Given my particular interests in history and music, I cracked open The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture thinking that I would be more reminded than enlightened. I was pleasantly surprised to have been incorrect in my expectations.
Author Michael J. Kramer does not simply regurgitate information about Timothy Leary, Woodstock, and peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
Rather, Kramer provides whole chapters about Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests (which Jerry Garcia described as events at which “formlessness and chaos lead to new forms”); the abortive San Francisco rock festival Wild West, which “many at the time anticipated would become the definitive countercultural gathering of the era”; and how rock music affected not only the American GIs fighting the war in Southeast Asia, but also the Vietnamese citizens who had to suffer through it unarmed.
The book also answered a rudimentary question to which I was never certain of the answer: Why San Francisco?
Why was it the case that, as the underground paper the Berkeley Barb wrote, “There would probably be no Haight-Ashbury without the war”? The answer, while not requiring an entire chapter, is deeper than merely because it was headquarters for Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Michael Kramer teaches history at Northwestern University, so it did not surprise me that he interpreted some pretty cool topics in a somewhat scholarly fashion. I, however, read The Republic of Rock from neither a scholarly perspective nor the perspective of a scholar. Therefore, I do not think that I fully grasped what he was getting at with his occasional discussions of the “citizenship” that he mentions in the subtitle.
Still, I did appreciate Kramer’s inquiry into the dual – and not necessarily opposing – forces of “hip capitalism,” a term that is not original to him, and “hip militarism,” a term of his own making.
The former kept reminding me of the business hippie from Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, the one who “understand[s] the concept of supply and demand.”
But Kramer devotes the second chapter to San Fran radio station KMPX, which he calls a “pioneering example of hip capitalism.” On March, 23, 1968, the staff of KMPX – “however much they espoused antimaterialist hippie values on the surface” – “went on strike not only to demand better wages and working conditions, but also greater artistic freedom and creative control.”
Why? Because “[i]n the new dynamic of hip capitalism, the serious business profit and the zany pleasures of countercultural joy were linked.”
A similar perspective – i.e, that the counterculture should get a bigger puff of the joint that it helped roll – was what preemptively closed the curtain on Wild West, the festival that initially “so overshadowed Woodstock that one underground newspaper simply referred to the New York concert at ‘Wild East’.”
On the other side of the globe, “hip militarism emerged in Vietnam as a tactic for raising morale with the US Armed Forces.” The main manifestation of this concept permitted American soldiers to embrace rock ‘n’ roll at all levels. Another involved “relaxed regulations for hair length, facial hair, and uniforms” for members of the Navy.
Ironically, hip militarism may have also been the gun with which American politicians and military leaders shot themselves in the feet.
As anyone who knows anything about the 1960s – or has seen Forrest Gump – knows, the soundtrack to the Vietnam era wasn’t exactly all Stewie-Griffin-at-Woodstock-type songs.
Therefore, Kramer writes, hip militarism “raised morale in the immediate moment, but it did so by delivering music to GIs that accentuated their alienation from the war effort.”
Another interesting result of the influx of American popular music into Vietnam was the emergence of a popular Vietnamese group called the CBC Band. The letters stood for Con Ba Cu, meaning “Mother’s Children,” and the band partially consisted of siblings from the Phan family. Phan Lihn and his wife Phan Marie Louise became known as the “the Yoko Ono and John Lennon of Vietnamese rock music.” Covering rock music from the States, including somewhat unlikely bands such as Grand Funk Railroad and The James Gang, CBC was a big hit with mixed American and Vietnamese audiences.
The imported American music became so popular that in May 1971, South Vietnam hosted the Saigon International Rock Festival, at which “bands from South Vietnam, Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and elsewhere performed at the Saigon Zoo for roughly 7,000 fans.”
Thus, what started out on a San Francisco street corner in 1967 had, almost two full years after Woodstock, become “a global counterculture.”
The Republic of Rock taught me a great deal about the era and topics that it covers. That is what made it slightly more difficult to read than I had anticipated: I had to actually learn about stuff that I thought I already knew about. Thus, despite the groovy subject matter, Kramer’s book is not necessarily a casual read. However, it is also never so dense as to turn off those who (like me) are history and music buffs who were immediately taken in by the title.