“Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!”
The lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” boomed out of the oversized speakers set in the 2nd floor window of the 6th Sense Boutique in College Park, Maryland. Below were rows of grim faced police in riot gear facing thousands of University of Maryland students occupying Route 1, the main road through College Park.
It was May 1970 and blocking Route 1 into Washington DC was becoming a favorite tactic to protest the cruel barbarism of the USA’s Southeast Asia War.
Soon the lyrics of this popular song calling for revolution were drowned out by cries of both pain and defiance as a fog of tear gas rolled in, not on the little cat’s feet of the Sandburg poem, but with loud explosions and the tramping sound of heavy boots hitting pavement as the police charged, swinging their riot clubs with obvious enthusiasm. The resulting battle raged far into the night. I know this because I was there. Similar scenes were happening across the nation as the forces of repression tried to crush the largest anti-war student strike in US history.
Welcome to the 1970s.
Reading Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies by Ron Jacobs reminded me of the growing disquiet I felt during the period he describes in the book. Something important and beautiful was slipping away. Written and organized in a casual episodic style, the book integrates the personal experiences of the author with a social analysis of the times.
Author Ron Jacobs entered the University of Maryland in 1974, just 4 years after the historic student strike and came to know a number of the participants. He experienced that period when the dreams of the 1960s were being battered by heavy handed repression, while the dreamers themselves were beset by their own confusion and missteps. As the sun set on the 1970s, the darkness of the Reagan years lay ahead, itself a reaction to the USA’s radical social movements.
Capitalism was in a period of transition from the social democratic New Deal-Great Society version to the beginnings of the neo-liberal austerity we endure today.
Jacobs views this transitional period through the lens of the counterculture. The counterculture was that largely white phenomenon that rebelled in schools, communities and workplaces against the soul crushing conformity and social alienation of the 1950s. Labeled hippies, freaks and later punks, they tried to build community even as they strived for individuality, a dialectic that produced a wide variety of perplexing social contradictions.
Jefferson Airplane described the counterculture in 1969 with the song “We Can Be Together”:
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fuck hide and deal
We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young
But we should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die and
We can be together…
…We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall motherfucker
Tear down the walls
Tear down the walls…
Jefferson Airplane had been closely identified with Haight Ashbury and the 1967 Summer of Love with its image of gentle flower children. But by 1969 when the Volunteers album was released, the group had changed their tune. Seemingly endless war abroad combined with mounting racism and repression at home created a sense of desperation among many who identified with the counterculture.
Jacobs places the origins of the counterculture in the white middle class though it spread rapidly into the white working class as anyone who worked in the blue collar world of the time can attest. At a warehouse where I labored in the early 1970s, the older workers would retreat to the coffee machine area during breaks, while the younger white workers were on the roof passing joints and talking about the latest rock concert to hit town — as well as the horrors of the Southeast Asia War and the sordid revelations of the Watergate investigation.
Much of the book concerns the music of the counterculture. Jacobs explains why:
This is because the culture it is discussing identified itself largely through the music it performed, danced and listened to, referred to and consumed.
The music of the 60’s counterculture covered the spectrum from bleak pessimism to bouncy optimism. Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” was a terrifying view of a world gripped by war, hate and racial violence “…where even the Jordan River has bodies floatin.'”