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Counterculture Kaleidoscope: Musical and Cultural Perspectives on Late Sixties San Francisco

by Nadya Zimmerman
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2008
240 pp., illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-472-11558-7.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


In Counterculture Kaleidoscope, Nadya Zimmerman fights the prevalent view that the San Francisco hippies and their culture turned against and dissipated the radical politics of the 1960s.  In the embittered hegemonic narrative of the decade that she disputes, the revolution began with SDS' Port Huron Statement and Freedom Summer civil rights activism then crested internationally in 1968, to recede against the onslaught of what Crosby, Stills and Nash called "tin soldiers and Nixon's coming".  The author maintains that politics were irrelevant to the counterculture (in its San Francisco manifestation), so it shouldn't be measured by standards of political accomplishment.  People, mostly young, agglomerated in large numbers for events like the Human Be-In, a friendly gathering that was essentially justified by people just showing up.  Theirs was distinct from the mainstream culture, not fixedly and avowedly against it.

The counterculture, at its best, was diverse racially and even in age demographic; venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom featured shows whose lists of performers included both guitar-driven rock bands and aging black bluesmen or classical music from India by Ravi Shankar.  Yet along with this pluralism, many of its history-makers were gathered into some distinct personas, which Zimmerman lists as outlaw, exotic and new age.  "The Outlaw Persona: Joplin, Big Brother and Pluralism Black and White" examines Janis Joplin's inadvertant blackface persona, in voice and even visually, citing the gross "mammy" caricature by Robert Crumb on Joplin's band Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills" album.  Marshall McLuhan noted that young whites heard the blues as "caressing nursery lullabies", yet Joplin emoted passionately on her band’s version of Gershwin's song "Summertime".

Other notable "outlaws" included the mustachioed dandies brandishing revolvers and guitars called the Charlatans, who honed their musical craft at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.  They were a few hours' drive from San Francisco, but in a silver mining town that was a source of its second boom (after the Gold Rush), almost a century before them.  The chapter situates the Black Panther Party––another group that brandished firearms in public––in this time-honored American outlaw tradition.  One BPP member even named his son Stagolee, after the badass barroom shooter in the old song.  At times the hippie ethos absorbed the Manichean polarization (them vs. us) of the 1950s anticommunist crusades.  This reviewer recalls how counterculture Michigan defined society in a dichotomy of "[hippie] freeks vs. the honks".  Though a 1967 MC5 poster by Gary Grimshaw claimed its multi-band Detroit ballroom concert was "in the San Francisco style", the Michigan counterculture scene that followed San Francisco's by a few years was more complicated, conflating hippies, revolutionaries and garage Punk.

This reviewer had seen Ashleigh Brilliant cards, each with a witty motto, but had no idea of his early days as a satirical street singer on Haight Street.  Antiwar songs appeared first on local FM "underground" stations, but sold well enough to soon be picked up by mainstream radio.  The band Country Joe and the Fish made their mark with the defiant "Fish Cheer" (whose spelled word was not "fish", but had four letters beginning with "f") and "Fixin' to Die Rag", with its bitter criticism of the Vietnam War.  The band then had to deal with the contradiction of their financial success coming hand in hand with a diminishing number of political songs.  Fish co-founder Barry Melton used his earnings to attend law school, and had a one-man law office in San Francisco's North Mission neighborhood in the early 1980s.  The Fish covered Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King"; the Michigan band SRC also recorded a memorable rock version.

"The Exotic Persona: Absorbing the Postcolonial Political Pill" draws upon the late Edward Said's work on Orientalist traditions and recurring Western tendency to exoticize an external "Other".  Many countercultural figures celebrated all-embracing, oceanic modes of feeling and expounded a mushy mash of Eastern philosophy and nature worship.   The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh waxed goofily on "Hindu Buddhists" and hopes for the return of "great herds" on North American continent.   Popular metaphors were also drawn from Native American motifs of "tribes" gathering in a "pow-wow", and similar evocations of benign, beneficent tribalism came out of the mouth of LSD advocate Timothy Leary.

Emblematic of "hip capitalism" is the story of the rise and fall of the Thelin brothers' Psychedelic Shop, and popularity of the books it carried by intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and R. D. Laing.  The author discusses the pastoral sexism of the Grateful Dead but fails to mention their memorable opening line "We can share the women, we can share the wine".  There are plenty of political contradictions explored in the Grateful Dead's borrowing of musical equipment from Fender Corporation (then recently acquired by CBS) while proclaiming their de-commodified intentions.  "Musical technology was, paradoxically, a hidden secret that was right in front of everybody's eyes" writes Zimmerman.   Similar techno-corporate circumstances behind the origin, manufacture and popularity of the psychoactive drug LSD are briefly cited too.

"The New Age Persona: Sex, Spirituality and Escaping the Now" cites the openness of David Crosby, but doesn't mention that Crosby’s bisexuality so upset his Buffalo Springfield bandmates that they asked him to leave the band.  At the close of the book, the author calls roll of the harbingers of counterculture failure and remission: the Rolling Stones’ inadvertently homicidal and violent Altamont concert, the murderous "Family" of Charles Manson, and Hunter S. Thompson's bombastic but subtly elegiac story Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Like a rock guitarist delivering a soaring solo, Nadya Zimmerman is at her best in a close reading of Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit", where the reader appreciates her virtuoso skill as a musicologist.  She delivers another epiphany when she dissects the exquisitely dissonant power chord that opens Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze".  So perhaps Countercultural Kaleidoscope might be compared to the Jefferson Airplane's own political philosophy during its "Volunteers" era: occasionally sparkling with arresting imagery, but most memorable when focused on music.







Updated 6th June 2008

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