Full Circle

TECHNICOLOR DREAMS IN BLACK AND WHITE REALISM: San Francisco in the Sixties

Poster to support the Chicago 8, 1968

Author Mat Callahan

Renaissance (as defined by Merriam-Webster): rebirth, revival; a movement or period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity.

Revolution (as defined by Merriam-Webster): the action by a celestial body of going round in an orbit or elliptical course; a sudden, radical, or complete change in political organization, especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another; activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation; a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something.

God forbid we should ever be 20 years without a rebellion.
—Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

It’s 50 years on from the tumults and hysteria that scratched and clawed its way through the social fabric of American life during the 1960s, and we’re still trying to make sense out of the chaos and political theater of that insane epoch. Every decade has its morphs, mix-tapes, and magic, but somehow—the Sixties seem different. Thank God for the detritus left in its wake, as perception and memory tends to grow a bit fuzzy around the edges. Comedian Robin Williams articulated the era’s unique conundrum: “If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there.” It was a period of radical shifts in consciousness—a compressed, evolutionary insurgence where individual paradigms flipped a 180 literally overnight due to the proliferation of mind-expanding drugs, East meets West mysticism, the mass media, a burgeoning middle-class, and the unprecedented population explosion dubbed the Baby Boom (1946–1964), after the twin devastations of the Great Depression and the second World War left an enormous wave of human beings desperate to deliver on the illusory promise of the American Dream and the theoretical tenets of the U.S. Constitution.

It was also a time when the political science of civics was taught in high schools, colleges, and town hall meetings across America, and not before or since have so many citizens behaved as if they understood what a necessary privilege and responsibility it is to participate in their country’s political process, particularly when that process involves the right to protest against the policies of its so-called representatives.

In the last half of the 20th century a communal art farm of self-determined mystics, musicians, life actors, political mavericks, and dissenters all came together in the city by the bay in a manner unlike any other place or time in American history. Musician and author Mat Callahan understands that more than most folks, and he has filtered his particular POV of those hallucinatory glimpses of glory into a historical treatise: The Explosion of Deferred Dreams. Drawing its title from a Langston Hughes poem and subtitled Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1965–1975, Callahan begins the exercise by asking an extremely loaded question in the book’s Foreword: “Does the world need another book on the Sixties?” The assessment is as subjective as the narrative within, and the answer hinges largely upon how much knowledge and direct experience the reader brings to the subject at hand.

Born (July 14, 1951) and raised in San Francisco, California, Callahan is extremely passionate about this dynamic and convoluted time, and Deferred Dreams paints an evocative picture of the era, serving as an excellent primer for the uninitiated. But it’s hardly a news flash that San Francisco is a haven for radicals, free thinkers, rebels, and non-conformists. Callahan’s story is unique and archetypal at the same time, with many important lessons to be gleaned from its pages about how the political and social revolutions of the Sixties succeeded, and why they ultimately imploded. There wasn’t just one revolution afoot, there were numerous uprisings and shifts in consciousness going on simultaneously regarding our social hierarchy: class division, political ideology (capitalism/socialism/ communism), feminist concerns, racial equality for all peoples (blacks, Chicanos, Asians, Native Americans, and whites), and active military personnel and veterans who were directly impacted by the war in Vietnam.

Like many Boomers, Callahan was transformed at the cusp of his adolescence by the Beatles’ television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, marking a sea change in his personal allegiance from sports and automobiles to guitars and girls. Despite his declaration that the Beatles were a manufactured by-product of the media from a long line of prefab heartthrobs (a debatable claim), they nevertheless inspired Callahan to become a lifelong musician. By the end of ’64, after witnessing the historic takeover of Sproul Hall by students at the University of California, Berkeley, during the Free Speech Movement, his transformation into a nascent political subversive was nearly complete.

Callahan’s political lens was shaped and skewed by the ideals of his parents, who both belonged to the Communist Party, and like many of his peers in the Bay Area, he was strongly influenced by the collectivist values and organizing principles of union workers determined not to be exploited. There is an underlying assumption throughout Deferred Dreams that capitalism, and its resultant imperialism, is the root cause of most of the evils and imbalances in the world. In fact, the primary thesis that runs through the majority of Deferred Dreams is Callahan’s concept of “music’s rivalry with the state” and the insistence that “music should be free” and that the music industry and monetizing intellectual property are the tools of “evil capitalists,” and yet another means of exploiting artists/workers and turning them into indentured servants of the state.

Another concern that Callahan expresses is how the events that he personally witnessed or participated in during this period of time have been distorted and misrepresented over the years. “It was the stark realization that the entire edifice of Sixties discourse was built on falsehoods constructed in many cases at the very moment the actual events were unfolding,” he writes. “Terms such as ‘hippie,’ ‘flower power,’ and the ‘Summer of Love’ were manufactured by the corporate media and propagated to undermine forces that threatened their dominance, yet all these and more have become not only legend and lore but established as historical fact.”

Callahan insists that instead of mirroring the society that we live in, the music that is made by conscientious artists actually changes the very society we co-create. Also, when the values of the collective insist that everything in our culture should be free and unburdened by the exploitation of capitalism, we are somehow closer to Utopia. Insisting that music should be free is a lovely thought for those who value the gift of sound, but how do the artists involved with making those sounds pay for or manifest the resources necessary to put on a public performance? How do you subsidize the housing, food, instruments, transportation, labor, and talent necessary to put on a concert or produce a work of art for public consumption in the recording studio? Unfortunately, without individuals or a group of patrons capable and invested in supporting such a model, we have exactly what exists today in 2017: a culture that thinks music should be downloaded or streamed on the Internet for free, and that artists don’t need to eat or be compensated for their work. Until we develop a barter system that completely abolishes money in all forms, that collectivist principle is unworkable. More to the point, it’s another way of exploiting the worker under a different disguise.

Us vs. Them/Thought vs. Action

Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Terence McKenna: “Culture is a kind of mass hallucination…and if you have been paying attention, you know it’s bullshit, so you don’t care anymore.”

If you take a look around at the world today it is simultaneously encouraging and disheartening to witness where the majority of the collective’s consciousness resides. Many people are waking up to the fact that we have all been led by the nose as tax cattle to sustain a grossly imbalanced political system of haves and have-nots, regulated by the controlling oligarchy.

Regarding the political changes that arose at the end of the last decade, exemplified by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, Callahan observes that “Now that a new generation is rising to challenge ruling dogma and overthrow despotism, isn’t it time to simply join this wonderful current and be carried along?” That is beautiful, wishful thinking, but apparently no matter how unfair or corrupt, the system has proven far more resilient in the face of such political maneuvers. Perhaps the most useful reason for writing Deferred Dreams rests in Callahan’s notion that “If the Sixties deserve any attention at all, it is to provide perspective and insight for the struggles unfolding now.”

If the personal is indeed as political as so many people believe it to be, one of the primary reasons that the Bay Area was such a dynamic place to exist in the Sixties is due to the unconventional ideas put into practice by various political factions: the Black Panthers, Teatro Campesino, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Artists Liberation Front (ALF), the commedia dell’arte group the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and its offshoot of ragtag anarchists called the Diggers. Without the Mime Troupe and the Diggers, none of the legendary happenings that occurred in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park circa 1966–69, such as the Human Be-In, free fairs, daily free food, or free concerts would have ever occurred. There was, of course, a lot of larceny and pilfering from the surplus of “straight society” required in order to finance the Diggers concept of “free.” The Digger maxim “it’s free because it’s yours” assumed parity within the culture without being bothered by such bourgeoisie concepts as meritocracy. But revolutionaries who insist on limited private property and the liberation of material goods from a consumer-oriented society have to start somewhere. If you’re really looking for a you-are-there account of being in the Haight-Ashbury at the peak of its powers, the two best memoirs on the subject are Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio, and Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle. Along with R.G. Davis’s The San Francisco Mime Troupe: The First Ten Years; these are three of the essential texts for exploring the mythos of San Francisco in the Sixties.

Of course, the holy sacrament of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are really what drew the crowds to San Francisco during the Sixties, and the corporate media was sensationally hell-bent on reducing San Francisco and its culture to the lowest common denominator for the benefit of Middle America. A pivotal moment in San Francisco history occurred when Mime Troupe director R.G. Davis was arrested in Lafayette Park on August 7, 1965, for performing without a permit. SFMT business manager Bill Graham organized and promoted a series of three benefits to finance the legal appeals. Several local rock bands volunteered their services, and through this process Graham had the epiphany that there was an enormous audience in San Francisco for the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene. Graham was so shrewd working his way through the political minefield of dealing with the local police and the black business community of the Fillmore district that within six months he had a thriving enterprise going with the Fillmore West. Saul Landau: “Bill saw the opportunity. He didn’t know shit about any of these groups. But he saw a thousand people show up to hear these bands. In his mind, he turned it right into cash. Within six months, he was a millionaire.”

For better or worse, there is no way to over-estimate Graham’s influence on the Bay Area music scene, and the model he developed at the Fillmore West became the standard operating procedure for every arena rock tour we have known since. No matter how much of an “evil capitalist” Graham was, he is also to be commended for presenting the liquid light shows and psychedelic poster art that almost single-handedly define the era. Along with Chet Helms and the Family Dog dance concerts at the Avalon Ballroom, Bill Graham Presents was responsible for commissioning some of the most revolutionary art of the century, featuring the work of Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Lee Conklin, Greg Irons, Randy Tuten, David Byrd, David Singer, and Norman Orr. It was also in this milieu that underground comix began to proliferate, producing the genius satire of Robert Crumb (Zap Comix), Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), and scores of others who had become “experienced,” to borrow the parlance of Jimi Hendrix.

Power to the people, right on!
Of course, San Francisco in the Sixties is a long way from the minstrel shows and race records of the early 20th century, but Callahan admirably manages to trace a line from the exploitation of black artists by white entrepreneurs into the cultural/political lineage of how folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger stood up for the downtrodden and dispossessed, exploring the deeper issues of disparity between the classes. It really is a class war that is at play in keeping the line drawn between the haves and the have-nots. When it comes to the reigning social hierarchy, oppression and exploitation are color-blind, with the only difference being a matter of magnitude.

The political anthems of the folk and civil rights movements eventually begat the socially aware rock musicians that sprang out of the Bay Area, and a new type of music began to be heard. A role call of the revolutionary Bay Area bands from the era would include Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Steve Miller Band, Santana, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Tower of Power, the Great Society, Sons of Champlin, the Charlatans, Country Joe & the Fish, It’s a Beautiful Day, Malo, and the Flamin’ Groovies.

In addition to performing in the ballrooms and the clubs, another factor in the massive popularity of all the above-mentioned bands was the explosion of free-form radio and the diversity of styles that could be heard on such FM stations as KPFA and KSAN. There was a community formed by these media outlets that demonstrated what a powerful platform radio is to disseminate information and ideas to the people at large.

Music’s rivalry with the state
In addition to the money-grubbing antics of Bill Graham, if there is anything that serves to prove Callahan’s point about the organic music of San Francisco being co-opted by the big, bad machine of capitalist exploitation, one need only study the history of Rolling Stone magazine and the carefully crafted PR slant of entrepreneur Jann Wenner. If journalism is in theory an exercise in objectivity and integrity (another falsehood), Rolling Stone proved the point that when you take advertising dollars from every corporate conglomerate within the entertainment industry, you can hardly provide an objective critique of that industry’s output, particularly if you are complicit in selling out the values of the very community that you purport to serve. Despite the appearance of siding with the New Left, the fact that Rolling Stone eventually relocated to New York City provided further evidence that Wenner and his shills for the music industry were as much a part of the system as anyone.

In an interesting form of projection, Callahan also asserts that while “history may be ‘remade’ by the victors, that cannot guarantee victory’s permanence,” and he declares the system’s dominance to be “temporary and provisional.” In order to overcome the system it is necessary for all artists to overcome their sense of “cynicism and despair…to make a contribution, to make a difference, to make history: these are the goals worthy of an artist. In their place are offered opportunities to make a name for oneself, to be acclaimed and fêted by agents of the state. It’s called a ‘career,’ and it’s the booby prize for which you surrender your life.”

“How can we change the world unless we change the way we think?”
It’s a question that Callahan raises that is worthy of consideration by every single person on the planet. (And until we jettison those dogmatic, fundamentalist value systems that continue to perpetuate the divide and conquer strategies of our current paradigm, we will continue to scratch our heads in bewilderment as to how we ended up in such a political and cultural morass. But clearly Utopia wasn’t built in a day.)

The Explosion of Deferred Dreams offers few declaratives to that query, but it does light a candle and expose the darkest corners of what life was like during a season of imagined possibilities and, at its best, serves to reflect on how far we still need to evolve in order to manifest those utopian ideals and fantasies.

Who among us has the compassion and vision and lack of attachment to lead a spiritual revolution and not be corrupted by the foregone equation that absolute power corrupts absolutely? There is not one single leader in the world who has satisfied the requirements of being a political Bodhisattva—to manifest a real revolution on this planet, we will all need to manifest the consciousness of an avatar.

Certainly a lot of people during the Sixties imagined themselves to possess the enlightened spirit of an avatar. If the bohemians of the Beat Generation set an example for the hippies of the Love Generation, it certainly must be mentioned how drugs played a huge part in shaping and, ultimately, destroying the subculture of San Francisco. Marijuana and, in particular, LSD, became the social sacrament: the spiritual wafer that a new congregation of freaks and heads built its community upon. Without Augustus Owsley Stanley III and his genius skills at synthesizing lysergic acid diethylamide, we wouldn’t have had Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the Trips Festival, the Acid Tests, or the Grateful Dead. Another mandatory tome to explore if the history of psychedelics intrigues you is Jay Stevens’s Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.

But LSD’s rock of ages turned out in many cases to be a mirage. At best, it revealed the possibilities and delivered an obscure map to a vague territory, because after you have been catapulted to the top of the mountain and experience a glimpse of the potential within each of us, the hard work of returning to that summit without the aid or crutch of chemical enhancement is the true reward of the drug experience. LSD could reveal, however, that Utopia can be yours for the taking if you are willing to do the spiritual work necessary to make it come true. Part of that path is being able to project a future that is workable and sustainable for everyone: to imagine the possibilities of an enlightened race of beings.

Of course, due to a large number of factors, the movements of the Sixties couldn’t last forever, particularly when marijuana and psychedelics gave way to the debilitating habits of methamphetamine and heroin. The FBI and the Federal Government also played a large part in systematically destroying such radical groups as the Black Panthers and the SDS/Weather Underground, either through incarceration, CIA/government infiltration, or murdering its members. As for the solidarity of community among many young people, the end of the Vietnam War and the resignation of president Richard Nixon served as a demarcation point, and caused much of the political solidarity of the era to splinter into a thousand diverse interests. The sacrifices required of collectivism gave way to the materialistic individualism of the ’70s and beyond.

Callahan: “By the Sixties, one thing was abundantly clear: the Soviet Union was not the Promised Land. If anything, the Soviet Union had betrayed a great revolution. When people spoke of the system, it included the Soviet Union as a necessary complement to U.S. imperialism. But even as millions became increasingly aware of what they were fighting against, the example of the USSR obscured the vital question of what people were fighting for.
“If anything, the failure of the revolution was a failure to grasp this role of aesthetics in liberating consciousness, indeed the leading role of aesthetics in imagining a future. Not, therefore, a collapse of aesthetics into politics or, conversely, a Nietzschean elevation of the poet over the philosopher, but a thorough repudiation of the notion that life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ in which our senses are a prison from which the only escape is momentary pleasure and death. The revolution fell prey to its own tacit acceptance of the ‘realism’ imposed by the system, an abandonment of the task of elaborating in political terms what the system’s replacement might look like.”

Ultimately, Deferred Dreams is a paradoxical dance between the philosophy that fuels the dreams of liberation from the oppression of the state, with a reminder of the disciplined action required to manifest that philosophy into a collective reality. And that is thoroughly dependent on the consciousness of each individual, and the shared values that allow every person a place of dignity, and to equally enjoy the resources of this planet and culture.

Mat Callahan will appear on Wednesday, May 17th at 7pm to sign copies and read from The Explosion of Deferred Dreams at D.G. Wills Books, 7461 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037 858.456.1800

Stay tuned for Part Two, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love”/”Summer of Discontent” in the June edition of the San Diego Troubadour!

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