Life in the Stone Age

If you advised a college student today to tune in, turn on, and drop out, she would probably call campus security. Few things sound less glamorous now than “the counterculture,” a term many peo¬ple are likely to associate with Charles Manson. Writing about that period feels a little like rummaging around in history’s dustbin. Just thirty-five years ago, though, everyone was writing about the counterculture, for everyone thought that the American middle class would never be the same. The American middle class never is the same for very long, of course; it’s much too insecure to resist a new self-conception when one is offered. But the change that the counterculture made in American life has become nearly impossi¬ble to calculate—thanks partly to the exaggerations of people who hate the sixties, and partly to the exaggerations of people who hate the people who hate the sixties. The subject could use the attention of some people who really don’t care.
The difficulties begin with the word “counterculture” itself. Though it has been from the beginning the name for the particular style of sentimental radicalism that flourished briefly in the late 1960s, it’s a little misleading. For during those years the countercul¬ture was the culture—or the primary object of the culture’s atten¬tion, which in America is pretty much the same thing—and that is really the basis of its interest. It had all the attributes of a typical mass-culture episode: it was a lifestyle that could be practiced on weekends; it came into fashion when the media discovered it and went out of fashion when the media lost interest; and it was, from the moment it penetrated the middle class, thoroughly commercial¬ized. Its failure to grasp this last fact about itself is the essence of its sentimentalism.
The essence of its radicalism is a little more complicated. The general idea was the rejection of the norms of adult middle-class life; but the rejection was made in a profoundly middle-class spirit. Middle-class Americans are a driven, pampered, puritanical, self- indulgent group of people. Before the sixties, these contradictions were rationalized by the principle of deferred gratification: you exer¬cised self-discipline in order to gain entrance to a profession, you showed deference to those above you on the career ladder, and ma-terial rewards followed and could be enjoyed more or less promiscu¬ously. To many people, the counterculture alternative looked like simple hedonism: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’roll (with some instant so¬cial justice on the side). But the counterculture wasn’t hedonistic; it was puritanical. It was, for that matter, virtually Hebraic: the par¬ents were worshiping false gods, and the students who tore up (or dropped out of) the university in an apparent frenzy of self- destruction—-for wasn’t the university their gateway to the good life?—were, in effect, smashing the golden calf.
There was a fair amount of flagrant sensual gratification, all of it crucial to the pop culture appeal of the whole business; but it is a mistake to characterize the pleasure-taking as amoral. It is only “fun” to stand in the rain for three days with a hundred thousand chemically demented people, listening to interminable and in-escapable loud music and wondering if you’ll ever see your car again, if you also believe in some inchoate way that you are partici¬pating in the creation of the New World. The name of the new god was authenticity, and it was unmistakably the jealous type. It demanded an existence of programmatic hostility to the ordinary modes of middle-class life, and even to the ordinary modes of con¬sciousness—to whatever was mediated, accomodationist, material¬istic, and, even trivially, false. Like most of the temporary gods of the secular society, the principle of authenticity was merely paid lip service to by most of the people who flocked to its altar; and when the sixties were over, those people went happily off to other shrines. But there were some people who took the principle to heart, who flagellated their consciences in its service, and who, even after the sixties had passed, continued to obsess about being “co-opted.”
There are two places in American society where this strain of pu- ritanism persists. One is the academy, with its fetish of the uncondi¬tioned. The other is the high end of pop music criticism—the kind of criticism that complains, for instance, about the commercialism of MTV. Since pop music is by definition commercial, it may be hard to see how pop music commercialism can ever be a problem. But for many people who take pop music seriously, it is the problem, and its history essentially begins with Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone was born in the semi-idyllic, semi-hysterical atmo¬sphere of northern California in the late sixties. It began in San Francisco in 1967, and was edited there for ten years before it was moved to New York. The man who founded it, and who remains its publisher today, was Jann Wenner. In many accounts of Rolling Stone—and notably in the excellent history of the magazine by Bobert Draper—Wenner figures as both the hero and the villain of the tale, the man who seized the moment and then betrayed it. This verges on making Wenner a little more complicated than he actually is. An opportunistic, sentimental, shrewd celebrity hound, Wenner was the first person in journalism to see what people in the music business already knew, and what people in the advertising business would soon realize: that rock music had become a fixture of Ameri¬can middle-class life. It had created a market.
Wenner knew this because he himself was the prototypical fan. He was born in 1946, in the first wave of the baby boom—his father would make a fortune selling baby formula for the children to whom the son later sold magazines—and he started Rolling Stone (he is supposed to have said) in order to meet John Lennon. He met Lennon; and he met and made pals with many more of his genera¬tion’s entertainment idols, who, once they had become friends, and with or without editorial justification, turned up regularly on the covers of his magazine. Wenner was not looking for celebrity him¬self; he was only, like most Americans, a shameless worshiper of the stars. “I always felt that Jann had a real fan’s mentality,” one of his friends and associates, William Randolph Hearst III, explained. “He wanted to hang out with Mick Jagger because Mick was cool, not because he wanted to tell people that he was cool as a result of knowing Mick.”

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