Revolutionary rock stars?

Submitted by AWL on 16 May, 2008 - 11:47 Author: Peter Burton

Peter Doggett’s book recalls in detail (over 525 pages) the uneasy relationship between rock stars, political activists and the “counter–culture” between 1965 and 1972.

His raison d’etre for the book: “In an era when Bono, the hand in glove darling of the global political establishment and Bruce Springsteen, the personification of cosy liberalism, are revered as rock and pop icons, its timely to be reminded of an era when artists were prepared to court unpopularity (and worse) for their ideals.”

Dogget also attacks some of the myths that have been created by the artists themselves about this period citing the documentary The US against John Lennon as sanitising the role of an artist who gave both money and publicity to the IRA, Black Panthers, the Vietnam solidarity Committee, Zippies, Yippees and, not least, the “Dylan Liberation Front “.

The book begins with an account of how Jerry Rubin began to channel the Berkley Teach-in in May 1965 for free speech, towards being against the war, by using artists like Phil Ochs. Rubin also attempts to revive a by now disgruntled Dylan. He describes the role of Ginsberg, Ed Sanders and Tulin Kupferberg and their musical ensemble “The Fugs ” as they explored the limits of censorship travelling across America.

The more Dylan tried to distance himself from the political activists the more they, in turn, tried to reclaim and re-activate him. This took on bizarre proportions as a Dylan obsessive A J Weberman makes it his sole mission to “liberate Dylan by launching a “Dylan Liberation Front“ campaign!

Apparently Black Panther leaders like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton read coded hidden messages into Dylan’s lyrics on “Bringing it all Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”: they though it told them what tactics to use in their war against “The Man”!

There are recurring chronological accounts of the relations between artists and the key underground activists of the time. This is interspersed with arguments that took place within the counter-culture over tactics, aims and the very nature of protest itself. This is the central ongoing theme of the book.

Doggett is particularly sharp on the absence of women from the revolution. Joan Baez notwithstanding, they were largely expected to roll joints and throw themselves into the cause of sexual freedom.

Asked about the position of women in the black consciousness movement, Stokely Carmichael, “honorary prime minister for the Black Nation”, replied “prone”. Women were not allowed to bear arms in the Black Panthers.

Dogget also recalls the big events of these years: Kent state, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight festival, Altamont, Biafra, Attica, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Newport Folk Festival , Grosvenor Square and the Prague Spring. He sometimes take time out to talk about the civil rights protests in the fifties.

With an invaluable discography informing readers of seminal albums and individual songs and the affect they had on different individuals, a number of great anecdotes — Country Joe McDonald bursting into anti-Vietnam song at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial having been primed by pranksters Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to do so — and details of meetings between Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn and Lennon and Yoko and other relationships, this is an invaluable book about the counter-culture in the US at a crucial time. It shows us the the limits of the New Left. There are also many lessons for us about successful and unsuccessful tactics through examination of both the underground activist’s methods and the US states’ response.

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