Showing posts with label The 1960s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The 1960s. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The so-called "Generation Gap" of the 1960s distinguished the new from the old not so much by ideological difference as by patterns of symbolic consumption, a polarization of taste by means of music, fashion, goods and services. What Thorstein Veblen identified at the end of the nineteenth century as "conspicuous consumption" had by the 1960s long permeated every aspect of American life, mass consumption playing an essential social and economic role in every dimension of the culture. It so happened there was a widespread presumption in the Sixties and Seventies that hippies wore patchouli oil to hide the smell of marijuana, based on the stereotype that all hippies smoked dope. It's true that hippies marked themselves as socially different through dramatic bodily display, but difference didn't consist only of the manipulation of hairstyle and clothing. Perfumes and aromatic oils are also forms of fashion, which is to say a means of symbolic consumption. Patchouli oil signified rebellion against social norms and class tastes: you couldn't buy it at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. It was alien and strange at least so far as most Americans were concerned, Eastern as opposed to European in origin, and was derived from a plant as opposed to an animal. Its use identified one as bohemian in taste and temperament (and artistic hobbies), in contrast, say, to Old Spice cologne, which at the time identified one as hopelessly middle-class in taste (or perhaps tastelessness) and class adherence. The disposition of the body did play a symbolic role in denoting ideological adherence, of course, through notions of masculinity and femininity (with hippies coded as "feminine," patriots as "masculine") and also through metaphors of filth and cleanliness. In October 1969, for instance, General Earle Wheeler, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to Vietnam War protesters as "vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason," the implication being that one could determine ideological adherence through the chemical senses: if they smell funny, don't trust 'em. Perhaps it's well to remember Kant's observation that smell is "taste at a distance" and is the means by which filth induces nausea, which "is even more intimate than through the absorptive vessels of mouth or gullet."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pill Box

Below I present the full text of a statement given to a student reporter who is working on an article on the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and the issue of birth control. As a result of having trouble arranging a time to meet, I prepared this statement and emailed it to her. Comments are, of course, welcome:

The so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s is a misconception, largely because whenever anyone refers to the so-called “Sixties,” they are almost always referring to the end of the Sixties, the period 1967-1970, a consequence of the extensive media coverage of the first “Human Be-In” at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in January 1967, which introduced hippie culture to genteel, middle-class America. The hippies were what was then called “sexually liberated,” but actually were a very small percentage of the American population, which I assure you did not participate in the presumed “sexual revolution” of the Sixties. In general, American culture remained as Puritanical as it always had been. The Sixties “sexual revolution” was, in reality, a consequence of the widespread introduction of the antibiotic penicillin after 1945, the result of which removed all fear of venereal disease. In effect, you could have sex with whomever you wanted because there was no reason any longer to fear sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. If you look at the statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control on live birth rates among American women, births among unmarried women compromised 4% of live births in the United States in 1950, up from 3% in 1930. In 1969, at the presumed “height” of the 1960s, that number had climbed to 10%, an increase of only 6% in 20 years (but more than double the increase 1930-1950). One may assume that if there had been a real "sexual revolution," the resulting libertine atmosphere would have prompted a sizable increase in births to unmarried women, which is not borne out by the facts. I suppose one could argue that the birth rate among unwed mothers did not increase as drastically as it could have because of the introduction of the first oral birth control contraceptive in 1960—“the Pill.” But this claim is false. The Pill had virtually no impact on live birth rates among unmarried women during the decade of the 1960s for the simple reason that the Pill was not made (legally) available to unmarried women in all fifty states until 1972. In contrast, preliminary data indicate that in 2008, 40.6% of all live births were to unmarried women. Thus, despite the existence of both contraceptives and of legalized abortion, in the 40 years 1970-2010, births to unmarried women have increased by over 30%, or roughly 15% every twenty years, more than double the 6% rise during the period 1950-1970. If you wish to speak of a sexual revolution, you really need to date it from 1945, as a trend that began after World War II and the introduction of antibiotics such as penicillin.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Down Inside the Gold Mine

For almost forty years, Jim Morrison—memorably christened by Lester Bangs as “Bozo Dionysus” in an article published in 1981—has remained a seductive, if dangerous, teen icon. In order to understand the way Morrison’s artistic reputation has been cultivated and maintained over the years, one need only to acknowledge the role of the mass media. The first step cementing Jim Morrison’s immortality occurred about a decade after his death, at age 27, with Jerry Hopkins’ and Daniel Sugarman’s 1980 biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which also served to rekindle interest in the Doors’ music. At about the same time, Francis Ford Coppola used the Doors’ “The End” on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (1979), which, combined with the subsequent biography, implied that the Doors, the debacle of Vietnam, and the 1960s were all inextricably linked, in some dark, self-indulgent, and death-worshiping way. The fact is, certain rock stars associated with the so-called Sixties “counterculture,” such as Jimi Hendrix, were not at all opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether Jim Morrison was opposed to the Vietnam War, or cared a jot whether it was happening or not, is a question I cannot answer. I’ve read the biography, and I conclude that he was most interested in his career (although that might have been as a poet and not as a rock god).

A decade later, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), while if not precisely about the Doors, served to renew interest in the so-called “Lizard King” for yet another, younger, generation. Despite the fact that Hopkin’s and Sugarman’s biography demonstrated, as Lester Bangs observed, “that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in a bathtub in Paris….” (216), Stone’s bio-pic managed to transform Jim Morrison—whose life, suggested Bangs, amounted “to one huge alcoholic exhibitionistic joke” (218)—into the seductive, Romantic image of the self-destructive artist. The Doors is a movie that Hollywood would call “high concept”: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (& Satanism). The question remains as to why anybody born after 1970 should care in the least about Jim Morrison; to enjoy the music of the Doors is another issue entirely.

Despite my skepticism, the reissue of Oliver Stone’s The Doors this week on Blu-ray Disc (Lionsgate) is yet another indication of the film’s resilience and remarkable durability over the past seventeen years. The question for me, when watching the movie last evening—which looks spectacular in high definition, incidentally—is what it is actually about. What, precisely, is the putative attraction of the film? What's the story? Is it about Jim Morrison, or about the 1960s? Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s? Clearly it is not about the Doors as such, as a rock band, although the members of the Doors are featured in it. The movie is clearly about Jim Morrison, but only insofar as he embodies the pagan impulse of the 1960s. In the film’s first extended scene, Morrison is shown as a small boy witnessing an accident involving Native American Indians. We are encouraged to believe that the spirit of an elderly, dying Indian lodged itself, however remarkably or improbably—mystically—in the body of the young white boy who serendipitously witnessed the man’s dying moment. (By the way, I have severe doubts whether the biographical incident, mentioned in the Hopkins and Sugarman biography, ever actually occurred, but that is another issue.) The premise of the film is that Jim Morrison, as an emblem of the turbulent 1960s, is in fact a pagan: not anti-Christian so much as non-Christian. That’s the thesis of the film as I see it: the 60s was a moment of pagan resurgence, of paganism. (From the lyrics to Hair: “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.”)

But there’s a problem with this idea: don’t confuse historical processes with individual, idiosyncratic, and perhaps dubious biography. Here’s Lester Bangs:

In a way, Jim Morrison’s life and death could be written off as simply one of the more pathetic episodes in the history of the star system, or that offensive myth we all persist in believing which holds that artists are somehow a race apart and thus entitled to piss on my wife, throw you out the window, smash up the joint, and generally do whatever they want. I’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and what’s most ironic is that it always goes under the assumption that to deny them these outbursts would somehow be curbing their creativity, when the reality, as far as I can see, is that it’s exactly such insane tolerance of another insanity that also contributes to them drying up as artists.... this system is . . . why we’ve seen almost all our rock ‘n’ roll heroes who, unlike Morrison, did manage to survive the Sixties, end up having nothing to say. Just imagine if he was still around today, 37 years old; no way he could still be singing about chaos and revolution. (218-19)

As Slavoj Zizek has observed, in a typical Hollywood film, the film’s historical background most often serves as the excuse for what the film is really about. He says:

In Reds, the October Revolution is the background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to reassert his paternal role....

Employing the same logic, The Doors uses the turbulent 1960s as a background for Val Kilmer to allow the alien soul within him to be reclaimed by the old Indian he witnessed, as a child, to be dying on the edge of the highway. I know that to suggest that this is the actual plot of The Doors sounds ludicrous, but most certainly it is more accurate than to say that The Doors is “about” the 1960s—a discursive site, but not, as portrayed in this movie as in many others—a period of recent "history."

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Although the word “groove” is generally understood as a musical term referring to a song’s rhythm—its groove—the word can refer to a number of issues besides rhythm, among them sex, class, and whether you're "high," that is, on drugs. Although the word is strongly associated with the 1960s—The Young Rascals had a #1 hit in 1967, for instance, with “Groovin’,” and there was also a hit song titled “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”—the word dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier. A quick search of the word at indicates that the origin of the word is 1937, but it is highly likely that the word was introduced (first) into jazz vocabulary by Louis Armstrong—who has been credited for coining and popularizing slang words such as “cool,” “cat,” “pops,” and “daddy”—sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. One can imagine that, for Armstrong, "to be groovy" meant in the mood to make a record (since all records had grooves), or high, since he was admittedly a life-long user of marijuana (referred to as a "joint" in the 60s, marijuana imbibed in the form of a rolled cigarette was, in jazz culture, referred to as a "viper").

The first to be in the groove were African-American jazz musicians, early in the 1930s. They are no longer around to tell us where this groove came from, but scholars have speculated. Maybe it began with that relatively new invention, the phonograph, whose sound came out right when the needle was in the groove; maybe the musicians—virtually all of them men—were creating yet another metaphor for sex.... “The jazz musicians gave no grandstand performances,” wrote an admiring reviewer in 1933, “they simply got a great burn from playing in the groove.”

Apparently the word was defined in 1937 as meaning a “state of mind which is conducive to good playing,” but by the process of metaphorical elaboration, soon most any pleasant or pleasing activity could be “groovy.”

Before long, there were groovy audiences as well as groovy performers, and by the 1940s things in general could be groovy. Love was groovy, skating was groovy, even pitching a no-hit baseball game was groovy.

In the 1950s the word was adopted by the Beats, whose music of choice was jazz; from jazz culture Beat culture borrowed both a vocabulary and a sensibility (for Beat Jack Kerouac, the preferred form of jazz was “bop”). By the mid-60s, the word was adopted by the rock culture, which borrowed a number of styles, including a strong non-conformist posture, from the earlier jazz culture (the Dionysian one descending from Charlie Parker) including drug use, which presumably put you "in the groove," that is, enhanced your musical creativity.

Groovy was in the air everywhere in the hip, laid-back counterculture of the 1960s, when feeling groovy was the ultimate ambition and praise, as well as the title of a hit song. To groove was “to have fun.” “Life as it is really grooves,” declares a fictional letter from a group of groovy young dropouts in a 1969 short story by John Updike.

By the mid to late 1970s, however, “groovy,” as an indication of approbation, had fallen out of favor. “In the groove” could still refer to musical rhythm (or a great sex life), but no one who wanted to be perceived as “cool” dared use the word “groovy.” Hippies were no longer hip, and if you were “feelin’ groovy” it meant you were decidedly un-hip, an anachronism, déclassé. I suspect that no one born, say, after 1970 ever considers using the word "groovy," although it does crop up occasionally, in pastiches of the 1960s (Austin Powers), for instance, or when used by nerdy protagonists (such as Ash in the Evil Dead films).

The Groove Tube (1974)
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Army of Darkness (1992)
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)