December 14, 2012

Pot, War, and Rock ’n’ Roll

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:33 pm

“Fug You,” the 2011 book written by Ed Sanders, had completely gone stealth on the pop culture radar screen at the headquarters of the World’s Laziest Journalist until we noticed a remaindered copy for sale in the Half-Price Bookstore in downtown Berkeley CA, last week.  The snob appeal of being able to write about Sanders Sixties Rock group, the Fugs, and casually saying “we saw them perform in the Village in 1966” overpowered our usual tightwad tendency to avoid spending money just to be able to write a column mit book review.

When we got the book home and leaned that the cover was a visual pun that referred to the time the Fugs were featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, we had a breakthrough moment that solved a conundrum that has been baffling us for a long time:  “What makes the Bush era different from the Vietnam War era?”

The first time we read Albert Camus’ book, “The Rebel,” we thought we encountered a passage that asserted that the Establishment, as Society was called in the Sixties, would defuse rebels by absorbing them into high society.  (Subsequent rereadings of the Camus’ book failed to produce that particular passage for quoting purposes.)  That Camus insight, real or imagined, helped us immensely in our various subsequent excursions into pop culture analysis.  Didn’t a rebellious band from England eventually become The Rolling Stones Inc.?  Aren’t the rights to the Beatles songs still earning royalties?  Will new rock bands raise funds by selling stock?

As we started to read “Fug You,” we were delighted to see that a bunch of the references to the counterculture evoked some personal memories to add to our enjoyment level of Sanders recounting of the Sixties.  (Was the Psychedelicatessen NYC’s first “head shop”?  [It was featured in a Time magazine story dated February 24, 1967.])

Then we had our breakthrough insight while staring at the information that the Fugs were featured on the cover of the February 17, 1967 issue of LIFE magazine.  In the Bush era, underground cult heroes have zero chance of getting mainstream media exposure.  No corporation in its right mind (pun?) will give free publicity to a movie maker, novelist, or band that isn’t a shining example of the capitalist philosophy and (even better) part of that very corporation’s “extended family” of subsidiaries.

It wasn’t always like that.

When a book expert was asked to authenticate the validity of a hardback copy of the first edition of Jack Kerouac’s book, “On the Road,” which was autographed and inscribed to Marilyn Monroe, his research revealed that both the actress and the pioneer Beatnik novelist appeared on the Tonight TV show on the same night, so he verified the authenticity of the item.

Sanders says (on page 230) that the Fugs were invited to perform on the Johnny Carson version of the Tonight Show but that a dispute over which song was to be performed caused the cancellation of that potential milestone in pop culture history.

On November 5, 1965, the Fugs added an extremely unusual accomplishment to their resume (page 170).  Allen Ginsberg, the Fugs, and Country Joe and the Fish gave a concert performance in a chemistry lecture room on the University of California Berkeley campus.

In the Bush era, the mainstream media does not feature stories on the counterculture and thus bestow legitimacy on the rebel artists and their anti-establishment philosophy.  In the Sixties, underground celebrities were almost automatically given a ticket to fame by the mainstream media.

During 1969 while we lived in San Francisco, we were totally oblivious to the fact that a co-worker from our college yearbook and newspaper, John Walsh, was struggling with a counterculture venture in the very same city.  (Woulda/coulda/shoulda)  It wasn’t until about two years later that Newsweek magazine drew national attention to the feisty rock’n’roll magazine being published in the city slightly to the East of Berkeley CA.  That publishing venture called itself by the same name that O. Henry had used years before when he attempted to publish a magazine:  “Rolling Stone.”

San Francisco’s band of rogues called the Merry Pranksters weren’t the first people in the United States to buy an old bus and then go tearing around the country seeking fun and adventure, but the Pranksters were the first to have their escapades chronicled by a mainstream writer (from New York City) who just happened to be in the process of forming the Gonzo branch of Journalism, Tom Wolfe.

Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the exploits of the Hell’s Angles Motorcycle Club in the mid-Sixties in a book and then became a staff writer for the previously mentioned Rolling Stone magazine.

Comedian Flip Wilson did a routine about keeping up with the latest news that included “The Church of What’s Happening Now.”  Trend-spotting in the news media wasn’t just a fad in the Sixties, it was an obsession.

George Carlin skewered the Sixties penchant for fast moves in the pop culture arena when he suggested that a song could be “last week’s pick-hit of the week, this week number one, and next week’s ‘golden oldies’ selection.”

Was the band The Who trying to make a confession when they titled an album “The Who Sells Out” or were they just making a feeble attempt to be ironical?

In the Sixties, bands would get a career boost by appearing on the Ed Sullivan TV show.  TV talk shows were not reluctant to feature rising talent.  Saunders includes (pages 227 to 230) a partial transcript of the Fugs 1967 appearance on the David Susskind TV show.

In the early seventies, when a young unknown singer, named Bruce Springsteen, with a hard working publicity agent, wound up on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, the two rival magazines agreed to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.

When the “Sounds of Our Lives” radio format featured music from the big band era, rock fans might clandestinely listen to Glenn Miller but the roster of ads featuring denture adhesives, Depends, and cures for denture breath, would cause a young listener to recoil in horror exclaiming:  “Hell’s Bells, forty years from now will we become old farts who wax nostalgic listening to stations that only feature music from the British Invasion?”  Do Vietnam era veterans still utter the phrase “Roger that!”?

These days free publicity is too precious a commodity to be wasted on unknowns.

In the era of shrinking news staffs, journalism relies more and more on prepackaged material known as HO’s (hand outs).  Why pay a reporter when you can run a professionally done segment provided free from a large corporation (such as a pharmaceutical company?)?  We have recently learned that the United States and Switzerland are the only two countries that permit TV ads for medicines.

News from the underground provided fertile ground for the growth of alternative newspapers.  The Village Voice helped prepare the way for The L. A. Free Press, the Berkley Barb, and Al Goldstein’s Screw.  These days the San Francisco area sustains three weekly newspapers, the Guardian, San Francisco Weekly, and the East Bay Express.

Unfortunately the underground press no longer functions as a scout for the troops in the mainstream media.  Does Fox Views do trend spotting stories other than noting the rising stars in the Republican Party?  Wouldn’t it be a hoot if this column inspires the establishing of a late night talk show on Fox?  Would Disco Tex and the Sexoletts have a snowball’s chance in hell of being invited on that show?  Are stars from the underground this era’s missing media darlings?

Who is on the roster of the new angry young men?  What new band owns the rights to wear the enfant terrible label?  Can you name a contemporary poet, let alone say who is today’s most outspoken poet/critic of the military adventure in Afghanistan?  Is there any novelist working today who isn’t a corporate approved source of entertainment rather than a rogue who provides the voice of conscience for the USA?

Does the web site that is the leading source of links to contemporary Liberal Lite voices feature any content that can be considered “edgy”?  What ever happened to that word that was ubiquitous when the Internets was in the “new fad” phase?

Supposedly the Internets was going to give alternate voices a chance to get their messages out to the world, but ultimately many new voices and trends may be getting lost in a digital information dump.

Do Tweets provide the basis for trend spotting stories?  Really?  If a thousand people tweet their approval of some new music, do the friends of those thousand people run out and listen to the recommended music or are the tweets of approval lost among thousands of other tweets about thousands of other pop culture items?  If a Tweet is posted on the Internets and no one reads it, will it make a noise?  If a Tweeter touts a hundred new items this week, will a music recommendation carry any clout or will it get lost in the digital information dump?  Do Tweeters have fans who will follow up on all of this week’s one hundred recommendations?

Which will gather more media attention:  The Pope’s unsuccessful attempt to post his first Tweet, or a blog, called Media Darlings, which is being done by a fellow from New Zealand named Rory MacKinnon.  His blog is aimed at journalists and journalism students and it recounts his adventures in Great Britain.

Fame has become America’s answer to British Royalty.  Yes, occasionally some brash young upstart can break into the ranks of the usual suspects, but for the most part hasn’t fame in the USA become a matter of “carrying on a family tradition”?

Reading about all the causes that Ed Saunders promoted (legalize pot, stop the war in Vietnam, providing advice for young men facing the draft, free speech) one is forced to stop and ask:  “Where did he get the energy to do all that?”  For those who didn’t become quite active in all those causes, it seems natural to ask if it was worth all the effort.  Some of the early anti-Vietnam activities Sanders describes will soon be marking their half century anniversary.  Will there be any sentimental laden 50th anniversary events in 2013?  If so, will they get any mainstream media news coverage?  Would such a hypothetical event inspire a Fugs reunion?

[Note from the Photo Editor:  The World’s Laziest Journalist Legal Department was very reluctant to approve a shot of just the cover of the Ed Sanders book and so a file shot of a West Coast location that was also famous for spawning successful music careers at the same time the Fugs were hitting it big in New York City was used.]

On page 206, Sanders quotes a 1966 review in the New York Times in which Robert Shelton wrote:  “The Fugs might be considered the musical children of Lenny Bruce, the angry satirist. . . . While obviously far out by most accepted standards of popular music, the Fugs are clever, biting and effective satirists.”

Now the disk jockey will play the Fugs’ “Kill for Peace,” Country Joe’s song “Dark Clouds” (from his new “Time Flies By” album), and Seasick Steve’s song “Dog House Boogie.”  We have to go see if the Berkeley Barb has any relationship to Malibu Barbie.   Have a “meteoric rise to fame” type week.

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