Book: Peter Doggett: There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ?60s
Publisher: Canongate, 2007
I Shall Be Released, But First Let Me Sign This Recording Contract
?Over and over again, musicians believed that they were striking blows for liberation (sexual, political, conceptual) and the revolution. Over and over again, their every move had already been softened and contained by the contaminating presence of the same industry that they were using to announce their dissent?the music business.?
Peter Doggett, from There’s a Riot Going On
Doggett recalls being 15 years old in England in 1972 and responding with enthusiasm to Some Time in New York City, a protest album just released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Doggett, like many of his era, began to see revolution as something good in itself and urgently needed in his own time and place. In a sense his entire tome is devoted to mapping the events that led up to and produced this album.
There’s a Riot Going On is a necessary book. It’s certainly full of information useful to those of us living at the crossroads of a new era which we somehow feel responsible to define and initiate, but for the purposes of this column There’s a Riot Going On is required reading for artists, social activists, and, especially, social activist artists.
An exploration of the relationship between art and social activism within a specific cultural period, the book reveals some of the pitfalls that form when activists attempt to harness art in the service of social change and when artists sacrifice their freedom of expression in the name of a political cause.
The book also deals with the danger of attempting to steer bandwagons; if you represent and lead some fashionable new movement, however well meaning, there is money to be made from you, and big business?the same big business that finances land mines and nukes and military dictatorships?will want a piece of you. Saying ?no? will be harder than you think.
Complicating matters, those musicians who threw themselves into the rebel persona often turned out to be paradigms of hypocrisy: witness Pete Townshend literally kicking Abby Hoffman off the Woodstock stage for making a speech about an imprisoned comrade, or the wealthy Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane railing against technicians who were required to turn off his sound equipment due to a strict curfew (?Wait ?til we burn down your society,? he yelled at the hired workers, as if they represented the establishment and he did not), or The Rolling Stones? gradual slide into a lifestyle straight out of the pages of Vogue.
Political leaders like Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Michael X proved themselves anything but sage saviours in the Age of Aquarius. But if you were a ?60s radical it wasn’t even necessary to be a leader to become corrupted?any underground organization you joined was likely to be splintered, rifted, and infiltrated in half no time. And for every subversive tactic you adopted, Big Brother had 10 to match it, and his boys weren’t starving, dope-smoking dropouts. When it came to using violent tactics, well, for every bullet you used . . . etc.
There was another ?60s, one much more pedestrian, less spectacular; the ?60s that galvanized women, ethnic minorities, and pacifists and laid the foundation for years of slow, gradual, but ultimately enduring, social change. But that ?60s is not what this book is about; There’s a Riot Going On is the story of the failure of ?60s pop artists and political heroes to create the changes in our society which they themselves demanded, and of that measure of natural depravity that ended in undermining their social agenda.
I had always assumed the Manson Family were anomalies in that world of love beads and peace signs, but Doggett shows how Manson’s emergence and actions did not result solely from his own psyche but were in a sense one logical outcome of ?60s radicalism, really no different in the end than any other radicalism. The end really does not justify the means, but try telling that to a hot-headed young brigand certain that the end will come sooner with a few well-timed bomb blasts and blood baths.
For followers and leaders at the vanguard of this ?revolution,? good intentions devolved into short-sighted, quick-fix politics which devolved into violence, which devolved into hedonism (drugs, promiscuity, and psychedelic music sold to youth as instruments of revolution), which devolved into the beginnings of the self-help movements of the ?70s.
Next week, in Part II of this review, we will have a look at Doggett’s portrayal of the ongoing relationship between Bob Dylan and A.J. Weberman, a beautiful (and often hilarious) instance of the conflict between art and activism.
The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of criteria, go here. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.