“You there,” says a cursor, a pointing finger: “Feed your head.” DC hardcore bands of the 1980s laughed off the hippies, refused to remember what the dormouse said. Contra Jefferson Airplane, they clamped down defensively, shouting “Flex your head” through speakers and sound systems across time. That stance appealed to me. I was hailed by it. It formed me into a position as a particular kind of subject. Emanating from the capital, coeval with an era of federally-waged drug war, straightedgers like Ian MacKaye denounced drugs as “crutches.” The stance conveyed an ableism that was simultaneously hyper-defensive, its anger a reaction to fear. As punks, MacKaye and his friends and bandmates faced routine bullying and marginalization. Early episodes of teenage drug use led to denunciations of party culture, as on Government Issue’s “Rock’n Roll Bullshit,” and dramatic public acts of abstention from drug-assisted Dionysian revelry, as on Minor Threat tracks like “Out of Step” and “Straight Edge.” Always flexing, never feeding. It took years for me to recover and loosen up — but loosen up I did.
Is the bourgeois subject the one who finds by way of money-power the way to a home? Shouldn’t self-determination of Oikos through communities of mutual aid take place wherever it can? Can we get a revolution? Jefferson Airplane seemed to think so in their 1969 song “Volunteers.”
“Look what’s happening out in the streets,” they sang. “Got a revolution / Got to revolution.” The revolution means dancing down the street like in a musical. Get people out singing in the streets. John Sinclair’s version was a bit more like West Side Story: “ROCK & ROLL, DOPE AND FUCKING IN THE STREETS.” But then others like the Stones demanded “Gimme Shelter.” And for them, that meant “Make Love Not War.” (Sinclair’s papers, by the way, are held at the University of Michigan, with boxes dedicated to Artists’ Workshop Society, Trans-Love Energies, and the Rainbow People’s Party.)
We need to talk about Allegory, don’t we? I go for a walk, through cold and wind, birds above my head. Signs, symbols, myths, images, all arranged in synchrony. An elaborately constructed meaning-system — meaning not just in a structural but in a personal sense. Today, for instance, a student produced a Vietnam-themed reading of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with the song’s writer Grace Slick finding in Lewis Carroll’s White Knight and Red Queen the superpower protagonists of the Cold War. And here I am this evening, reading Roger K. Green’s A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics. It’s messy stuff — but that’s what happens when one’s mind manifests. Books feed back upon their readers, each person’s expansion of consciousness contributing, in however mediated a fashion, to the education of all.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s SAMO graffiti and his no-wave band Gray sneak onto my train of thought, and the train breaks down into boxcars of found phrases. Countercultural, determined not to go home again, determined to make it happen. Darling of the art world. Acting out the society’s wildest dreams. Putting that smoke in the air. Graffiti broadcast from the control room, as in the Times Square Show or the movie Downtown 81. For early critical celebrations of Basquiat’s work, see Rene Ricard’s “The Genius Child” in Artforum, and Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Things done by chance. By the end of the night, I’m listening to Funkadelic and thinking, “Fried ice cream is a reality!” Funkadelic’s intervention is not all that different from Basquiat’s. It’s as if a strikethrough artist painted over Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter‘s to create the richly allegorical / mythopoetic cover art to P-Funk’s One Nation Under a Groove. The psychedelic cultural revolution lies secreted away there, a transmission for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
It is my job, my duty and responsibility, to help youth remember the experiments of past generations of liberationist youth. My hope is that by these means, students may gain a fuller understanding of seeds planted, potentials as yet unrealized. Let us learn all that was learned before, and somehow try again. My friend’s father — a kind of shaman, one who initiated me into a secret universe — once starred in a grand movie production, a collective 3-day performance of peace, love, and music known as Woodstock. “Climb close, listen here,” he told me a few nights ago over dinner. “The conditions were terrible,” he began, “yet love prevailed.” Grace Slick navigated her way to stage and announced, “Alright, friends, you have seen the heavy groups, now you will see morning maniac music. Believe me, yeah — it’s a new dawn.” Soon they’ve launched into “Won’t You Try / Saturday Afternoon,” the band’s homage to the Summer of Love. When John Sebastian takes the stage in beautifully tie-dyed denim, he reflects back to the community of 300,000 its image of itself as an impromptu city, a temporarily autonomous global village. The lyrics to Sebastian’s “Younger Generation” speak sounds of accord into my present moment. Country Joe rouses the entire city to its feet in opposition to the War in Vietnam. Sly & The Family Stone arrive like angels and take the crowd heavenward, peace signs in the sky, voices raised in song. By the time of Hendrix’s performance, one realizes one is in the presence of peaceful visitation by starmen of the future. Enough! Let’s get ourselves back to the garden, as Crosby, Stills & Nash instruct in the film’s finale, “Woodstock.”
I return from my journey, sun and moon ever-present sources of light overhead, ship stocked with hippie-modernist treasure. “Pleasure from the Buddha Group,” as reads the insert to Jefferson Airplane’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, released in late November 1967 during what Samuel “Chip” Delany called “the Winter of Love.”
Ron Cobb’s cover art captures well the band’s demeanor of even-keeled pleasure-sailing, a ship of color and festivity sprinkling confetti from on high, refusing to allow the black-and-white American trash-heap to harsh its vibe. Cobb is a fascinating figure, by the way, his illustrations and political cartoons deserving of a major retrospective and revival. This first day after feels relaxed and subdued, a day to bake and reflect and give thanks. Stretch, work out the kinks. Midori Tadaka’s Through the Looking Glass calms me midafternoon, as do a pair of squirrels spied while meditating. I sit with houseplants and cacti, patterned pillows, cassettes, back issues of Evergreen Review — and all is well.