John Cale on Making Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ a Classic

Leonard Cohen struggled to unlock the potential of “Hallelujah”—it was John Cale who held the key

Source: John Cale on Making Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ a Classic

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was a complex, nearly indecipherable musical riddle that flummoxed even its composer. Originally released as a funereal synth-laden dirge on 1984’s Various Positions, he spent years tinkering with the track during live performances in a relentless pursuit to unlock its full melodic potential. Ultimately, it was John Cale who provided the key.

The iconoclastic Velvet Underground co-founder, producer and innovative writer/arranger crafted an elegiac version of “Hallelujah” that vaulted the song into a rarefied strata of modern standards. Now he speaks to PEOPLE about the song’s long journey.

First included on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan, commissioned by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1991, it’s perhaps best known for the stark version that appeared the following year on Cale’s live collection, Fragments of a Rainy Season. Something of a precursor to the “unplugged” performance concept that exploded in the first half of the 1990s, the album was a stripped down career retrospective reaching back to Cale’s early collaborations with his Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed.

Last fall, the album was recently given a deluxe reissue, complete with bonus tracks and outtakes from throughout the extensive European tour. “Hallelujah” received a bewitching video directed by Abby Portner, invoking elements from Shakespeare’s MacBeth to portray the song’s crumbling grandeur.

Cale first heard the track while attending one of Cohen’s concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 1990. “I was really an admirer of his poetry,” he tells PEOPLE. “It never let you down. There’s a timelessness to it.” The song stayed in his mind, he didn’t decide to record it until Les Inrockuptibles asked him to contribute to I’m Your Fan several months later. In the pre-digital days, there was really only one way to learn the tune at short notice: “I called Leonard and asked him to send me the lyrics.”

Famously, there were a lot. “Fifteen verses,” Cale confirms. “It was a long roll of fax paper. And then I choose whichever ones were really me. Some of them were religious, and coming out of my mouth would have been a little difficult to believe. I choose the cheeky ones.”

After recording the song for I’m Your Fan, he toyed with a variety of arrangements on his 1992 tour documented on Fragments of a Rainy Season. “There were a lot of different venues and a lot of different kinds of performances. And as it turned out the ones that were best were the ones that were done on a real piano, not an electric piano. Every time we got a real Steinway things went up a couple notches.”

Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” immediately struck a chord, inspiring a host of artists to offer their own take. A young Jeff Buckley added a hauntingly intimate version to Grace, his sole release before drowning in the Mississippi at age 30. His death added an extra dose of pathos to the intensely gripping song, and within a decade the number of cover versions had swelled to 300. According to Cale, Cohen grew weary of his creation’s popularity. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more new versions of “Hallelujah”! Let’s put an embargo on that!’”

THE HOLY BARBARIANS by Lawrence Lipton

The Holy Barbarians was a book published in 1959 detailing the lives of the Beats living on Venice Beach in Los Angeles by poet Lawrence Lipton. It was very influential and was like a How to Do book for us in the mid 1960s in Leicester. Following is a quote from the book about the difference and similarities of Beats and Juvenile Delinquents! Much was written and talked about Juvenile Delinquents in this period. It was seen as a big problem. I remember my Grandmother was very bothered that I might have become one! I assured her I hadn’t but, then again, I did have my moments!

Of course, the Beat writers were in awe of criminal hipsters like Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady but they weren’t seen as just delinquents, they had a kind of holy destiny. They were viewed almost as divine figures on a spiritual quest and, certainly, Cassady probably saw himself that way as well.

Later on in the 60s Venice Beach was the place that keyboardist Ray Manzarek first met singer and poet Jim Morrison and they formed the Doors.

“Everyone has to go to jail some time in his life,” remarked a fifteen year-old girl I met at Angel’s pad one afternoon. She was playing hooky from high school for the day and had just come back from visiting her boy friend in the County Jail. He had been busted for pot and they were also trying to hang a car-stealing rap on him. “They” were the heat and this was the bond that this chick felt with beatland. The beards puzzled her, and the poetry was so much baby talk to her. She had enough of that at school. One book was the same as any other to her. Pot was baby stuff, too. She had been on horse since she was thirteen.

What drew her to the beatniks was the way they understood her attitude toward her family and elders in general and the fact that they didn’t think she was a bad girl. The fuss that parents and older people made about sex seemed silly to her. Virginity? She and her girl friends at high school had a word for it. “Big issue about a little tissue.”

As a juvenile delinquent Myra Flores belonged to the cool cats who could be seen coming out of Venice High after school hours and piling into a car – integration was no problem here – white, Negro, Mexican. They didn’t hang around street corners; they drove fast cars in car pools that were also clubs of a sort. The Mexican girls were popular with these boys. Sometimes the blond girls dyed their hair to look like Mexican chicks. Their cars were not souped-up hot rods, that was for squares. Their clothes were sharp. Every penny they could beg, borrow or steal went into clothes. They drank wine and smoked marijuana. They didn’t talk much. They were physical in their relations, fondled each other a lot and watched television by the hour. Looking older than their years was very important to them. It meant that they could pass for twenty-one without an I.D. card in the taverns.

Rarely can a girl like Myra Flores make the beat scene except as a place of refuge or a drop-in lay, but a J.D. like Willie Frank can make it for quite a while on nothing but an ability to say little, listen much and play it close to his vest, which passes for cool as long as he doesn’t make any false moves. Willie fell into Venice West from a town in New Jersey where things had gotten too hot for him. He had smoked pot since he was fourteen, graduated to horse not long afterward, and served a term in jail back east.

The beat and the juvenile delinquent are only kissin’ cousins. They have the same enemies, which is the slender thread that sometimes unites them in temporary alliance. Both are outlaws, speak a private language and put down the squares, but in beat circles the J.D. is regarded as a square, a hip square in some things, but still a square.

He is a square because his values are the conventional American values: success, the worship of things, the obsession with speed and devil-take-the-hindmost attitudes in everything They are “sharpies” always looking for angles. They believe everything they read in the ads. The “kick” they are looking for when they “borrow” a car for a night is the kick of making “a majestic entrance” in front of a chick’s house. The juvenile delinquent wants a Ford in his future, but he wants his future right now. He can’t buy it so he steals it. “My old man waited,” one of them remarked to me, “and what did it get him? He’s fifty and he’s still driving a ’49 Chevy.”

The names they give their gangs are indicative of their hunger for social status. In Venice West it’s The Doges. Some of them pronounce it “dogs” but they know it means something like The Man of Distinction. (Wasn’t “putting on the dog” once a slang synonym for distinctive?) If one gang names itself The Counts, the gang in the next block goes it one better with The Dukes. Such pretensions are abhorrent to the beatnik.

Their “social protest,” which is a common theme in liberal magazines trying to “understand” the J.D., is so much double talk in the beatnik’s opinion. They are not victims of the society, they are its fruit and flower. The J.D. in a stolen car, dressed up in his sharp clothes, seated beside his chick and smoking the cigarette that is the choice of men who demand the best, is the ironic triumph of the adman’s dream. They are not likely to yield to the lures of communism. In fact, many of the J.D.’s of past generations are now among the society’s most successful businessmen.

The vandalism of the juvenile delinquent is directed against symbols of authority, like the school. If he finds school too confining or oppressive, or too boring, the beatnik finds ways of “beating the system.” He cuts classes as often as he can but he keeps his scholastic average high enough to stay out of trouble. He doesn’t go back after school hours and wreck the classroom or waylay a teacher and slug him for giving him low marks. Any show of violence among the beat generation, when it does occur, is rare enough – and significant enough – to become legendary. Such a legend is the one you hear frequently about Carl Solomon. “It was at Brooklyn College,” says Allen Ginsberg. “Some square lecturer was giving a lecture on Dadaism, and Carl pelted him with potato salad.” Which is exactly what any Dadaist would have done. That Carl was expelled for it is only further proof that the lecturer was a square.

The violence of the delinquent is usually directed against older people. The beatnik would not commit such acts of violence. He would write a poem about it.

Only a newspaperman with his feet stuck in a slot at the rewrite desk could possibly mistake a J.D. for a beatnik. The newspaper stereo-typed vandal is a composite of “teenager,” “juvenile delinquent” and “beatnik,” a convenient composite since it simplifies headline writing and makes every youth crime story a rewrite of the familiar dope fiend, sex fiend, youth-on-the-rampage yarn. All the reporter has to do is change a few names and places. The J.D. doesn’t mind the publicity. It gives him status. The only thing Willie Frank objected to in the news stories about him and his gang when they were busted for drugs was that the papers misspelled his name and even mixed up names under the pictures. “DOPE RING SMASHED” was a little too grandiose a headline, Willie thought, for a twenty-dollar haul of pot, but it gave him a glow just the same.”

Interactive Maps for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” by Dennis Mansker

This is a re-post from Dennis Mansker’s web site. The original can be found here: http://www.dennismansker.com/ontheroad.htm

In 1957, two novels were published that were destined to have a profound effect on the future of the United States, and indeed, the world, effects that would long outlast the lives of their creators.
The first was Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, and those who read it and felt that is was “speaking directly to them” went on to become Republicans, vulture capitalists, the kind of self-absorbed greed mongers epitiomized by Gordon Gecko and empathy-eschewing rightwing politicians epitomized by Paul Ryan, who wants to get rid of Social Security.
The second was On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and its fans became late-period Beats, transitional “Fringies”1, and ultimately evolved into Hippies and End-the-Vietnam-War protesters
We also became, by and large, those who didn’t burn out, liberals and Democrats.

The Trips:
On the Road is broken into five parts, but only the first four feature the extended road trips that the book is famous for. I’ve created interactive maps for each of the four road trips in the book.

  1. Map One — Summer 1947: New York to San Francisco by way of Denver, and back again.
  2. Map Two — Winter 1949: Rocky Mount NC to San Francisco by way of New Orleans
  3. Map Three — Spring 1949: Denver to New York by way of San Francisco
  4. Map Four — Spring 1950: New York to Mexico City by way of Denver

These are Google Maps and they are zoomable. Click on one of the placemarkers on the map to see a quotation from the book, zoom in it to see the location on the map. In many cases where the narrative wasn’t clear on a given place, I’ve had to approximate — apply a “best guess” solution to a given location.
There is also a link on each map to allow you to view a larger size on the Google Maps site.

The Cars:
The automobile and other forms of motor-driven transit figured prominently in On the Road, as it did in Post-WWII America. But no one who has read the book can forget three vehicles that figured prominently in the story. These are the only three vehicles that are identified by make and year in the whole book, and there was a reason for that: The cars themselves became sort of minor characters during the course of the adventures.

Dean Moriarty 1949 Hudson

1949 Hudson

In the second trip, starting actually at Xmas 1948, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy) shows up at the house of the brother of Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) in “Testament, Virginia” (really Rocky Mount, NC) in a brand new 1949 Hudson. This is the car in which they blast off to New Orleans and the West Coast, January 1949.
Like all of Dean’s cars, this one really took a beating.

Dean Moriarty 1947 Cadillac

1947 Cadillac Limousine

In the third trip, Dean and Sal score a “driveaway” car at a travel agency in Denver, for delivery to a ritzy Lakeshore address in Chicago. Needless to say, the car is somewhat the worse for wear when it finally gets home.

Dean Moriarty 1937 Ford

1937 Ford Sedan

In the fourth trip, this is the rattletrap car that gets the boys to Mexico City. It also, offstage as it were, gets Dean back as far as Louisiana where it finally gives up the ghost.

1937 Art Deco Greyhound

1937 Greyhound Bus

It always comes a surprise to readers who first read On the Road to learn that Sal Paradise spent hardly any time hitchhiking. When he couldn’t boost a ride with Dean, in the cars listed above, he was comfortable in taking the bus. He logged many more miles on Greyhound buses than he ever did beating his shoe leather hitchhiking.
This is an example of the buses that, while they were ten years old or more at the time, were still rolling on American highways in the late 40s and early 50s.

The Links:

Note: These links to other websites are not — and could never be — all inclusive. Do your own search and stumble onto some terrific sites that deal with the phenomenon that was — and remains — On the Road and the Beat Generation.

Footnote 1: “Fringies” may have been just a Seattle or West Coast phenomenon. I dropped out of college in early 1964, which was at the start of the Fringie movement in Seattle’s University District, and I remember some great times hanging out, listening to folk music and drinking espresso coffee in the great Beat coffee houses that littered “The Ave”, such as The Pamir House and The Edge.
See Countercultural Seattle Remembers the Fringies for more information. Later of course we all became Hippies.


These maps are brought to you by Dennis Mansker, the author of A Bad Attitude: A Novel from the Vietnam War, as part of my general “presence on the Internet” page, which you can click on here if you want more information.

Reflections on Coventry Cathedral: a poem by Kenny Wilson

The ruins of Coventry Cathedral
The ruins of Coventry Cathedral

childhood memories of times gone by
sitting outside the ruins
gazing in
looking at the destruction
and then the phoenix rising
the coloured glass the broken stones
the tower still standing like
some kind of miracle growth

how did that happen?

we learnt more that day than i ever realised
sitting on the grass with our packed lunches
and someone was laughing
but i couldn’t see who it was
lost in some reverie about lady godiva
burning in the courtyard

the mist descending
covering the darkness
no light in this history of gloom
the droning engines
and bombs dropping

no escape now
no more meaning
in this world of flame and heartbreak
and unreasoning death

let me rise in the phoenix light
until there is no tomorrow
and nothing left to cry about
and then there will be peace
then i will be able to live again

2013-03-08 16.40.12
Unknown civilians killed in war

Overcoming the Cultural Crisis by Otto Gross (1913)

Front cover of the German "Die Aktion&quo...
Front cover of the German “Die Aktion” from 1914. Illustration of Charles Péguy’s on the occasion of his death made by Egon Schiele (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of revolution: i.e., this is what it is destined to become because it ferments insurrection within the psyche, and liberates individuality from the bonds of its own unconscious. It is destined to make us inwardly capable of freedom, destined to prepare the ground for the revolution.

The incomparable revaluation of all values, with which the imminent future will be filled, begins in this present time with Nietzsche‘s thinking about the depths of the soul and with Freud’s discovery of the so-called psychoanalytic technique. This latter is a practical method which for the first time makes it possible to liberate the unconscious for empirical knowledge: i.e., for us it has now become possible to know ourselves. With this a new ethic is born, which will rest upon the moral imperative to seek real knowledge about oneself and one’s fellow men.

What is so overpowering in this new obligation to appreciate the truth is that until today we have known nothing of the question that matters incomparably above all others – the question of what is intrinsic, essential in our own being, our inner life, our self and that of our fellow human beings; we have never even been in position to inquire about these things. What we are learning to know is that, as we are today, each one of us possesses and recognises as his own only a fraction of the totality embraced by his psychic personality.

In every psyche without exception the unity of the functioning whole, the unity of consciousness, is torn in two, an unconscious has split itself off and maintains its existence by keeping itself apart from the guidance and control of consciousness, apart from any kind of self-observation, especially that directed at itself.

I must assume that knowledge of the Freudian method and its important results is already widespread. Since Freud we understand all that is inappropriate and inadequate in our mental life to be the results of inner experiences whose emotional content excited intense conflict in us. At the time of those experiences – especially in early childhood – the conflict seemed insoluble, and they were excluded from the continuity of the inner life as it is known to the conscious ego. Since then they have continued to motivate us from the unconscious in an uncontrollably destructive and oppositional way. I believe that what is really decisive for the occurrence of repression is to be found in the inner conflict … rather than in relation to the sexual impulse. Sexuality is the universal motive for the infinite number of internal conflicts, though not in itself but as the object of a sexual morality which stands in insoluble conflict with everything that is of value and belongs to willing and reality.

It appears that at the deepest level the real nature of these conflicts may always be traced back to one comprehensive principle, to the conflict between that which belongs to oneself and that which belongs to the other, between that which is innately individual and that which has been suggested to us, i.e., that which is educated or otherwise forced into us.

This conflict of individuality with an authority that has penetrated into our own innermost self belongs more to the period of childhood than to any other time.

The tragedy is correspondingly greater as a person’s individuality is more richly endowed, is stronger in its own particular nature. The earlier and the more intensely that the capacity to withstand suggestion and interference begins its protective function, the earlier and the more intensely will the self-divisive conflict be deepened and exacerbated. The only natures to be spared are those in whom the predisposition towards individuality is so weakly developed and is so little capable of resistance that under the pressure of suggestion from social surroundings, and the influence of education, it succumbs, in a manner of speaking, to atrophy and disappears altogether – natures whose guiding motives are at last composed entirely of alien, handed-down standards of evaluation and habits of reaction. In such second-rate characters a certain apparent health can sustain itself, i.e., a peaceful and harmonious functioning of the whole of the soul or, more accurately, of what remains of the soul. On the other hand, each individual who stands in any way higher than this normal contemporary state of things is not, in existing, conditions, in a position to escape pathogenic conflict and to attain his individual healthi.e., the full harmonious development of the highest possibilities of his innate individual character.

It is understood from all this that such characters hitherto, no matter in what outward form they manifest themselves – whether they are opposed to laws and morality, or lead us positively beyond the average, or collapse internally and become ill – have been perceived with either disgust, veneration or pity as disturbing exceptions whom people try to eliminate. It will come to be understood that, already today, there exists the demand to approve these people as the healthy, the warriors, the progressives, and to learn from and through them.

Not one of the revolutions in recorded history has succeeded in establishing freedom for individuality. They all fell flat, each time as precursors of a new bourgeoisie, they ended in a hurried desire to conform to general norms. They have collapsed because the revolutionary of yesterday carried authority within himself. Only now can it be recognized that the root of all authority lies in the family, that the combination of sexuality and authority, as it shows itself in the patriarchal family still prevailing today, claps every individuality in chains.

The times of crisis in advanced cultures have so far always been attended by complaints about the loosening of the ties of marriage and family life … but people could never hear in this “immoral tendency” the life affirming ethical crying out of humanity for redemption. Everything went to wrack and ruin, and the problem of emancipation from original sin, from the enslavement of women for the sake of their children, remained unsolved.

The revolutionary of today, who, armed with the psychology of the unconscious has a vision of a free, happy future for the relationship between the sexes, fights against the most primal form of rape, against the father and against father right. The coming revolution is the revolution for mother right.* It does not matter under what outward form and by what means it comes about.

(From Die Aktion, April 1913, reprinted in Anarchism…, vol.1 p281, Robert Graham.)

Poem: The City Was a Golden Sea by Kenny Wilson

The city was a golden sea
Where angels played with destiny
The clouds were bouncing snowy white
And disappeared into the night
I came upon a diamond orb
That glowed satanic ghostly white
What has become of all these things?
“The City changed” the angels sing

The city was a golden sea
Where people learned what they must be
The stars were like daggers in the sky
That stuck like needles in my eye
Is this the meaning of the word
That linked the real to what’s absurd?

The city was a golden sea
It changed my life it made me free
I chose to wander aimlessly
Amongst the ancient symmetry
And there I found the meaning of the word
That linked the real to the absurd

The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism

In the past few weeks I have been reading widely about the 1960s Counterculture both here and in America. This interest was inspired by two things. Writing an account of My Life in Music, which included my experience of the Counterculture in Leicester, and visiting an exhibition of sculptures by Francis Upritchard at Nottingham Contemporary and seeing James Riley’s talk about the perceived end of the Counterculture into “bad craziness” in the early 1970s.

My original piece was just based on memory with no reference to any other sources but I was struck by how close my experience was to the sequence of events described by James Riley. I was also intrigued by Francis Upritchard’s description of hippies in New Zealand when she says that “all the things that hippies hoped would happen, or felt might happen, didn’t.” In one sense her exhibition is about the failure of the 1960s and 70s counter-culture that is still celebrated at festivals – and its gaudy, individualistic “alternative” aftermath.

At this point it might be worthwhile to describe what I think the Counterculture is (or was). The Counterculture appeared in the 1960s both in the UK and America and became influential throughout the Western World and also in Eastern Europe. It’s protaganists were mainly young but there were significant influences from older artists and intellectuals. It’s not really clear why or how it came about but it epitomised what became known as the Generation Gap. This could be described as the difference between people who became adults before World War 2 and those who were adults after it.

Jeff Nuttall in his seminal book Bomb Culture(1968)  thinks that alternative attitudes in the UK grew out of the shadow and fear of the H Bomb. As the Cold War developed there was a constant reminder with the proliferation of nuclear weapons that the World could end any minute. This lead to massive demonstrations in the UK organised by CND (The Aldermaston Marches). Although these were attended by many thousands of people it became clear by the early sixties that the government had no intention of disarming or stopping the arms race. This lead to disillusionment and a feeling of alienation. Many young people began to reject the growing Affluent Society and started creating their own culture much to the bewilderment of the older generation who, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said at the time, had “never had it so good”. A youth subculture emerged called The Beatniks by the press. They grew their hair, played trad jazz and folk music, frequented coffee bars and hitchhiked around the country, influenced by American beat writers like Jack Kerouac. In the UK this is where the Counterculture had it’s roots. Here is an unintentionally hilarious TV report about Beatniks in Cornwall in 1960:

Of note in this film is the playing and singing of Whiz Jones. You may think he is influenced by Bob Dylan but you’d be wrong. It was two years before Dylan’s first album was released, he hadn’t even arrived in New York by then. The guitar and singing style was undoubtedly learnt from American folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who was in England at the time and influenced a whole generation of British guitarists including Donovan (he was also a big influence on Bob Dylan!).

The roots of the American Counterculture are slightly different. Although there was the same fear of nuclear annihilation especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the Soviet Union based nuclear missiles in Cuba within easy reach of the USA. Another factor was the Civil Rights Movement that was working to end racial segregation in the South and also the Vietnam War especially when conscription was accelerated from 1964. Out of this milieu a counterculture was created that eventually became what are known as Hippies. This movement had a profound effect both in America and the rest of the World during the 1960s and it’s legacy has continued until now as I hope to demonstrate.

The UK and American countercultures influenced each other. Initially, the British counterculture imitated the Americans especially in the areas of poetry and the creation of Underground newspapers and magazines. As time progressed the British started influencing the Americans especially in the areas of art, fashion  and music. The Beatles became the most popular and influential group in the World and embraced many countercultural ideas like drugs, mysticism and experimentalism. Paul McCartney was closely linked to the English Underground and was a main financier of the International Times, an important countercultural paper that had a wide distribution. Pink Floyd emerged out of the British Underground with their take on psychedelic rock and, again, eventually became one of the most popular groups in the World.

The name Underground started to be increasingly used for the Counterculture although, really, this was a misnomer. The main players and self styled leaders were media savvy and natural experts in self promotion.  (This was especially true of American Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They achieved international fame at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial where the American justice system managed to appear both brutal and ridiculous.  In a rare display of humour a member of the conventional left described their antics as Groucho Marxism!) It never really became underground until the 1970s when the mainstream media and press began to lose interest in it.

The Underground did not have a coherent political agenda. Although there was much talk of Revolution it was not clear what this really meant. This was true both in Britain and America. It definitely did not mean the same thing as what the old left referred to . The Communist states were seen as no better than the Capitalist ones and probably worse. Even Cuba, apart from the love for Che Guevara (who in the spirit of rock n roll died young and left a good looking corpse. He became the poster boy of the Revolution with his long hair and revolutionary beret!) was treated with suspicion. There was no strict ideology but general beliefs in the use of drugs (particularly marijuana and LSD), rejection of alcohol, free love, anti-war, anti-materialism, anti-consumerism, individualism, creativity, opposition to alienating work, rejection of television and advertising, caring for and living with the natural environment etc. The list could get very long and forms a general philosophy which is hard to formally categorise. The Revolution consisted of all these things. Slogans appeared that would have done justice to the best copywriters of Madison Avenue like “make love not war”, “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “do your own thing”.

So, why did the Revolution fail and where did it go wrong? Conventional wisdom would say that three events in 1969 caused a massive shift in attitudes. The infamous Charles Manson murders, The Woodstock Festival and the killing of a member of the audience by Hell’s Angels at Altamont Free Festival. The death of 60s idealism and the lost innocence of rock n roll is the theme of Don McLean’s song American Pie.

Charles Manson and his Family inverted the ideas of a hippy commune and went on a killing spree based on a psychotic interpretation of the Beatles White Album.

Woodstock is widely seen as the epitome and apotheosis of the Love Generation but can also be seen as the start of a megalithic, bloated and commercial music industry involving large scale festivals and stadium gigs. In order to attract popular acts large amounts of money were paid. Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have received $50,000, an incredible amount at the time equivalent to more than half a million now. Joan Baez virtually destroyed her credibility by accepting $10,000 even though she was using much of her own money to support radical causes. The festival made a colossal loss although that was recouped by subsequent sales of the film rights and DVD. A very interesting book about the making of this festival is Barefoot in Babylon by Robert Stephen Fitz. Rather than the music being an expression of the Counterculture a new commercial aristocracy was formed. The divorce between the music and the Counterculture was perhaps most symbolically shown when Pete Townshend of the Who knocked Abbie Hoffman off the stage with his guitar when Hoffman invaded the stage and tried to make an impromptu speech. It affected both people for years afterwards and effectively ended Hoffman’s political career. The clown prince of politics had been made to appear ridiculous and ineffective! Pete Townshend showed he wasn’t too enamoured with peace and love as this audio clip shows.

To deflect criticism of the cost of tickets on their 1969 tour of America the Rolling Stones gave a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California. This remarkably badly organised festival has become immortalised in the film Gimme Shelter (No, the Revolution wasn’t televised but it was often caught on film, which provided a good source of income from “Free” Festivals. The Stones had already done this with the Hyde Park Free Festival). The general air of chaos and violence is palpable with at least three deaths and a murder.

However, I don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom. Nor do I think that the Counterculture ended in 1969. As James Riley has said these events could just be coincidence and don’t signify anything. Personally, I think that after 1972 the Counterculture actually did go Underground. It was no longer really visible and it also became separated from the Music Industry which had become a large and profitable globalised industry. The press and media also lost interest  until it gained notoriety again in the 1980s as the Peace Convoy and the New Age Travellers. This culminated in the savagery and brutality of mainstream culture under Thatcherism at the Battle of the Beanfield. This is an Observer article about this event twenty years later:

* Tony Thompson, crime correspondent
* The Observer, Sunday 12 June 2005

It looked just like a carnival – at first. The weather was sunny and music played as the 140 vehicles set off towards Stonehenge. The 600 or so Travellers were on their way to attend the annual free festival on squatted land beside the ancient stones.

A few hours later the convoy had been ambushed by more than 1,300 police officers; dozens of Travellers were injured, all but a handful were arrested, and every one of their vehicles was destroyed.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Despite four months’ planning, the police operation to stop the convoy was a shambles. Faulty police intelligence suggested the Travellers were armed with chainsaws, hammers, petrol bombs and even firearms. All this information was false.

Plans to stop the convoy near the A303 collapsed when a convoy outrider spotted the roadblock and directed the travellers down a side road, where they encountered a second roadblock. After a first wave of violent assaults by the police, in which windscreens were smashed and the occupants dragged out screaming, most of the vehicles broke into a neighbouring field, derailing the police plan further.

For the next four hours there was a standoff, while Assistant Chief Constable Lionel Grundy, the officer in charge, insisted all Travellers had to be arrested.

The final assault began at 7pm, by which time all the officers had changed into riot gear. Pregnant women were clubbed with truncheons, as were those holding babies. The journalist Nick Davies, then working for The Observer, saw the violence. ‘They were like flies around rotten meat,’ he wrote, ‘and there was no question of trying to make a lawful arrest. They crawled all over, truncheons flailing, hitting anybody they could reach. It was extremely violent and very sickening.’

When some of those remaining tried to get away, driving their vehicles through the beanfield, the police threw anything they could lay their hands on – fire extinguishers, stones, shields and truncheons – at them in order to bring them to a halt. The empty vehicles were then systematically smashed to pieces and several were set on fire. Seven healthy dogs belonging to the Travellers were put down by officers from the RSPCA. In total, 537 people were arrested – the most arrests to take place on any single day since the Second World War.

All those arrested were charged with obstruction of the police and the highway, but most of the charges were dismissed in the courts. The Travellers’ unexpected saviour was the Earl of Cardigan, whose family owned the forest where the convoy had stayed the night before. Cardigan had tagged along out of interest, and his descriptions of the violence prevented what might otherwise have become a major miscarriage of justice.

Cardigan recalled that in many cases ‘the smashing up of the vehicles and the instructions to ‘Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!’ and hand over your keys were given simultaneously and therefore there was no chance to understand what was being shouted at you, and to comply before your vehicle started disintegrating around you with your windscreen broken in and your side panels beaten by truncheons and so on.’

It remains a mystery why the police felt compelled to use such violence. With evidence that radio logs of conversations between officers on the day have been altered, the full story may never be known.

‘The Battle of the Beanfield remains a black day for British justice and civil liberties,’ says Andy Worthington, whose book on the event is published this week. ‘From the anti-Traveller legislation of the 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act to the current hysteria surrounding Gypsy and traveller settlements, the repercussions are still being felt.‘”

The 1986 Public Order Act caused many New Age Travellers to leave England to more tolerant places like Spain and New Zealand. Interestingly, the hippies that Francis Upritchard came across may have been refugees from this time.

Margaret Thatcher was an enigma. Behind the authoritarian Iron Lady facade she wasn’t even really a Tory. She is considered to be the first of what are called conviction politicians. She appeared motivated by a mission and set of beliefs. Tony Blair and David Cameron have also used this approach and in some ways are seen as her successors. Thatcher’s beliefs had more to do with 19th Century Economic Liberalism than traditional Tory concerns. Her mission was to restore the British nation to it’s former glory and roll back the tide of National Debt, Trade Unions holding the country to ransom and encourage Free Trade and Private Enterprise. She famously hated the sixties and virtually saw that period as the main cause of the country’s woes with it’s strong Trade Unions, Nationalised industries and Social Liberal values.

Margaret Thatcher was ruthlessly effective and she chose her battles well. By defeating the Miner’s Strike and legislating against the Closed Shop she seriously reduced the power of the Trade Unions. At the same time she closed down most of the old heavy industries like steel, ship building and coal mines. By deregulating the banks, Privatising Nationalised businesses like energy and telecommunications and giving council house tenants the Right to Buy she effectively created a new capitalist society which boomed on the back of investments, services and rising house prices. It seemed to work so well that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War political economist Francis Fukuyama declared “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”  Mind you, considering events that happened in 2008, this was probably a bit premature!

But, I would still contend that the ideas of the 60s Counterculture permeated this period. As I have already said, Hippie ideals were resurrected with the Peace Convoy which was attracting many people to it, especially the legion of unemployed created by Thatcher’s early policies. But the ideas had also influenced the mainstream. The new bankers and brokers of the “Greed is Good” years were not the conservative bowler hatted bores of yesteryear but cocaine sniffing, champagne swilling hedonists who roared round London in new Porsches. They were into conspicuous consumption and, dare I say, a rock n roll life style. Also, the type of entrepreneurs that Thatcher was trying to encourage already existed in businesses started in the 60s. Although not British, clothing store chain The Gap, started as a “head shop” in San Francisco. Global business Time Out started when Tony Elliot took over the listings page from International Times because no one else could be bothered to do it! It became an immensely profitable business. Perhaps the most well known business with counterculture roots was Richard Branson with his Virgin brand. This started off as a mail order record company in the late 60s. All of these businesses brought a more relaxed, casual style and in the case of Branson a kind of celebrity status that would never have happened in the past. Basically, countercultural ideas had been assimilated by the mainstream.

However, the real Underground continued both in the Peace Convoy, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and more recently with the Occupy Movement which has become a global phenomenon. I will say more about this later!


Religion, Richard Dawkins and the One Dimensional Man

In 1964 Herbert Marcuse published a book called One Dimensional Man in which he describes the advanced capitalist countries of the developed world as Totalitarian. This controversial statement was met with both bewilderment and ridicule. The world was at the height of the Cold War and the countries of the West saw themselves as a bulwark of freedom against the Communist dictatorships of the East, especially the Soviet Union. At the same time America was fighting an unwinnable war in Vietnam, again on the principle of freedom and democracy. America and the West were presenting themselves as the opposite to the oppressive totalitarian Eastern regimes. Of course, at the same time, the Communist regimes were declaring themselves as liberators and freedom fighters from oppressive Capitalism. In many people’s minds these were, in fact, two sides of the same coin and the only real losers were ordinary people! This is what Marcuse says about it:

“Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? The efforts to prevent such a catastrophe overshadow the search for its potential causes in contemporary industrial society. These causes remain unidentified, unexposed, unattacked by the public because they recede before the all too obvious threat from without–to the West from the East, to the East from the West. Equally obvious is the need for being prepared, for living on the brink, for facing the challenge. We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.

If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the war in which society is organized and organizes its members, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger. The defense structure makes life easier for a greater number of people and extends man’s mastery of nature. Under these circumstances, our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men. The political needs of society become individual needs and aspirations, their satisfaction promotes business and the commonweal, and the whole appeals to be the very embodiment of Reason.

And yet this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence–individual, national, and international. This repression, so different from that which characterized the preceding, less developed stages of our society, operates today not from a position of natural and technical immaturity but rather from a position of strength. The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before-which means that the scope of society’s domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before. Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living.” (Marcuse:  One Dimensional Man)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the assimilation of China into Global Capitalism a new enemy has been found in Islam and The War Against Terror. Of course, none of the Islamic nations can militarily compete with America so other ways of expanding the war machine have become necessary. Instead of defence (although this term is still used as a description) it becomes  necessary to invade countries that “support terrorism” (which in a typical piece of Orwellian newspeak is usually called intervention in the same way that the killing of innocent civilians in the course of these interventions is called collateral damage). In fact, engaging this new enemy has been more productive in the mobilization for war because the weapons actually get used and therefore need to be replaced. It also means new and more effective weapons are researched and developed e.g. drones.

Marcuse considers advanced capitalism as totalitarian because of the way it uses technology and employs rationalism and science to support something that is, in fact, irrational. This creates an idea of common sense that is hard to refute i.e. why should anyone criticise the system when it is creating a high standard of living?

” By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a “pluralism” of parties, newspapers, “countervailing powers,” etc” (Marcuse ibid)

“Indeed, in the most highly developed areas of contemporary society, the transplantation of social into individual needs is so effective that the difference between them seems to be purely theoretical. Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination? Between the automobile as nuisance and as convenience? Between the horrors and the comforts of functional architecture? Between the work for national defense and the work for corporate gain? Between the private pleasure and the commercial and political utility involved in increasing the birth rate?

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

The prevailing forms of social control are technological in a new sense. To be sure, the technical structure and efficacy of the productive and destructive apparatus has been a major instrumentality for subjecting the population to the established social division of labor throughout the modern period. Moreover, such integration has always been accompanied by more obvious forms of compulsion: loss of livelihood, the administration of justice, the police, the armed forces. It still is. But in the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests- to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”(Marcuse ibid)

This is what Marcuse refers to as the One Dimensional Society which is perpetuated by One Dimensional Thinking and promoted by the use of advertising and mass media.

Richard Dawkins is a well known media figure who seems to have made it his mission to prove that God doesn’t exist. In many ways in my opinion he is the ultimate representation of the One Dimensional Man. You may wonder why this bothers me. Well, behind what seems like a radical stance I think his views are deeply conservative. He wants society and people to be organised in purely rational and scientific ways and he seems to want to prove to people who have a religious faith that they are wrong. Apart from the arrogance of this, many of his proofs are flawed and are not rational at all. For a start, as the Logical Positivists have pointed out, debating whether God exists or not is pointless. Unless you have a clear definition of what God is you can’t possibly prove he doesn’t exist. As far as I can see there are virtually no religious organisations that give a clear definition of God. For example, the Catholic Church describes God as a “great mystery beyond all understanding”. How can you possibly prove that this doesn’t exist?

You’d think he was on safer ground when he argues against the literal truth of the Bible but even here it becomes fairly problematic. It’s also noticeable that he doesn’t engage in debate with the leaders of other religions like Muslims or Buddhists. Why’s that?

Does literal truth matter? Many Christians believe that the New Testament replaces the Old and see the stories as parables and an insight into the background of the figure of Christ and Christian belief. Jesus says “love your neighbour  as yourself” and this replaces the laws of the Old Testament. Alright, there are people who do believe in the literal truth of the Bible but how much real influence do these people have, and is it a problem for society as a whole? My one agreement with Dawkins is that there shouldn’t be Faith schools promoting dogma. He also wants all people to make their own choices about what they believe which I think is a laudable suggestion. But it’s naive to think that people growing up in families with a cohesive cultural background will not be influenced by the prevailing values of that culture. Even his rational and scientific society would influence it’s young with it’s own values. At best, people can only reject the values they have been indoctrinated with.

In a debate with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Richard Dawkins  acknowledges that in terms of danger to humanity and used in the wrong hands, science and technology are the most destructive forces available. Although, without doubt, religious conflict and zealotry have created real problems on Earth, the technological wars of the 20th Century (and now) have created the most destruction. In the main these have been perpetrated by secular governments (like the Nazis) who have been antagonistic to religion. On the other hand, religious groups like the Quakers have actively opposed war and were a major element in the formation of CND. It doesn’t follow that a secular society is necessarily a good one. An influence on Nazi racial policy was a distortion of the writings of Charles Darwin who, as we know, is a big hero to Dawkins. This resulted in the genocide of six million Jews and countless others. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Darwin for the Nazis but it shows how any text can be misused and misinterpreted, even scientific ones.

I agree with Jonathan Sacks that Religion isn’t necessarily in competition with Science. Religious belief can bring comfort to people in times of distress. It can also give them hope. It has been a source of inspiration for great works of art and acts of great unselfishness. It doesn’t need to be narrow minded or dogmatic. Most peoples beliefs are personal and don’t fit in with any religious dogma anyway. In fact, attendance of official religious services in the West have declined to the point that some of them are no longer viable, organised religion has been forced into a defensive position. The real problem, as far as I’m concerned, is the growth and misuse of science and technology and, apart from some brave attempts, the lack of alternatives to the prevailing capitalist system. And it is this system that is propped up with the dogma of Rationalism and Science!

Oppenheimer next to an H Bomb test. Is science and technology the real danger to the World?