The Culture

Thinking About the Sixties

Something's hap­pening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. Is the '60s revival a thaw in the Big Chill, or just more evidence of fashion giving people the illusion of freedom?

by

THINKING ABOUT THE SIXTIES: A SPECIAL SECTION
March 8, 1988

The ’60s was was a decade without nostalgia, and thus a decade without irony. It’s only natural, then, that the current wave of nostalgia for the ’60s is suffused with irony — for we are looking back to a time when we most looked toward the future. The writers in this special section on the ’60s disagree about what kind of future that generation foresaw, yet all write on the assumption that rather than reduce our past to artifact we regard it as inspiration.

Richard Goldstein, in his odyssey of sensibility [below], asks if it’s possible to reclaim ecstasy. Michael Thelwell, in recalling the traumas of the movement for black empowerment, explores the divergence between hope and naïvete. Jack Newfield’s memoir of Robert Kennedy portrays a man who knew loss yet never lost vision. In Paul Cowan’s ’60s quiz, what was so vivid then seems faded now — but see if you’re part of the problem or part of the solution. Dalton Narine, a black veteran responding to the “new wave” of Vietnam movies, argues that much of the truth is still to be filmed. And in a special VLS section, several writers examine the spate of books about the ’60s — have we come far enough, in Tom Carson’s words, to be anything but “temporarily definitive”?

Far from a comprehensive survey, then, an embalming of the decade in the casket of history, this section assumes that many chapters of the story remain to be written. The women’s move­ment and gay liberation, for example, are ongoing struggles with their own unique histories; rock and underground films and Off-Broadway and other explosions have their continuing fallout; these subjects and more will be covered in future issues.

For now, though, to paraphrase John Lennon, a section with kaleidoscope eyes.

— The Editors

Son of the Return of the Repressed: Back to the ’60s

IN THE PROSPEROUS PRECINCTS of America, where the decades move like merchandise, there’s a ’60s revival going on. The Monkees are back, Dobie Gillis is back, the Smothers Brothers are back. Janis ‘n’ Jimi are in heavy rotation on MTV. Peace signs have replaced spiked hair as the accessory of choice in student union wear. Along the Broadway corridor, hotdogging stockbro­kers are limboing toward Big Kahuna. At Chubb’s Pub off the Garden State Park­way, Tuesday is Grateful Dead night. Ev­ery movie at the mall seems set at the moment when we first discovered the connection between sex, struggle, and stereo. And there are so many political memoirs about the ’60s I can’t keep track of what Mark Rudd has to say about Tom Hayden’s view of Todd Gitlin’s neo­-Schachtmanite tendency.

Is this a thaw in the Big Chill, or just more evidence of fashion giving people the illusion of freedom? Something’s hap­pening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

Last week, I slogged over to the Saint to witness the return of the repressed. I hadn’t heard those sacred words, “in-a-­gadda-da-vida, baby,” in years, and the revived Iron Butterfly did not disappoint. As they thunked through the reverb rep­ertoire, I watched the crowd: young, ear­nest, not entirely certain whether to hold up two pacific fingers or the full power fist. Joints were ritualistically passed, and the acolytes began to sway in languid ’60s sweeps. Incense was piped in; a light­show pulsed along the ceiling and walls. I felt like I’d been lured into an electric pagoda. It was a little depressing to think that acid-rock has evolved from lysergical to liturgical music. And that this rite was being held in an upstairs antechamber of the ’70s disco deluxe — as if to say, well, if we can’t have butt-fucking in the balcony anymore, let’s bring back the Summer of Love.

Of course, the Saint sits on the site of the Fillmore East, much in the manner of a cathedral in a conquered Aztec Zocolo. Back in the dreamtime, when I was this paper’s rock critic, I used to go there three times a week to sit through five-­hour sets that left my eardrums in extre­mis. But it wasn’t the music I flashed on. It was that night in 1968 when the Fill­more East was liberated by Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, an East Village storm-troupe collective. This was a bene­fit to cover legal costs of the Columbia student strike, which had been crushed that spring. And the audience — well, as I wrote back then: “There were speed freak saints doing a jig of liberation in the balcony, and West Side liberalatti crouching in the pews below. There were Black Panthers stalking Village high­risers in the aisles, their every step an indelible mince of cool. There were earth mothers holding moon children in their arms. And there was the pride of the math commune, lavaliered with slogans, lips pursed, brow furrowed, his entire face transformed into a pink fist. Why was he here? He shoved a beret over his eyes. ‘I am to perform tonight,’ he drawled. ‘This is my theater. Outside. In­side. Tonight, I am the star.’ ”

That about sums up what scares us about the ’60s: chaos, zealotry, narcissistic excess. But when I dissect the memo­ry of that night, I discover something far more logical and humane. I see radical mobility — of classes, races, genders. This was a time when the WASP hegemony began to erode, or rather, implode. A Catholic could be president, Jews (even Ostjuden) could be great American writ­ers, blacks could win the Nobel prize, women were entitled to orgasm. In every sense, father did not know best. Sure, sexism was pervasive. (We stood in awe of rock stars who careened around in limos with writhing young girls afixed to the hood.) So was racism. We were far more tethered to the old order than we thought: Jews wrote masterpieces while WASPs went to the moon, blacks fought a war against Asians declared by whites, women got laid but not promoted, Catho­lics held power by being discrete. But there was an opening.

For me, the ’60s meant a way up from the projects and into the bohemia my parents only read about, and a way into the shiksa soul of America through its ecstatic underbelly, rock ‘n’ roll. I was as crude as the music then, fresh from scrawling “Yossarian lives” on the side­walks of the Bronx, and suddenly I was a rock critic. (“What’s that?” the editor asked, when I first proposed my column.) Inventing a persona was the essential ’60s possibility. Nobody knew where the life of the mind began and ended, or who had the pedigree to call themselves intellectu­als. Just to wear the costume of the ’60s — it’s requisite tie-dye, beads, and jeans — represented a rejection of class and caste. If you couldn’t tell gender or breeding from attire, accent, attitude; if everybody looked and talked and moved in the same, entirely fabricated, pastiche; then we could all just be “kids.” (That word had political connotations by the decade’s end.)

Most of the movers in the new kinetic order were products of the state universi­ty system that had flourished in the post­war prosperity. They were brigands of the baby boom, who could easily imagine Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower/while calypso singers laugh at them/and fishermen hold flow­ers.” All culture was booty to the first generation raised on Keats and Captain Video. All hierarchy — from the military to the proscenium — was suspect. Art was, in John Lennon’s phrase, “anything you can get away with,” and so were sex and politics. There was a perception that we were reconstructing society in every artwork and orgasm and political act. The enshrinement of the id, the recovery of primitive mystery, the expansion of consciousness (as opposed to technics) — ­all that worship of irrationality stemmed from a single perception that identity is not destiny. The magic of the ’60s was precisely its mobility.

This must seem unfathomable in retro­spect, because the world today (and the imagination within it) is a very different place. The prosperity that generated ’60s style now is rigidly confined. It’s poverty that’s expanded in the ’80s, and even the middle class must compete for a smaller and more processed piece of the pie. That means less play, less risk-taking, kids with little economic clout — in short, no more generation gap. Last January, Port Arthur, Texas, unveiled a statue of Janis Joplin; despite her ill repute, the chamber of commerce is trying to parlay her mem­ory into a tourist attraction. Port Arthur badly needs it. The main street Janis felt so fiercely aliented from is now a boarded-up strip, and the unemployment rate in town is four times what it was when she split for San Francisco.

Face it: Most of what’s changed since the ’60s has gotten worse. Race relations couldn’t be more copacetic in prime time, but out in the streets, blacks and whites face each other across an even grimmer perceptual divide — with less hope of heal­ing the primal American rift. Men and women seem more anxious now, and not just about power and identity. When it comes to sex, the words of my favorite ’60s anthem must be reversed: “Hope I get old before I die.” As the New Sobriety advances, ecstasy is equated with addic­tion. We inhabit an even flatter libidinal landscape than Marcuse described. No wonder the rhetoric of rock is so tight and hostile now. Beastie Boys and Mate­rial Girls clash by night, while the Dead can only wail, “We will get by.”

I’m glad the Grateful Dead are still alive and moving product. But if I were 16 now, I don’t think I’d be among the Dead Heads. Working-class kids today don’t think tie-dye. This is distinctly upper-crust attire, a mark of the antiprep. The ’60s were a creation of red-brick reb­els, but the ’60s revival is being perpetrat­ed by (and for) a much more privileged, less prophetic, minority. The countercul­ture has become a coterie, whose mem­bers don’t trust anyone under 30 thou.

As far as I can tell, there are two dis­tinct reissues of the ’60s on display. One, aimed at the working class, focuses obses­sively on 1968 — dubbed by the media the Incredible Year. To liven up the February sweeps, News4 recently treated its (large­ly) blue-collar audience to night after night of rioting, in that blue tint of pre-minicam TV news. Nineteen sixty-eight, we’re told, was nothing but “social and political misery.” But in the last bite, violence and chaos give way to the se­rene, utterly optimistic image of a space­ship circling the moon, while Wally Schirra reads from Genesis. This is what the ’60s are supposed to mean to working people, if they know what’s good for them: the Republic very nearly hit the skids, saved only by technics, order, and respect for the Almighty.

Meanwhile at the cineplex, where the dream of upward mobility is still alive, the ’60s seem to be entirely about self. discovery. In Dirty Dancing, the world is ripe with the promise of orgasm, and orgasm is flush with the promise of change. What makes this different from other teen sagas, what gives it a “’60s” edge, is this confluence of sexual awaken­ing and social justice — as if all oppression could be summed up in one girl’s struggle to break free of her dad. In Five Corners, the connection between sex and society is more pessimistically drawn; the vortex of violence ultimately overtakes a young man who sees the civil rights movement as a vehicle to end aggression. He’s left sobbing over the body of his adversary, a psychotic rapist, and the film reminds us of that Essential ’80s Lesson: shit hap­pens.

These films are white fantasies about a time when we really could believe that racism, sexism, class struggle, imperial­ism — all were just gigantic consequences of uncool fathers keeping us from getting down. (There are no soul versions of this fantasy; the black ’60s revival is all about political agitation.) Hollywood seems bent on constructing a myth of innocence about the ’60s, which explains why these films never get beyond the summer of 1964, and why they’re scored to lush pre­-Beatles ballads, rather than to psychedel­ic jams. We can’t get all mushy about the Summer of Love because we still feel threatened by the break with normalcy 1967 represents. It’s a shameful interlude for those who wonder how they could ever have looked and lived like that, and it’s still unfinished business for those who wonder why they can’t go home again. No wonder we’re compelled to revisit the New Frontier, as if, by putting forth this image of puberty as Camelot, we could reassert the enthusiasm we’ve lost. But take the ’60s out of ’60s-style and you’ve got another device to generate what Mar­cuse once called “happy consciousness,” a thin veneer of pleasure covering depths of pain.

Lurking just beneath the myth lies an­other image of the ’60s. This was the child we bore, rocked, had high hopes for, and adored, until it died a slow and pain­ful death. What were we like when the child was alive? How did we feel when we realized it would not survive? I can barely ask these questions without becoming overwhelmed by helplessness and rage. I have never forgiven the ’60s for dying on me, and never forgotten what it might have become.

1963

I HEARD ODETTA, I read James Bal­dwin, I saw The Defiant Ones. I knew what had to be done. Racism was an­other word for hate, and hate could be reborn as love if people were only free to shake it up behind the big guitars; if the Man didn’t tell us what to think and feel.

That was the year I went to church with Bea; not the clapboard Baptist cot­tage I’d envisioned, but a bare room in some converted movie house. I sat stiffly while she swayed beside me, swooped up and twirled down the aisle, bending her body in ways I’d never seen. I looked up at the Black Jesus, and felt he must be my Jesus, the only Christ who hadn’t killed Jews. The minister pointed to the two of us and said we were the power of love, the future of love. In a small room in the shadow of a Bronx catalpa tree, her skin was velvet and her mouth envel­oped mine.

We tried to integrate my parents’ “beach club” that summer. It was a small, barren spit of land with some handball courts and a swimming pool, but to me, it represented everything hypocritical about the world. We were supposed to report their refusal to admit her, and at first, they did refuse. But Bea stamped her foot and yelled, “You let me in” — so they did. We walked together past the stunned faces of people reading Exodus, and when she dove into the swimming pool, every­one else got out. My parents, who were summoned to the scene, later remarked: “Richard, this is worse than the ham­sters,” referring to the last animal I had tried to smuggle into my room.

I went to Washington that summer and heard Martin Luther King. I remember flags flying from every porch in black neighborhoods, people cheering our cara­van of buses, and the shuttered silence in white areas as we drove by. We picketed White Castles across the Bronx, because they wouldn’t hire black people. Some greaser carrying a confederate flag waved a beebee gun at me and fired. Every hair on my body stood up. Another demon­strator clutched his face and fell.

That year, I spent my spare time in the Village, making the rounds of hootenan­nies. Guys as skinny as a lamppost, dressed entirely in mud-green corduroy, strummed banjos as if they were weaving on a loom. Girls with seaweed hair and sandals that seemed fossilized accompa­nied them on the autoharp. We all waited, for Bob Dylan, the kid from some town that had never heard of electricity. He’d bounce on his heels, peer over his har­monica, and sing “Ah got a bird that whistles, ah got a bi-ird that sings.” Then he’d get political, and there was one song, about mountains getting washed to the sea, that sent a chill across my body.

One Sunday, the whole family drove up to Pelham Manor to see the small brick houses where, we thought, the rich people lived. “Isn’t that beautiful,” my mother remarked, as we passed some neat, coiffed lawn. The old Dodge sputtered in reply. My father got out to check the hood. It was June. Saltmarsh and rose­buds in the air. Birds you never heard in the projects. The car radio was on. It was Peter, Paul and Mary singing a suburban version of the lyric that had thrilled me so. I’d never expected to hear it on the radio, where the closest thing to politics was “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Suddenly, kids everywhere were listening to this song, and I had a sense of what that might mean. I reared back and howled. My parents looked up, mystified. No ex­planation was given. The answer was blowing in the wind.

1967

MY EX-ROOMATE CRAIG, heir to a photo processing fortune, said no to that game and moved to San Francisco. He was wearing a caftan and a Jew-fro when he greeted me. Hundreds of similarly ap­pointed kids were hanging out on Haight Street, snuggling puppies (“God spelled backwards!”) and waiting for the Diggers to appear. The Diggers were a kind of hip Red Cross, mau-mauing local merchants into donating day-old vegetables and bread and then giving it out in the parks. This was after the heat closed down the Free Frame of Reference, a Digger crash-pad, and just before “the death of mon­ey,” which George Metesky proclaimed. All the Diggers were named George Me­tesky, after the mad bomber, because, as someone explained to me, “We’re a gen­eration of schizophrenic mutants.”

Not me. I was no mutant, postscarcity anarchist, or mad bomber — just a hip re­porter scrounging for a story. And all of California was, for me, a groaning smor­gasbord. Kids were rioting on the Sunset Strip. (“Out here, you feel like a spade in Mississippi,” Stephen Stills told me. I winced, and wrote it down.) Meanwhile in San Francisco, where things were nominally cooler, they were painting their faces and dropping a drug so new it hadn’t even been criminalized. I wouldn’t go near the stuff. That was for those who could afford the trip; not for working press like me.

I’d gotten married in a disco, to a wom­an in a paper sari, but I wasn’t ready for the Summer of Love. I moved through the eucalyptus groves in my New York rockcrit drag-blue velvet cape over an embroidered Ukranian shirt, with white satin moire bell bottoms and silver go-go boots-feeling like an alien. In my heart, I knew I was still part of the meat-eating moloch. I longed to break. on through to the other side, but every time I tried, all I could see was the ghost of my parents’ poverty.

Some speedfreak with a corner office offered to turn me on to a “typical San Francisco band.” We drove in his Cor­vette to a house far from the Haight, where people were milling around in vari­ous states of undress. A woman sat in the corner, trying to suckle a baby at her bare breast. Her name was Janis Joplin. She was no scion of the semi-detached, but the kind of girl I might have met in college: desperate, talented, uncool. I asked a requisite question: What is hip? Someone lit up, and the smile on her face said, it’s okay, do it. So I did, and soon the floor was hugging warm. I glanced down at my notes as though they had become hieroglypics (which, it later turned out, they had). When it was time to split, and everyone had boarded a pais­ley hearse, I muttered something like, “We shouldn’t be interviewed. We should be friends.”

Two months later, she appeared at Monterey, and I realized what Janis Jop­lin was destined to become. All the dead were there, though we didn’t know it at the time: Otis Redding, who sniffed, “So this is the love crowd”; Brian Jones in head-to-toe velveteen; and Jimi Hendrix, his guitar literally in flames. That was when Ravi Shankar got a standing ova­tion for warming up, and when I first swallowed a tab (“Nothing’s happening … oh, hello wall”). After the music was over and the flower fuzz whisked us away, I picked up a hitchhiker holding a sign, “will rap,” and drove him home to Sali­nas. At his parents’ tickytack, he offered an imitation-Panther handshake and pointed to a sign in the road — Caution! Speed zone. He snickered, “I wonder if they know?”

1968

THAT WAS WHEN the politics of privilege died. I remember its pass­ing in surreal detail. Two white­-robed Muslims pull up to a light, I ask if I can share their car radio, and we listen together to the aftermath of Martin’s murder. I complain to my shrink about having this fantasy that someone is out to cut my balls off, after watching Bobby’s murder on TV. I’m is­sued a press helmet after Don McNeill, our reporter on the flower-power beat, gets his head cracked open by some cop at a demo. We run his picture on page one, blood dripping down his tender bea­gle face.

That was the year I jumped out of a window at Columbia to avoid the police, who had smashed down the doors of Fur­nald Hall and were clubbing students all around me. I learned something about the aesthetics of adrenalin then: it changes time. Everything was happening in slow motion. The screams were coming from far away. I opened the window and fell two floors, picked myself up from the pavement, took the IRT to the office, and filed my story. It was only later, when I saw it all on TV — 628 arrested, maybe 90 students hospitalized, three faculty mem­bers hurt — that I felt any pain.

This was the ultimate ’60s trip: immu­nity. “My press card kept me safe,” I told Don. He said something Beatlesque about trust. It was our karmic shtick to argue about the revolution; Don believed it would be a trust revolution. We’d both been assigned to cover the Chicago con­vention — yin and yangstein. But Don had taken to crashing in the office, he didn’t look well, and two weeks before the nomi­nation of Pigasus in Lincoln Park, he dropped some acid, walked into a lake, and drowned. My first dead child.

So I went to Chicago alone. I stood with a thousand heroic guerillas — yip­pies, lefties, tourists, Panthers, Angels, ministers concerned, great writers on as­signment (Esquire had brought in Jean Genet, who couldn’t keep his eyes off the hefty local heat) — all of us grouped around a 12-foot cross, facing a glimmer­ing line of police. Then floodlights mounted on flatbed trucks began to move, and in the orange glare, tear gas guns exploded — putt-pututt. The minis­ters dipped their cross. The gas hit like a wall of pepper. I ran into the streets, where I knew there would be rocks to throw and something to feel besides fear.

In front of the Hilton, where Hubert Humphrey had a suite, TV lights turned the night fluorescent. As the cameras rolled, cops began to shove us up against the wall. A plate glass window shattered, and people fell into the hotel pharmacy. Now the cops were clubbing in wide cir­cles. I saw their fists move in slow mo­tion. I looked up at a kid whose arms were twisted behind him in the crush, and I saw Picasso’s Guernica in his eyes. I ripped away the remnants of my press card, and wrapped a T-shirt around my face. I had found the other side of fear, which is not heroism but rage. My eyes burned with it, and my hands shook with it. Behind me, a cop fired, and I went into a dream. I was back in 1963; that kid with a bee-bee gun was now the Man. All my body hair stood up. And I vanished. Out of sight. I came to a block away, shriek­ing, “Pigs eat shit.”

I WAS LEFT WITH NOTHING. No pow­er, no money, no heroes. I had to rebuild everything from the ground up: my politics, my career, my sexual identity. The New Order meant being on your own, and that meant I was just as vulnerable to poverty as my parents had been. It was time to confront the task they had set for me, back before all this insurrectionary mishigaas. So I cut my hair and clawed my way into the middle class. Writing about rock was painful; marching to save the whales seemed indulgent. I taught journalism, read a lot (especially about the hidden injuries of class), and retreated to the little corner of the revolution that was profitable enough to have survived — the greening of the young professionals.

Now, here I am in the Winter of Love. The policeman is my friend. Nobody tests my piss. I don’t have to wear a tie to work. Sure, I’m creeping up on the age when kids scare me, and as for radicals, I’d probably be scared of them too, but I don’t have to deal with any. Prime time is my acid. Hip-hop is my riot in the streets. The culture has been good to me, feeding me all this artifactual splendor to soften the shadow between the dream and the reality.

Dredging up the ’60s makes me feel like one of the inmates in Marat/Sade, acting out explosive events that happened a generation ago for the edification of a resurgent aristocracy. The old debate between revolutionary ardor and individual will, between collective and personal vio­lence — between Marat and Sade — is be­ing trotted out before us, with all the players safely behind bars. If they misbe­have or depart from the script, guards appear with truncheons and order is re­stored. “If our performance causes aggra­vation/We hope you’ll swallow down your indignation,” pleads an inmate in revolu­tionary drag. “Please remember that we show/Only those things that happened long ago/Things were very different then/Today, we’re all God-fearing men.”

But nostalgia is never merely a masque. There’s a reason the ’60s revival is happening now, and why it didn’t hap­pen in 1983 (20th anniversary of the JFK assassination and the March on Washington). At the end of Reagan’s tether, as the economy falters and the yuppie shiv­ers in his power tie, we sense an opening again — but to what? Our fascination with ’60s artifacts means that we are searching for an answer. When we ask what the ’60s were like, we’re also wondering what America was like the last time the left had any clout.

Activists who’ve wandered in the wilderness for nearly a generation sense a moment to address unfinished business — ­the armies of the homeless, the expand­ing culture of poverty, the persistence of racism. But every time they try to clean up the ’60s, and repackage them as the ’80s with a human face, Abbie Hoffman pops up yipping at their heels. Which is precisely what happened at a reminis­cence of the counterculture sponsored by the Museum of Broadcasting last month. No sooner had Todd Gitlin availed him­self of the finely honed opinion that “the ’60s was a failed reformation, and what we’re living through is a failed counterref­ormation,” when Abbie intruded, loose as an old shoe.

“We were young, we were arrogant, we were irreverent, we were foolish,” he groused. “But we were right.” We were also defeated. The closest we came to seizing power was in the Brook­lyn Academy of Music and the groves of academe. A fair number of vanguard fig­ures have achieved tenure; among them, Gitlin, a founder of SDS. Given this pow­er base, it’s no wonder that the radical rationalism of the New Left is emerging on campus as a fit alternative to the current dark night of the liberal soul. But that image of the ’60s is as innocent as Dirty Dancing — and as incomplete. Any student who’s heard “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and seen Woodstock, the video, knows that the ’60s were more than just a campaign to empower the oppressed; they were also an eruption of ecstasy. Those “years of hope,” as Gitlin dubs the decade in his mordant revision­ist history, were also years of desire.

Which is why, though Gitlin is often right, Abbie has all the good lines. He understands the politics of desire. While Gitlin consoled us at the Museum of Broadcasting debate with a prediction that “the choices people made in those years are going to be made again,” Hoff­man stirred the pot: “I tell the kids if they’re not gonna have sex and drugs, then the rock ‘n’ roll better be awfully good.”

The idea that politics ought to recon­cile reason with rapture has been roiling around the Left since Emma Goldman. In the ’60s, it became my generation’s cry of “bread and roses.” That was when we rediscovered the social dimension of de­sire. Ecstasy was to the counterculture what the Pentecost is to fundamentalists today: an injunction to activism. This wasn’t just some crazy kid running around the Capitol in an American flag shirt, or lit-up literati excorcising the Pentagon. Desire drove us to create com­munities of consciousness, and from that base, we built movements that survived. The assertion that the counterculture left no institutions handily ignores the wom­en’s movement (and its offspring, the gay movement) which proceeded from the ’60s perception that the personal is politi­cal. Given the resistance to this idea, it’s not unreasonable to regard the attempt by liberals to reconstruct the ’60s without its politics of desire as a move to get its progeny to shut up.

The irony is that, by sacrificing joy for justice, liberals have ceded ecstasy to the right, which has put it to truly damnable use. In fleeing from the ’60s, the Demo­crats are writing off its potential to integrate our past with our future, and to inspire the young. When I ask teenagers what they associate with those “years of hope,” it’s not just the agitation they recall: It’s fucking without fear, saying no to the career you were slotted for, living cheap. There are no slogans for all that today, because it seems impossible: Sex is fraught with consequences; a job is a liv­ing before it’s an identity; poverty is nev­er voluntary. We live in fear of proclaim­ing a new politics of desire — and yet, the slightest thaw in the cold hard ground brings us out with our shovels, exhuming the ’60s.

We may be praying for absolution, straining for profit, living out the quiet desperation that Thoreau considered our collective fate — but there’s another, equally American, possibility. Norman Mailer saw it hovering over John F. Ken­nedy’s shoulder. “This candidate, for all his record, his good, sound, conventional, liberal record, has a patina of that other life, … the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz,” Mailer wrote in 1960. “… And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure, and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unex­pected, had a force which could not be tamed no matter how the nation’s regula­tors … would brick in modern life with hygeine upon sanity, and middle-brow homily over platitude; the myth would not die.”

The ’60s were when that dream life entered politics. It wasn’t always pretty or politically correct. It didn’t make much sense. And it has left us to ponder a painful paradox: The ecstasy that de­stroyed us also created everything we are. ■

 

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