Studying history, I’m constantly amazed how the hubris of humankind brings our species to its knees time and time again. Even if it also makes sense when you think about how often we as individuals muck things up. But people pick themselves out of the dust and drag it, our species, forward: after war, after famine, after depressions recessions and other races we do not win.
I’m not sure sure about this round, though. Ukraine. One/Six Committee. Supreme Court. Inflation. Homelessness. Inevitably, someone in my circle will reference the Fall of Rome in discussions of current events like these. Historians always gotta History and this is our version of someone yelling “Mooooo” in a crowd exiting a concert.
But maybe this is how it felt in 1942 when the world was at war and everything was rationed and nothing made sense. I used to think it was some sort of inherent ability to hope for better that allowed folks to keep calm and carry on, an internal compass that believed things had to improve. But now I think it might just be resignation and an ability to adapt. Today is worse than yesterday but I’m still alive and standing firm on my plot of metaphorical land. And I guess that’s the American way, to defend your property against all odds.
50 years ago, The Doors were touring in support of the eponymous album that cemented their position amongst rock royalty. The band’s charismatic frontman, Jim Morrison, was undeniably talented and salaciously unpredictable with sex appeal that translated well beyond his early demise. I was so enthralled with him as a pubescent teen that I hung a gigantic charcoal portrait of the lizard king above my bed. He seemed so serpentine and cool, an erratic artist singularly dedicated to the chaos of craft. Oh, how that attraction foreshadowed so many of my adult choices.
As we, residents of the future, well know that chaos drove him to an early grave yet Jim Morrison is still one of the most recognizable musicians in the world. The Doors made great music that epitomized their era–an era that people love to remember–and Morrison made for quite the photogenic sixties poster child. But the truth is that History remembers zealots best, not necessarily the best in any chose field, because zealots have a higher tendency to burn brightest just before they burn out and everyone remembers an explosion.
The cool thing about being a student and chronicler of History is getting to re-examine things you’ve always loved under a new lens. Over the last six months, I’ve been curating and creating digital content for the California History Society’s commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. CHS just rolled out a special website last month in partnership with San Francisco Travel, and this is by far and away the most relevant, trippy, mind-blowing historical commemorative in which I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate. One series of articles I’ve been working on is titled “Who Saw the Summer of Love,” and it seeks to dispel the misunderstanding that San Francisco was inundated by a cohesive hoard of hippies; in fact, there were many different groups with their own, sometimes competing and often paralleling, agendas. There were political activists, psychedelic artists, rock and rollers, Hells Angels outlaws, environmentalists, communally conscious merchants and anarchists, and more.
In researching a forthcoming article on the Beat poets that formed a bridge between 1950s bohemianism and 1960s counterculture, I learned something about Jim Morrison that I never saw coming. Jim Morrison learned how to be cool from celebrated Beat poet Michael McClure. McClure was probably a large reason why The Doors attended the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967–the event that set the tone for 1967, and directly led to the Summer of Love. He also encouraged Morrison’s poetry, and even got it published. And if the picture above doesn’t prove to you that Morrison absorbed McClure’s cool, then the photograph below should do it. This shows McClure standing next to Bob Dylan, with Beat messiah Allen Ginsberg to Dylan’s left, outside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach. Bob Dylan rightfully worshipped the Beats as the elder statesmen of cool, and he emulated their phonetic cadences in song and their style of dress. He’s also the one who staged this photo shoot, hoping to use it as an album cover. While Ginsberg followed Dylan around like a puppy–a puppy hoping to get laid–McClure kept his cool and that dynamic can totally be read in this legendary snapshot.
In November of last year I had the honor of hearing McClure read from a new volume of his poetry, Mephistos and Other Poems, at City Lights Books. He’s in his 80s now and age is most definitely taking its toll. He walked with a cane and the help of his people, and I’m not so sure it registered when I told him he is one of the greatest influences on my life–that he is the reason this San Francisco historian traveled north to become a San Franciscan. However, he was 100% McClure when reading his own poems: cool, calm, effortlessly suave and sensual as only a poet can be. Gives a girl hope for the future of her mind. And as I looked around the audience that night, I caught the eye of a handsome young fellow wearing a shearling-lined denim jacket and an old fisherman’s cap who stood above a sea of graying spectacles.
Gives a girl hope for the future of her generation.
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.
Monday Sat., January 13 Weather marked as Clear, and annotated Windy.
Mommie & me went downtown today. I got my whole outfit. I got a tangerine Dress, a topper, a purse, shoes, hat, a sweater set, & a blouse. Man what a day. I also slept over Jeanies. Jean’s feet were extremely cold tonight. Burr.
We are consumed by a treasure hunt of unparalleled proportions on an island that has no name. This is the search for meaning, the journey towards a definition. This is life. The little things, the tragic things.
The sticker on the corner of a medicine cabinet mirror, left there by the daughter of a previous occupant and now a part of your morning narrative. The glasses worn by a woman of Italian heritage, removed from the bridge of her nose by death and sold for a pittance from her garage, now worn proudly by a young man more than half her age to that indie show headlined by that band (you know, the one with the lithe bearded gent at the helm) in a small basement around the corner from a former firehouse. The piano, a wedding present to that bride who secretly despised her groom, now spreading the gospel of tolerance and devotion to hundreds of bodies placed piously in their pews.
These are lives overlapping. The past marking the present as it gets passed by for the future. Nothing without meaning, even if the words have not been said and understood. Every anomaly not really out of place, but merely misunderstood. Layers are interwoven atop foundations poured by people framed in frozen photographs hidden in a drawer. Or maybe, if they’re lucky, gathering dust near the edge of a nightstand. Still remembered, still present.
This is history. Not an archaic subject caked in dust and mummified by dates to be memorized, unanalyzed. History is the story of people chasing dreams, or of dreams chasing people; of stickers, glasses, and pianos; of ephemera, sights and sounds.
History is meaningful. History is you and me, and all the other things I see. History Is.