Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Underground: the power chords of freedom

We have a small house, and under the pressure of a recent, holiday-related increase in the amount of children's stuff, I have agreed to move my boxes filled with hundreds of cassette tapes out of the living room, where the stereo is. Because I have retained a small space, adequate for a small box of 30 tapes, in the living room, and also because I am a bit of a compulsive sorter, I spent much of yesterday evening going through all of those tapes, sorting the mix tapes from the full albums, the albums which we now own on CD from those we don't, and so forth.

In this era when the record companies are buying legislation to allow them to snoop into private computers to see if anyone's been "sharing" audio files, my collection of cassette tapes seems like an archive of samizdat mimeographed leaflets — not a completely inappropriate analogy, as much of my politicization was triggered by rock and roll. In 1985, the music available to a 12-year-old on the radio in the Midwest was pop-rock ear candy, the final absorbtion of new wave into the mainstream. Although I later discovered the more overtly political music of rap, punk, and world music, it was casette tapes dubbed from old scratchy vinyl records of 60s psychedelic music that first put the idea in my head that there was something beyond Reagan-era Middle America, that there had been eras of massive change and radicalism in the past and would be again, that another world was possible.

One of the tapes I came across last night and put on was a copy of the 1969 Jefferson Airplane album Volunteers. It is far from their best work (their psychedelic masterpiece After Bathing At Baxter's was one of the first CDs I purchased when I finally got a CD player in the mid-90s), and I hadn't listened to it in years. I vaguely remembered the title track, that it also contained their version of "Wooden Ships," and that the opening song "We Can Be Together" contained the infamous line "Up against the wall, mother****er," but I was unprepared for how much the opening chords of "We Can Be Together" reminded me of the storm-the-barricades strum-and-drang of the Clash.

This shouldn't be surprising, as this song was the closest thing to an anthem for the current of 60s radicalism that found expression in the Weather Underground. "We are forces of chaos and anarchy / everything you say we are, we are / and we are very proud of ourselves." One the one hand, this seems like a perfect, snotty musical tone for the mostly well-to-do young people who came to believe that domestic terrorism was the most effective way to strike against empire. On the other hand, as a recent article about the Clash in the New Yorker pointed out, one of Joe Strummer's central lyrical themes was that there are some points that can only be made by smashing things. In fact, "White Riot" explicitly makes the point that white working-class kids will always be under the thumb of the rich until they take some direct action — "Black people gotta lot a problems / But they don't mind throwing a brick / White people go to school / Where they teach you how to be thick."

Most people find the turn towards violence of a small group of upper-middle-class Americans in the late 60s more appalling than urban riots, either because they're vaguely on the left and more sympathetic to the difficulties faced by people of color and the working class, or because they're vaguely on the right and somewhere in their hearts think that people of color and the working class are somehow less civilized than middle class whites. While I certainly think the Weather Undergound approach (and to some degree that of the Black Bloc and other contemporary window-smashers) was misguided and counterproductive, I have to admit to a certain understanding of the emotional impulse behind it.

These radicals came of age in an America which had amputated the left side of its body politic. The repression of communists, socialists and other radicals in the 1950s wasn't just a witch-hunt for subversive individuals, it was an attempt to wipe out a certain way of thinking. Unfortunately, capitalism continued to produce economic deprivation, racism, war and alienation — with limited access to a coherent intellectual tradition to help explain the situation and older, seasoned activists to help provide a guide to action, it is hardly surprising that some currents of the radicalism that blossomed in the 60s should flow into deadly dead-ends.

And it is hardly surprising that they should take their political direction from rock and roll. George Lipsitz's excellent book, Rainbow at Midnight, examines the waves of wildcat and general strikes, and other working-class direct action, in the late 1940s. This was far more threatening to the status quo than supposed communists in Hollywood, and Lipsitz convincingly argues that much of the repression associated with "McCarthyism" was in fact directed at working class activists. He further argues that the utopian aspirations which underpinned this radicalism, the sense that acting together can change your workplace, your neighborhood, your world for the better, once it could no longer be safely expressed politically, went "underground" into popular culture. The birth of rock and roll.