Music, Politics, and the Summer of Love

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the July, 2007 issue of The Valley Scene

In May of this year the San Francisco Chronicle published music critic Joel Selvin’s 40th anniversary retrospective on the 1967 “Summer of Love.” Centered in San Fran’s Haight-Ashbury section, the Summer of Love has achieved legendary status as the high point of hippiedom’s counterculture movement to end war, liberate the sexually oppressed masses, and “just say yes” to drugs. Selvin argues that while the politically idealistic goals of the era fizzled, “The Summer of Love resonates in strip mall yoga classes, pop music, visual art, fashion, attitudes toward drugs, the personal computer revolution, and the current mad dash toward the greening of America.”

I was too young (6 years old) in 1967 to experience the Summer of Love as a participant, but by the time I started thinking seriously about music and politics the values of that time still held sway with those of us caught somewhere between the baby boomers and generation x. Today when I think about 1967 and 2007, it strikes me that our popular music is less urgent, while our politics still suck.

The year 1967 is arguably the most important in the history of popular music. The counterculture ethos of the time is captured in four albums released that year:

The Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow”: Psychedelic themes and Grace Slick’s thundering vocals on the hits “Someone to Love” and the trippy “White Rabbit” gave the record international notoriety, but it’s the folk, rhythm & blues, blues, and rock fusion that gives Surrealistic Pillow a unique and timeless quality.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced?”: How important is this album? In 2005 the Library of Congress placed it in the National Recording Registry, meaning that it is culturally, aesthetically, or historically significant. In “Manic Depression” I hear a forerunner of the Grunge rock movement of the 90s, while “The Wind Cries Mary” is as close to Shakespearian poetry that can be found in rock. And it goes without saying that Hendrix has influenced virtually every guitar player that followed.

The Doors’ “The Doors”: Widely heralded as the one of the great debut albums in rock history, “The Doors” introduced the notion that a rock band could write, play, and sing about the Freudian Oedipus Complex. Front man Jim Morrison, the epitome of the psychedelic era rock star, combined a beat poet sensibility with an Elvis charisma to produce a style that has yet to be matched by scores of imitators.

The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: Ranked #1 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper took more than four months to record and (along with the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album released in the previous year) established rock and roll as a serious art form. The album’s drug references and communal spirit made it an anthem of the “flower power” generation. The Beatles’ great singing, musicianship, and songwriting ensure that the record never gets old.

Many other great records were released in 1967, with a significant number of the artists performing at the Monterey Pop Festival. That event became the archetype of the outdoor communal concert celebration, the spirit of which can still be felt even at Fox Valley events like the Oshkosh Waterfest series.

Maybe the lack of urgency in today’s popular music has something to do with digital technology. The ipod generation doesn’t seem interested in listening to entire albums. At the risk of sounding nostalgic I need to point out that those who listen just to individual songs off the aforementioned albums probably don’t “get it.”

Sad to say, our politics has not changed much in forty years. Protest singers like Joan Baez in the 1960s ended up with thick FBI files, largely due to government paranoia about the capacity of the peace movement to disrupt official war policy.

Apparently someone still considers Joan Baez a threat. In May, rocker John Mellencamp invited her to appear with him at Walter Reed Medical Center, home of the disgraceful conditions for soldiers returning from duty. Baez, now 66, wasn’t “approved” by the Army and thus couldn’t perform. Probably the censoring of Baez has to do with her performances at peace mom Cindy Sheehan’s protests against the Bush war in Iraq. Moreover, several days before the appearance with Mellencamp she announced an intention to sing Tom Waits’ “The Day After Tomorrow.” That song includes these lyrics:

You can't deny
The other side
Don't want to die
Any more than we do
What I'm trying to say,
Is don't they pray
To the same God that we do?
Tell me, how does God choose?
Whose prayers does he refuse?
Who turns the wheel?
And who throws the dice
On the day after tomorrow?

I'm not fighting
For justice
I am not fighting
For freedom
I am fighting
For my life
And another day
In the world here
I just do what I've been told
You're just the gravel on the road
And the one's that are lucky
One's come home
On the day after tomorrow

Want to say Happy Birthday to the Summer of Love? The best way is to do something today to help end the war in Iraq.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is as associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.