In the 1950s, rock & roll meant disruption: It was the clamor of young people, kicking hard against the Eisenhower era’s ethos of vapid repression. By the onset of the 1960s, that spirit had been largely tamed or simply impeded by numerous misfortunes, including the film and army careers of Elvis Presley, the death of Buddy Holly, the blacklisting of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and the persecution of DJ Alan Freed, who had been stigmatized by payola charges by Tin Pan Alley interests and politicians angered with his championing of R&B and rock & roll. In 1960, the music of Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Connie Francis and Mitch Miller (an avowed enemy of rock & roll) ruled the airwaves and the record charts, giving some observers the notion that decency and order had returned to the popular mainstream. But within a few years, rock would regain its disruptive power with a joyful vengeance until, by the decade’s end, it would be seen as a genuine force of cultural and political consequence. For a long and unforgettable season, it was a truism — or threat, depending on your point of view — that rock & roll could (and should) make a difference: that it was eloquent and inspiring and principled enough to change the world — maybe even to save it.
How did such a dramatic development take place? How did rock & roll come to be seen as such a potent voice for cultural revolution?
In part, of course, it was simply a confluence of auspicious conditions and ambitious prodigies that broke things open. Or, if you prefer a more romantic and mythic view, you could say that rock & roll set something loose in the 1950s — a spirit of cultural abandon — that could not be stopped or refused, and you might even be right. Certainly, rock & roll had demonstrated that it was capable of inspiring massive generational and social ferment and that its rise could even have far-reaching political consequences. This isn’t to say that enjoying Presley or rock & roll was the same as subscribing to liberal politics, nor is it to suggest that the heroism of R&B and rock musicians was equal to that of civil-rights campaigners like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks, who paid through pain, humiliation and blood for their courage. But rock & roll did present black musical forms — and consequently, black sensibilities and black causes — to a wider (and whiter) audience than ever before, and as a result, it drove a fierce, threatening wedge into the heart of the American musical mainstream.
By the 1960s — as the sapless Eisenhower years were ending and the brief, lusty Kennedy era was forming — a new generation was coming of age. The parents of this generation had worked and fought for ideals of peace, security and affluence, and they expected their children not only to appreciate and benefit from this bequest but also to affirm and extend their prosperous new world. But the older generation was also passing on legacies of fear and some unpaid debts — anxieties about nuclear obliteration and leftist ideologies and sins of racial violence — and in the push to stability, priceless ideals of equality and justice had been compromised, even lost. Consequently, the children of this age — who would forever be dubbed the baby-boom generation — were beginning to question the morality and politics of postwar America, and some of their musical tastes began to reflect this unrest. In particular, folk music (which had been driven underground in the 1950s by conservative forces) was now enjoying a popular resurgence. Under the influence of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, folk was turning more politically explicit, becoming increasingly identified with civil rights and pacifism, among other causes. But it was in the nasal-toned, rail-thin young Bob Dylan — who had moved from Minnesota to New York to assume the legacy of Woody Guthrie — that folk found its greatest hope: a remarkably prolific songwriter who was giving a forceful and articulate voice to the apprehensions and ideals of the emerging restless generation. With “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in 1963, Dylan penned songs about racial suffering and the threat of nuclear apocalypse that immediately acquired the status of anthems, and with “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in early 1964, he wrote an apt and chilling decree of the rising tensions of the coming era. “Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land,” he sang in a voice young with anger and old with knowledge. “And don’t criticize/What you can’t understand/ Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is/Rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one/If you can’t lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin’.”
But for all its egalitarian ideals, folk was a music of past and largely spent traditions. As such, it was also the medium for an alliance of politicos and intelligentsia that viewed a teen-rooted mass-entertainment form like rock & roll with derision. The new generation had not yet found a style or a standard-bearer that could tap the temper of the times in the same way that Presley and rockabilly had in the 1950s.
When rock & roll’s rejuvenation came, it was from a place small, unlikely and far away. Indeed, in the early 1960s, Liverpool, England, was a fading port town that had slid from grandeur to dilapidation during the postwar era, and it was viewed by snobbish Londoners as a demeaned place of outsiders. But one thing Liverpool had was a brimming pop scene, made up of bands playing tough and exuberant blues-and R&B-informed rock & roll, and in December 1962, the city’s most popular group, a four-piece ensemble called the Beatles, broke into Britain’s Top Forty with a folkish rock song, “Love Me Do.” There was little about the single that heralded greatness — the group’s leaders, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, weren’t yet distinguished songwriters — but nonetheless the song began a momentum that would forever shatter the American grip on the U.K. pop charts.
In many ways, Britain was as ripe for a pop cataclysm as America had been for Presley during the ennui after world war. In England — catching the reverberations of not just Presley but of the jazz milieu of Miles Davis and Jack Kerouac — the youth scene had acquired the status of a mammoth subcultural class, which was the byproduct of a postwar population top-heavy with people under the age of eighteen. For those people, pop music denoted more than preferred entertainment or even stylistic rebellion, it signified the idea of autonomous society. British teenagers weren’t just rejecting their parents’ values — they were superseding them, though they were also acting out their eminence in American terms — in the music of Presley and rockabilly, in blues and jazz tradition.
But when Brian Epstein — a Liverpool record-store manager who was aspiring to a more eventful life — first saw the Beatles at one of the city’s cellar jazz clubs, the Cavern, he saw a band that not only delivered its American obsessions with infectious verve but also reflected British youth’s joyful sense of being cultural outsiders, ready to seize everything that it had been refused. What’s more, Epstein figured that the British pop scene would recognize and seize on this kinship. As the group’s manager, Epstein cleaned up the Beatles’ punkness considerably, but he didn’t deny the group its spirit or its musical instincts, and in a markedly short time, his faith paid off. A year after “Love Me Do” peaked at Number Seventeen in the New Musical Express charts, the Beatles had six singles active in the Top Twenty in the same week, including the three top positions — an unprecedented and still unduplicated feat. In the process, Lennon and McCartney had grown enormously as writers — in fact, they were already one of the best composing teams in pop history — and the group itself had upended the local pop scene, establishing a hierarchy of long-haired male ensembles playing a popwise but hard-bashing update of 1950s-style rock & roll. But there was more to it than mere pop success. In less than a year, the Beatles had transformed British pop culture — had redefined not just its intensities and possibilities but had turned it into a matter of nationalistic impetus.
Then, on February 9th, 1964, following close on the frenzied breakthrough of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” the TV variety-show kingpin Ed Sullivan presented the Beatles for the first time to a mass American audience, and it proved to be an epochal moment. The Sullivan appearance drew more than 70 million viewers — the largest TV audience ever, at that time — an event that cut across divisions of style and region and drew new divisions of era and age; an event that, like Presley’s TV appearances, made rock & roll seem an irrefutable opportunity. Within days it was apparent that a genuine upheaval was underway, offering a frenetic distraction to the dread that had set into America after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a renewal of the brutally wounded ideal that youthfulness carried our national hope. Elvis Presley had shown us how rebellion could be fashioned into eye-opening style; the Beatles were showing us how style could have the impact of cultural revelation — or at least how a pop vision might be forged into an unimpeachable consensus. Virtually overnight, the Beatles’ arrival in the American consciousness announced not only that the music and times were changing but also that we were changing. Everything about the band — its look, sound, style and abandon — made it plain that we were entering a different age, that young people were free to redefine themselves in completely new terms.
All of which raises an interesting question: Would the decade’s pop and youth scenes have been substantially different without the Beatles? Or were the conditions such that, given the right catalyst, an ongoing pop explosion was inevitable? Certainly other bands (including the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Zombies and Manfred Mann) contributed to the sense of an emerging scene, and still others (among them the Kinks, the Who, the Animals and the Rolling Stones) would make music just as vital and more aggressive (and sometimes smarter and more revealing). Yet the Beatles had a singular gift that transcended even their malleable sense of style, or John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s genius as songwriters and arrangers, or Brian Epstein and producer George Martin’s unerring stewardship as devoted mentors. Namely, the Beatles possessed an almost impeccable flair for rising to the occasion of their own moment in history, for honoring the promise of their own talents, and this knack turned out to be the essence of their artistry. The thrill and momentum wouldn’t fade for several years. The music remained a constant surprise and delight; it continually transfixed and influenced us, as the Beatles’ work and presence intensified our lives.
In short, the Beatles were a rupture — they changed modern history, and no less a craftsman than Bob Dylan understood the meaning of their advent. “They were doing things nobody else was doing,” he later told his biographer Anthony Scaduto. “But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were just for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction that music had to go. . . . It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before.”
Coming from Dylan, this was considerable praise. In his stint as a folk eminence, he had been writing vastly influential songs that held a brave and glaring mirror up to the face of cultural corruption — and he did it all with unequaled poetic grace. But Dylan — who, like the Beatles, had grown up on the music of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly — was feeling confined by the limited interests of the folk audience and by the narrow stylistic range of folk music itself. After witnessing the breakthrough of the Beatles and after hearing the rawer blues-based rock being made by the Animals and the Rolling Stones, Dylan realized it was possible to transform and enliven his music, connecting with a broader and more vital audience in the process. (When the Byrds scored a June 1965 Number One hit with their chiming folk-rock cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it only further convinced him.)
On July 25th, 1965, Dylan took the stage with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival and played a brief, howling set of the new electric music he had been recording. The shocked folk purists howled back at him in rage, and for fair reason: The music that Dylan began making on albums like Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited would effectively kill off any remaining notions that folk was the imperative new art form of American youth and confer on rock a greater sense of consequence and a deeper expressiveness. Clearly, it was music worth the killing of old conceits and older ways. In particular, with “Like a Rolling Stone” (the singer’s biggest hit and the decade’s most liberating, form-stretching single), Dylan framed perfectly the spirit of an emerging generation that was trying to live by its own rules and integrity and that was feeling increasingly cut off from the conventions and privileges of the mainstream culture. In the same manner that he had once given voice to a rising political consciousness, Dylan seemed to be voicing our deepest-felt fears and hopes — to be speaking for us. “How does it feeeel,” he brayed at his brave new audience. “To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a ROO-olling STONE?”
How did it feel? It felt scary; it felt exhilarating; and suddenly it felt exactly like rock & roll.
Combined, the Beatles and Dylan had a seismic effect on popular music and youth culture. They changed the soundscape and ambition of rock & roll in thorough and irrevocable ways that, a quarter-century later, still carry tremendous influence. They also had a sizable impact on each other. The Beatles opened up new possibilities in style and consensus; without their headway, Dylan probably would never have conceived “Like a Rolling Stone,” much less enjoyed a smash hit with it. But if the Beatles opened up a new audience, Dylan determined what could be done with that consensus, what could be said to that audience. His mid-1960s work single-handedly reinvented pop’s known rules of language and meaning and revealed that rock & roll’s familiar structures could accommodate new, unfamiliar themes, that a pop song could be about any subject a writer was smart or daring enough to tackle. Without this crucial assertion, it is inconceivable that the Beatles would have gone on to write “Nowhere Man,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Paperback Writer,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “A Day in the Life,” or even that the Rolling Stones would have written the decade’s toughest riff and most taunting and libidinous declaration: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Dylan also influenced the Beatles in two other important respects. For one thing, he was reportedly the person who introduced them to drugs (marijuana, specifically), during his 1964 tour of England. This brand of experimentation would gradually affect not only the Beatles’ musical and lyrical perspectives but also the perspectives of an entire generation. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, drug use became increasingly identified with rock culture — though it certainly wasn’t the first time drugs had been extolled as recreation or sacrament, or exploited for artistic inspiration. Many jazz and blues musicians (and truth be known, numerous country & western artists) had been using marijuana and narcotics to enhance their improvisational bents for several decades, and in the 1950s, the Beats had brandished dope as another badge of nonconformism. But with 1960s rock, as drugs crossed over from the hip underground (and from research laboratories), stony references became more overt and more mainstream than ever before. Getting high started being seen as a way of understanding deeper truths and sometimes as a way of deciphering coded pop songs (or simply enjoying the palpable aural sensations of the music). Just as important, getting stoned was a way of participating in private, forbidden experiences — as a means of staking out a consciousness apart from that of the “straight world.” Along with music and politics, drugs were seen as an agency for a better world, or at least a shortcut to enlightenment or transcendence. And though the Beatles would stay demure on the subject for another year or two, by 1965 hip kids and angry authorities were already citing various Dylan and Rolling Stones songs for what were perceived as their “druggy” meanings. “Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” were among the singles targeted by conservative critics.
The other thing Dylan did for the Beatles was help politicize them (in fact, he helped politicize a vast segment of rock culture), inspiring the group to accept its popularity as an opportunity to define and speak to a vital youth constituency. More and more, Lennon and McCartney’s music — and rock at large — became a medium for addressing the issues and events that affected that generation.
This interplay between Dylan and the Beatles was one of the central dynamics of mid-1960s rock, but it didn’t make for the bulk of the action. Some of the most pleasurable and enduring music of the period was being made by the monumental black-run Detroit label, Motown — which by 1965 alone had scored over two dozen Top Ten hits by such artists as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and Mary Wells. By contrast, a grittier brand of the new soul sensibility was being defined by Memphis-based artists on the Volt, Stax and Atlantic labels, like Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, William Bell and, most memorably, Otis Redding. In other words, black forms remained vital to rock and pop’s growth (in fact, R&B’s codes, styles and spirit had long served as models for white pop and teen rebellion). And as racial struggles continued through the decade, soul — as well as the best jazz from artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Sonny Rollins — increasingly expressed black culture’s developing views of pride, identity, history and power. By 1967, when Aretha Franklin scored a massive hit with a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” black pop signified ideals of racial pride and feminist valor that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.
Yet perhaps the greatest triumph of the time was simply that all these riches — white invention and black genius — played alongside one another in a radio marketplace that was more open than it had ever been before (or would ever be again) for a shared audience that revered it all. Just how heady and diverse the scene was came across powerfully in the 1965 film The T.A.M.I. Show — a greatest-hits pop revue that in its remarkable stylistic and racial broad-mindedness anticipated the would-be catholic spirit that later characterized the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals. For those few hours of The T.A.M.I. Show, as artists like the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, James Brown and the Rolling Stones stood alongside one another onstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, rock & roll looked and felt like a dizzying, rich, complex and joyous community in which any celebration or redemption was possible.
In many ways, this longing for community — the dream of self-willed equity and harmony, or at least tolerant pluralism in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down — would haunt rock’s most meaningful moments for the remainder of the decade. Unfortunately, the same forces that deepened and expanded music’s social-mindedness were also the forces that would contribute to the dissolution of the dream. In 1965, after waging the most successful “peace” campaign in America’s electoral history, President Lyndon B. Johnson began actively committing American troops to a highly controversial military action in Vietnam, and it quickly became apparent that it was the young who would pay the bloodiest costs for this lamentable war effort. Sixties rock had given young people a sense that they possessed not just a new identity, but a new empowerment. Now Vietnam began to teach that same audience that it was at risk, that its government and parents would willingly sacrifice young lives for old fears and distant threats — and would even use war as a means of diffusing youth’s sovereignty. The contrast between those two realizations — between power and peril, between joy and fear — became the central tension that defined the late-1960s youth culture, and as rock increasingly reflected that tension, it also began forming oppositions to the jeopardy.
Consequently, the music started losing its “innocence.” The Beatles still managed to maintain a facade of effervescence in the sounds of records like Beatles for Sale, Help and even Rubber Soul, but the content of the songs had turned more troubled. It was as if the group had lost a certain mooring — Lennon was singing more frequently about alienation and apprehension, McCartney about the unreliability of love — and whereas their earlier music had fulfilled the familiar structures of 1950s rock, their newer music was moving into unaccustomed areas and incorporating strange textures. Primarily, though, the band was growing fatigued from a relentless schedule of touring, writing and recording. Following the imbroglio surrounding Lennon’s assertion that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and after one last dispirited swing through America (in which they were unable to play their more adventurous new material), the Beatles called a formal quits to live performances.
Meantime, Dylan was changing the language and aspirations of popular culture with his every work and gesture — in fact, he was the clearest shot at an individual cultural hero that rock & roll had produced since Presley — but he had also been pushing himself in intense personal and creative ways. In July 1966, following a triumphant but strenuous tour of England with his storming backing band the Hawks, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident that broke his neck and would remove him from the recording scene for over a year. And the bad news continued: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones were arrested for drug possession in a series of 1967 busts in London and pilloried by the British press and legal system. “I’m not concerned with your petty morals, which are illegitimate,” Richards bravely (or perhaps foolishly) told a court official at his trial. Plainly, generational tensions were heating up into full-fledged cultural war.
Maybe these developments should have been perceived as harbingers of dissolution, but the vision of rock as a unifying and liberating force had become too exciting, too deep-seated, to be denied. By this time, rock & roll was plainly youth style, and youth was forming alternative communities and political movements throughout Europe and America. In the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, something approaching utopia seemed to be happening. Bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Charlatans were forming social bonds with their audiences and trying to build a communal ethos out of a swirling mix of music, drugs, sex, metaphysics and idealistic love.
In mid-1967, after a yearlong hiatus, the Beatles helped raise this marginal worldview to worldwide possibility with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a cohesive, arty and brilliant work that tapped perfectly the collective generational mood of the times and that reestablished the foursome’s centrality in rock’s power structure. It wasn’t that the Beatles had invented the psychedelic or avant-garde aesthetics that their new music epitomized — in fact, the spacey codes and the florid textures and arrangements had been clearly derived from the music of numerous innovative San Francisco and British bands. But with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles refined what these other groups had been groping for, and they did so in a way that unerringly manifested the sense of independence and iconoclasm that now seized youth culture. At the album’s end, John Lennon sang “A Day in the Life” — the loveliest-sounding song about alienation that pop had ever yielded — and then all four Beatles hit the same loud, portentous chord on four separate pianos. As the chord lingered and then faded, it bound up an entire culture in its mysteries, its implications, its sense of power and hope. In some ways, it was the most magical moment that culture would ever share, and it was the last gesture of genuine unity that we would ever hear from the Beatles.
Sgt. Pepper was an era-defining and form-busting work. To many, it certified that rock was now art and that art was, more than ever, a mass medium. It also established the primacy of the album as pop’s main format — as a vehicle for fully formed concepts and as the main means by which rock artists communicated with their audience. Rock was now saturated not only with ideals of defiance but also with dreams of love, community and spirituality. Even the Rolling Stones — who had always sung about much darker concerns — would start recording songs about love and altruism (that is, for a week or two). “For a brief while,” wrote critic Langdon Winner of the Sgt. Pepper era, “the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
But that blithe center couldn’t forever hold. By the time Sgt. Pepper was on the streets, the Haight-Ashbury was already turning into an ugly place, riddled with hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and speed and overpopulated with runaways, bikers, rapists, thieves and foolish shamans. In addition, a public backlash was forming. Many Americans were afraid they had lost their young to irredeemable allures and ideologies, and in California, Ronald Reagan had already won a gubernatorial campaign that was largely predicated on anti-youth sentiment. It was a time for media panic, for generational recrimination and political separatism, for opposing views of America’s worth and future. It was an intoxicating time but also a frightening one. More and more, it looked as if there were no turning back and as if everything were at stake.
Then, within a few months, a pop counterrevolution (or at least a redefinition) was underway — headed by none other than Bob Dylan. In some ways, it was Dylan who had made psychedelia possible; more than anybody, he had announced that all rules of form, length and content were subject to new visions and ambitions. But as works like Sgt. Pepper were finding their way into Dylan’s remote Woodstock, New York, home (where he was recuperating from his accident), rumor had it that he was put off by the stylistic baroqueness, facile rhetoric and relentless drugginess of much of the new pop. Or perhaps he was simply concerned about whether rock had outdistanced him.
In any event, at heart Dylan was (and remains) a die-hard American formalist and Jeffersonian moralist, and the rock & roll that he had been making in seclusion with his companion backing group the Hawks (now simply called the Band) was music that explored the idea of what could be salvaged from the American value system. In January 1968, Dylan took this fixation one step further with his formal return to the public arena, the release of John Wesley Harding — a record that on one level was about a nation coming apart from within (but then, Dylan’s best work had always been about America’s forsworn potentials). On another level, with its sparse, almost stoical three-piece Sun Studio-derived acoustic rock & roll sound, John Wesley Harding was also the boldest musical critique or challenge that Dylan ever offered. If nothing else, its simplicity made the current music of the Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour) and the Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesties Request) — which is to say the entire mainstream and avant-garde realm of rock — seem frivolous, if not irresponsible. It was as if Dylan thought there might be a direction home after all.
John Wesley Harding helped set in motion a reevaluation — and a reaffirmation — of rock & roll root values. In a short time, old and new blues guitarists were enjoying fresh currency, gospel singers were scoring pop hits, Everly Brothers-style groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash were finding a mass audience, and even country & western style was meeting with a new reception. This last trend, in particular, disturbed some critics a year later, when Dylan recorded an LP of lovely and pure country songs, Nashville Skyline, that included a raggedy duet with C&W star Johnny Cash. Since country was widely viewed as the music of a working-class sensibility and since it represented a conservative audience that was seen as a stalwart supporter of the war in Vietnam, did this mean that Dylan had now switched political sides? Or had he simply lost faith in political solutions altogether? The truth was, folks like Dylan and his cohorts in the Band — who had emerged in their own meaningful right with Music From Big Pink and the Band — were simply trying to offer a saner, more embracing alternative to the rancorous spirit that had alienated many everyday Americans from the rock revolution. Dylan and the Band understood that there was still much to love about America and its people, despite their grand failings; in addition, there was no way the young could alienate the working- and middle-class masses and still win a genuine revolution.
In late 1969, the Band’s leader, guitarist Robbie Robertson, described his and Dylan’s new music as a refutation of “the punky attitude that had to do with music — hate your mother and stab your father.”
“So what if your parents did do you wrong?” Robertson asked. “Maybe they did, but so what? I’m tired of hearing . . . Jim Morrison and those people. I just think they’re a drag. Even if that is their situation, who cares? That’s got nothing to do with music.”
Plenty of other artists, of course, had fewer reservations about offering music as a force of division or rebellion. Among them were the Doors (who, indeed, had sung gleefully about the prospect of offing dad and fucking mom), the Velvet Underground (who had popularized songs about S&M and heroin addiction), Iggy Pop and the Stooges (who acted out impulses of self-destruction), the Mothers of Invention (who looked like bikers and played like prodigies) and MC5 (a white Detroit band that was openly dedicated to the ideal of violent black revolution). In part, perhaps, these bands were simply trading on the increasingly commercial value of shock. But they were also making plain that underneath the veneer of altruism and idealism, the 1960s youth scene was riddled with some considerably darker truths — namely, that drugs had quickly become as much a means to obliterate as to enlighten, and that in a truly free or anarchistic society, bloodshed was as likely to be encountered as lasting peace or equality. It is a testament to the merit of such bands as the Velvets, the Doors and the Stooges that their ability to face and address these realities has helped make their music among the more enduring and oddly affirming legacies of the era.
Increasingly, the best late-1960s music was music about fear, doubt and the possibility of apocalypse, and no band addressed these concerns more forthrightly or valuably than the Rolling Stones, who were quickly establishing themselves as perhaps rock’s smartest and greatest band. Throughout their history — from the time they were arrested for pissing in public to the brouhaha over their drug busts — the Stones epitomized rebellion and disrespect to both fans and detractors, and they had long been the band that many parents and authority figures hated the most. Now, like Dylan and the Band, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had started reasserting primal blues and country forms, and they were also asking some of the toughest questions around (“I shouted out who killed the Kennedys?” sang Jagger in “Sympathy for the Devil,” and then answered unabashedly, “When after all it was you and me”). But whereas Dylan would, more and more, make music of withdrawal and abdication, the Stones flirted openly with questions about evil and violence that aimed to reveal both themselves and their fans as accomplices in all the modern terror and chaos.
By 1968 — a year in which Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis, and the broken hopes of millions of people erupted in costly, long-term violence (perhaps most famously at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, at which police brutally bludgeoned American youth) — rock & roll had become a field of hard options and opposing arguments. The Beatles seemed dazed and wearied by their role as youth leaders. On one hand, they had recorded two versions of “Revolution,” in which they opted in, and then out, of the notion of violent revolt; then, on the other, they issued “Hey Jude,” their greatest anthem of community and forbearance.
The Stones, though, faced the contradictions of their positions more directly. In “Salt of the Earth” (from Beggar’s Banquet), Jagger extolled the working-class masses, only to admit his hopeless distance from any real involvement with such people (“When I search a faceless crowd/ A swirling mass of gray and black and white/They don’t look real to me/In fact they look so strange”), and in “Street Fighting Man” (banned in several U.S. cities for fear that it might incite more political riots), the Stones admitted to both a desire for violent confrontation and a longing for equivocation (“Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution”).
This meant that rock’s consensus of joy and opportunity was finished, and its most significant components came apart quickly. The Beatles made more great music, but they shortly disintegrated into a tense, mutually distrusting partnership; in many ways, their deterioration was a metaphor for a larger dissolution: the failed hope for a social community we had longed for but never really achieved. Dylan withdrew for a time into writing domestic bromides, and though he would go on to make some of his most resourceful music in the 1970s (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), he would never again affect rock music and American culture as sweepingly as he had with “Like a Rolling Stone” and John Wesley Harding. Meantime, the Rolling Stones capped their grandest triumph with a tragic debacle. At the end of 1969, following the dismissal and then death of founding member Brian Jones, the Stones recouped with their strongest album, Let It Bleed, and with an American tour that amounted to rock’s most successful large-scale concert series to date. But at the end of the tour, eager to deflect charges of greed, the Stones staged a free concert outside San Francisco at Altamont Speedway, and following the example of the Grateful Dead, they hired the Hell’s Angels as a security force. It was a day of legendary violence: The Angels pummeled scores of people, usually with little or no provocation, and in the evening, as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb,” the bikers beat and stabbed a young black man to death in front of the stage, in full view of the band, the audience members and a camera crew.
Altamont was rock’s ugliest moment — for years, it deflated the culture’s sense of its own idealism. It also brought the Stones face to face with the violence that had been implicit in their work for years, scaring Jagger and Richards away from the themes they had been pursuing, and helped contribute to a long bout of artistic decline from which the band never fully recovered.
The dream, as one of rock’s most honest voices would shortly announce, was over.
Did this series of disintegrations and bad ends negate the joy or worth of 1960s pop music? Hardly. Though it’s easy to over-romanticize the period, rock in the 1960s achieved some sizable victories, and the best of them have enjoyed an enduring legacy. For one thing, rock established itself as a remarkably protean form: It was now a field with a sense of its own history and traditions, as well as a field that was willing to stretch and disrupt its own aesthetics by incorporating ideas and textures from numerous other disciplines. Today we can see the perpetuation of that spirit of adventure and openness as more and more pop artists fuse African, Jamaican, Brazilian and other musical forms with familiar American and British pop sounds.
Sixties rock also showed that it was capable of more than disruption — that it could unite masses for worthy causes and could actually bring about social and humanitarian change. That assertion helped pave the way for later philanthropic and political ventures like Rock Against Racism, No Nukes, Live Aid, Farm Aid and the anti-apartheid efforts. More important, in a time when countless conservative strategists claim credit for the rise of freedom and democracy movements throughout the world, it is important to declare that the protests of the 1960s youth culture — and the spirit of courage and defiance that those protests shared with rock music — have probably served as an even greater impetus for many of today’s brave revolutionists.
Finally, 1960s music not only deepened rock & roll’s ability to work as a music of rebellion, disobedience and disrespect — often worthy and noble impulses that were reenacted in 1970s punk and are still acted out in much of today’s best (and worst) rap and heavy-metal music — but also made plain that pop music had become capable of expressing emotional and thematic truths that were as rich and consequential as anything contemporary film or literature had to offer. In other words, the 1960s proved that rock is anything but a trivial music; it does have impact, and at its worthiest, it still aims to threaten, to draw boundaries, to defy and to win young people over to its view and its ethos.
But it is also true that rock has lost much of its political and social convictions in recent years, that it is now a music that can accommodate ugly views of sexism and racism, and that perhaps too much of it has helped spread an unthinking affection for alcohol and drugs. To put it differently, 1960s rock didn’t save the world — maybe didn’t even change the world enough — but it fought good battles, and it enriched a progressive struggle that is far from finished, and far from lost. In the end, rock and youth culture met with considerable and determined opposition — and that opposition is still formidable. But for a moment, in the middle of a momentous decade, rock & roll was heroic enough to tell us the essential fact of our time: that we were finally on our own, and that we were “with no direction home.” In some ways, the most important music since that time has struggled either to deny that bold truth or to follow its chilling and liberating implications to their bravest and most surprising ends.