Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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Waiting for my man: “What’s Left?” January 2014, MRR #368

The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

Brian Eno

Lou Reed died on Sunday, October 27. I have been reading the laudatory obituaries, and listening to his more memorable tunes. Instead of praising him as dark, edgy, way ahead of his time, and the like, I’ll attempt something a bit more contextual.

It’s not that I haven’t eulogized individuals who have personally influenced me before, as when I did a column on Spain Rodriquez. Nor that I don’t find Lou Reed’s oeuvre inspirational and that he can be considered, among a handful of other people, the father of punk rock. Yes, Lou Reed’s solo career was powerful in its own right. But he was also one of the original five members of the Velvet Underground, two of whom were arguably as significant as was Lou Reed, even while he came to dominate the band. The Velvets were precursor to art rock, punk rock, Goth, New Wave, alt rock and indie rock through their infamous New York fuck you attitude, their use of noise, thrashy distorted guitars, grinding rhythms, atonal vocals in music, and their willingness to experiment instead of strive for mainstream commercial success. And, they were never a commercial success in their own day. Without the Velvet Underground, it’s safe to say that this magazine wouldn’t be here today. Or, perhaps it would have been called Maximum Doo-Wop, or Maximum Rockabilly, or Maximum Psychedelia.

This is the wrong way to contextualize Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, however. The Velvets were part of a 60s rock and roll explosion that, in the United States, included the psychedelic bands of the west coast, the garage/noise sounds emanating from the Detroit area (as exemplified by the MC5, the Stooges, and The Up), and the Western pre-country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few of the musical styles and regions in play at the time. There were plenty of precursors to go around, as well as plenty of progeny in terms of post-60s rock trends and tendencies.

The best way to characterize this phenomenon as a whole is by analogy. Excuse me if I’m a bit too over the top with this equivalency. Consider the political powder keg that developed after the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In Western Europe, where bourgeois society and liberal democracy reigned supreme, Marxist social democracy was in full bloom, itself the champion for materialist, rationalist, objectivist and positivist thinking. Anarchism was often second cousin to social democracy with regard to intellectual influences and political power, prior to the 20th century. Now, toss in the rivalry posed by the development of a profoundly pessimistic political culture labeled fin de siècle, which revolted against the politics of its day and which trumpeted irrationalism, subjectivism, emotionalism and vitalism. Then violently stir everything together through the first World War, which wasn’t worldwide at all but which was incredibly destructive of human life, society and culture across Europe. The consequence was a period, lasting roughly from 1917 through 1945, that witnessed a prodigious political proliferation and reorientation. There was a vast number of conservative revolutionary, proto-fascist, and nationalistic socialist variants vying for attention, if not power, out of which Fascism proper, and its vicious kin Nazism, triumphed. What’s more, Leninism emerged out of social democracy, as did a genuine ultraleft in the form of Left Communism, even as anarchism gained a true historical moment, however brief, with the Spanish civil war. National-Bolshevism came into its own during this period, as did socialist struggles for national liberation.

Kevin Coogan has characterized such times as “periods of ideological decay [which] often breed strange new variants […] which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.”* Perhaps, but it was also a time of delirious political expansion and creativity as well. So, maybe “periods of ideological decay” is not quite the way to represent the period book-ended by the first and second World Wars. “Interregnum” might be more appropriate. What’s more, is anything applicable by analogy to music from 1945 until 1975? The popular American song (as developed on Broadway and in musicals), classical music in minimalism, atonalism, even the beginnings of electronic music, modern jazz in its orchestral as well as bebop styles, country/western music (starting with the Bakersfield sound), and rock and roll from its 50s birth to its 60s evanescence, all flourished and proliferated during the period from the second World War to the mid-70s. Does this creative expansion of so many types of music simultaneously mark some sort of musical decay? Or is this all a kind of musical interregnum in which everything splinters and mixes before coming together into some grand synthesis? Or, perhaps I’m just over thinking this.

Lou Reed is dead. The message to take away from his death, and his life, is nothing so simplistic as the “don’t do drugs” warning of Nancy Reagan types who would point out Reed’s liver failure due to excessive abuse of hard drugs and alcohol. But maybe the message shouldn’t be that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the lone font, the sole inspiration for everything original, influential and rocking musically speaking since 1975. “Of course Reed sang about drugs, transgressive sex, and the druggy, pansexual transgressions of the Warholian party set.” Jody Rosen writes in “Rock-and-Roll Heart: Remembering Lou Reed, a Pop Star for Adults” (New York, 11-11-13). Aside from his preoccupation with death, “he sang about lots of other stuff, too: egg creams, high school football, Edgar Allen Poe. He sang, surprisingly touchingly, about marriage.” Lou Reed didn’t just produce rock’n’roll for youngsters in the 60s and 70s. He created music for people of all ages living their lives here and now. Patti Smith writes, in the New Yorker (11-11-13) that: “Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.” Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, presents a far more complete portrait of him:

Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates, traveled, listened to and criticized each other’s work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking). We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other. We were always seeing a lot of art and music and plays and shows, and I watched as he loved and appreciated other artists and musicians. He was always so generous. He knew how hard it was to do. We loved our life in the West Village and our friends; and in all, we did the best we could do. (Rolling Stone, 11-6-13)

Rest in peace, Lou.

*[“Today both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called ‘the two poetries’ of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ […] What is especially worrisome is that much of the left has today so deteriorated that it may well lack the capacity for understanding, much less fighting, new forms of fascism that incorporate ‘leftist’ rhetoric and ideas.” Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International]

PERSONAL NEWS… December/January is usually the time for news and resolutions of a personal nature. After a years-long hiatus, I’ve started up my blogs once again. At leftyhooligan.wordpress.com, you’ll find my latest MRR column, appropriately delayed so as not to run ahead of the one in print. I intend to gradually fill in the columns between the present and when I stopped posting my columns online. Also, my personal blog can be found at gamatiasz.wordpress.com, and I expect to keep posting away there for the forceable future. Finally, a second novel that has been fifteen years in the writing, but mostly in rewriting, is approaching completion. Thanks to former Salon columnist Cary Tennis and his Finishing School (carytennis.com/finishing-school-complete-writing-projects), and with a bit of luck, this second novel should be completed and ready to publish in early 2015.

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