“Who’s Paul McCartney?” my CNM student asked. At long last if war, assassinations, Nixon, patchouli, Chicago police riot, paisley, Altamont and bellbottoms hadn’t signaled The End the Internet had succeeded in signaling the demise of the Sixties by democratizing information but sacrificing small things like wisdom, critical discrimination and the historical.
As a babyboomer myself I can’t say I’m sorry. I’m a traitor to my generation. At what point did we become our parents, waxing about the good old days of the British Invasion as they did about Sinatra or Glenn Miller? Besides, you can hear the whole emotional arc of that time in the music of the Beatles or John Coltrane—beauty, ugliness, ebullience, cosmic love, violence, rough sex (isn’t that what “Helter Skelter” is really about?), ambivalence, terror, nothingness, exhaustion and dread. Why would anyone want to repeat that again? As Greil Marcus said, nostalgia is death.
Because of the boomers’ dominance, the influence of that decade saturates our culture. But our subversion of norms and roles, the blurring of boundaries, hedonistic indulgence, and the dopey inclination toward stoner inarticulateness is everywhere too. You see it in the dissing of parents and teachers, the tedious comedies of dysfunction, declining rates of literacy, an indifference even contempt for learning, substance abuse and addiction, teenage pregnancy, the demonizing of liberalism and, since 1968, the conservative shift to the center.
Maybe it’s about time my boomer generation own up to some moral responsibility for their excesses—William Blake was wrong that “the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; it only leads to more excess or memoirs of rehabilitation— and the blowback from the silent majority, the Christian right, the teabaggers. It isn’t exactly heartening to think that our two boomer presidents were Bill Clinton who “didn’t inhale” and parsed the word “is,” and George W. Bush, whose manifold crimes included disliking the “Sergeant Peppers” album. In addition, there are generational gulfs as deep and wide as in the Sixties, with many Gen X/Y/Zers expressing hostility and ridicule for tie-dyed hippies. And why not? They’ve had that goddamned cultural history shoved down their collective throats with things like the recent celebration of Woodstock, the Summer of Love, all of which I find nauseating too. Recently, I watched the PBS special on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and came to think of that Cleveland institution as a sort of pop reliquary that contained the musty remains of the unsainted the way Eva Peron’s corpse was dragged around Argentina for public adoration. Some of the inductees’ performances confirmed that impression.
A few weeks ago around 2 in the morning my friend Romy drove three bibulous fellows home from a party in Williamsburg onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway on a rain-slick night. The trip felt like a combination of a Hart Crane poem and Scorcese’s “Mean Streets.” Like me, Steve was flopping at Kevin’s crib, momentarily unhoused and scuffling for writing gigs, his return to the old Tallahassee homestead imminent. Evan, an artist, said he lived in a corner of East Village “hell.” They were cracking jokes about names for crack cocaine like “Poison” and “Toilet” that were being sold on Avenue C back in the bad old Eighties.
Romy popped in a CD of “Valleys of Neptune,” an unreleased studio album by Jimi Hendrix that had just come out. Steve and I kidded that it was actually Lenny Kravitz or Robin Trower supplying the guitar parts, that the producers had digitally overlaid Hendrix’s vocals, and added other enhanced CG sonic effects. But in truth the problem was that the CD sounded exactly like Jimi Hendrix, which is to say, I heard nothing surprising or new (had they unearthed actual sessions with Hendrix and Miles Davis that would’ve been something). Let’s dispense with the hype. When the Clash sang “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” Joe Strummer was pointing to a Brian Epstein-engineered image that even John Lennon conceded was false, because The Beatles after all were “the
biggest bastards in the world.” I for one don’t want to contribute to what Susan Sontag said was a sentimental mythologizing of that decade that was highly ideological.
Besides, I was personally miserable lots of the time. From 1964-1968 I attended the all-boys Brooklyn Technical High School, one of five special schools that required an entrance exam for admittance, the cream of the NYC public crop. All-male institutions are problematic, bringing out the most barbarous and uncivil impulses in human nature. Consider 5,000 teenage boys in the Brooklyn wilderness, yet, whose testosterone is going wild and you’ve got anarchy on your hands.
However, I was a quiet, studious member of the Tech swim team—and wearing a sports team jacket always had cache—so I passed my adolescent days hitting the books, shooting hoops or being submerged. Since like so many teen boys, I had incurable habits of late-night radio and masturbation, my days in Industrial Processes and shop class were often dazed. After my backstroke or medley relay events at a meet I’d go into the locker room bathroom and throw up. The night before the East Coast regionals everybody broke out bottles of whiskey and scotch from their gym bags and a couple of WASP Robert Redford lookalikes from a Boston prep school brought over a baggie of weed. My friend Carlton, a black breaststroker, and I decided to withdraw from the festivities, watching “Destry Rides Again” on TV in our motel room instead, while a diver walked around naked in the freezing air and our co-captain splashed into a stream. Our team finished last in all events.
My memories are long ago and far away: On a slate-gray winter afternoon, lying on our living room couch reading Lord of the Flies, a parable about evil, while listening to “Rubber Soul,” Harlem tenements stretching to the horizon. Paul rolls me a joint that I smoked by the iron grillwork of the window in the summer evening, feeling not appreciably changed. The Daily News reports that Otis Redding had died in a plane crash. I miss Hendrix at the Electric Circus in the East Village because I decide to go home early. I get ill on the subway reading Daniel Lang’s Casualties of War
about the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by four American soldiers; perhaps that and the My Lai massacre shouldn’t be forgotten.
I’d wait for the train at the West 116th Street station in the morning. Paul said I looked stoned anyway.