It’s always interesting to see a history of a time and place in which one was at least a passive participant examined through academic perspective years later, especially by someone without any temporal connection. Sometimes the effort succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. Michael Kramer’s study of the sixties counterculture in SF and among members of the US military in Vietnam is such an exercise. For the most part Kramer’s book, titled Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture, does what the author intended it to do. Kramer centers his discussion on the genesis and growth of the hippie counterculture in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1960s and the adaptation of that culture’s music and stylings by US military members and other Americans in Vietnam during the same period.
LSD, marijuana and other drugs obviously played an important role in both parts of the world. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that the phenomenon known as the hippies would not have occurred except for the presence and liberal use of marijuana and LSD. The music created by bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane (two of the groups most associated with the San Francisco hippie culture) comes from the mental and emotional perceptions created by the psychedelic experience. The fact that LSD was legal until October 6, 1966 and that it was easily available to virtually anyone interested before and after that date played a role in the composition of the music and its reception by an LSD and marijuana fueled audience. Furthermore, the use of LSD during performances by many of the individuals involved created a new dynamic in terms of performer-audience relationship.
It is this new dynamic that Kramer emphasizes in his discussion of citizenship. By breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, the notion of passive participation by the audience was challenged and even destroyed. The series of performances organized by author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters known as the Acid Tests insisted that those attending who weren’t onstage also participate. Some wore costumes, some juggled, and some just acted weird. Almost everyone took part in a manner that involved more than buying a ticket and sitting in a seat. Furthermore, the band was often as high as the audience, thereby occasionally rendering their performance as uneven as the LSD experience itself can be. Participation wasn’t just encouraged, it was expected, and it was to be undertaken on one’s own terms. This is what citizenship meant in the counterculture.
It is Kramer’s contention that when this concept of participation moved into the greater public the commonly held ideas of citizenship were challenged and even threatened. The passivity of the previous generation and its willingness to accept and support authority was undone by the counterculture’s challenge and opposition to business as usual. Even previous methods of protest were undone. To illustrate the latter, Kramer describes and discusses the appearance of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters at a Berkeley rally against the US war in Vietnam. This incident, made famous in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric KoolAid Acid Test, involved the Pranksters driving up in their bus, singing some songs and then Kesey telling the crowd to turn their backs on the war and conventional protest. Naturally, this advice upset a number of conventional leftists. Kramer contends (and I think he is absolutely correct) that Kesey was actually saying that the only way the war was going to end was if and when everyone refused to take part in any aspect of its production. In Kesey’s mind, conventional protest was merely playing the game that allowed imperial war to go on.
In Vietnam, US soldiers understood Kesey’s advice all too well. Dropping out of the war and the system that required war to maintain itself was more than a political statement. It could be a matter of life and death. The adaptation of the counterculture ethos to the military conditions in Vietnam provided many GIs with a means to not only ignore the war, but also to participate in some way in a culture identified with the opposition to that war. Although GI opposition did occasionally involve refusing to fight and even attacking the command structure, the more common approach was to pretend to participate. Oftentimes, men would go out on missions only to sit them out in the jungle smoking weed and listening to rock music.
Cultural revolutions have their shortcomings, especially under capitalism. The primary shortcoming is capitalism’s ability to turn elements of an opposition culture into just another way to make profit. Rebellion itself becomes a commodity that by being bought and sold loses its very essence. When it came to the counterculture, the first folks to recognize this were members of the culture itself. Next were concert promoters and record companies. Given the anti-profit and communal underpinnings of the counterculture, there was bound to be conflict between those who wished to maintain the communal ethos and those who wished to make a profit. As so often happens in capitalism, the profitmakers won and, in doing so, established a template for future subcultures to be coopted and commodified. This turn of events was not without its benefits, however. By capitalizing on the counterculture, the corporate world of entertainment also spread the message far and wide. Indeed, this process was what brought Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead to GIs in Vietnam and wannabe freaks and hippies in America’s heartland, not to mention Vietnamese civilians and others around the world. It is cultural imperialism, but it can also be an element of human freedom.
There is no easy answer to the contradictions present in the aforementioned machinations of capitalism. Its distribution networks dominate the planet and without them the Sixties counterculture (and every subculture based on musical style since then) would most likely have remained a localized phenomenon. Michael Kramer’s text is an exploration of those contradictions and an engaging depiction of the Sixties counterculture’s place in that exploration.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.