Artiness, Absurdity and Excess

!Read me First


Underground in the Fifties

The Angry No

The Transcendent Yes

Alternative Life Styles

The Tug of Gravity:Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock

Artiness, Absurdity, and Excess

The Seventies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Suggested Recordings

Music Quiz

Suggested Links

"It was good for a time; then we went so far that we lost it." -- Timothy Leary

Overwhelming as the establishment loomed, it was not pop shlock alone that ultimately undid rock - and the counterculture - at the close of the sixties, but three inside enemies: artiness, absurdity, and excess. The drive toward artistic expression took children of the sixties out of the arena of real social and political struggle, and into the fairly-tale world of hypothetical people, problems, and solutions. And the excesses of artists, revolutionaries, and drug freaks led not to more freedom but to a conservative reassertion of the safe, sane, Republican center.

Pete Townshend of the Who in motion
"You've got yourself to blame." - the Who, Quadrophenia

The least expected, least guarded against internal flaw was the tendency of the counterculture to turn itself into self-conscious pop art and of rock music to turn itself into fine art. As the sixties unfolded, real rock grew increasingly obsessed with becoming an art. This thing had several effects on rock, some of them good, many of them detrimental. For one thing, rock became much more sophisticated musically, lyrically, and structurally. To a point this was healthy; and by incorporating new styles, and new instruments rock opened new worlds. For another thing, art is sometimes the only form of subversion tolerated by the uncomprehending toughs hired by the establishment to defend itself. So artiness might not have been such a bad tendency but for some other effects it had on rock. When the Beatles are taught in schools, cooed over by music crtics, and published in poetry anthologies, you know that something's been lost for something gained.

This is not to say that folk music, protest songs, or even the young Dylan was inherently artsy. As long as the folk songs themselves remained old border ballads, union songs, and Woody Guthrie dust bowl laments, the quality of the music was largely untouched. But when the popular verdict came down, around 1962, in favour of allowing folksingers to perform their own material - written in the middle of Greenwich Village in the middle of the twentieth century - then the door was opened to a new kind of music. Then the climate of the Village and the college campus - intellectually charged would infiltrate folk music.

Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
But for all its virtues, for all its fun, the absurdist vision could be a turn-off, especially when it expressed itself in satire, where it leveled indiscriminately. The Mothers of Invention are a case in point. The dozen records that Zappa packed between '66 and '72 are absurdist albums that leave nothing to believe in. "The whole hippie scene is wishful thinking. They wish they could love, but they are full of shit."

So what was not full of shit? So what was right? Zappa left no ground on which to stand.

Again, the sense of the absurd, along with artiness and excess, helped bring down the sixties and rock. Every age creates its own apocalypse, which it either outlives or outgrows.

"'How-how does the Universe end?' said Billy. 'We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears'" - Kurt Vonnegut,Slaughterhouse Five

And then there was the classic trial of Abbie Hoffman during the proceedings against the Chicago Eight. To Abbie, the courtroom became a theater.

Abbie Hoffman arrested for wearing the American Flag
The Witness (Abbie Hoffman): Everybody dressed as Keystone cops and we went to Stony Brook to arrest all the whiskey drinkers
Mr.Schultz: Objection.
The Court: I sustain the objection.
The Witness: You missed a good story.

And finally the excess, encouraged by the mass media. Allow a year for discovery of a talent, a year for promotion and two years for exploitation. Excess is needed to maintain visibility.

"You ought to watch it in the next coupla years."
"Oh, man."
"The pace. Slow down, you finally realize you're doing yourself in."
"I figured that out a long time ago. I also figured this out: I gotta go on doin' it the way I see it....I am here to have a party, man, as best as I can while I'm on this earth. I think that's your duty too." -- Interview with Janis Joplin

Next: The Seventies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Previous: The Tug of Gravity: Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock

Main Page