I’m what you call a Sixties person. I still believe in sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and radical democracy. You may or may not share these ideas, but you have certainly been influenced by the culture that germinated when I was young. Many people have declared the spirit of the Sixties dead, yet we still live in its wake.
This was a decade when foolish notions led to wise ideas: multiculturalism; feminism and its love child, gay liberation; racial awareness and sexual freedom. I could add lava lights and veggie burgers to the list, along with the new left and the new right, both of which emerged in the Sixties and still shape liberal and conservative thought. And then there are the hippies, long consigned to the dustbin of bad hair history. Their legacy lives in every man who wears bracelets and every woman who doesn’t wear a girdle (except for erotic games).
As for the psychedelic revolution, the current culture of mood alteration by pharmaceuticals is its descendant, with one crucial distinction: the drugs we favoured in the Sixties were intended to disrupt functioning. The drugs we crave today enhance it.
As a teacher at the City University of New York, I’m intensely aware of what it’s like for my students to deal with an economy far less generous than the one I grew up in. Their nightmare is failing to establish a career, whereas I, at their age, felt free to take a job that offered the sterling salary of $20 a week. But it allowed me to explore a new form of writing: rock criticism.
This was in 1966, when it was possible to hang out with rock stars without the intervention of press agents, and when a concert didn’t mean a perfectly digitised replica of an album. As a rock critic I interviewed the greatest musicians of the time. The awe I felt in their presence was not just a fan’s response. I regarded their songs as a kind of religious text, a design for living. ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,’ Bob Dylan squawked in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, and we all knew what he meant. The slap at authority that ends this song — ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ — was so influential that it led a militant group to call itself the Weather Underground. Can anyone imagine the equivalent today?
Hip-hop is the closest contemporary music gets to the prophetic feeling of Sixties rock, but a gang sign is very different from a peace sign. The hard truth about the Sixties is that only what was marketable endured. I wonder whether feminism would have taken hold if it hadn’t been useful economically. After all, women still earn less than men in many professions. Hence, this central form of human liberation is also the matrix of a cheap labour force. As for gay marriage, I’m not sure it would exist if it hadn’t created a clientele for same-sex honeymoon cruises. Granting legal equality to women and LGBT people is important but cheap. It doesn’t require social programmes that redistribute wealth, as racial redress does. That may be one reason why feminism and gay rights have advanced further than the black struggle.
I see the difference between what we fought for in the Sixties and what we achieved. I passed my youth in jeans and handmade tie-dyed T-shirts. No one would have been caught dead in a corporate-logo cap. No one spent a chunk of his assets on sunglasses. No one wore semi-precious sneakers. It costs a lot to look hip today
The scramble for status has supplanted generational solidarity. My major emotion as a Sixties person is survivor guilt. I witnessed violence and mayhem as a young man, but at least I felt entitled to act. I never had qualms about the risks I had to take in order to grow. My students do. For them, there’s only one way to think of risk: it’s risky. This is not to say that the ideals of my youth are gone. Many young people practise social activism. The environmental movement has been inherited and expanded by the young. Street art is an autonomous zone, albeit one that skirts respectability. And then there is music — as compelling as ever, but too firmly lodged in the grip of marketing to inspire true belief.
I cringe when I hear a Beatles song jinglised in an ad. I groan when I think about what it’s like to attend a rock festival today: the forest of targeted sponsorships, the outrageous price of a ticket to see what, for me, was practically free. Yet, there are hidden links to the Sixties in music now. Though their spirit is very different, I see connections between Adele and Janis Joplin, Eminem and Dylan, Sam Smith and Sam Cooke in their frustration and rage. Of course, no performer today dares to be as emotionally unguarded as Joplin, or as overtly literary as Dylan was in his prime. The revolutionary fervour that marked classic rock is absent as well. What remains is an implicit dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and a longing for something that once existed but now is missing. I think that missing link is the sense of unbridled freedom that shaped my youth.
The need to rediscover confidence in possibility is what inspired the Occupy movement of 2011, as much as any ideological agenda. These demonstrations allowed thousands of young people to experience the thrill of protest at a time when that was supposed to be passé. They didn’t smash the order — neither did we — but they did come to understand that a Facebook page is not a life. The essence of being young is the power to create real change, and when that is stymied, so is youth itself. This is why the Sixties remain so magical. They represent a yearning for what has been repressed. But the real world is so harsh, so hostile to the spirit of ‘all you need is love’, that at some juncture of crisis and idealism the Sixties can happen again. The tendencies that created that era are imbedded in the culture of the West. The artefacts of classic rock, the YouTube clips of kids running wild in the streets, are evidence that an alternative to the present is possible. So I’d say that the Sixties are both dead and yet to be born. Wait and see.