By any means necessary – Right on!

September 19, 2012

I never cease to be struck by the foam brought forth as the consumer/pop culture engine churns relentlessly,digesting everything and belching out its transformations.  Especially when it come up in the restricted area of my professional domain.

Wisdom of Charlie Manson-Karamazov

October 29, 2010

This  biography of Timothy Leary I’m reading is alternately tedious and fascinating.  Leary’s tolerance for vast quantities of industrial grade  LSD is astonishing.  (I mean that literally – he had access to shipments from Sandoz, Inc.) The book reads as an endless series of orgies, police entanglements, fugitive exits, psychedelic ecstasies that have no effect on anything but their subject, and bizarre pseudo-intellectual jibberish.  Leary’s narcissism, egotism, and total disregard for the welfare of those around him is monumental.  It’s amazing he wasn’t killed somewhere along the line.

As I skim about the narrative, I come upon this gem of a situation:  Leary is confined to solitary confinement in Folsom State Prison in California in 1973.  His next door neighbor is Charles Manson.  (How time passes.   Not everyone will know who he is…)  They communicate via the airshafts.  Their dialog, as recalled by Leary, pits them as equals and total opposites.  The good angel of LSD vs. the bad angel of Helter Skelter.  A passage reminded me vividly of the story of The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

Leary: Hey, did you send me The Bugler and food?  Thanks.

Manson:  I love everyone and try to share what I have.  I’ve been waiting to talk to you for years…Now we have plenty of time.  We were all your students, you know.  You had everyone looking up to you.  You could have led people anywhere you wanted … And you didn’t tell them what to do.  That’s what I could never figure out… Why didn’t you?  I ‘ve wanted to ask you that for years.

L:  That was the  point.  I didn’t want to impose my realities.  The idea is that everybody takes responsibility for his nervous system, creates his own reality.  Anything else is brainwashing.

M: That was your mistake.  No one wants responsibility.  Everyone wants to be told what to do, what to believe, what’s really true and really real.

L: And you’ve got the answers for them?

Charlie goes on to say that he has it all figured out, it’s in the Bible.  It’s all the fault of the women. 

Does it matter?  One line is just as good as another, right?

The Harvard Psychedelic Project

October 28, 2010

It was mushrooms, not LSD, but the name says it all.  I read about it in this biography of Timothy Leary.  He’s one of those figures at the edge of my historical memory – I missed all that, going to college in the late 1970’s.

No wonder we got into the Vietnam War.  Those guys at Harvard were nut cases!

Phil Ochs redux

April 10, 2010

In an earlier post, I mentioned how Phil Och’s ‘prophecy’ fell flat, but at a tribute concert to him tonight, I was struck by this lyric from the Power and the Glory:

But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try

Fear is their weapon, and treason is their cry…  I was thinking about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, featured in Gail Collins’ column today.  Those words certainly apply and could have been written about American politics today, but Phil Ochs is not here to sing about it.  He foresaw that too:

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Oh yeah, I guess we should change it to men and women, or people who hate…

It’s too late, Elaine!

February 12, 2010

The climactic scene in The Graduate, as everyone knows, is when Ben crashes the “arranged” wedding of his inamorata, Elaine, stands on the glassed-in balcony over the aisle watching them kiss before the minister, starts shaking the glass, and wails, “Elaaainnne!!”

The older generation goes berzerk, Elaine responds with “Bennn!”, and the two young people fight their way to the door of the church.  Elaine’s mother, Mrs. Robinson, grabs her and shouts, “It’s too late, Elaine!” to which she retorts, “Not for me, Mother!”  Ben flails about with a cross and locks the crowd in the sanctuary by ramming it into the door  and they make off in a yellow bus to the consternation of the other riders.

That short exchange between mother and daughter is what the movie is all about.  The dried up, lifeless, loveless, older generation tries to ruin the lives of their children, as theirs were ruined, but love is stronger, the vitality of youth breaks free, life has a chance.  The older generation sends the kids off to war in Vietnam, but the kids protest and fight back.  They want her to marry a cookie-cut medical student – she wants to marry Ben, who doesn’t know what he wants to do.

They sit in the back of the bus, giddy, a little sobered by what they’ve done.  They’re young and beautiful.  Ben is inwardly bubbling at the thought that he’s finally done something he really wants to do.  Elaine may be wondering what she’s getting herself into with this guy.  The problems of real adult life come later.  For now, the fairy tale carries the day.

If, then…

April 5, 2009

if_roof malcolm_mcdowell1

If… , a film by Lindsay Anderson that introduced Malcolm McDowell to the world in 1968.  The tale of a an oppressive English public, i.e., private school, and the violent rebellion it engenders, or does it?  One of those films I’ve heard about for years, and finally saw.  A film that is often referred to with terms like iconic of the 60’s.

In the lengthy notes with the Criterion DVD, Lindsay Anderson says that he didn’t intend this film to be like those other works of the 40’s and 50’s in which middle-class Englishmen reveal just how frightfully awful their childhood experiences  in school were (cf. George Orwell and Roald Dahl).   Well, that’s exactly how it appeared to me!  McDowell comments that Anderson was a celibate homosexual – he never came out – so perhaps he was repressing more than his erotic urges.

The film is rather long, and nearly all of it is about the brutality, indignity and stupidity of the school social life, in which new boys are “scums” to be ordered around as slaves by upper-classmen, and a few “whips” rule the student body like dictatorial dandies, using the cane and other punishments to keep everyone in line.  All of this is tacitly accepted by the school masters:   no doubt they were brought up the same way.  It’s all rather boring.

Still, I couldn’t get the film out of my head.  Mostly it’s McDowell, as Travis, who is weird, confused, but basically humane, keeping his sanity by hanging out with two like-minded friends.  He is the center of the film, with his adolescent glorification of violence and rebellion – pictures of Che and guerilla fighters are pinned up over his bed with the sexy girls – and his superficial praise of war.  But what do you expect?  He’s just a kid, trapped, by his parents and British society, in this idiotic, destructive system that explicitly glorifies, and trains boys for war.

The film is sometimes realist, sometimes comically satiric.  It shifts at random from color to black and white.  Dreamlike scenes are interspersed without explanation, e.g. the school mistress walking naked through the boys’ dormitory while they are away.

In the end, Travis and his confederates smoke everyone out of the chapel during an assembly and then open fire on them from a roof.  The military men in the crowd return fire.  The film ends with a close shot of McDowell gunning away.  Shown realistically, the sudden cutaway at the end leaves us concluding it was a dream.  “What I would do to these sods if…”

Many have commented on the “political” nature of the film, but I can’t see it.  Nobody in it rebels against the system in reality.  It’s a story about successful of indoctrination of youth.  After all, Anderson himself commented that there is a lot of “affection” for the school in it.

Five Easy Pieces…

November 28, 2008


…the title of this film from 1970, nowhere explained in the final version, but referring to a beginner’s piano exercise book.

This image is from the most famous scene, in which Jack N. wants some toast but the waitress tells him the rules don’t allow for side orders of toast.  He orders a chicken salad sandwich on toast, but hold the chicken…”between your knees.”  When she demurs, he sweeps the table settings crashing to the floor with a swipe of his arm.

Wikipedia remarks that this scene is “iconic” of the anti-authoritarianism and rule breaking of the 60s and early 70s, and I think that it was certainly taken that way by many.  Watching it now, and thinking about the end of the film in which Jack’s character, Robert Eroica Dupea, decides to continue his life of aimless wondering and running away from messes he makes, I have to think that the film’s take on 60s counter-culture was a little bitter.  Bobby breaks all the rules…into pieces, you might say…and he’s got nothing left at the end.

The woman on the right, with the long black hair, is another bummer from the 60s.  She’s fleeing to Alaska with her friend, and goes on ceaselessly about the filth, dirt, and general scumminess of mankind.  In Alaska, she thinks, it’s clean, because she’s “seen a picture of it.”  She is a twisted piece of work.

We, terrorists all!

October 8, 2008

This cover on the New Yorker magazine caused quite a (negative) stir recently.  Disgusting and reprehensible were words applied to it, I recall.  It seems, now, however, that it was pretty much on the mark.  Yes indeed, listen to Sarah Palin talk and watch McCain’s ads (“Obama, too dangerous for America!”) and this cover appears to have been strangely prescient.  “This is what we’ve come to,” it was saying, and it was right.

I guess I’m a terrorist too, or at least a sympathizer.  I occasionally attend cultural events in town at a foundation administered by a fellow who did time for some criminal political activity in the 60s.  Oh, yes, and my wife has crossed paths in the field of adult education with Cathy Wilkerson, the Weather Underground member who demolished her parents’ townhouse in Greenwich Village with a too-sensitive bomb. 

I think Obama was in grade school while this was going on.  Palin probably wasn’t born yet.

Guilt by association.  Palin & McCain, the Grand Inquisitors.

Mr. Churchill Says…The Kinks Say

April 23, 2005

For the last week, I’ve been listening to Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1970) by The Kinks. Listening over and over again because it’s such a good rock album, and I have always been fascinated by pop music that takes a look at history and society, although I don’t mind songs about wanting to hold hands either.

I was only 13 when this album came out – I didn’t get to know The Kinks’ music until the last two years, spurred on partly the interest of my young daughter in 60s music. I wasn’t a close follower of rock ‘n’ roll as a teen, but I knew the big hits by The Kinks – “Lola”, “You Got Me”, etc. “Mr. Churchill Says,” a song on Arthur, is now firmly lodged in my head and I can’t get enough of it. It begins with a slow, bluesey cadence:

Well Mr. Churchill says, Mr. Churchill says
We gotta fight the bloody battle to the very end
Mr. Beaverbrook says we gotta save our tin
And all the garden gates
And empty cans are gonna make us win

and goes on to quote Churchill himself, with a little additional text by Davies:

We shall defend our island
On the land and on the sea
We shall fight them on the beaches
On the hills and in the fields
We shall fight them in the streets
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few
‘Cos they have made our British Empire
A better place for me and you
And this was their finest hour

 An air raid siren goes off, and the song changes into a fast-paced rock number. After a long instrumental passage, they sing:

Did you hear that plane flying overhead
There’s a house an fire and there’s someone lying dead
We gotta clean up the streets
And get me back on my feet
Because we wanna be free!
Do your worst and we’ll do our best
We’re gonna win the way that Mr. Churchill says

 Is he mocking Churchill? Yes. Is he celebrating him? Yes. Is it gentle mockery or admiration he’s expressing about the slogans, the legendary ‘British pluck’ that got them through the blitz? Both, I think. The last song, “Arthur”, after making a little fun of him, concludes with the rollicking chorus

Arthur we read you and understand you
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Oh! we love you and want to help you…

 Several of the songs evoke the horror and dehumanization of war – are they “anti-war” songs? They are intensely personal. Is “Get Back in Line” (on a different album) an anti-Union song because of the lines,

‘Cause that union man’s got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat…?

It’s intensely personal, but doesn’t make an explicit political points. Davies is not a politico. His song “Some Mother’s Son” is about death in war, good war, bad war, indifferent war, period.

Davies was born in ’44 in working class London, too young for memories of the war, but no doubt surrounded by folks for whom the experience was as vivid as it could be. So British, so 60s in a way, breaking away from the past, welcoming the swinging present, but looking with a bit of (sceptical) nostalgia at the past. I don’t know of a comparable strain in American rock/pop music, but Ray Davies may just be extraordinary. Certainly, his muscial roots in British music hall culture (someday I’ll find out just what that was) are part of it, and he shares that with the Beatles.

The Blitz? Gravity’s Rainbow does a nice job of evoking the terror of life lived under the rain of the first rockets. Orwell, in 1984, draws on his experiences with the random destruction of streets, houses, and lives in that time. (I wonder if Orwell would have liked the song – he could be a real stick in the mud when he wasn’t being brilliant.) I’m not sure why it fascinates me so – I’ve always had a thing for the Spitfire airplanes. The fact that the Brits had radar, and nobody else did, so that they had advance warning of the Luftwaffe raids, which, together with the skill of the RAF and the prowess of the Spitfires, wrought terrible losses on Hitler’s planes. Of course, it was nothing compared to the siege of Lenningrad…which makes me think about September 11th …

Some people say 9/11 changed everything – I just don’t get it. It was a terrorist attack…but maybe I’ll post more on that later.