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.

“Fulfillment was already there”: Debord & ’68 | Situationist International

Andy Merrifield discusses the influence of Guy Debord and the Situationist International on the events of May ’68.

On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”

Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.

At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened; angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounce, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, in late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.

On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.

On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.

By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.

The occupation of Paris was, and still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”

In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.

Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”

Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan.”

Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”

For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”

In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.

The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now the music was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Source: Verso