Richard Goldstein Returns from Chicago ’68 a Changed Man


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September 26, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 50

by Richard Goldstein

I came back from Chicago swimming in revolution — or at least in my expectations of it. Radicalized, I rounded the media in search of rhetoric. I wore my face phlegmatic, like Chairman Mao. I got cozy with the spades on my block (when they weren’t throwing spitballs at my head). At Columbia, I sniffed the fall air for insurrection, and learned to invoke the proper names, and flash the right salute.

Ho, ho, ho chi minh. Whoever you say, is gonna win.

I watched the rallies at the sundial and the speeches under Alma Mater, her thighs clenched under those bronze skirts, in case of further violation. I went to the SDS seminars, and plotted symbolic sabotage over beer at the West End bar. I put my freak’s shoulder to the wheel, and came up secure in my perception of the struggle.

That certainty is the great solace of radicalization. Alone and uncommitted, this is the most terrifying year anyone my age has ever had to endure. We still haven’t come to terms with the public extinction of our heroes, or the elevation of our bureaucrats into guardians of the golden fleece. To stand against the numbing tide of recent events requires firm roots. And we are all laying down those roots right now, by molding ourselves into a smug middle, an enraged right, or a determined left. It’s a good time to bury your head in dogma, to gird your feet in slogan and symbol, to lose yourself in the folds of that great beast slinking toward November to be born.

This polarization is bound to have an immense effect on pop culture, since that scene is an immediate expression of emotional climate. Already the stylistic “rules” of pop are solidifying, and the innovative frenzy of the mid (mod) ’60s has become a predictable, rather sedate elaboration of existing forms. The most moving recent albums (the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and the Band’s “Sounds from Big Pink”) are brilliant evocations of traditional forms. But this season has produced no comparable work which expresses a shattering personal vision. Our Beatles, with their ears pressed tightly to the trans-Atlantic ground, have given us a lush, effusive ballad to suckle on. I like “Hey Jude” for its hypnotic calm, and the message of “Revolution” doesn’t turn me off as much as its uninspired hard-rock shell does. But both songs are the most explicit reflections yet of this spirit of psychic constraint. It is as though the entire rock establishment were pulling back to reassess its relevance — always the primary criterion for a pop artist. What must eventually suffer in this tightening of reins is that precious spontaneity which characterized the pop explosion. The decadence of art-rock is not its content, but its inability of form. That’s why the Doors have begun to creak and the Cream to curdle, that’s why Arthur Brown — with his studied theatricality — sounds like Ethel Merman on a culture trip.

As America congeals into opposing masses, and the freedom to move among ideas becomes subservient to the necessity of commitment, pop culture will function as a clenched fist. Already, the liaison between the underground and the middlebrow (which produced the most widely felt pop renaissance since the ’20s) is beginning to fall apart. These forgotten people, who are going to elect the next President, will soon dominate mass-culture as well. The underground will respond to this seizure by retreating into the protective isolation which it cultivated during the ’50s. If your choice in heroes this year is limited to George Wallace and Mark Rudd (who are both authoritarian bastards, when you think about it), our choice in art may soon amount to American Gothic or the Guernica — with no room for any vision in between.

When that happens, this column will probably cease to appear, not out of any ideological protest on my part, but because pop will no longer excite me. The simple truth is that great art is born of the interaction between a great artist and his audience. When one exists without the other, culture becomes so much spinach. It tastes terrible, but you eat it anyway, it’s supposed to be good for you.

How long since a rock song blew your mind?

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