The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
By John Kendall Hawkins
“The only reason I have is that I want to learn about it, just to know. But I assure you, don Juan, my intentions are not bad.”
“I believe you. I’ve smoked you.”
“I beg your pardon!”
– The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castenada
“‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”
– Don Juan, Lord Byron
I was having a reverie about angels. Dylan’s Three Angels? No, German angels, speaking Wim Wenders English. Something was burning. The Reichstag? Nein. They were in Paris, carrying on with the gargoyles from Notre Dame, playing high stakes poker with Tarot cards, Gauloises cumulus clouds, talk of Hegel’s master-slave, Being and Nothingness, the occasional chuckle festival as tourists below caught their eye, like a scene from Annie Hall. Someone startled my sleeping ears to hear it said, What have you been smoking? On CNN a cathedral burns. “The Truth, man,” you reply, “about the Sixties.”
I always thought the Sixties would remain a sacred place as years passed — the Stonehenge of my life’s most sacrosanctimoniuos experiences that I would never get tired of circling, counterclockwise. A place I could look back on for the sustenance of levity and the earnestness of a collective naivete. Some of us — many of us, at times — really thought we could change the world, flowers in muzzles, free love (free everything), ego-altering drugs, daily rallies, a press beginning to care. Fifty years later, I thought I’d be partying like it was 1969. Instead, I feel like the Last Guy turning off the lights at the event horizon, not slamming the door behind me, trying not to wake the emptiness behind me.
There have been months of golden anniversary events — the moon-landing, Woodstock, Bowie’s Space Oddity, the Beatles last studio album, memories of my first rock concert, the Legacy of Leary and LSD. But also the rise of Nixon and the imperial presidency. The brutality of Chicago. Vietnam. The Kennedys and MLK. But nothing starts me up; my Love Bug is syphilitic and old, like Nietzsche’s asylum brain, preserved in a kind of Cuckoo’s Nest, his sister Elizabeth, a Nurse Ratchett playing Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg while she dispensed the blues. Still in search of perspective. What did it all mean?
That’s why I was so looking forward to Tarrantino’s Hollywood. But his was a stale, dead Sixties. Why no Abbie and Jerry, two men walking and talking, wondering aloud what they call revolution-for-the-hell-of-it in Paris? The Manson stuff, ostensibly the Tarrantino Ending people were anticipating, totally lacked the helter-skelter we were fed growing up. (And maybe a story all wrong.) Why no further Pulanski, Rosemary’s Baby released the year before setting the stage? It was like discovering that Jimmy Jones induced mass suicide, not by kool-aid, but by forcing his captive audience to listen to him read from the Saturday Evening Post. (Making it a Post apocalypse.) Why no Beatles White Album songs? Black Bird? Happiness Is a Warm Gun? Still relevant topics.
The Beatles have been in the news, anyway, because it was time to remember Abbey Road, their final album (sorta). I still struggle with the legacy of the Beatles. Were they really deep, or was I very shallow? Everyone agrees they wrote shit until they were turned on by Bobby Dylan and Ravi Shankar. Golden boys. Hell, even when those Alabama kids got enraged by a Lennon comment about Jesus and built a bonfire to his vanity with Beatles LPs, it was good news because it meant the little brats had to go to replenish their stock as soon as the rage burned out twenty minutes later. Now? I still wonder what Lennon meant in “Penny Lane,” when he sang, “And though she feels as if she’s in a play / She is anyway.”
Now all that’s left of the Abbey Road ‘mystique,’ are mainstream media shots of sets of clowns my age treading across the famous crosswalk like the Fab Four, with about as much frisson as elevator muzak. You can feel the whogivesafuckedness of it all, as you zoom in, descend, on a live Google feed, like a memory god or gargoyle, to confront a keychain culture (remember the Berlin Wall?), where, like Dylan once observed, “Not much is really sacred.” Farewell, Abbey Road. These days I’m haunted by their ghostly, psychedelic voices on “Blue Jay Way.”
And now we need to care about Bowie again. The Moon Landing, 2001: A Space Odyssey (some say they’re related, wink), and Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, resulting in the birth of a persona 50 years ago, Space Oddity, that Bowie would groom with great care over a long career. Biographer Simon Critchley, addressing Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility, writes, “Bowie’s world is like a dystopian version of The Truman Show, the sick place of the world that is forcefully expressed in the ruined, violent cityscapes of “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”…”
Thomas Newton, the alien of Tevis’ novel, who has journeyed from Anthea, his own self-immolated planet, which is virtually out of water (and thus life) to find salvation from Earth, is sidetracked by the American Way — women, jazz, capitalism, and the CIA — until it’s too late to help Anthea. Seeing a repeat of its demise on Earth, Newton seems indifferent to helping his terrestrial hosts:
“I want you to save the world Mr. Newton.”
Newton’s smile did not change, and his reply was immediate. “Is it worth saving, Nathan?”
A half-century later, Planet Earth is still blue and there’s less and less we can do.
I tried to draw inspiration from looking and hearing back to my first rock concert — Led Zeppelin at the sold-out Boston Garden in October 1969, with the MC5 and Johnny Winter. Crazy loud. Incredible drums. Everybody (it seemed) smoking doobies, while Robert Plant, according to one account, went “bouncing around like [Rudolf] Nureyev.” Cops looked on grim, Hells Angels looked grimmer, a fight broke out, eventually it all fizzled. But today, the guitar work from “Stairway to Heaven” loops in my head like torture chords I can’t stop and I find myself hating the song almost as much as I hate the riffs from “Hotel California,” riffs which can never ever leave FM radio. Driving, it could cause an accident.
And Woodstock 50. Just another joke like the first one. Except this time they didn’t bother holding it all, so there was no food shortage or rain deluges to worry about. Ciley Mirus was said to be interested in twerking out in the cowfields, but she ain’t Jimi and her butt can’t twang the Spangled. Can anyone even recall Woodstock anymore? CCR? Janis? Does anyone even remember Dylan’s signature performance?
Well, too much of nothing can bring a man down; there can be no doubt about that. I lean toward a Timothy Leary revival these days, now that cathedrals are spontaneously combusting and the center cannot hold, and the falcon cannot hear the falconer, on account of the talon-less shit is wearing earphones and flying clockwise backwards. The Tibetan Book of thr Dead as a trip. Yeah.
I’ve been listening to The Psychedelic Experience by Leary, and in the introduction he’s quoted as saying, “We’re all schizophrenics now, and we’re in our own institution.” It sure does seem that way — disconnected, the sweet green icing of MacArthur’s Park melting all around us, even Silicon Valley execs looking to weasel out of the Apocalypse, just waiting for the AI robots to drop El Cid, discover consciousness, and bring us home to the promised El Dorado.
What does it all mean? Did the Sixties even happen? And as the angels play with their cards all day, does anyone even care?