeless, you get a fresh flick in the face of that sweet paint of the past.