The Long Walk of the Situationist International | Greil Marcus (The Village Voice)

“The situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into event.”

by GREIL MARCUS

Originally published May 1, 1982

How Extreme Was It

— 1 —

I first became intrigued with the Situ­ationist International in 1979, when I strug­gled through “Le Bruit et la Fureur,” one of the anonymous lead articles in the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste. The writer reviewed the exploits of artistic rebels in the postwar West as if such matters had real political consequences, and then said this: “The rotten egg smell exuded by the idea of God envelops the mystical cretins of the American ‘Beat Generation,’ and is not even entirely absent from the declarations of the Angry Young Men… They have simply come to change their opinions about a few social conventions without even noticing the whole change of terrain of all cultural activ­ity so evident in every avant-garde tendency of this century. The Angry Young Men are in fact particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature: they are defending a mystification that was denounced in Europe around 1920 and whose survival today is of greater counterrevolutionary significance than that of the British Crown.”

Mystical cretins… finally, I thought (for­getting the date of the publication before me), someone has cut through the suburban cul-de-sac that passed for cultural rebellion in the 1950s. But this wasn’t “finally” — it was 1958, in a sober, carefully printed magazine (oddly illustrated with captionless photos of women in bathing suits), in an article that concluded: “If we are not surrealists it is because we don’t want to be bored… Decrepit surrealism, raging and ill-informed youth, well-off adolescent rebels lacking perspective but far from lacking a cause — boredom is what they all have in common. The situationists will execute the judgment contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”

Strange stuff — almost mystifying for an American — but there was a power in the prose that was even more seductive than the hard-nosed dismissal of the Beat generation. This was the situationist style — what one commentator called “a rather irritating form of hermetic terrorism,” a judgment situ­ationist Raoul Vaneigem would quote with approval. Over the next decade it never really changed, but only became more seductive and more hard-nosed, because it discovered more seductive and hard-nosed opponents. Beginning with the notion that modern life was boring and therefore wrong, the situationists sought out every manifestation of alienation and domination and every man­ifestation of the opposition produced by al­ienation and domination. They turned out original analyses of the former (whether it was the Kennedy-era fallout shelter program in “The Geopolitics of Hibernation” — what a title! — or the Chinese cultural revolution in “The Explosion Point of Ideology in China”) and mercilessly criticized the timidity and limits of the latter. In every case they tried to link specifics to a totality — why was the world struggling to turn itself inside out, and how could it be made to do so? What were the real sources of revolution in postwar society, and how were they different from any that had come before?

The Situationist International Antho­logy contains pre-SI documents, 250 pages of material from the situationist journal, May 1968 documents, two filmscripts, and far more, stretching from 1953, four years before the Situationist International was formed, to 1971, a year before its formal dissolution. It is exhilarating to read this book — to confront a group that was determined to make enemies, burn bridges, deny itself the rewards of cele­brity, to find and maintain its own voice in a world where, it seemed, all other voices of cultural or political resistance were either cravenly compromised or so lacking in consciousness they did not even recognize their compromises.

— 2 —

The attack on the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men — in 1958, it is worth remembering, considered in the English-­speaking world the very summa of “anti­-Establishment” negation — was an opening round in a struggle the situationists thought was already going on, and a move toward a situation they meant to construct. “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind,” they would say more than once over the next 10 years. They meant that their ideas for a different world were in everyone’s mind as desires, but not yet as ideas. Their project was to expose the empti­ness of everyday life in the modern world and to make the link between desire and idea real. They meant to make that link so real it would be acted upon by almost everyone, since in the modern world, in the affluent capitalist West and the bureaucratic state-capitalist East, the split between desire and idea was part of almost everyone’s life.

Throughout the next decade, the situationists argued that the alienation which in the 19th century was rooted in production had, in the 20th century, become rooted in consumption. Consumption had come to de­fine happiness and to suppress all other pos­sibilities of freedom and selfhood. Lenin had written that under communism everyone would become an employee of the state; that was no less capitalism than the Western ver­sion, in which everyone was first and fore­most a member of an economy based in com­modities. The cutting edge of the present-day contradiction — that place where the way of life almost everyone took for granted grated most harshly against what life promised and what it delivered — was as much leisure as work. This meant the concepts behind “cul­ture” were as much at stake as the ideas behind industry.

Culture, the situationists thought, was “the Northwest Passage” to a superseding of the dominant society. This was where they started; this was the significance of their attack on the Beat generation. It was a means to a far more powerful attack on the nature of modern society itself: on the division of labor, the fragmentation of work and thought, the manner in which the material success of mod­ern life had leaped over all questions of the quality of life, in which “the struggle against poverty… [had] overshot its ultimate goal, the liberation of man from material cares,” and produced a world in which, “faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”

I have presented a bare outline of the situationist perspective, but perhaps more important for a reader in 1982 is the use the situationists made of that perspective. Un­like many with whom they shared certain notions — Norman Mailer, the Marxist soci­ologist Henri Lefebvre, the gauchiste review Socialisme ou Barbarie — the situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into events.

— 3 — 

The situationists thought of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries, linked as clearly to dada as to Marx. One could trace them back to Saint-Just — the 22-year-old who ar­rived in Paris in 1789 with a blasphemous epic poem, Organt (an account of the raping of nuns and of endless sexual adventures), and became the coldest, most romantic, most brilliant, most tragic administrator of the Terror. Prosecutor of Louis XVI, he gave his head to the same guillotine a year later.

More directly, situationist thinking began in Paris in the early 1950s, when Guy Debord and a few other members of the Lettrist International — a group, known mostly to itself, which had split off from the Lettrists, a tiny, postwar neodada movement of anti-­art intellectuals and students — devoted themselves to dérives: to drifting through the city for days, weeks, even months at a time, looking for what they called the city’s psychogeography. They meant to find signs of what lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called “forgot­ten desires” — images of play, eccentricity, secret rebellion, creativity, and negation. That led them into the Paris catacombs, where they sometimes spent the night. They looked for images of refusal, or for images society had itself refused, hidden, sup­pressed, or “recuperated” — images of refusal, nihilism, or freedom that society had taken back into itself, co-opted or rehabilitated, isolated or discredited. Rooted in similar but intellectually (and physically!) far more lim­ited surrealist expeditions of the 1920s, the dérives were a search, Guy Debord would write many years later, for the “supersession of art.” They were an attempt to fashion a new version of daily life — a new version of how people organized their wishes, pains, fears, hopes, ambitions, limits, social rela­tionships, and identities, a process that ordi­narily took place without consciousness.

The few members of the grandiosely named Lettrist International wanted to re­shape daily life according to the desires dis­covered and affirmed by modern art. Dada, at the Cabaret Voltaire “a laboratory for the rehabilitation of everyday life” in which art as art was denounced and scattered, “wanted to suppress art without realizing it,” Debord wrote in 1967, in his book The Society of the Spectacle. “Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it.” In other words, dada wanted to kill off the claim that art was superior to life and leave art for dead. Sur­realism wanted to turn the impulses that led one to create art into a recreation of life, but it also wanted to maintain the production of art works. Thus surrealism ended up as just another debilitated, gallery-bound art move­ment, a fate dada avoided at the price of being almost completely ignored. The Let­trist International thought art had to be both suppressed as separate, special activity, and turned into life. That was the meaning of supersession, and that was the meaning of a group giving itself up to the pull of the city. It was also the meaning of the LI’s attack on art as art. Debord produced a film without images; with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, he created a book “ ‘composed entirely of prefabricated elements,’ in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are in­variably uncompleted.” Not only was the book impossible to “read,” it featured a sand­paper jacket, so that when placed in a book­shelf it would eat other books.

In 1952, at the Ritz, the LI broke up a Charlie Chaplin press conference, part of the huge publicity campaign for Limelight. “We believe that the most urgent expression of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they present themselves in the name of freedom,” they explained. “The provocative tone of our leaflet was an attack against a unanimous, servile enthusiasm.” (Pro­vocative was perhaps not the word. “No More Flat Feet,” the leaflet Debord and others scattered in the Ritz, read: “Because you [Chaplin] identified yourself with the weak and the oppressed, to attack you was to strike the weak and the oppressed, but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could al­ready discern the policeman’s night­stick…”) The lettrist radicals practiced graffiti on the walls of Paris (one of their favorite mottoes, “Never work!,” would show up 15 years later during May 1968, and 13 years after that in Bow Wow Wow’s “W.O.R.K.,” written by Malcolm McLaren). They painted slogans on their ties, shoes, and pants, hoping to walk the streets as living examples of détournement — the diversion of an element of culture or everyday life (in this case, simply clothes) to a new and displacing purpose. The band “lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption” — not of commodities, but “of time.”

From On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time, Debord’s 1959 film on the group:

Voice 1: That which was directly lived reappears frozen in the distance, fit into the tastes and illusions of an era carried away with it.

Voice 2: The appearance of events we have not made, that others have made against us, obliges us from now on to be aware of the passage of time, its results, the trans­formation of our own desires into events. What differentiates the past from the present is precisely its out-of-reach objectivity; there is no more should-be; being is so consumed that it has ceased to exist. The details are already lost in the dust of time. Who was afraid of life, afraid of the night, afraid of being taken, afraid of being kept?

Voice 3: That which should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. Once again the fatigue of so many nights passed in the same way. It is a walk that has lasted a long time.

Voice 1: Really hard to drink more.

This was the search for that Northwest Passage, that unmarked alleyway from the world as it appeared to the world as it had never been, but which the art of the 20th century had promised it could be: a promise shaped in countless images of freedom to experiment with life and of freedom from the banality and tyranny of bourgeois order and bureaucratic rule. Debord and the others tried to practice, he said, “a systematic ques­tioning of all the diversions and works of a society, a total critique of its idea of happiness.” “Our movement was not a literary school, a revitalization of expression, a mod­ernism,” a Lettrist International publication stated in 1955, after some years of the pure consumption of time, various manifestos, numerous jail sentences for drug possession and drunk driving, suicide attempts, and all­-night arguments. “We have the advantage of no longer expecting anything from known activities, known individuals, and known in­stitutions.”

They tried to practice a radical decondi­tioning: to demystify their environment and the expectations they had brought to it, to escape the possibility that they would them­selves recuperate their own gestures of re­fusal. The formation of the Situationist In­ternational — at first, in 1957, including 15 or 20 painters, writers, and architects from Eng­land, France, Algeria, Denmark, Holland, It­aly, and Germany — was based on the recog­nition that such a project, no matter bow poorly defined or mysterious, was either a revolutionary project or it was nothing. It was a recognition that the experiments of the dérives, the attempts to discover lost intima­tions of real life behind the perfectly com­posed face of modern society, had to be trans­formed into a general contestation of that society, or else dissolve in bohemian solipsism.

— 4 —

Born in Paris in 1931, Guy Debord was from beginning to end at the center of the Situationist International, and the editor of its journal. The Society of the Spectacle, the concise and remarkably cant-free (or cant­-destroying, for that seems to be its effect) book of theory he published after 10 years of situationist activity, begins with these lines: “In societies where modern conditions of pro­duction prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Every­thing that was lived has moved away into a representation.” Determined to destroy the claims of 20th-century social organization, Debord was echoing the first sentence of Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails ap­pears as an ‘immense collection of com­modities.’ ” To complain, as French Marxist critics did, that Debord misses Marx’s quali­fication, “appears as,” is to miss Debord’s own apparent qualification, “presents itself as” — and to miss the point of situationist writing altogether. Debord’s qualification turned out not to be a qualification at all, but rather the basis of a theory in which a society organized as appearance can be disrupted on the field of appearance.

Debord argued that the commodity — now transmuted into “spectacle,” or seemingly natural, autonomous images communicated as the facts of life — had taken over the social function once fulfilled by religion and myth, and that appearances were now inseparable from the essential processes of alienation and domination in modern society. In 1651, the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan presented the manifestation of a nascent bour­geois domination: a picture of a gigantic sov­ereign being, whose body — the body politic­ — was made up of countless faceless citizens. This was presented as an entirely positive image, as a utopia. In 1967, International Situationniste #11 printed an almost identical image, “Portrait of Alienation”: countless Chinese performing a card trick which pro­duced the gigantic face of Mao Zedong.

If society is organized around consump­tion, one participates in social life as a con­sumer; the spectacle produces spectators, and thus protects itself from questioning. It induces passivity rather than action, con­templation rather than thinking, and a deg­radation of life into materialism. It is no matter that in advanced societies, material survival is not at issue (except for those who are kept poor in order to represent poverty and reassure the rest of the population that they should be satisfied). The “standard of survival,” like its twin, the “standard of boredom,” is raised but the nature of the standard does not change. Desires are de­graded or displaced into needs and maintained as needs. A project precisely the op­posite of that of modern art, from Lautréa­mont and Rimbaud to dada and surrealism, is fulfilled.

The spectacle is not merely advertising, or propaganda, or television. It is a world. The spectacle as we experience it, but fail to perceive it, “is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images.” In 1928 in One-Way Street, writing about German inflation, Walter Benjamin anticipated the argument: “The free­dom of conversation is being lost. If it was earlier a matter of course to take interest in one’s partner, this is now replaced by inquiry into the price of his shoes or his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding upon any convivial ex­change is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individu­als, in which they might be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped in a theater and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech.” Raoul Vaneigem de­fined the terrain of values such a situation produced: “Rozanov’s definition of nihilism is the best: ‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around… No more coats and no more home.’ ” “The spectator feels at home nowhere,” Debord wrote, “because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle is “the diplomatic represen­tation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned” — which is to say where all other expression makes no sense, appears as babble (this may be the ironic, protesting meaning of dada phonetic poems, in which words were reduced to sounds, and of lettrist poetry, in which sounds were re­duced to letters). The spectacle says “nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ ” (In a crisis, or when the “standard of survival” falls, as in our own day, hierarchic society retreats, but main­tains its hegemony, the closing of questions. The spectacle “no longer promises any­thing,” Debord wrote in 1979, in a new pref­ace to the fourth Italian edition of his book. “It simply says, ‘It is so.’ ”) The spectacle organizes ordinary life (consider the following in terms of making love): “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the con­templated object is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him.”

Debord summed it up this way: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” — by spectacle­ — “leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing.” We are twice removed from where we want to be, the situationists argued — yet each day still seems like a natu­ral fact.

 — 5 —

This was the situationists’ account of what they, and everyone else, were up against. It was an argument from Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, an argument that the “spectacle-commodity society,” within which one could make only meaningless choices and against which one could seemingly not intervene, had suc­ceeded in producing fundamental contradic­tions between what people accepted and what, in ways they could not understand, they wanted.

This was the precise opposite of social science, developed at precisely the time when the ideology of the end of ideology was con­quering the universities of the West. It was an argument about consciousness and false consciousness, not as the primary cause of domination but as its primary battleground.

If capitalism had shifted the terms of its organization from production to consump­tion, and its means of control from economic misery to false consciousness, then the task of would-be revolutionaries was to bring about a recognition of the life already lived by almost everyone. Foreclosing the construc­tion of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. Here again, the discovery of the source of revolution in what “modern art [had] sought and promise” served as the axis of the argument. Modern art, one could read in Internationale Situationniste #8, in January of 1963, had “made a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behav­ior,” of unquestioned order and the “unani­mous, servile enthusiasm” Debord and his friends had thrown up at Chaplin; but that clean sweep had been isolated in museums. Modern revolutionary impulses had been separated from the world, but “just as in the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy” — out of Marx’s dic­tum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it — now one had to look to the demands of art.

At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, workers discussed matters that had previously been the exclusive province of philosophers — suggesting the possibility that philosophy could be realized in daily life. In the 20th century, with “survival” conquered as fact but maintained as ideology, the same logic meant that just as artists constructed a version of life in words, paint, or stone, men and women could themselves begin to con­struct their own lives out of desire. This desire, in scattered and barely noticed ways, was shaping the 20th century, or the super­seding of it (“Ours is the best effort so far toward getting out of the twentieth century,” an anonymous situationist wrote in 1963, in one of the most striking lines in the 12 issues of Internationale Situationniste). It was the desire more hidden, more overwhelmed and confused by spectacle, than any other. It had shaped the lettrist adventures. It was the Northwest Passage. If the spectacle was “both the result and the project of the exist­ing mode of production,” then the construc­tion of life as artists constructed art — in terms of what one made of friendship, love, sex, work, play, and suffering — was under­stood by the situationists as both the result and the project of revolution.

— 6 —

To pursue this revolution, it was neces­sary to take all the partial and isolated inci­dents of resistance and refusal of things as they were, and then link them. It was neces­sary to discover and speak the language of these incidents, to do for signs of life what the Lettrist International had tried to do for the city’s signs of “forgotten desires.” This de­manded a theory of exemplary acts. Society was organized as appearance, and could be contested on the field of appearance; what mattered was the puncturing of ap­pearance — speech and action against the spectacle that was, suddenly, not babble, but understood. The situationist project, in this sense, was a quest for a new language of action. That quest resulted in the urgent, daring tone of even the lengthiest, most sol­emn essays in Internationale Situationniste — the sense of minds engaged, quickened be­yond rhetoric, by emerging social contradic­tions — and it resulted in such outrages as a six-word analysis of a leading French soci­ologist. (“M. GEORGES LAPASSADE,” announced almost a full page of I.S. #9, “EST UN CON.”) It led as well to a style of absurdity and play, and to an affirmation that contestation was fun: a good way to live. The situationists delighted in the discovery that dialectics caused society to produce not just contradictions but also endless self parodies. Their journal was filled with them — my favorite is a reproduction of an ad for the Peace o’ Mind Fallout Shelter Com­pany. And the comics that illustrated I.S. led to détournement of the putative heroes of everyday life. Characters out of Steve Canyon and True Romance were given new balloons, and made to speak passionately of revolution, alienation, and the lie of culture — as if even the most unlikely people actually cared about such things. In the pages of I.S., a kiss suggested not marriage but fantasies of liberation: a sigh for the Paris Commune.

The theory of exemplary acts and the quest for a new language of action also brought the situationists’ pursuit of ex­tremism into play. I.S #10, March 1966, on the Watts riots: “…all those who went so far as to recognize the ‘apparent justifications’ of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks… all those ‘theorists’ and ‘spokesmen’ of interna­tional Left, or rather of its nothingness, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets for plunder)… But who has defended the rioters of Los Angeles in the terms they deserve? We will.” The article continued: “The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle, ‘To each according to his false needs’… [but] real desires begin to be expressed in festival, in the potlatch of destruction… For the first time it is not poverty but material abundance which must be dominated [and of course it was the rela­tive “affluence” of the Watts rioters, at least as compared to black Americans in Harlem, that so mystified the observers of this first outbreak of violent black rage]… Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.”

“The task of being more extremist than the SI falls to the SI itself,” the situationists said; that was the basis of the group’s con­tinuation. The situationists looked for ex­emplary acts which might reveal to spec­tators that that was all they were. They cited, celebrated, and analyzed incidents which dramatized the contradictions of modern so­ciety, and contained suggestions of what forms a real contestation of that society might take. Such acts included the Watts riots; the resistance of students and workers to the Chinese cultural revolution (a struggle, the situationists wrote, of “the official owners of the ideology against the majority of the owners of the apparatus of the economy and the state”); the burning of the Koran in the streets of Baghdad in 1959; the exposure of a site meant to house part of the British government in the event of nuclear war; the “kidnapping” of art works by Caracas stu­dents, who used them to demand the release of political prisoners; the Free Speech Move­ment in Berkeley in 1964; the situationist-­inspired disruption of classes taught by French cyberneticians in 1966 at Strasbourg, and by sociologists at Nanterre in 1967 and 1968; and the subversion of Berlin actor Wolfgang Neuss, who in 1963 “perpetrated a most suggestive act of sabotage… by placing a notice in the paper Der Abend giving away the identity of the killer in a television serial that had been keeping the masses in suspense for weeks.”

Some of these actions led nowhere; some, like the assaults on the cyberneticians and sociologists, led to May 1968, where the idea of general contestation on the plane of ap­pearances was realized.

The situationist idea was to prevent the recuperation of such incidents by making theory out of them. Once the speech of the spectacle no longer held a monopoly, it would be heard as babble — as mystification ex­posed. Those who took part in wildcat strikes or practiced cultural sabotage, the situationists argued, acted out of boredom, rage, disgust — out of an inchoate but inescapable perception that they were not free and, worse, could not form a real image of free­dom. Yet there were tentative images of free­dom being shaped, which, if made into theory, could allow people to understand and maintain their own actions. Out of this, a real image of freedom would appear, and it would dominate: the state and society would begin to dissolve. Resistance to that dissolution would be stillborn, because workers, soldiers, and bureaucrats would act on new possi­bilities of freedom no less than anyone else­ — they would join in a general wildcat strike that would end only when society was reconstructed on new terms. When the theory matched the pieces of practice from which the theory was derived, the world would change.

— 7 — 

The situationist program — as opposed to the situationist project, the situationist practice — came down to Lautréamont and work­ers’ councils. On one side, the avant-garde saint of negation, who had written that poetry “must be made by all”; on the other, the self-starting, self-managing organs of di­rect democracy that had appeared in almost every revolutionary moment of the 20th cen­tury, bypassing the state and allowing for complete participation (the soviets of Petro­grad in 1905 and 1917, the German Räte of 1919, the anarchist collectives of Barcelona in 1936, the Hungarian councils of 1956). Be­tween those poles, the situationists thought, one would find the liberation of everyday life, the part of experience that was omitted from the history books.

These were the situationist touchstones — and, oddly, they were left unexamined. The situationists’ use of workers’ councils re­minds me of those moments in D.W. Grif­fith’s Abraham Lincoln when, stumped by how to get out of a scene, he simply had Walter Huston gaze heavenward and utter the magic words, “The Union!” It is true that the direct democracy of workers’ councils — ­where anyone was allowed to speak, where representation was kept to a minimum and delegates were recallable at any moment — was anathema both to the Bolsheviks and to the Right. It may also have been only the crisis of a revolutionary situation that pro­duced the energy necessary to sustain council politics. The situationists wrote that no one had tried to find out how people had actually lived during those brief moments when revo­lutionary contestation had found its form — a form that would shape the new society — but they did not try either. They spoke endlessly about “everyday life,” but ignored work that examined it both politically and in its smallest details (James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, the books of the Annale school, Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and A Berlin Chronicle, the writing of Larissa Reissner, a Pravda correspondent who covered Weimar Germany), and pro­duced nothing to match it.

But if Lautréamont, workers’ councils, and everyday life were more signposts than true elements of a theory, they worked as signposts. The very distance of such images from the world as it was conventionally un­derstood helped expose what that the world con­cealed. What appeared between the signposts of Lautréamont and workers’ councils was the possibility of critique.

Pursued without compromise or self-censorship, that critique liberated the situ­ationists from the reassurances of ideology as surely as the experiments of the Lettrist In­ternational had liberated its members from the seductions of the bourgeois art world. It opened up a space of freedom, and was a necessary preface to the new language of action the situationists were after. A single example will do: the situationist analysis of Vietnam, published in I.S. #11 in March 1967 — almost frightening in its prescience, and perhaps even more frightening in its clarity.

“It is obviously impossible to seek, at the moment, a revolutionary solution to the Vietnam war,” said the anonymous writer. “It is first of all necessary to put an end to the American aggression in order to allow the real social struggle in Vietnam to develop in a natural way; that is to say, to allow the Vietnamese workers and peasants to re­discover their enemies at home; the bureau­cracy of the North and all the propertied and ruling strata of the South. The withdrawal of the Americans will mean that the Stalinist bureaucracy will immediately seize control of the whole country: this is the unavoidable conclusion. Because the invaders cannot in­definitely sustain their aggression; ever since Talleyrand it has been a commonplace that one can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. The point, therefore, is not to give unconditional (or even conditional) support to the Vietcong, but to struggle consistently and without any concessions against Ameri­can imperialism… The Vietnam war is rooted in America and it is from there that it must be rooted out.” This was a long way from the situationists’ rejection of the Beat generation, but the road had been a straight one.

If the situationists were fooled, it was only by themselves; they were not fooled by the world. They understood, as no one else of their time did, why major events — May 1968, the Free Speech Movement, or, for that mat­ter, Malcolm McLaren’s experiment with what Simon Frith has called the politiciza­tion of consumption — arise out of what are, seemingly, the most trivial provocations and the most banal repressions. They understood why the smallest incidents can lead, with astonishing speed, to a reopening of all ques­tions. Specific, localized explanations tied to economic crises and political contexts never work, because the reason such events de­veloped as they did was what the situationists said it was: people were bored, they were not free, they did not know how to say so. Given the chance, they would say so. People could not form a real image of freedom, and they would seize any opportunity that made the construction of such an image possible.

— 8 — 

Leaving the 20th Century, edited and translated by former British situationist Christopher Gray, published only in the UK and long out of print, was until Ken Knabb’s book the best representation of situationist writing in English, and it was not good. Translations were messy and inaccurate, the selection of articles erratic and confusing, the commentary often mushy.

With the exception of a good edition of The Society of the Spectacle put out by Black & Red of Detroit in 1977, other situ­ationist work in English was far worse. A few pieces — “The Decline and Fall of the Specta­cle-Commodity Society” (on Watts), “On the Poverty of Student Life” (the SI’s most fa­mous publication, which caused a scandal in France in 1966 and prefigured the May 1968 revolt), “The Beginning of an Era” (on May 1968) — appeared as smudgy, sometimes gruesomely typeset and translated pamphlets. Most were put out by the short­-lived British or American sections of the SI, or by small situationist-inspired groups in New York or Berkeley.

The situationist journal, and the situ­ationist books as they were originally pub­lished in Paris, could not have been more different. Wonderfully illustrated with photos, comics, reproductions of advertise­ments, drawings, and maps, Internationale Situationniste had an elegant, straight­forward design: flat, cool, and direct. It made a simple point: what we have written is meant seriously and should be read seriously.

The Situationist International Anthology does not present the complete text of the situationist journal, and it has no illustrations. But the translations are clear and readable — sometimes too literal, sometimes inspired. Entirely self-published, the anthology is a better job of book-making than most of the books published today by com­mercial houses. There are virtually no typos; it is well indexed, briefly but usefully an­notated, and the design, binding, and print­ing are all first class.

In other words, Knabb has, unlike most other publishers of situationist material in English, taken the material seriously, and allowed it to speak with something like its original authority. One can follow the devel­opment of a group of writers which devoted itself to living up to one of its original prescriptions: “The task of an avant-garde is to keep abreast of reality.”

The situationist journal was never copyrighted. Rather, it bore this legend: “All the texts published in International Situationniste may be freely reproduced, trans­lated, or adapted, even without indication of origin.” Knabb’s book carries an equivalent notation.

— 9 — 

The role of the Situationist International, its members wrote, was not to act as any sort of vanguard party. The situationists “had to know how to wait,” and to be ready to disap­pear in a common festival of revolt. Their job was not to “build” the SI, as the job of a Trotskyist or Bolshevik militant is to build his or her organization, trimming all thoughts and all pronouncements to that goal, careful not to offend anyone who might be seduced or recruited. Their job was to think and speak as clearly as possible — not to get people to listen to speeches, they said, but to get people to think for themselves.

Rather than expanding their group, the situationists worked to make it smaller, ex­pelling careerist, backsliding, or art-as-poli­tics (as opposed to politics-as-art) members almost from the day the group was formed. By the time of the May 1968 revolt, the Situationist International was composed mostly of Parisians hardly more numerous­ — perhaps less numerous — than those who walked the streets as the Lettrist Interna­tional. Behind them they had 11 numbers of their journal, more than a decade of fitting theory to fragments of practice, and the scan­dals of Strasbourg and Nanterre, both of which gained them a far wider audience than they had ever had before. And so, in May, they made a difference. They defined the mood and the spirit of the event: almost all of the most memorable graffiti from that explosion came, as inspiration or simply quota­tion, from situationist books and essays. “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints,” ran one apparently spontaneous slogan, in fact a quote from Raoul Vaneigem, “such people have corpses in their mouths.”

At the liberated Sorbonne and later in their own Council for Maintaining the Oc­cupations, the situationists struggled against reformism, working to define the most radi­cal possibilities of the May revolt — “[This] is now a revolutionary movement,” read their “Address to All Workers” of May 30, 1968, “a movement which lacks nothing but the con­sciousness of what it has already done in order to triumph” — which meant, in the end, that the situationists would leave behind the most radical definition of the failure of that revolt. It was an event the situationists had constructed, in the pages of their journal, long before it took place. One can look back to January 1963 and read in I.S. #8: “We will only organize the detonation.

— 10 — 

What to make of this strange mix of post-surrealist ideas about art, Marxian concepts of alienation, an attempt to recover a forgot­ten revolutionary tradition, millenarianism, and plain refusal of the world combined with a desire to smash it? Nothing, perhaps. The Situationist International cannot even be justified by piggy-backing it onto official his­tory, onto May 1968, not because that revolt failed, but because it disappeared. If 300 books on May 1968 were published within a year of the event, as I.S. #12 trumpeted, how many were published in the years to follow? If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also re­alized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act — and May was one great, complex, momentarily controlling exemplary act —­ may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go.

What one can make of the material in the Situationist International Anthology is perhaps this: out of the goals and the perspectives the situationists defined for themselves came a critique so strong it forces one to try to understand its sources and its shape, no matter how much of it one might see through. In an attack on the Situationist International published in 1978, Jean Barrot wrote that it had wound up “being used as literature.” This is undoubtedly true, and it is as well a rather bizarre dismissal of the way in which people might use literature. “An author who teaches a writer nothing,” Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Author as Pro­ducer,” “teaches nobody anything. The de­termining factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.” The fact is that the writing in the Situationist International Anthology makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist, and satisfied. The book is a means to the recovery of ambition. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 18, 2020

  

Remarks on Timothy Leary’s “Politics of Ecstasy” by Allen Ginsberg

“The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated.”

by ALLEN GINSBERG

Originally published December 12, 1968

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy
RCB VV COLLAGE

‘Christmas in Earth’

By the late ’40s of this memory Century the people I knew best and loved the most had already broken through the crust of old Reason & were dowsing for some Supreme Reality, Christmas on Earth Rimbaud said, Second Religiousness according to Spengler’s outline of civilization declining through proliferation of non-human therefore boring technology; Blake had called “O Earth O Earth return!” centuries before, echoing the ancient gnostic prophecy that Whitman spelled out for America specifically demanding that the Steam-engine “be confronted and met by at least equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine aesthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness —” Ezra Pound’s mind jumped to diagnose the dimming of the world’s third Eye: “With Usura the line grows thick.”

One scholar who transmitted Blake’s kabbalah, S. Foster Damon, can remember his sudden vision of tiny flowers carpeting Harvard Yard violet before World War One, an image that lingers over 60 years in mind since his fellow student Virgil Thomson gave him the cactus Peyote to eat. Damon concludes that rare beings like Blake are born with physiologic gift of such vision, continuous or intermittent. William James, whose pragmatic magic probably called the Peyote God to Harvard in the first place, had included shamanistic chemical visions among the many authentic “Varieties of Religious Experience.” His student Gertrude Stein experimented in alteration of consciousness through mindfulness of language, an extremely effective Yoga since mechanical reproduction of language by XX Century had made language the dominant vehicle of civilized consciousness; her companion Alice B. Toklas contributed a cookbook recipe for Hashish Brownies to enlighten those persons over-talkative in drawing rooms unaware that “the medium is the message.”

This synchronism is exquisite: William S. Burroughs also once of Harvard shared Miss Stein’s mindfulness of the hypnotic drug-like power of language, and collaborated on cut-up rearrangement of stereotyped language forms with friend Brion Gysin, who had originally given Miss Toklas the recipe for her famous Brownies. Burroughs among others had begun experiments with drug-shamanism after World War Two — for the author of “Naked Lunch” it was a pragmatic extension of his Cambridge interest in linguistic Anthropology. That same gnostic impulse broke through to clear consciousness simultaneously in many American cities: Gary Snyder realized the entire universe was alive one daybreak 1948 in Poland when a flight birds rose out of the tree stillness in a gully by the city river, a natural vision — The masters of the Berkeley Renaissance read Gertrude Stein aloud and practiced Poetic kabbalah (charming synchronism that psychologist Timothy Leary met poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan in that same 1948 student scene) — Neal Cassady drove Jack Kerouac to Mexico in a prophetic automobile to see the physical body of America, the same Denver Cassady that one decade later drove Ken Kesey’s Kosmos-patterned schoolbus on a Kafka-circus tour over the roads of the awakening nation — And the wakening began, some say, with the first saxophone cry of the new mode of black music which shook the walls of white city mind when Charles Parker lifted his birdflightnoted horn & announced a new rhythm of thinking, and extended breathing of the body in music and speech, a new consciousness. For as Plato had said, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated. It was always the secret tale of the tribe in America, this great scandal of the closing of the doors of perception of the Naked Human Form Divine. It began with the white murder of Indian inhabitants of the ground, the theft and later usurious exploitation of their land, it continued with an assault on all races and species of Mother Nature herself and concludes today with total disruption of the ecology of the entire planet. No wonder black slaves kept for non-human use into this century in tear-gassed ghettos of megalopolis were the first Aliens to sound the horn of Change, first Strangers to Call the Great Call through Basilides’ many Heavens. Amazing synchronism again, that Mr. Frank Takes Gun, Native American Church amerindian Peyote Chief, invited the brilliantly talkative silver-haired psychiatrist who directed a Saskatchewan mental hospital in the early ’40s to participate in a Peyote ritual, and that the same Dr. Humphrey Osmond having recognized a wonder of consciousness thus experienced passed on the catalyst in Mescaline synthetic form to Aldous Huxley; and that Huxley’s 1945 essay on the chemical opening of the Doors of Perception found its way to the tables of Bickford’s Cafeteria Times Square New York & the couches of Reed College and Berkeley, where artist persons, having heard the Great Call of the Negroes, already initiated themselves en masse to subtle gradations of their own consciousness experienced while smoking the same Afric hemp smoked by Charles Parker Thelonius Monk & Dizzy Gillespie.

Dr. Timothy Leary takes up his part of the tale of the tribe in a Mexican hut and brings his discovery to Harvard harmoniously — and there begins the political battle, black and white magic become public visible for a generation. Dr. Leary is a hero of American consciousness. He began as a sophisticated academician, he encountered discoveries in his field which confounded him and his own technology, he pursued his studies where attention commanded, he arrived beyond the boundaries of public knowledge. One might hesitate to say, like Socrates, like Galileo? — poor Dr. Leary, poor Earth! Yet here we are in Science Fiction History, in the age of Hydrogen Bomb Apocalypse, the very Kali Yuga wherein man’s stupidity so overwhelms the planet that ecological catastrophe begins to rehearse old tribe-tales of Karmaic retribution, Fire & Flood & Armageddon impending.

It would be natural (in fact deja vu) that the very technology stereotyping our consciousness & desensitizing our perceptions should throw up its own antidote, an antidote synthetic such as LSD synchronous with mythic tribal Soma & Peyote. Given such historic Comedy, who could emerge from Harvard technology but one and only Dr. Leary, a respectable human being, a worldly man faced with the task of a Messiah. Inevitable! Not merely because the whole field of mental psychology as a “science” had arrived at biochemistry anyway. It was inevitable because the whole professional civilized world, like Dr. Leary, was already faced with Messianic task of accelerated evolution (i.e. psychosocial Revolution) including an alteration of human consciousness leading to the immediate mutation of social & economic forms. This staggering realization, psychedelic, i.e., consciousness expanding & mind-manifesting in itself, without the use of chemical catalysts, is now forced on all of us by images of our own unconscious rising from the streets of Chicago, where teargas was dumped on Christ’s very Cross in Lincoln Park AD 1968. The drains are backing up in the cities, smog noise and physiologic poison in food turn us to insect acts, overpopulation crazes the planet, our lakes corrupt, old riverways become dank fens, tanks enter Prague and Chicago streets simultaneous, Police State arrives in every major city, starvation wastes African provinces, Chinese genocide in Vietnam, Alarm! Alarm! howls deep as any Biblic prophecy.

Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break “the mind forg’d manacles.” Given one by-product of the technology that might, as it were by feed-back, correct the berserk machine and liberate the invertor’s mind from captivity by hypnotic robots, Dr. Leary had in LSD an invaluable civilized elixir. For, as Dr. Jiri Roubichek observed early in Prague (“Artificial Psychosis,” 1958), “LSD inhibits conditioned reflexes.” And this single phrase, for rational men, might be the key to the whole gnostic mystery of LSD and Dr. Leary’s role as unique, alas solitary, courageous, humane & frank Democratic Boddhisatva-teacher of the uses of LSD in America. For he took on himself the noble task of announcing the evidence of his senses despite the scary contumely of fellow academicians, the dispraising timorous irony of scientific “professionals,” the stupidity meanness self-serving cowardice and hollow vanity of bureaucratic personnel from Harvard Yard to Mexico City to Washington, from the ignorant Sheriff’s office in Dutchess County NY to the inner greedy sanctums of the US Treasury Department in D. C., our whole “establishment” of civilization that defends us from knowledge of our own unconscious by means of policeman’s clubs, and would resist the liberation of our minds and bodies by any brutish means available including teargas, napalm & the Hydrogen Bomb.

Dr. Leary conducted himself fairly & equitably, given the extremity of his knowledge; it took an innocent courage to explore his own unconditioned consciousness, to take LSD and other chemicals often enough to be well balanced in praxis as well as explanation, and to attempt to wed the enormity of his experience to Reason. An heroic attempt to communicate clearly and openly through civilized technologic media to his fellow citizens, despite centuries of identity brainwash accelerated now to mass paranoia and Cold War Apocalypse, required Dr. Leary the proverbial wisdom of serpent & harmlessness of dove.

Timothy Leary tells the tale of his tribe in book aptly titled “The Politics of Ecstasy,” & events enlarged since he wrote his book and chose its title charge the author’s handiwork with prophetic enormity. The battle of generations that erupted this year simultaneously in Prague, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, New York (and Moscow underground) — everywhere the State’s electronic consciousness is interlinked — transcends antique battles of Cold War and Race. We witness planetary confrontation wherein controlling Elders trapped in a suicidal mechanical consciousness deploy their destructive technology against their own children in the streets of their own cities. ‘Tis Blake’s Urizen tormenting tender Los in Eternity! New generations have risen spontaneously with new consciousness and a mutant politics of flower power that is rooted in the ground of human consciousness itself: an acceptance of human identity as one with living nature on a living planet where all creatures are living God. The public philosophies and technologies of all civilized Governments at present are are at war with this God, and the planet itself is within decades of destruction. No wonder there is sudden appearance of Adamic hair. Eve walks naked in the streets; ancient body rhythm beat out thru the airwaves in eclectic mantric Rock from Bratislava to San Francisco, & youths ingest shamanic elixirs to recover consciousness of planetary Archetypes. Hare Krishna!

One politic synchronism that concerns this text should be gossiped forth contextual. Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeatedly abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac. I quote from the Spring 1968 State Document in any case for the delectation of gnostic Cognoscenti, that is to say myriads of the present young:

“To Hon. Edw. W. Wadsworth
Clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit
Room 408 — 400 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA. 70130
“Re: No 23570
Timothy Leary vs United States of America

“… We are applying for an order from the District Court requiring the Defendant to surrender to the United States Marshal…

“The appellant continues his publicized activities involving the advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs by students and others of immature judgment and tender years and is regarded as a menace to the community so long as he is at large …

Very truly yours,
Morton L. Sussman,
United States Attorney.

By: James R. Gough,
Asst. U.S. ATTY.
Chief, Appeals Research Division”

Thus requesting revocation of Dr. Leary’s bail’d liberty while his political-religious defense for possession of an herb approached Supreme Court, Agents of Government checked further conversation with the young. The Millbrook Ashram having been simultaneously dispersed by Agents of Government his immediate financial responsibilities lightened, Timothy Leary retired back home to Berkeley with his mate and completed his description of “the Politics of Ecstasy.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 21, 2020

“Joplin’s Shooting Star”1966-1970 | The Pop History Dig | Jack Doyle

“Joplin’s Shooting Star”

1966-1970

Janis Joplin featured in a ‘Newsweek’ cover story, ‘Rebirth of the Blues,’ May 26, 1969.
Janis Joplin featured in a ‘Newsweek’ cover story, ‘Rebirth of the Blues,’ May 26, 1969.

In the rock ‘n roll firmament of the 1960s, Janis Joplin was a shooting star who burned white hot for five short years.  She died of a heroin overdose at age 27.  Joplin sang her own brand of the blues in an incendiary style.  Yet in her short time — between 1966 and 1970 — she carved out a piece of music history that was distinctly her own. During these years, she traveled from the conservative community of Port Arthur, Texas to the expansive and unpredictable world that was the drug/hippie/music scene of 1960s San Francisco — and mostly in the glare of national stardom.     Joplin was born in Port Arthur, an oil refinery town, in 1943.  As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with a few high school friends.  Black blues singers Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her heroes.

An outcast in Port Arthur by the early 1960s, Joplin had made her way to California a time or two, and eventually came to San Francisco’s music and hippie scene.  At the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.”  From that point on, she became something of national phenomenon.

But not everyone loved Janis Joplin.  Her stage antics and whiskey-swilling, devil-may-care style put many people off.  Some were convinced she had a death wish and was killing herself slowly with each performance and each day’s excesses, so that when she sang “Piece of My Heart,” the meaning was for real. The article that follows here covers some of the main events in the last four years of her life, from her rapid rise to stardom to her untimely death.

Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where she would do a stunning version of ‘Ball and Chain’ that would mark her as an overnight blues sensation. Photo, Ted Streshinsky. Click for studio DVD version.
Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where she would do a stunning version of ‘Ball and Chain’ that would mark her as an overnight blues sensation. Photo, Ted Streshinsky. 


Rock Epiphany

Janis  Joplin did not initially see herself as a big-time performer or a major talent.  But in 1966, when she first teamed up with a real rock band she had met through friends, Joplin had a kind of epiphany.  Chet Helms, a fellow Texan and one of San Francisco’s music promoters, introduced her to a then little-known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Up to that point, Joplin was thinking she had a good enough voice for local gigs, but that was about it.  “… All of a sudden someone threw me into this rock band,” she would later explain, recalling her Big Brother session.  “They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind, the bass was charging me, and I decided then and there that was it, I never wanted to do anything else.  It was better than it had been with any man, you know…  Maybe that’s the trouble…”

Joplin joined Big Brother in June 1966.  Her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco where they became the house band.  In the following year, they cut their first album, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and gained a following with songs from that album, including, “Bye Bye Baby,” “Blind Man” and “Down On Me.”  Then on June 17, 1967 she an Big Brother performed their show-stopping set on the second day of the Monterey International Pop Festival, setting them on a path to national stardom.

Janis Joplin shown with members of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Co., on album cover for live performance at Winterland in San Francisco.
Janis Joplin shown with members of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Co., on album cover for live performance at Winterland in San Francisco.

After Monterey, and after signing with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman in November 1967, Joplin and Big Brother were playing all over the country.  Grossman got them a whopping recording contract with CBS/Columbia Records.  They were soon making about $10,000 a performance, with Joplin’s annual income rising to about $150,000 — then very big money.  In February 1968, they began an East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and also played Anderson Hall in in New York where Joplin revealed her raw power over an audience. On the last day of their East Coast swing, April 7, 1968, Joplin and Big Brother performed at the “Wake For Martin Luther King Jr.” concert in New York along with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop.  The next month or so was spent recording the album Cheap Thrills, which would be released later that summer.  In July 1968 she hit the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.  In August, Cheap Thirlls was released and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.  It sold one million copies in the first month featuring songs such as “Piece Of My Heart,” among others.  Joplin and Big Brother appeared on the West coast TV show, Hollywood Palace on October 26, 1968, performing two songs: “Summertime” and “I Need a Man to Love.”

Janis Joplin on the cover of the March 15th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, featuring a story that asks if she is “the Judy Garland of Rock?”
Janis Joplin on the cover of the March 15th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, featuring a story that asks if she is “the Judy Garland of Rock?”

By early December 1968 Joplin decided to leave Big Brother, and by the end of the year she had formed a new band called the Kozmic Blues Band, a soul revue band with a complete horn section.  Their first performance playing soul music was in late December in Memphis, TN. However, the band’s performances at the Fillmore East in February 1969 received mixed reviews. Elsewhere though, Janis and her band were getting more notice.In March 1969 there was a TV appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace and a Rolling Stone cover story that month posing the question: “Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?”  Also in March, Joplin and her band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Then it was back to San Francisco to Winterland and The Fillmore West.

A European tour came in April-May 1969 — Frankfurt, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris.  Her debut in London at Albert Hall that April produced rave reviews in the papers and trade press — Disc, Melody Maker, and The Telegraph.  Back in the States, studio work for another album,Kozmic Blues, began in Hollywood in June.  Joplin also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show for the first time July 18,1969.  She would appear on Cavett’s show two more times in 1970.  She and her band also played various music festivals that summer–Devonshire Downs in Northridge, CA, and the Atlanta Pop Festival in Georgia in July.  At the Atlantic City, New Jersey Pop Festival in early August, she sang with Little Richard.

Janis Joplin performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Janis Joplin performing at Woodstock, 1969.

Then in mid-August came Woodstock where she performed on the second day of the festival, singing a ten-song set that included such tunes as: “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Piece of My Heart,” and “Ball & Chain.”  Joplin by then had parted ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company.  Still, she had a full compliment of musicians backing her at Woodstock, where she performed in the wee hours, Saturday-to-Sunday, at about 2:00 a.m.  Some reported that without her normal band, Joplin’s performance lacked its usual punch, but others found it a solid performance.Henry Diltz was an official photographer at Woodstock and had an “all-access pass” that got him to the stage, and more importantly, “a little catwalk built just under the lip of the stage” where he took photographs of Joplin performing. “I was literally feet in front of her while she was singing — the absolutely best seat in the entire house of 400,000 people.”  Diltz said of Joplin’s performance: “Everything I saw her sing, it was nothing held back.”

A younger Janis Joplin performing at an unidentified rock-festival venue sometime in the 1960s.
A younger Janis Joplin performing at an unidentified rock-festival venue sometime in the 1960s.

Following Woodstock, and through the remainder of 1969,  there were other outings for Joplin and her band.  In September they played the New Orleans Pop Festival at Baton Rouge International Speedway in Louisiana and at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A.  In October there were gigs in Austin and Houston, Texas.  In November she appeared at Curtis Hall concert in Tampa, Florida where she was charged with two counts of using vulgar and obscene language on stage.  Later that month she appeared at Auditorium Hall in Chicago, and also Madison Square Garden in New York where she sang with Tina Turner at a Rolling Stones concert.  Her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, with the Kozmic Blues Band, was released about that time, and received mixed reviews.  It included songs such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “To Love Somebody,” a cover of a Bee Gees’ tune.

At the end of November 1969 Joplin played the West Palm Beach Rock Festival.  In December there was an appearance in Nashville and another at Madison Square Garden — called a “rousing display of blues and rock” by the New York Times — where she was joined on stage by Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield.  It was about this time that she was “romantically linked” with Joe Namath in the New York papers, which appears to have been exaggerated beyond a meeting and a date or two.  Other appearances in 1969 included ABC-TV’s Tom Jones Show, the Quaker City Rock Festival/Philadelphia, the Civic Center/Baltimore, ABC-TV’s show Music Scene, and the Toronto Pop Festival.  Back home in California, meanwhile, Joplin moved into to a secluded home in a Redwood forest in the Larkspur area of Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, a beautiful spot between Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay.  But toward the end of 1969, Joplin decided to take some time off.

Janis Joplin & David Niehaus on Copacabana Beach in Brazil, 1970, where Janis was surrounded by, and talking with, reporters.
Janis Joplin & David Niehaus on Copacabana Beach in Brazil, 1970, where Janis was surrounded by, and talking with, reporters.

R&R in Brazil

In January of 1970, Janis and her Kozmic Blues band parted ways, and in February, she traveled to Brazil with her friend and costume designer Linda Gravenites.  Gravenites had been with Joplin since 1966 and had lived a clean and sober life and was traveling with Joplin in part to help her kick her drug and alcohol habits.

In Brazil, Joplin met and became involved with David Niehaus, a clean and sober American schoolteacher who was traveling around the world at the time.  The two were later photographed as happy revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, described as a “carefree” couple having a great time. Niehaus was one of the first men in Janis’s life at the time who saw her as a woman and not a rock star, and Janis was quite taken with him. By April she reported from Rio that she was “going off into the jungle with a big bear of a man.”  But when Joplin returned to the U.S. she began using heroin again and her relationship with Niehaus ended as a result. Still, some friends would say that Niehuas was the lost love of her life.

Poster for a Janis Joplin concert on June 12, 1970 in Louisville, KY with her new Full-Tilt Boogie Band.
Poster for a Janis Joplin concert on June 12, 1970 in Louisville, KY with her new Full-Tilt Boogie Band.

Back in San Francisco, meanwhile, Joplin had formed her new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band — a band composed mostly of young Canadian musicians; a band that Joplin had taken a more active role in forming than she did with her prior group.  She would later describe this band as more fully her own.  Joplin began touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band in May 1970 and was quite happy with their performances and the feedback from fans and critics.  Still, earlier that year, she had done a few performances with her former bandmates.On April 4th in San Francisco, she performed a reunion gig with Big Brother & The Holding Co. at the Fillmore West.  Again, on April 12th, she appeared with Big Brother at Winterland where she and group were found in excellent form.  By the time she began touring with Full Tilt Boogie in May 1970, Joplin had told friends she was drug-free.  In fact, the young Canadians in her new band were also drug free and had no association with her old San Francisco crowd.  Still, some noticed that her drinking had increased.

In late June 1970, she appeared on TV’s The Dick Cavett Show, where she announced she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion later that summer in Port Arthur, Texas.  High school had not been a happy time for Joplin, noting at one point that her classmates, “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.”  More on the high school visit later.

1970 poster advertising Canada’s transconti- nental Festival Express.
1970 poster advertising Canada’s Trans Continental Festival Express.
Festival Express logo sticker.
Festival Express logo sticker.

The Festival Express

In late June and early July 1970, Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada.  On this tour, Joplin and her band performed on the same bill with other acts including: the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Rick Danko and The Band, Eric Andersen, Ian and Sylvia, and others.

The Festival Express was unique among rock festivals.  Rather than flying to each city — Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver were each scheduled — the musicians would travel by chartered Canadian National Railways train.  The idea was to foster an atmosphere of musical creativity and closeness between the performers.  The trips between cities were a mix of jam sessions and partying, with no shortage of drugs and alcohol.  One of these sessions became quite notable — with Rick Danko of The Band, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin all having a rollicking good time.

During the actual Festival Express series of concerts — which saw the Vancouver concert cancelled due to the mayor’s “anti-hippie” edicts — Janis Joplin gave some memorable performances.  Footage of Joplin singing “Tell Mama” in Calgary would later become an MTV video in the 1980s.  This performance would also be included on later Joplin albums and DVDs.

The Festival Express Tour ended in early July 1970, but some 30 years later, in 2003, a “rockumentary” was produced featuring the original Festival Express tour, its music, and travels.  That film would reap more than $1.2 million at the U.S. box office, and the DVD would become a hot seller as well.  Shortly after the Festival Express, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii where they performed in early July 1970 at the International Center Arena.  But then it was back to California.

Poster for July 1970 Janis Joplin concert.
Poster for July 1970 Janis Joplin concert.

San Diego

On July 11th, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band arrived in San Diego for a concert there at the Sports Arena.  They were joined in San Diego by longtime Doors producer, Paul Rothchild, who was being considered to work with Joplin on her next album.  Janis’s sister, Laura, would later write of Rothchild in her book, Love, Janis:

“In San Diego, Janis gave him a stopwatch, saying ‘Look, I’ve got thirty-five good minutes in me. You stand behind the amps and I’ll look you over, you flash me how much time I have left.’ Paul thought it was a good sign that she was pacing herself like a runner.”

Joplin was fighting her alcohol and drug demons at the time.

Psychedelic-style poster for the July 11, 1970 concert in San Diego with Janis Joplin photo.
Psychedelic-style poster for the July 11, 1970 concert in San Diego with Janis Joplin photo.

Rothchild later said of watching Joplin’s performance as she was singing:“. . . I was enraptured because I was listening to one of the most brilliant vocalists I ever heard, in classical, pop, or jazz music. What a voice. . . all of the woman was revealed.  The vessel of Janis vanished. For somebody like me, who was always talking about the inner beauty and all that stuff, it got me big. So I was totally hooked from that moment on, on every single possible level.”

Several weeks later, Rothchild would help Janis work on her final album, Pearl.

On the plane ride back to San Francisco after the San Diego concert, Janis was upbeat, as the presence of old friends at the concert had energized her.  She bought drinks for everyone on the plane.

But some of those with her, like Big Brother guitarist James Gurley, thought she was a bit “too exuberant, trying to be the life of the party.”

Joplin was still on an emotional roller coaster; high and then low.  She was struggling to maintain her equilibrium.

Shea Stadium

In early August 1970, Joplin again appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, and a few days later, on August 6, 1970, performed as a surprise guest at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in Queens.  Joplin was not on the original roster of performers for the concert, but since she was in New York and her former band, Big Brother, was on the bill, she agreed to do the concert. By some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended  Joplin’s performance, re- portedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. This concert — also called the Summer Festival for Peace — followed a Winter Festival for Peace that had been staged earlier that year at Madison Square Garden.  These concerts were among the first ever in the U.S. to be used for political fund raising and anti-war purposes.  Such concerts were not generally seen prior to 1970, but became more common thereafter.  The acts at the Peace Festivals generally donated their time and performances.  Among the performers at Shea Stadium that August were Peter Yarrow, Pacific Gas & Electric, Tom Paxton, Dionne Warwick, Poco, Ten Wheel Drive, Al Kooper, Richie Havens, Sha-Na-Na, The Young Rascals, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, The James Gang, Miles Davis, Johnny Winter, Herbie Hancock and others.  The show ran from 10:00 a.m. to midnight.  And by some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended.  Joplin’s performance — reportedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey — included at least four of her songs: “Ball & Chain,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues” and “Piece of My Heart.”

Bessie’s Marker

Headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave site that Janis Joplin helped pay for. Inscription:‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
Headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave site that Janis Joplin helped pay for. Inscription:‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’

One of Joplin’s idols growing up had been Bessie Smith, the famous blues and jazz singer of the 1920 and 1930s.  Smith’s music had been an early influence on Joplin.  But when Joplin learned that Smith’s grave site had no marker, she moved to help provide a major portion of the funds to obtain one.  A few days following her concert at Shea Stadium, on August 8, 1970, Joplin provided at least part of the financing to provide a headstone for Smith’s unmarked grave at Philadelphia’s Mount Lawn Cemetery.  An inscription on the installed headstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’     Joplin’s next scheduled appearance in 1970 was in Boston, at Harvard College, but her band’s equipment was stolen. The group managed to make their performance at Harvard Stadium on August 12 th before 40,000 fans using borrowed equipment. Still, they seemed to have delivered a decent concert, as a front-page story in Harvard Crimson newspaper gave the concert a positive review.  It would be Joplin’s last public appearance with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and her last public performance.  Her next stop was her former home town, Port Arthur, Texas for the tenth year reunion of her high school class.

Janis’ Texas Hurt1956-1964
Joplin as she appeared in her 1960 high school photo.
Joplin as she appeared in her 1960 high school photo.

Growing up in the conservative oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas in the 1950s was not easy for young Janis Joplin.  Although she was loved by her family while growing up there, her high school and local college experiences in Texas appeared to have scarred her deeply.  As a teenager she had read the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started singing folk and blues music locally.  But in high school, she had gained weight and developed bad skin, and was called “pig” by some of the other kids.  After graduating high school in 1960, she attended Lamar State College that summer, at nearby Beaumont Texas, and continued there in the fall.  Ridiculed there as well, and not comfortable in class, she dropped out.  In 1961, after passing a secretarial exam, Joplin’s parents sent her to Los Angeles to live with her aunts, but she soon found a place of her own in Venice Beach where drugs became part of her life. The visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what Joplin had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. By the end of the year, she returned home to Port Arthur.  In 1962, she enrolled in fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin and was also singing locally, blues mostly, but also with a blue grass band.  Her experiences on the University of Texas campus, however, weren’t much better than in Port Arthur or Beaumont, as she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award at one point, a deep cut.  After hearing about the post-Beat scene in San Francisco, Joplin made her way to North Beach in San Francisco and then Haight-Ashbury, then becoming more heavily involved with alcohol and drugs.  After a near-death experience, and reportedly dropping to a weight of about 88 pounds at one point, she returned to Port Arthur in 1965.  Back home, she tried college again at Lamar, this time enrolling as a sociology major.  She kicked her drug habit, changed her look to a more conservative style, but still, her experiences at Lamar were no better. In Austin, meanwhile, she continued singing blues at a few clubs in late 1965 and early 1966.  By mid-1966 she returned to California for good, pursuing her music career in San Francisco by joining Big Brother and the Holding Company.  By late 1967, following her debut at the Monterey Festival, she was on her way to national stardom.

Janis Joplin on the cover of "Rolling Stone," August 6, 1970.
Janis Joplin on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” August 6, 1970.

In mid-August 1970, when Joplin returned to Port Arthur for her 10th year high school reunion, she was coming back, in part, to make a statement about her success, and specifically for those who had treated her badly as a teenager.  But during the visit, Joplin was drinking hard and she did not attempt to “tone down” her dress or her style.  She had also previously made negative remarks about Port Arthur in the national press — or as one New York Times writer put it — “never missed a chance to dismiss her blue-collar hometown as a bastion of small-town intolerance.”  On August 14th, Joplin attended her high school reunion at Thomas Jefferson High School.  She was accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth, road manager John Cooke, and her younger sister, Laura.  Dressed in the popular San Francisco hippie fashion of the day with feathers and beads and her trademark purple-tinted glasses, Joplin answered questions at a press conference, during which some of her more painful high school days came up again.  All in all, it wasn’t a pleasant visit for Joplin.  Generally, this visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what she had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved.  She soon returned to California to work on her music.

Final Days 

During late August, Joplin arrived in Los Angeles to begin work on a new album.  Sessions were planned for the Sunset Sound Studio with producer Paul Rothchild.  Joplin checked into the nearby Landmark Motel.  She had been seeing a steady new boyfriend, a younger and wealthy easterner named Seth Morgan, and they were rumored to be engaged.  But Joplin at the time threw herself into her recording sessions and the work on her new album.When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor.  She also had a bit of fun at the session, at one point recording a birthday greeting for John Lennon that would be sent to him later — using the Roy Rogers / Dale Evens tune, “Happy Trails.”

On Saturday, October 3, 1970, Joplin visited the Sunset Studios to listen to the instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues” prior to recording her vocal track with it, scheduled for the next day.  But on Sunday afternoon, she failed to show up at the studio.  Producer Rothchild and road manager John Cooke became concerned.  Cooke drove to the Landmark Motel where he found Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche still in the parking lot.  When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor.  The official cause of death was later determined as an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.  Janis Joplin was 27 years old.  Her ashes were later scattered into the Pacific Ocean along Stinson Beach north of San Francisco.

Cover of Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" single from her posthumous 'Pearl' album, 1971.
Cover of Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” single from her posthumous ‘Pearl’ album, 1971.

Joplin’s newly recorded material from her Los Angeles studio sessions, meanwhile, had not gone to market.  Four months after her death, in February 1971, the new material was released under the album name, Pearl, a nickname sometimes used for Joplin.  The album included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No. 1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits. But the one song on that album without Joplin’s lyrics — the performance she never showed up for the weekend of her death — was left as an instrumental, “Buried Alive in The Blues.” Part of the verse in that song goes as follows: “All caught up in a landslide / Bad luck pressing in from all sides / Just got knocked off my easy ride / Buried alive in the blues.”  And as Joplin herself once said: “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singer’s miserable. They like their blues singers to die afterwards.”

Cover photo of a young Janis Joplin from boxed set of 3 CDs.
Cover photo of a young Janis Joplin from boxed set of 3 CDs.

Joplin as Icon

Joplin’s death was a blow to her fans and the music world, especially since only weeks earlier, Jimi Hendrix had also died.  Joplin was remembered as a musical force and an icon for her own times as well as the ages.  Many thought Joplin was just hitting her stride with Pearl, and might have gone on to much greater things had she overcome her demons. Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, calls Pearl, “the precious last testament of a belter.” By her last year, Moon says, Joplin had grown into “a devastatingly original voice, the rare white interpreter of African American music who resisted the ready cliche. She treated old Delta songs and ’50s R&B ballads as theatrical platforms, ripe for large-scale rethinking. Her blues woe was never typical blues woe. …[S]he could turn out a plea that made listeners feel like they were part of a fateful make-or-break moment happening right then.”

Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that Joplin was: “overpowering and deeply vulnerable, brassy and shy, stylized and direct, indomitable and masochistic.  She took the tough rasp of old blues shouters and made it her own by bringing out pain and tension to match the bravado.  With magnificent timing Joplin made it seem as if she was pouring out unvarnished emotion.”

The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, writing her 1995 induction description, adds: “Janis Joplin has passed into the realm of legend: an outwardly brash yet inwardly vulnerable and troubled personality who possessed one of the most passionate voices in rock history.”

Janis Joplin, undated photo.
Janis Joplin, undated photo.

Megan Terry, among other authors writing in the book, Notable American Women, observes: “Joplin brought to her music a distinctive sound and look, passion and an honest interpretive ability.  Her hold over an audience was as great as that of Elvis Presley and her success was an extraordinary and unprecedented feat in the male- dominated rock and music world.”

In fact, along with Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane, Joplin is credited with opening doors for women who would follow her in the rock ‘n roll business.  And finally, music journalist Ellen Wills noted that “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music.  Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator-recorder-embodiment of her generation’s mythology.”  Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.  Musicologists and historians continue to revisit her work.  In November 2009, Case Western Reserve University and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum celebrated the music of Janis Joplin during the 14th annual American Music Masters series, calling her one of rock ‘n roll’s most passionate and influential artists.

Janis Joplin photograph, undated.

Janis Joplin photograph, undated.

Back in Port Arthur, Texas, meanwhile, and nearly two decades after her death, some of the love and recognition Janis Joplin had sought from her hometown began coming her way in after-the-fact fashion.  In 1988, Joplin’s life and achievements were showcased and recognized at a January Convention Center gathering — an event, wrote Peter Applebome of the New York Times, “that perhaps had as much to do with economics as with affection.”  Some 5,000 people came out for the ceremony, a major turn out for Port Arthur.  There was a dedication of a Janis Joplin Memorial, which included a multi-image bronze sculpture of Joplin.  The sculpture, along with momentos of Joplin’s career, as well as that of other local musicians including the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) and Johnny Winter, would eventually become part of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, housing a permanent Joplin exhibit on the second floor.In January 2008, Port Arthur celebrated Joplin’s 65th birthday by putting a historical marker in front of her childhood home.  The town now proclaims its link to Joplin with billboards, brochures, an annual concert, and local tours of various Joplin landmarks.  “She was a very popular figure in the ’60s, and she had a lot to do with the style of music that evolved at that time,” said Yvonne Sutherlin of Jefferson County Historical Commission in January 2008.  “We just want people to know that she’s from here.”

Associated Press, November 7th, 1970.
Associated Press, November 7th, 1970.

Beyond Port Arthur, the life and career of Janis Joplin has been explored on stage and screen in a number of productions and documentaries. In 1974-75, Janis, a Canadian film about her career using archival footage was produced. In 1979, the Hollywood film, The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was loosely based on Joplin’s life. In 1992,the biography, Love, Janis was published, written by Joplin’s sister, Laura. A musical stage show with the same title, Love, Janis, ran off-Broadway during 2001-2003 for more than 700 performances. In Washington, D.C., the Arena Stage featured a 2013 production – A Night with Janis Joplin – which includes the Janis character telling stories of inspiration from other artists such as Odetta and Aretha Franklin. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame came for Joplin in 2013, and a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp was issued in her honor in 2014. And in 2015, the documentary film, Janis: Little Girl Blue, directed by Amy J. Berg, was shown at the Toronto film festival, since airing to positive reviews in early 2016 on the American Masters PBS-TV series.     See also at this website: “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,” about a Mercedes-Benz TV ad using a Joplin song, and “White Rabbit,” a profile of a Jefferson Airplane song, its politics, and the group’s lead singer, Grace Slick. Other stories on notable women can be found at the topics page, “Noteworthy Ladies.” Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

Source: “Joplin’s Shooting Star”1966-1970 | The Pop History Dig

The lasting influence of The Velvet Underground and Nico | Riley Fitzgerald

The Velvet Underground and Nico embodies a seldom realised idea: that music really can change the world. A financial failure in its time, the loose collection of these New York artists’ self-titled debut took a decade to sell 100,000 copies.

However, despite its commercial failings, The Velvets’ humble flop was a primitively bright conceptual spark. While simultaneously hitting the bargain bins, greater forces were at play. Ripples of inspiration were subtlety mutating the face of popular culture. A powerful influence, the group’s deep-seated creative forces unified into something truly iconic.

Over a prolonged period of gestation word of mouth built in the musical underground. The innovative album passed hands while outspoken critics like Lester Bangs lionised the group’s achievement. To cite Brian Eno’s famous remarks to the LA Times in 1982:

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

The Velvet Underground and Nico embodied the ultimate album ideal: how the creative influence of five musicians could inform the next twenty years of music.

A central reference point in seemingly every shake-up in rock music since its release, generations of unrelated musical movements drew something different from between the vinyl grooves. Post-punk, glam rock, art rock, new wave, noise, and even industrial can trace their twisted lineages to the iconic album. Its influence still courses fluidly throughout modern music, and remains a seminal name-check for anything primal and completely outside the norm.

Commercial pressures, powerful personalities and creative impulse can often lead to compromise in a band. The Velvets were by no means immune to these factors, but what is remarkable is how true each creative contributor remained to their individual inspirations. Take a moment to profile the unlikely constituents which gave rise to the sonic schizophrenia of the band.

Lou Reed was the cantankerous black sheep of a middle-class Jewish family. Informed by literary studies and a stint in a mental institution at age 17, Reed looked to expand the idea of what popular music could entail. Musically the young songwriter cut his teeth churning out Motown, surf rock and bubblegum pop sound-alikes for the unscrupulous Pickwick Records.

Yet the Long Island native sought to follow in the steps of the visceral literature of William S. Burroughs and his beat generation forbears. Hidden behind the clichés of rock and roll, Reed saw an unlimited potential to accommodate a broader range of meaning.

Breaking down the barrier between rock music and poetic narrative, Lou injected sleaze and degradation into rock. At a time when puritanical values and obscenity laws could still place a chokehold on the avant-garde, Reed sang about heroin, transvestites and rent boys. Yet the band didn’t kick off as some grand artistic endeavour. Looking to capitalise on a more contrary sound Pickwick encouraged Reed to bring together a mock rock group to perform single Ostrich live. Known as The Primitives, the group started gigging live; securing a fortuitous residency at New York’s Cafe Bizarre in 1965.

Playing alongside Reed at this time was John Cale. A Welsh emigrant, Cale was an acolyte of the avant-garde. After finishing his study in London he relocated to New York in 1963 where he made a name for himself playing alongside influential neo-classical musicians like John Cage and Terry Riley. The young artist was probably just as happy to play a single piano chord 50 times with his elbows as anything else, but after meeting Reed at a party, he agreed to join his group.

Sterling Morrison was a Syracuse University graduate who was invited to play with The Primitives after a chance meeting with Reed, his old high school acquaintance, on a Manhattan subway. Contributing a more conventional grounding to his counterparts, he provided both rhythmic bedrocks and duelling solos to ground Reed’s more obtuse fretwork. Leaving the band in the early 70s, Morrison would evaporate from popular music entirely until a brief return in the early 90s.

Filling in for Primitives’ drummer Angus MacLise, Maureen “Mo” Tucker’s biting percussive edge kept the group together. Like Cale, Tucker looked to music from further afield when informing her self-tutored approach. While MacLise had introduced ideas from eastern music into the band’s sound, Tucker made an even greater impact with her appetite for the African beats of Babatunde Olatunji and the economic rhythms of Bo Diddly. The metronomic Tucker provided a viciously pervasive thump. She would only play standing.

Indirectly Andy Warhol remains one of the great unacknowledged influences in popular music. Although he did little in helping the group sculpt its sound, few would deny his influence in fostering their attitude and style. “The Velvet Underground was part of Andy’s group, and Andy wasn’t part of anything,” Reed told Spin in 2008.

Even prior to meeting The Velvets, Warhol shared many links with the group. Andy was familiar with avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, both of whom had played with Cale in the Theatre of Eternal Music. This aristocrat of the New York scene also had associations with artist Walter De Maria, a drummer from an early iteration of The Primitives. Introduced through a shared acquaintance, Warhol quickly extended his patronage to the fledgling Velvets.

As art took an interest in popular culture and the mundane, pop and art collided with the Velvet Underground. Trashy could be classy. Ugly could be beautiful. He deconstructed consumer culture and captured unfiltered depictions of modern life. Like Warhol, Reed and company were particularly engrossed with that which was ignored or glossed over by the mainstream. As manager of the group, Warhol impressed into The Velvet Underground the idea that everything and anything could be art.

It was with Warhol’s patronage that the group was brought into the nexus of New York’s underground scene. The group transplanted from Cafe Bizarre to The Factory. With Warhol’s encouragement they become a house band and the sonic centrepiece of Warhol’s multimedia phenomena the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

The group’s immersion within the polaroid art world of Warhol’s Factory placed them within a surrealistic scene where hustlers, transvestites, socialites and living theatre converged. Warhol would also help co-finance their debut album along with Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records sales exec.

Chanteuse Nico was a late addition to the band. Thrown in by Andy Warhol, it was his belief that the chic actor, model and vocalist could provide the group with some extra edge. In his on words the group were lacking a much needed “charisma.” Noted for her acting in French drama La Dolce Vita, the femme fatale’s icy persona belied a burgeoning (if moth-like) creative impulse. In line with Warhol’s fetish for film, she lent a detached and cinematic quality to the group.

Her injection into the band was far from a smooth transition. The German expat struggled to find acceptance amongst her peers. She would often clash with her bandmates due to her partial deafness and general eccentricity. But with her addition the cards were stacked; recording the album in early 1966 the group had few creative restrictions other than what the ubiquitous clarion call of “no blues.”

The deceptively tranquil Sunday Morning opens the album with sweetened pop. A crooning Reed embodies an effortless cool. Jangled guitar and beguiling innocence provide a moment of alluring misdirection, while subtly paranoiac lyrics anticipate the album’s darker undertow.

Things take a turn towards the more abrasive with Waiting For a Man. The second track’s lyrical world is intended to be real. Relating the details of a drug exchange, it weaves outsider depictions of the stark realities of street life and subterranean culture. A jilted piano echoes the Tucker’s juddering pulse.

With all the defiant deviance the group can muster, I’m Waiting For The Manconflates drugs and sexuality. The song lives within a reality aligned against the prevailing values of the day. It conveys a sense of moral decay which would see the record banned from major retailers and banned from radio airplay. Reed is the model of passivity and dependence. As raunchily as the song resounds, its feeling is voyeuristic.

While earlier tracks exude desperation and the idea of living on the edge, Femme Fatal swirls into gentle fantasy. The track places Nico in central focus. Her alluringly deadpan vocals are carried above a baroque chord progression.

The velour S&M fantasy of Venus in Furs verges on hypnotic. While the band averted themselves from the lysergic ripples of West Coast counterculture, it’s difficult to classify the paradoxical Venus in Furs as anything but psychedelic.

Run Run Run raggedly demonstrates the group’s celebration of stupidity and ugliness. Musically they revel in circular-minded banality. All Tomorrow’s Partiesmakes musical sketches of Warhol’s Factory scene.

Despite Reed’s contentions that he wasn’t glorifying anything in his music, Heroinprovided a directness and frankness about substance abuse which made the missives of counterculture seem childish in comparison. Cale’s sound experiments drone over the ostinato of a two-chord motif. Tucker’s percussion imitates a pulsing heart before inexplicably dropping out. Out of tune, primitive and never far from falling apart, here the group remain vital at every moment.

The punchy There She Goes Again situates itself as a straight ahead rocker, albeit one incorporating elastic time signatures. I’ll Be Your Mirror shimmers, while The Black Angel’s Death Song teeters into formless noise. Closer European Son pays homage to poet Delmore Schwartz while distortion and feedback dominate the album’s dissonant conclusion.

The black-clad Velvets would not last long. The group quickly parted ways with Warhol and exited The Factory scene in ’68. Nico and Cale would also depart. After dropping another two albums the group had all but disintegrated. 50 years onward the beauty and rawness of the group’s untamed innovation continues to resound throughout popular culture.

Much of music’s modern history has crossed currents with these New Yorkers’ commercial folly. It provides proof of concept that a group of individuals can instil music with a sense of intelligence and meaning. The Velvet Underground and Nico remains an enduring cornerstone of popular culture, echoing through time with an unwavering magnetism.

Source: The lasting influence of The Velvet Underground and Nico

Atlanta Studies | Parks are for the People: The Piedmont Park Riot and the Politics of Late 1960s Atlanta

In the summer of 1967, Atlanta Journal reporter Michael Palmer went undercover as a hippie. Hoping to provide his readers with some insight into a movement that had recently made its way into the national consciousness, Palmer put on a “white, ruffled shirt, and old vest, levies [sic] frayed at the cuffs” and stealthily entered the city’s small but noticeable hippie community. In a series of articles that followed this experience, Palmer discussed with a mixture of dismissal and despair what he encountered during his five weeks of undercover research – from watching people take drugs in a “crash pad” to participating in a “love-in” at Piedmont Park. While Palmer ultimately provided little real insight into the countercultural mindset, he did make his readers very aware that something new and different was happening in Midtown Atlanta.1

During the late 1960s and early 1970s the section of the city that straddled Peachtree Street for several blocks, running from roughly Seventeenth Street down to Tenth Street, served as Atlanta’s own version of San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury district. This part of Midtown had acquired several names over the years2 – Tight Squeeze, the 10th Street Business District and the 14th Street Area – but became popularly known as “the Strip” during its countercultural heyday.3 The area had already developed a reputation as a bohemian destination by the early 1960s – one reporter described it as “Atlanta’s own Greenwich Village” – due to its proximity to the Atlanta College of Art and the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, as well as its abundance of affordable housing for young adults moving to the city.4 By the middle of the decade a small community of hippies found a spiritual home with the opening of the Catacombs coffeehouse on Fourteenth Street. The area’s “hip” population – which included not only “real” hippies but also political radicals, members of motorcycle gangs, left-leaning religious leaders, artists, teenage runaways, drug dealers, sympathetic lawyers, social workers, business owners, and teenage “plastic hippies,” who visited the Strip on the weekends but then returned to their suburban homes on Sunday evenings – grew significantly in 1967 as the counterculture gained national recognition and thousands of curious teenagers and young adults made their way to hippie neighborhoods across the nation during the Summer of Love.

POLICE PERFORMING A NIGHTTIME ANTI-DRUG RAID AGAINST HIPPIES, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, AUGUST 4, 1969. V003-600001-A24, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Several factors, however, thwarted attempts by Strip residents to create a thriving and safe hip community in Atlanta.5 Business owners disliked them, local “straight” residents complained repeatedly to city officials about their presence, and the police engaged in an ongoing campaign of harassment that included arresting hippies for minor infractions. In July, 1968, a group of local business owners attended a meeting of the city’s Aldermanic Police Committee to complain how the hippie presence harmed the value of their businesses and made it “unsafe for residents to walk down the street.” That same month, Police Chief Herbert Jenkins launched a crackdown on the area’s hippie population.6While the city’s recently founded underground newspaper, the Great Speckled Bird, regularly reported on the ill-treatment the hip community suffered at the hands of business owners and the police, the straight press routinely ignored or downplayed these issues.7

INSPECTING THE DAMAGE: “ATLANTIS RISING BOMBING,” ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 11, 1969. V003-690911-A28, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

These issues worsened considerably during the first six months of 1969. The Great Speckled Bird speculated that a recent wave of suspicious fires in the area was an attempt to scare away hippies.8 In addition, the number of sexual assaults against hip women in the Strip increased, as did the number of physical confrontations between Strip residents and straight locals, some of which included the exchange of gunfire.9 In August, a near riot erupted in the Strip when hippies and political radicals clashed with local police and agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during yet another in a series of drug raids in the neighborhood.10 Then, in early September, a firebomb destroyed Atlantis Rising, a combination artist collective and recreation center that served Strip residents and acted as a meeting space for radical political groups.11 Finally, this pattern of confrontation and violence culminated on September 21 when attendees and police clashed during a free concert in Piedmont Park.

The events leading up to and following the Piedmont Park riot illustrate the changing nature of social and political life in Atlanta during the late 1960s. Far from an isolated incident, the riot, and the response to it, reflected the growing frustration of Strip residents as they faced continual police harassment and acts of anonymous violence while trying to create a functional alternative district built on the concepts of cooperation and community. Moreover, the riot revealed connections and shared concerns between white youth and the African American community at a time of significant change in the local political landscape. While the Piedmont Park riot is a lesser known event of civil disobedience in the history of Atlanta, re-examining the riot reveals how far the political and cultural radicalism of the 1960s had made its way into the nation’s most conservative areas, as well as how the presence of a community of radical white youth impacted local political scene, which is usually portrayed by historians of the era as a struggle between conservative whites and African Americans for control of the city during a time of significant demographic change.

OUR PARK

By the late 1960s, Piedmont Park, located just a few blocks east of the Strip, offered a safe haven away from the hassles of life on Peachtree. At a time when hippies were routinely arrested for simply walking down the street, the existence of a place where they could gather freely ensured that the park became integral to community-building efforts by local counterculture and New Left leaders. The Atlanta antiwar movement often chose the park as a gathering point for marches into downtown or as a location for post-march rallies.12 And in July 1968, approximately 800 people gathered around the park’s pavilion for the city’s first “Be-In,” an event copied from the more famous San Francisco Human Be-In held the previous summer.13 The hip community’s use of Piedmont Park increased significantly during the first nine months of 1969. In March, the Great Speckled Bird celebrated its first anniversary with a party in the park. The city’s political activists even took time to enjoy the park’s athletic facilities by forming a “Revolutionary Softball League” that spring.14 And the series of free Sunday concerts which had occurred occasionally during the spring and early summer of 1969 became more regular occurrences following the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival. The festival, held over the Fourth of July holiday weekend at an automobile racetrack in Hampton, Georgia, featured Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Credence Clearwater Revival, Grand Funk Railroad, and Led Zeppelin.15 Held the day after the festival ended, a free concert in Piedmont Park featured many of the bands that had played at Hampton, including, Delaney and Bonnie, Spirit, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead.16

While the park served as key place to experience countercultural entertainment, the recent wave of harassment and violence in the Strip also led many hippies and New Leftists alike to see their use of the park in more overtly political terms; it had become an important battleground in their quest for meaningful social change.17 This shared cause between the counterculture and New Left was not unique to Atlanta in the late 1960s. While the middle years of the decade witnessed the rise of two movements that could be identified as uniquely separate, each with its own goals and philosophies, by 1969 the boundaries between the New Left and counterculture had become blurry. The New Left recast itself into an expansive social movement aimed at the creation of a new American culture as it sought more than just political change, while the counterculture rethought its earlier utopianism and now sought to practice its core beliefs within, rather than separate from, American society.18

VIETNAM WAR PROTEST. METRO ATLANTA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE COLLECTION AT KENAN RESEARCH CENTER AT ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER. COURTESY ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER.
HIPPIE DRUM CIRCLE IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, CIRCA 1969. TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Echoing countercultural writers around the nation, the Bird had repeatedly expounded on the importance of rock music as a catalyst for social change and on Piedmont Park’s new role as a site for this melding of culture and politics.19 In a piece entitled “Our Park,” “Richard” explained the importance not only of rock music to the creation of a new society, but of a place to experience such music in a revolutionary way, noting that:20

if we are a revolutionary culture then we must . . . refuse festivals and radio and recordings . . . musicians will play, will fill our parks, because they must play, and we will listen because we must and there will be no one in between.

By the summer of 1969, the importance of Piedmont Park to the growth of Atlanta’s hip community led many Strip residents to consider the park, at least on certain days, as their own. Piedmont Park became a place to listen to some good music, get a free meal, commune with likeminded individuals, discuss radical politics, and explore new ways of living together. Or as “Richard” concluded,21

you will come to the park to make it your park and you will listen to music and know that it is your music and it will be freedom.

Following the dramatic firebombing of Atlantis Rising in late August, the park also became a place of spiritual rejuvenation for the Strip community. On the Sunday following the attack, a benefit concert for the store was held in the park that featured several prominent local and regional bands, including the Allman Brothers. As Miller Francis, the community’s preeminent cultural chronicler, noted in an article for The Great Speckled Bird the concert was more than simply a musical event or a rally for Atlantis Rising. For Francis, the park acted not simply as a public recreational space, but as a key focal point for the political struggle to build a viable alternative community.22 Accordingly, as he noted:23

PEOPLE EATING AT A FREE CONCERT SPONSORED BY THE “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” AT PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

The vibes in Piedmont Park on all the Saturdays and Sundays flow out of our fight to replace the power behind the firebomb . . . that gutted Atlantis Rising, and our attempt to design a politics to effect that replacement.

Francis noted the intense sense of positive feelings that the crowd in “our park” generated, as well as the wide array of the city’s population which was in attendance in addition to the usual hippie contingent, including “straight, crewcut, turned-on, tribal, black, working class, mothers and children.”24 However, it would be this very attachment to the park that laid the foundation for the riot that occurred only a week later.

Throughout the nation, public spaces played an important role in bringing politics and culture together. Parks took on particular meaning in the late 1960s, serving as a central site for the expression of a spatial politics that helped reveal the growing intersection of the counterculture and the New Left. Perhaps most famously, in May 1969, violence erupted in Berkeley over an undeveloped piece of land owned by the University of California. Claiming the space as their own, over two hundred hippies, college students, and community activists had turned the former parking lot into a park, which they called “People’s Park.” Then, on May 15, police cleared the park and encircled it with cyclone fencing, a provocation which the local hip community responded to by rioting with the ensuing street battle ending that evening only after twenty policemen had been injured and twenty protestors had been shot, one fatally.25 While the events in Berkeley are well-remembered, the events at Piedmont Park a few months later exemplify that the willingness to defend contested space was not restricted to cities famous for their radical communities.

“GET THE PIGS OUT OF OUR PARK!”

The September 21, 1969, free concert in Piedmont Park boasted an impressive lineup. While the Allman Brothers would not play that Sunday, the show presented some of the best local rock acts, including Radar, the Booger Band, and headliner The Hampton Grease Band. This list of performers, as well as the success of the concert the previous Sunday, and a prominently placed announcement in the Great Speckled Bird, ensured a sizable attendance. And despite a chilly rain, by late afternoon between 1,000 and 1,500 people had arrived in the park.

ONE OF THE BANDS PERFORMING AT A “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. V003-600001-C27, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Several staff members from the Great Speckled Bird circulated through the crowd, collecting affidavits regarding police harassment, which they planned to include as part of the paper’s recently-filed lawsuit against the police department.26 Earlier that month the hip community became involved in a local debate over police brutality. During a speech at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church on September 12, DeWitt Smith, an African American patrolman, publicly accused several white officers of beating three black prisoners without provocation. Notably, during his comments, he also mentioned the mistreatment local hippies routinely endured, stating:27

if your hair is long and you’re wearing bell-bottoms you are in for it. Girls are jerked and pulled into line by their hair . . . and they {officers} seem to delight in grabbing a man by the seat of his pants and lifting him up until the pressure in his groin becomes unbearable.

During the following week, a coalition of local civil rights groups and the Great Speckled Bird filed separate lawsuits against the Atlanta police department, which illustrated an emergent, if problematic, alliance of the New Left, the counterculture, and the local civil rights movement in late 1960s Atlanta.28

But in addition to the Bird staffers, several undercover policemen also moved through the crowd in the park that day. And just as the band Brickwall started its set, word began to circulate that undercover narcotics agents from the Atlanta police were in the audience and looking to make arrests. Concert attendee George Nikas soon found himself in custody after following Detective C. R. Price through the crowd, warning other concertgoers that Price was a policeman. As the young man was led away a crowd gathered around the two and began chanting “show us your badge!” and “let him go!” In the ensuing confrontation, Price ended up pulling his service weapon and brandishing it at the crowd, providing enough of a distraction for Nikas to escape and disappear back into the audience.29

“GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” PHOTOGRAPHER BILL FIBBEN BEING ARRESTED DURING A BOTCHED POLICE OPERATION DURING A CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. V003-600001-C35, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

As the music, which had stopped during the struggle, resumed, Price and several other policemen moved back into the crowd and quickly found, and again apprehended, Nikas. This time, they also arrested Bill Fibben, a staff photographer for the Bird. But several hundred audience members immediately surrounded the cars containing Nikas and Fibben, shouting “This is our park!” and “get the pigs out of our park!” In response, police called for reinforcements and tear gas canisters. The concert’s promoter attempted to persuade police to let him restore calm but before he could do so, an officer lobbed a tear gas canister into the crowd and what had been merely an angry confrontation between the police and the concertgoers turned into a riot.30

TEAR GAS UNLEASHED ON HIPPIES ATTENDING A FOLK CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 22, 1969. PHOTO BY NOEL DAVIS. AJCP211-032A, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

As the protestors around the patrol car began to scatter, several paddy wagons and almost the entire evening watch of the Atlanta police force approached the park. For the next thirty minutes a running battle of sorts took place. The police, who had taken up a position not far from the park pavilion, fired tear gas canisters into the crowd while several officers repeatedly charged into the rioters. The crowd responded by throwing some of the tear gas canisters back, along with rocks, cans and glass bottles, quickly dispersing after each volley only to retake its position after the clouds of tear gas dissipated.31 Ultimately, the confrontation ended only after American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Al Horn arrived at the park and talked with Police Superintendent Oscar Jordan.32 Following this conversation, the crowd calmed down and several police officers left the park. As attempts were being made to restart the music, Police Chief Herbert Jenkins and Mayor Ivan Allen finally arrived, too late to make any meaningful contribution although the mayor did spend some time speaking with concertgoers.33

RESPONSES TO THE RIOT

While the Piedmont Park riot resulted in few injuries and only twelve arrests,34 it provoked a variety of responses from the Strip community, civil rights leaders, local politicians, and city officials. The statements issued by these groups reveal the complicated nature of Atlanta politics in the late 1960s as well as divisions within the city’s hip community. Moreover, the cooperation between the hip and civil rights communities in response to the riot revealed how disaffected groups in Atlanta could cross racial lines when they found common cause.

POLICEMEN DRAGGING A YOUNG HIPPIE THROUGH THE GRASS, PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 22, 1969. PHOTO BY NOEL DAVIS. AJCP211-032B, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

With the mayoral election just weeks away, several of the candidates weighed in on the riot. City alderman Everett Millican, who had recently proposed a park curfew, favored drastic action, promising that, if elected, he would “run the hippies out of town.”35 Echoing statements he had made the previous spring, he labeled the city’s countercultural district “a disgrace,” filled with “hippies, homosexual, sex deviates and drug pushers.”36 While admitting that Piedmont Park had deteriorated before the hippies claimed it as their own, he still argued that “it’s gone down a lot more since.”37 Alderman and mayoral candidate Rodney Cook took a less aggressive position, stating that law-abiding citizens should not fear being “hit over the head” by police but that those who broke the law should be punished to the fullest extent possible. Instead of running the hippies out of town, Cook believed that hiring more policemen, raising salaries, providing them with better training, and creating neighborhood patrols would solve the problem.38

HIPPIES TALK TO MAYOR IVAN ALLEN JR. AFTER THE RIOT. FROM: GREAT SPECKLED BIRD 2, NO. 29 (SEPTEMBER 29, 1969), 22. GREAT SPECKLED BIRD COLLECTION. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the interpretation of the riot offered by members of the political establishment, Great Speckled Bird writer Greg Gregory analyzed the riot from a countercultural perspective, arguing for the park’s importance to the development of a new American society and declaring that,39

Sunday’s resistance was not ‘revolutionary antics,’ the work of ‘agitators.’ Sunday was a defense of the kind of life we have chosen to live. This life includes music; it includes dope; but more significantly; and of revolutionary impact, is our self-perception as a people acting in unity.

He continued:40

A park cannot be liberated by permit, cannot be ‘free’ just because freaks come together to dig some fine music . . . Sunday was about what comes down when . . . we transgress the constricted lifestyle that is acceptable to and in this rotten society.

But Gregory also had harsh words for members in the hip community who criticized those who had fought back against the police. Arguing that this criticism attacked the very unity the riot had created, Gregory suggested that “to fall back on a love-and-peace stance which quickly becomes a hate-the-bottle throwers posture is to fragment the solidarity that saw politicos and culture freaks standing side by side.”41 While praising the importance of gentleness to their cultural revolution, he nonetheless argued that cruelty, not gentleness, needed to be the appropriate response when “tribal celebrations” came under attack. As he saw it, solidarity required that musicians, “trippers,” and rock throwers stand together or the new culture they hoped to create would die. Likewise, Jim Gwin asserted that “we must defend our vision as it emerges in concrete form. The communal/music experience in Piedmont Park is that vision.”42

The politicos of the Great Speckled Bird also responded quickly to the riot. Staff members at the Bird office began immediately collecting the statements of approximately one hundred people present in the park during the confrontation, which would be added to the police harassment suit the Bird had filed recently in federal court.43 During a press conference held at the newspaper’s office the day after the riot, the hip community presented three demands: that all charges against those arrested on Sunday be dropped, that all plainclothesmen and other policemen be banned from the park and, finally, to “let us have our music.”44

The riot also generated support from the city’s civil rights community. On Monday, the Atlanta Ad Hoc Committee on Law Enforcement and the Community, which had come together the previous April to investigate police brutality and included members of the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Metropolitan Atlanta Summit Leadership Conference, presented four recommendations to Mayor Ivan Allen. The committee called for an end to harassment, suspensions of policemen accused of brutality, improved jail conditions, and the establishment of grievance procedures. The group also noted that the Atlanta police “showed the same brutal force as Chicago” in their efforts to disperse the park crowd, a reference to the previous year’s street riots during the Democratic National Convention.45 While Allen declined to comment on these recommendations, he stated that the city would undertake a “full investigation of police brutality charges” stemming from the riot, and announced that the two officers noted most prominently for their actions in the park, C. R. Price and D. L. Dingee, had been transferred to duty in south Fulton County. Both the mayor and Jenkins stated this might help the situation since the problem had been caused only by a small number of “bad apples” within the police force.46

The committee clearly saw common cause between black Atlantans and the Strip community when it came to law enforcement issues. In its statement to Allen, it claimed that “the city has evaded responsibility and accountability for abuse of its citizens. Brutality occurs not only at the jail, it happens at the time of arrests . . . and we know that the police rioted in Piedmont Park yesterday.”47 Likewise, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leader Hosea Williams articulated the connection between oppressed African Americans and hip community members. When speaking to the crowd at Piedmont Park after the riot, he told them that,48

this is the same thing that has been happening to black people for a long time – and partly for the same reason: because they don’t want to conform to the ways of this sick, racist society. The reason they’re brutalizing you is simple: you want to live your own life, your own way.
THE GREAT SPECKLED BIRD 2, NO. 29 (SEPTEMBER 29, 1969), 3. GREAT SPECKLED BIRD COLLECTION. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

The Strip and civil rights communities further strengthened their bonds in the wake of the riot by planning a march to police headquarters at a meeting that included representatives from the Bird and the SCLC alongside numerous hippies and street people, ministers from several local churches, local countercultural shopkeepers, and political radicals. In addition to the three demands formulated immediately after the riot, the group agreed to publicly support the call from civil rights groups for the termination of Police Chief Herbert Jenkins and the demand that African Americans control their own communities. Attendees also demanded the firing of seven police officers involved in the riot, including Price and Dingee, as well as eight other officers that the African American community wanted dismissed.

On Saturday, September 27, a procession of approximately 600 marchers – which would ultimately grow to 1,000 participants – left Piedmont Park headed downtown along the city’s main thoroughfare. Holding banners with the phrases “Fire Jenkins” and “No Armed Police or Narks in Park,” the group included several African American ministers and civil rights leaders, such as the Reverend Douglas Slappey of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Hosea Williams. Once they reached police headquarters the marchers handed over their demands to Superintendent Jordan and the crowd listened to several speeches, before turning around and heading back to the park.49

YOUNG PEOPLE MARCH IN PROTEST AGAINST POLICE TACTICS AFTER A “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” SPONSORED CONCERT, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 27, 1969. V003-690927-A08, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

WHERE DID ALL THE HIPPIES GO?

The riot and the series of confrontations that led up to it would ultimately garner national attention via an October 10 story in Time magazine, entitled “The Great Hippie Hunt,” in which it was suggested that, 50

police and state solicitor general’s agents, with the tacit approval of the city administration and Atlanta’s business community, have waged war against these so-called undesirables, treating them as the greatest threat to the city since General Sherman.

This coverage and the brief flurry of activity following the riot in Piedmont Park ultimately did little to change conditions for the better, either in the Strip or at the park. Indeed, while the Strip had drawn most of the city leaders’ attention up to that point, in the years after the riot, they would increasingly object to the presence of the hip community in Piedmont Park as well, which many Atlantans had given up using after the hip community had adopted it as its own in 1969. Moreover, due to increased police harassment and the passage of a new city loitering ordinance in 1970,51 large numbers of people who had formerly called the Strip home had moved several blocks east to Piedmont Park. Reports in local papers claimed that at least several hundred people now called the park home and in August 1971 the Bird reported: “the Strip is practically deserted and the park is being used more.”52 But the introduction of hard drugs, the growing presence of criminal elements – including violent bikers – and a serious problem regarding teenage runaways changed the nature of the community and provoked a set of responses from the new Mayor Sam Massell that would ultimately end the hips’ occupation of the park and spell the end of Atlanta’s hip community.

After a series of shootings in the summer and fall of 1971, Mayor Massell announced that a “special police detail, a mobile precinct, and a mounted patrol” would soon be on duty in Piedmont Park because, as he described it, “the park is a big place but not big enough to house punks with knives, guns, and needles.”53 These additional policeman soon began patrolling Piedmont Park aggressively and the crackdown had its intended effect – within days, hips had largely abandoned the park. New regulations which were soon adopted also made it harder to organize the kind of events that the hip community had held in Piedmont Park over the past several years, such as rock concerts, political rallies, and antiwar demonstrations.54 Denied the ability to organize events, hips still attempted to congregate informally in the park. Not surprisingly, the police worked diligently to make them unwelcome by selectively enforcing park ordinance 22-38, which made it “unlawful for any person, in any park, to, stand, walk, or ride on the grass,” and by asking for identification from members of any group of six or more hips. As the Bird put it, a “police state” now existed in the park.55

MOUNTED PATROL IN PIEDMONT PARK. BOYD LEWIS COLLECTION AT KENAN RESEARCH CENTER AT THE ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER. COURTESY ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER.

Pushed out of Piedmont Park and the Strip, the hip community saw its demise approaching quickly over the horizon. As its members relocated to other neighborhoods, left town, or moved on to new pursuits and passions, mainstream society’s adoption of many countercultural elements in the first years of the 1970s diminished the need for separate spaces where people could freely practice alternate lifestyles. Smoking marijuana, growing long hair, or just generally letting your freak flag fly no longer seemed so threatening, as witnessed by the newfound presence of “shaggy-haired young business executives in downtown Atlanta.”56  As the hippies disappeared, the developers moved in. Over the next several decades, the coffeehouses, clubs, and crash pads of the Strip were plowed under, replaced by gleaming high-rise office buildings. Piedmont Park, however, remained largely unchanged and stands today as one of the few remaining physical spaces connected to Atlanta’s hip community. This seems appropriate, given the importance of the park to the city’s hippies and political radicals. Although the riot that occurred in September 1969 is perhaps the best remembered event of Atlanta’s freak past, in truth it was one among many that briefly helped turn Piedmont Park into a park for the people.

ATLANTA MAYOR SAM MASSELL INPSECTS AT THE PROPOSED LAYOUT OF COLONY SQUARE, 1971. PHOTO BY ROBERT CONNELL. AJCP103-015A, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

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Source: Atlanta Studies | Parks are for the People: The Piedmont Park Riot and the Politics of Late 1960s Atlanta

Guy Debord predicted our distracted society | John Harris


Blurring appearance and reality … Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in The Matrix. Photograph: Rex Features

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

With echoes of the most rapier-like prose written by Marx and Engels (eg “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), so begins Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the treatise on the modern human condition he published in 1967. It quickly came to be seen as the set text of the Parisian événements of the following year, and has long since bled into the culture via no end of people, from the Sex Pistols to the Canadian troublemakers who call themselves Adbusters.

Its title alone is now used as shorthand for the image-saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures: relative to what Debord meant by it, the term usually ends up sounding banal, but the frequency with which it’s used still speaks volumes about the power of his insights. Put another way, there are not many copyright-free monographs associated with arcane leftist sects that predicted where western societies would end up at 40 years’ distance, but this one did exactly that.

The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it. Try this: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” The book’s take on the driving-out of meaning from politics is also pretty much beyond question, as are its warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion” and the fact that at some unspecified point in the recent(ish) past, “dissatisfaction itself became a commodity” (so throw away that Che Guevara T-shirt, and quick).

But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other”, I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme. Not that Debord ever used the word, but his ideas were essentially pointing to the basis of what we now know as neoliberalism.

Some brief history. Debord was the de facto leader of the Situationist International, a tiny and ever-changing intellectual cell who drew on all kinds of influences, but whose essential worldview combined two elements: an understanding of alienation traceable to the young Marx, and an emphasis on what left politics has never much liked: the kind of desire-driven irrationality celebrated by both the dadaists and surrealists. The ideas in The Society of the Spectacle drew on obvious antecedents – Hegel, Marx, Engels, the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs – and also pointed to what was soon to come: not least, postmodernism, and the “hyperreality” diagnosed by Jean Baudrillard.

To sum up the book’s substance in a couple of sentences is a nonsense, but here goes: essentially, Debord argues that having recast the idea of “being into having”, what he calls “the present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” has led to “a generalised sliding from having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”

Like most of The Society of the Spectacle, you have to read such words slowly, but they hit the spot: he is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible. Whether their writers knew anything about Debord is probably doubtful, but as unlikely it may sound, one way of opening your mind to the idea of the spectacle is maybe to re-watch two hugely successful movies about exactly the blurring of appearance and reality that he described: The Matrix and The Truman Show.

It’s also an idea to read The Revolution of Everyday Life by Debord’s one-time accomplice Raoul Vaneigem, which works as a companion piece to The Society of the Spectacle. Vaneigem writes more in a more human register than Debord, and is a more straightforward propagandist:

“Inauthenticity is a right of man … Take a 35-year-old man. Each morning he takes his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays pool, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats his steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of cliches? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A socialist-realist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”

The words point up something very important: that the spectacle is much more than something at which we passively gaze, and it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others. As the book puts it: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

How we confront the spectacle is a subject for another piece: in essence, the Situationists’ contention was that its colonisation of life was not quite complete, and resistance has to begin with finding islands of the authentic, and building on them (though as what some people call late capitalism has developed, such opportunities have inevitably shrunk, a fact captured in the bleak tone of Debord’s 1989 text Comments on the Society of Spectacle, published five years before he killed himself). In truth, the spectacular dominion Debord described is too all-encompassing to suggest any obvious means of overturning it: it’s very easy to succumb to the idea that the spectacle just is, and to suggest any way out of it is absurd (which, in a very reductive sense, was Baudrillard’s basic contention).

What is incontestable, though, is how well the book, and Debord’s ideas, describe the way we live now. The images that stare from magazine racks prove his point. The almost comic contrast between modern economic circumstances and what miraculously arrives to disguise them – the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics – confirms almost everything the book contains. My battered copy features a much-reproduced photograph from post-war America: an entranced cinema audience, all wearing 3D glasses. But when I read it now, I always picture the archetypal modern crowd: squeezed up against each other, but all looking intently at the blinking screens they hold in their hands, while their thumbs punch out an imitation of life that surely proves Debord’s point ten thousand times over.

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle | Will Self 

Guy Debord

“What other text from the 60s so accurately describes the shit we’re in?’ – Will Self on Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Photograph: Situationist International

Will Self takes a walk through the banlieues of Paris and is astonished by the prescience of Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which so accurately describes ‘the shit we’re in’

A small green tent was pitched on the small daisy-spotted patch of greenish grass. It looked tidily enough done; suitable perhaps for a summer rock festival. But this was just outside the Saint-Gratien RER station, north of the rundown riverine port of Gennevilliers, on the outer whorl of the Parisian fingerprint; and the tent – which had the limp-wristed bough of an evergreen touching its flysheet in benediction – was quite clearly being lived in.

The mental picture the non-Parisian has of the city’s banlieues is framed by the fictive: gangster movies such as La Haine, or TV cop shows such as Spiral that do battle with similar Danish, Swedish, British and, of course, American vehicles, in a race to see which can sandblast its respective society with the greatest quantity of grit. But within this framing, content and dimensionality are provided by recent history, and in particular by the widespread rioting of 2005 that thrust these under-imagined locales on to TV screens worldwide. Not since the événements of 1968 had Parisian street fighting commanded such attention, but whereas the soixante-huitardscould be characterised as the vanguard of a stillborn revolution, the young second-, third- and probably fourth-generation immigrants who chucked molotov cocktails at the flics and the CRS during the émeutes neither donned, nor were measured up for, any such ideological camouflage.

Instead, the violent eruption of the Parisian banlieues was anatomised by reference to a body politic sickening with pathological metaphors. Implicitly, explicitly … ineluctably, the rioters were the Muslim Other, which, having been almost accidentally ingurgitated as part of the colonialist couscous, was now playing havoc with Gallic digestion. The French state had found itself – willingly or not – as a fellow-traveller on the neocons’ coach trip to the rapturous intersection of medieval chiliasm and Fukuyama’s neoliberal end-point.

Walking from the RER station towards the Seine, I passed not through what the fictive might lead you to expect, but rather low and hummocky hills, the swoop of a B-class road, outcroppings of commerce, small apartment blocks, car parks, duff public sculpture, off-cuts of quasi-open space – over it all an ambiguous miasma of street furniture and signage: this was France, certainly, but a France at once decoupled from any sense of pays, and divorced from the least suggestion of the urbane. In a comparable district of London – picture, if you are able to, Ruislip or Hounslow, Abbey Wood or Enfield – there would be myriad subliminally registered cues, all of which would combine to force on the spectator the unavoidability of her metropolitan condition. In London, the interwar spread of municipal socialism through the arteries of the tube system was accompanied by the soft-modernism of the suburban stations and Harry Beck’s matching diagram, which completes their connectivity. In London, the map really is the territory, because the territory really is the map. Not here.

The vexed relationship between the map and the territory suffuses The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which argues that not only authentic social relations, but even the bricks and mortar that frame them, and the tarmac that connects one to another, have all been replaced with their representation; a 1:1 scale model. Moreover, for Debord, as a sequel to the paralysis of “historical development”, the contrast between town and country has become submerged in a sclerotic suburbia. He is at pains to point out that this annulling is no cod-utopian “supersession” but rather an “erosion … visible in the eclectic mélange of … decayed elements”.

From the beige depths of a heavily shuttered house beside a hillock from which I could spy the Eiffel Tower, a deep, dark voice spoke: “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” I suppose, had I been the ghost of Jane Jacobs I would have experienced this as reassurance: the eyes, even if unseen themselves, remained on the street. But, instead, I muttered pacifications: “Nothing … just having a look … about”, then walked on down and around the hill through a scree of crushed fag packets, centrifugally impelled aluminium trim and the petrified tears shed by long dead cars. Dragon’s teeth were sewn across the scabrous roadway – I queased between them and found myself within 100 metres of the riverbank. The A15 soared overhead: two pilotisplanted this side of the river, the next pair on the far bank, its two carriageways separated by curved air. Up there was the city, conceived of however you so pleased. Down here, however, was this un-place, an inter-zone, under-imagined and thus free to be itself. Sprays of cherry blossom mimicked by tangles of wire and a shaggy pelt of weedy grass. Two small brown kids sat beside an oblong concrete depression filled with dank water, one had her hair tied in pigtails. They were playing with tin cans, cups and a bucket. Beyond them, right on the river’s edge was their Paris: a bidonville of shacks built from bits of scavenged packing cases, plastic tarpaulin, car tyres and all sorts of other stuff.

Many of its most sympathetic readers experience The Society of the Spectacleas a concerted howl of disgust. I cannot agree – for me it is the Spectacle that, far from being the creation of some malevolent or false god, emerges instead as the hero of the piece, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes. The Spectacle, Debord writes, “is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”. We are all jammed up against the plate glass of the Spectacle, our faces crushed as we “lèche-vitrine” in search of the same old commodified poison.

The entirely manmade nature of the world from which the individual subject experiences alienation is not, for Debord, a factual programme to be passively viewed on the TV screens of the global village, but a belief that is actively entered into. It is the genius of Debord to have characterised the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post-industrial manifestation. The Society of the Spectacle reads – if you will savour a cliche – as fresh as paint. Debord’s analysis of time itself as a series of epochs is dizzying: such “pseudo-festivals” as sporting events (the Olympics springs immediately to mind), act to convince the denizens of the Spectacle that they are still living in a cyclical and eternal go-round, while only the anointed few, the celebrities, are imbued with the attributes of money and power that signify the ability to make choices – to progress into a better future. “Being a star,” Debord writes, “means specialising in the seemingly lived.” Sound familiar, “Sir” Peter Bazalgette?

But it is most of all in its analysis of the ideology of the Spectacle that Debord’s text repays close reading. It is the Spectacle’s genius to have “turned need against life” and thus effected “the separation and estrangement between man and man”. Hence the Spectacle’s embrace of economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed “scientific” – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance made before the gods who will confer growth, and hence the fact that more or less any contemporary western politician – from Hollande, to Merkel, to Cameron, to Obama, and back again – who had eyes to see, could find their own Caliban image raging back at them from the pages of The Society of the Spectacle.

At Argenteuil centre-ville, I found echoic pedestrian underpasses, faux-19th century streetlamps of twirled iron and postmodern apartment blocks built of scaled-up children’s construction toys. I walked on across the oxbow of Gennevilliers, still feeling that I was nowhere at all in particular – standing beside a grocery store or an office block, then crossing between parked cars. The bridge across the re-encountered Seine that led to Clichy was lined with cheerful window boxes, planted with a gaily patriotic tricolour of blooms pinker, pinker and pinkest. Where there are window boxes there must, of course, be a window – this one framed the mirrored cuboids of La Défenseto the west, structures that might have been designed expressly to conform to the Debordian paradigm.

And then, some way past the Porte de Clichy, I was quite suddenly – if at an indefinable point – in Paris, a city to this day that defines itself by the micro-associations of its smaller parts: the awning of an alimentation, a drain cover, the angle of a pissing dog’s leg, the furl of paper around a stick of bread, the white apron around a smoking waiter – quite as much as the high extravaganza of its grand boulevards and gold-leafed public buildings. Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again not only by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in? – but also wondered how it was that his dérives across the Paris of the time could have so attuned him to the way in which the urban environment of the near future would become quite so decoupled from any element of the felt or experienced life. After all, Pariswas by no means the most Spectacular city of the late 1950s and early 60s; indeed, it’s still not on an equal footing to London. Unplanned London, which has just arrived at its square miles of parametrically designed junk space, its CCTV-overseen gated business cantonments and Chinese party cadre-owned luxury encampments, its logo skyscrapers and purpose-built “iconic” tourist destinations.

It occurs to me that Haussmann’s attempt to impose civic order and authority on the medieval jumble of mid-19th century Paris had not only paved the way for the Spectacle, but it had also afforded its – and his – enemies with the material to rip up for their barricades. There seems a nice congruence between the go-rounds of the Grands Boulevards and centrifugal/centripetal current of French theorising, whereby notions given form in the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure swirl out in widening circles from the metropolis, only to then gurgle back in again, before eventually disappearing up the arses of their originators.

Seen like this, The Society of the Spectacle is at once the bastard progeny of the French Enlightenment – out of Diderot, by means of the Napoleonic Code – and a salutary reminder of how the pursuit of some millenarian ideological purity only ever results – if successful – in the rumbling of tumbrels; or, if a failure, in its wholesale co-option by its stated enemies. That we no longer hear quite so much about “the spectacle” as shorthand for any of the following: the ludic element of consumer society, the post-ideological character of western “democracy”, the web-cum-matrix woven by the internet, the glocal character of late capitalism, may be because Debord’s concept has now been so thoroughly appropriated – one might fairly say détourned – that there’s nothing left of it but its coldly numerical bones.

Had Debord not shot himself in 1994 in his rural fastness of Bellevue-la-Montagne, he probably would have turned his gun on the likes of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren (and no doubt me as well); pop music impresarios whose much-trumpeted situationist influence – such as it was – consisted only in a series of pranks, that, while they may have given succour to the culturally anomic nonetheless only resulted in the profitable sale of records, posters and other memorabilia. I doubt, somehow, that either Wilson – chiefly known for managing Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and setting up Factory Records – or McLaren, rather more famous for his role as the Sex Pistols’ svengali, can have subjected The Society of the Spectacle to a sustained critical reading. Had they done so, they would’ve realised that their antics were anathema to Debord; that the playful elements of situationist practice – the bowdlerising of cartoons, the daubing on walls of whacky slogans, the exaltation of drunkenness – were only ever to be sanctioned if constitutive of a genuine insurrection, such as the few short weeks of 68, and as precursors of that revolution of everyday life (to adapt the title of the competing situationist theoretical work, written by Debord’s greatest rival, Raoul Vaneigem), which was to follow the final and complete dissolution of the Spectacle.

The relative success of the Situationist International during les évènementsalso sowed the seeds for the détournement of The Society of the Spectacleitself. I say relative success because it can be doubted – and will always be disputed – the extent to which Debord and his loose confraternity of freelance bully-boys and wannabe revolutionists actually succeeded in either manning the barricades themselves, or screwing the courage of the mob to CRS’s sticking post. But the important thing was that the situationists were perceived as having been in the thick of things – as instigators and ideological choreographers of the distinctively ludic elements of this particular civil disorder. The sneering, de haut en bas reception of The Society of the Spectacle on its publication the year before in French, was followed the year after by its rhapsodic one when it appeared in translation. By then, of course, the game was effectively up – something Debord, a man obsessed by war games and strategising, undoubtedly grasped. The Society of the Spectacle so far as being an animator of events, had in a matter of months become simply another text to be subjected to scores, hundreds, thousands of exhaustive academic analyses. The best that could be said for the thing – from its author’s point of view – was that the royalties paid his wine bills, and helped to supplement a lifetime of unabashed – and indeed, self-righteous – sponging.

Of course, The Society of the Spectacle still animates serious protest to this day – or, rather, since to admit to having been one of the Invisible Committee that authored the highly Debordian The Coming Insurrection (2007) is to court arrest on those grounds alone, the very style of the earlier work remains inflammatory. As to its content, The Coming Insurrection has nothing much to add – how can it, when, as I say, never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold? Open his book, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.