Life in the Stone Age 7

If all popular culture episodes were only commercial and manipula¬tive, they would not matter to us. The late-sixties counterculture was not, by any means, the shabbiest episode in the postwar era, even if it now seems the most antique. It was imaginative and infec¬tious, and it touched a nerve. A lot of those old idols deserved to be overthrown. And maybe it is a generational thing, but the music still seems tonic. But the faith in popular music, consciousness expan¬sion, and the nonconformist lifestyle that made up the countercul¬tural ethos is likely to strike us today as clearly misplaced. You wonder why it didn’t dawn on all those disaffected Rolling Stone writers and editors that Wenner was successful precisely because he wasn’t the anomaly they took him to be. He was closer to what the moment was all about than they were. But faith in anything can be a valuable sentiment; and what young people in the sixties thought their faith made it possible to do was to tell the truth. Telling the truth turned out to be much harder than they thought it would be, and the culture they imagined was sustaining them turned out not to be “authentically” theirs, and not really sustain¬able, after all. But those people had not yet become cynics.
The silliest charge brought against the sixties is the charge of moral relativism. Ordinary life must be built on the solid founda¬tions of moral values, the critics who make this charge argue, and the sixties persuaded people that the foundations weren’t solid, and that any morality would do that got you through the night. The ac-cusation isn’t just wrong about the sixties; it’s an injustice to the dignity of ordinary life, which is an irredeemably pragmatic and un¬grounded affair. You couldn’t make it through even the day if you held every transaction up to scrutiny by the lights of some received moral code. But that is exactly what radicals and counterculture types in the sixties did. They weren’t moral relativists. They were moral absolutists. They scrutinized everything, and they believed they could live by the distinctions they made.
There are always people who think this way—people who see that the world is a little fuzzy and proceed to make a religion out of clarity. In the sixties their way of thinking was briefly but memorably a part of the popular culture. Gered Mankowitz, a photographer who accompanied the Rolling Stones on their American tours in the 1960s, once told a story about two groupies who dedicated them¬selves to the conquest of Mick Jagger. After several years of futile pursuit, they managed to get themselves invited to a house where the Stones were staying, and Mick was persuaded to take both of them to bed. Afterward, though, the girls were disappointed. “He was only so-so,” one of them complained. “He tried to come on like Mick Jagger, but he’s no Mick Jagger.” The real can always be sep¬arated from the contrived: wherever that illusion persists, the spirit of the sixties still survives.

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