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There’s a Riot Goin’ On: some musings

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There’s a Riot Going On is a hot seller here at the library.  It examines the radical 60s and their intersection with rock n’ roll.  So we read about such ahem, “revolutionaries” as Abbie Hoffman, future Apple shareholder Jerry Rubin, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen (lame), and how they feebly tried to co-op Dylan, Beatles, Stones, etc.  Not the Monkees,  though.  What’s up with that?

No one in the book comes across as too cool.  Most people come across as young, ignorant, rich, confused, and conflicted.  Keith Richards, for example, was bummed to know that the cash the Stones made went to their label, which in turn gave money to contractors who built bombs.  Gnarly.

Most of the book focuses on those two super-central “spokesmen” of the counter-culture, Lennon and Dylan.  Each comes across pretty good, but in different ways.  Lennon struggles mightily with his fame, and we see his thinking evolve, from a pacifist, to a closet-militant (funding the IRA and other armed groups), back to pacifism.  Give him credit: this was complicated, heady stuff; there were no simple answers (sorry, Abbie Hoffman), and his agonizing, I imagine, spoke to a lot of other middle class kids torn between the status quo and some un-specified, drug-addled “revolution” that would only lead to a lot of dead, unarmed kids.

Lennon also kind of rules because all of this confusion is perfectly encapsulated in his tune “Revolution.”  “We’d all love to see the plan,” he said, and gosh darn it, no one ever saw a plan.  The Weathermen’s plan was wanton, chaotic, violence, and innocent people died for no reason.  Total morons.  So I give John credit there.

“Revolution” also noted, “If you carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”  And it’s true.  Why the hell were people like Phil Ochs embracing Mao, who killed, what, 20 million people?  C’mon Phil.  Not cool.

Dylan came out smelling like a rose simply because he kept his mouth shut on such issues, more or less, from 1966 onward.  (He even hinted he may have supported the Vietnam War.)  That’s the lesson, kids: sometimes it’s best to keep your trap shut, head up to Woodstock, and crank out tunes like “All the Tired Horses.”

Ultimately, it’s an impressive narrative constructed by Peter Doggett.  My only major beef is how the story stops short in 1972 (or, in the Epilogue, roughly 1975), proclaiming the “dream was over.”  C’mon.  What dream?  The dream of civil rights?  Women’s rights?  Gay rights?  Legalization of pot?  Multiple dreams, man, and there is no objective end-point to any of ’em.

If anything, the truly powerful and long-lasting contributors of this era – the legions of unnamed, hard-working, pragmatic activists who cared more about their respective causes than yucking it up on Dick Cavett (you, again, Hoffman) – created the movements that still exist today, and are still affecting lives today.  Great book, though!