Tuesday, September 01, 2009
What a Long, Strange, Thoroughly Obnoxious Trip It's Been
I'll never forget it: On July 13th, 1985, folk legend Joan Baez walked onto the stage at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium -- site of the U.S. half of that day's massive Live Aid concert -- looked out over the crowd of rowdy kids, lifted up her voice as if she were a pastor at a revival and said triumphantly, "Children of the 80s, this is your Woodstock and it's long overdue."
I'll also never forget my reaction as I sat on a couch with my teenage friends, all of us watching the show live on MTV:
"Fuck off, hippie."
At first glance, my swift and admittedly crude dismissal of an icon of 1960s counter-culture might seem the product of my youth, immaturity and overall lack of ability at the time to appreciate the positive impact that Joan Baez and those like her had on the generation that followed them. You know something though? I'm now almost 40, and although there are those who would tell you that my level of maturity remains that of a teenager, I gotta say -- I don't give any more of a crap about Joan Baez today than I did in 1985. Looking back on it, I still consider her little more than a silly, pompous 60s cliché.
It's standard operating procedure, practically a rite of passage, for each new generation to fiercely rebel against the one that preceded it -- regardless of the optimistic nonsense that Pepsi's highly paid ad agency would have you believe. But for anyone unlucky enough to follow those who came of age in the 1960s, defiance to some extent has felt all but impossible. This is because, quite frankly, the 60s marked a high point in the evolution of American society as a whole and set an inapproachable standard across so many aspects of our culture -- music, art, political activism, even the act of defiance itself -- and it did this despite being one of the most turbulent periods in our nation's history.
And how do we know this?
Because for 40-some-odd years, the fucking Baby Boomers have never stopped reminding us.
Never in the history of this country has there been a generation that's cast a longer shadow without really having done anything to earn it than the children of the 60s -- specifically the so-called Woodstock Generation. For the most part, they're thoroughly undeserving of the immortality they've pretentiously bequeathed to themselves. But for God's sake, don't ever say this to the True Believers in the Boomer-Woodstock nostalgia aesthetic; they'll immediately begin lecturing you on the seemingly self-perpetuating legacy of the 60s protest movement, the brilliance of Abbie Hoffman, and the philosophical importance of shitting outdoors in the mud while Canned Heat plays Going Up the Country somewhere at the other end of the farm.
In case you hadn't already noticed, all this free love for the era of free love has really been pegging the meters lately thanks to the 40th anniversary of what was known officially as the Woodstock Art and Music Festival ("Three Days of Peace, Music and a Complete Lack of Hygiene"). Yes, it was 40 years ago that a bunch of hippies descended on the tiny town of Bethel, New York to drop acid, whirl around in circles and make memories that would last not only their lifetime but everyone else's -- because it was just that important.
If you weren't able to be there for whatever reason (you were part of the oppressive establishment or, you know, hadn't been born yet) the Woodstock folks need you to understand that, dammit, you should wish you could have been.
Such is the real legacy of the 60s, as filtered through the haze of bong smoke still looked back on with fondness by many of those who were there: It introduced the most narcissistic, self-congratulatory, self-indulgent generation this country has ever seen. A group of people political satirist Christopher Buckley jokingly calls "The Un-greatest Generation."
But once again, don't tell them that. As far as they're concerned, they own the goddamned world -- and to some extent they do, and have since they first went from being counter-culture warriors to being shallow, shameless Wall Street capitalists in the 1980s. When Wavy Gravy gave way to Gordon Gekko. When the Baby Boomers ascended to a position of real power in America, it was almost a certainty that they would do what they'd done since the 60s: shove their values (which always came down to one thing: them), their culture, and their nostalgia for their own childhood down our collective throats, allowing the rest of us the opportunity to fully grasp and revel right along with them in what they already knew so well -- their lives ruled. It was this gargantuanly egocentric attitude that gave us the "Me Generation" during the 70s and went on to bankrupt parts of this country, both financially and morally, in the 80s and beyond. No wonder "my generation" (no pun intended), the so-called Gen-X, eventually decided that the only way to fight back was to abandon all that phony, ultimately self-serving conscientiousness and just not give a shit about anything.
But we never could escape the warm bath of encomium flowing from a media machine designed not just to chronicle but glorify the Boomers as they made their way through life -- from their self-reflective 30s (the tedious navel-gazing of Thirtysomething and The Big Chill), through their ascendency to their rightful place at the very pinnacle of American society (the too-much-is-never-enough Clinton presidency), now into their autumnal years (story upon story devoted to how they're "redefining" retirement -- bringing the same level of self-indulgence to it that they've brought to every other period in their lives). To drop a phrase from a generation that existed long before theirs, the more things change the more they stay the same.
The reality is that although the 1960s themselves were an extraordinary time and I'd never devalue some of the truly impressive accomplishments that took place during that era, it would be great if we'd all be allowed to, well, get over it. An adherence to the standards supposedly set in the 60s has at times done far more harm than good. Think the 60s protest movement -- the way in which people are encouraged to protest, highlighting individualism (making my point perfectly) -- really has any relevance to today's climate? You're out of your fucking mind. When what was called for in the lead-up to the war in Iraq -- what would've been truly effective -- was a show of strength through unity and, yes, conformity among activists, what we instead got was what we've always gotten since the 60s: a bunch of dumb-asses in face paint and colorful t-shirts acting like buffoons. Needless to say, this struck fear into the hearts of absolutely no one in the political and media establishment. All it proved was that those who were opposed to the impending war would never be able to get it together enough to make a successful stand against the people calling the shots.
So why did we engage in this thoroughly impotent form of activism? Because we'd been taught since birth that "this is how they did it in the 60s, man!" (regardless of the fact that it can easily be argued that the real reason for the Vietnam protests in the first place was that none of the hippies wanted to get stuck going to war -- 'cause, wow, bummer man).
Big fan of those ridiculous Jesse Jackson-led marches? Do those really accomplish a goddamned thing? Not quite. And yet we allow Jackson to continually hijack any real dialogue and chance at lasting understanding simply because he's a 60s icon -- one who's always at the ready to inject himself into any public fight simply because it will get him on TV (making my point yet again). Or how about this one: Think about how every political or cultural scandal since 1972 has ludicrously been dubbed "Something-or-Other-Gate" -- named for the Watergate break-in ordered by late-60s pariah Richard Nixon.
The 60s is the decade that just won't die.
Those who lived it have spent the last four decades looking down their noses at the rest of us and saying, "You're welcome."
Joan Baez's comment at Live Aid was more revealing about an entire mindset than even she probably realized. So much that's happened since the 1960s has been compared against the standard supposedly set in the 1960s. This is especially interesting when you consider something: Live Aid was actually about alleviating world hunger; what was Woodstock about? You guessed it -- them. They came up during a time when maybe being an individual could be perceived as a threat to the squares in the establishment -- but did that ethos have to continue throughout the rest of their lives, even well past the point that they actually became the establishment? Did the Woodstock generation ever really grow up?
Look, Dennis Hopper is now a card-carrying conservative. The last Kennedy brother is dead. American Express is now aiming retirement package commercials at you featuring a smiling, gray-haired couple saying, "Never trust anyone over 90!" -- officially making you a walking punchline. Taking Woodstock came in 9th at the box office over the weekend.
The trip's over. Will you please go away and leave us alone now?