Dylan, the Brits, and Blue-Eyed Soul
When he wrote the blues classic "Rolling Stone," Muddy Waters wasn't overly concerned with Hibbing, Minnesota, where Bob Dylan was setting out on a journey that would eventually take him down Highway 61 into the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Muddy certainly didn't lose much sleep over the London School of Economics, where Mick Dagger was studying the Chicago blues as seriously as the Chicago school of economics. At first glance, it's hard to imagine anyone with less in common than the Delta-born bluesman and the young rock and rollers who responded to his call in ways that threatened to change the world.
Which tells you something about the blues impulse: it isn't confined to one musical form, and it isn't, at least literally, about race. The best work of Dylan and the Rolling Stones doesn't suffer when you listen to it back to back with Howlin' Wolf and Tina Turner. The strongest white blues-Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, the Stones' great run of singles from "Satisfaction" through "Paint It Black," the Animals' "It's My Life" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"-hold the promise of a conversation built on a more trustworthy foundation than the earnest liberalism of the folk revival. The fact that it didn't work out doesn't mean it was a bad idea.
Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" responds to the blues on levels that have nothing to do with liberal politics or nostalgic authenticity. The song returns obsessively to the most fundamental blues question: "How does it feel?" It isn't about the consolations of philosophy or the dodge of ideology. It's about how it feels to be existentially adrift, a broken piece of a fallen world. Muddy knew the feeling well, and about all he had to say in words was "oh well." But his guitar, and the way he bent the syllables around the words that never quite told the whole story, expressed with killing precision how the world felt to a black man who was about to head up Highway 61 toward a Chicago that he knew damn well wasn't the promised land. Dylan reversed the motion, headed down into the mythic heart of darkness, and unleashed a flood of imagery about how it felt to be "on your own with no direction home / a complete unknown / like a rolling stone." As in Muddy's call, the blues intensity of Dylan's response lies in the music, in the things that couldn't quite be said. Devils as real as the ones that stalked Robert Johnson haunt Al Kooper's gospel-organ drone, Mike Bloomfield's Chicago-bred guitar, Dylan's moaning harmonica. Kooper, who'd never played organ before the Highway 61 Revisited session, described the sound of "Like a Rolling Stone" as his "twisted Jewish equivalent of gospel" mixed with Dylan's "primitive, twisted equivalent of rock and roll."
You can hear "Like a Rolling Stone" as a blues cry out of the singer's own brutal experience. Or you can hear it as cutting social satire, a classic put-down of a shallow chick who doesn't share the poet's superior insight into the human condition. I hear "Like a Rolling Stone" as pure, deep blues: Dylan's confession that he's as lost as the rest of us. The closest thing to a political message on Highway 61 Revisited is from "Ballad of a Thin Man": "There's something happening and you don't know what it is." When asked for a statement opposing the Vietnam War, Dylan sardonically bounced the question back at the interviewer: "How do you know that I'm not, as you say, for the war?"
Defying the pious condescension of the folk audience that booed him throughout the 1965-66 tour where he plugged in his guitar and waved good-bye to authenticity, Dylan forged a music that challenged his audience to finger the jagged grain of the blues. Like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," probably the least ideological of the great political rock songs, "Like a Rolling Stone" casts the listener into a vortex of political paranoia where the good guys and the bad guys exchange clothes and read from the same scripts. Dylan's lyrics affirm the tradition of rock poetry that originates with Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," "Nadine," and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." Social satire, the blues impulse, and straight-out rock and roll collide, releasing a burst of poetic energy that would inspire John Fogerty's mythic bayou, Jim Morrison's archetypal apocalypse, and Jimi Hendrix's voodoo soup.
While Dylan was changing the way musicians thought about the possibilities of rock, the British bands that invaded the United States in 1964 and 1965 played an equally crucial role in preparing the audience for the new take on the blues. Much more consciously immersed in the Chicago blues and Southern soul than their contemporaries in the colonies, the Animals, Rolling Stones, and Yardbirds introduced black music to multitudes of white Americans who didn't know John Lee Hooker from John Hope Franklin. However often Dylan called his songs blues-"Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Outlaw Blues," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Tombstone Blues," "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"-his electric music wasn't about race. At least explicitly.
By the time Highway 61 Revisited redefined American rock in the fall of 1965, the Rolling Stones had paid homage to both Chicago and Memphis, the sacred cities of their racially aware genealogy of rock and roll. At least in the early days, the British response to black music took on near-religious overtones. Van Morrison, who began singing with a Belfast blues band when he was fourteen, sounded the dominant note when he said simply, "The blues are the truth." Morrison's pursuit of that truth brought him to something like an Irish version of the gospel impulse. Astral Weeks, Moondance, and the underrated Period of Transition may not be washed in the blood, exactly, but they are awash in blues and gospel spirit.
At times, the British reverence for Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker resembled the folk revival's sense of the Delta blues. But there were some crucial differences, most notably an underlying belief that the blues addressed shared experience. The Animals' lead singer, Eric Burdon, observed: "If I heard John Lee Hooker singing things like `I been working in a steel mill trucking steel like a slave all day, I woke up this morning and my baby's gone away,' I related to that directly because that was happening to grown men on my block." Equally important, the British bands felt none of the aversion to rhythm and volume that drove pacifist Pete Seeger into a violent rage when he threatened to cut the electric cords plugged into Dylan's guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Every British group with a harder edge than Herman's Hermits traced its roots to modern black American music; and even the Hermits had hits with the Rays' doo-wop classic "Silhouettes" and Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World."
A quick survey of early albums by British bands highlights their role in introducing white American teens to black material. Their songs hit hardest in the vanilla suburbs and cream-of-wheat heartland, where American teens lacked exposure to the real thing. The Stones' first American album included Rufus Thomas's Stax classic "Walking the Dog," Chuck Berry's "Carol," and Muddy Waters's "I Just Want to Make Love to You"; the Dave Clark Five had big hits with energetic covers of Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That," Bobby Day's "Over and Over," and Marv Johnson's "You Got What It Takes"; the Searchers rendered the sexual comedy of the Clovers' "Love Potion #9" fit for the top twenty. The Yardbirds popularized the purist approach of the British blues movement led by Alexis Korner and John Mayall; any guitarist who masters the licks on the John Mayall's Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton has memorized the Dictionary of the Chicago Blues. Even the Beatles, whose love for Carl Perkins's rockabilly and Buck Owens's country made them the whitest of the first-line British invasion groups, were originally distributed in the United States by Chicago's black-owned and -operated Vee Jay label. They covered the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me," Arthur Alexander's "Anna," and Barrett Strong's "Money." The low point of British obsession with black American music came on the near-comic near-tragic cover versions of James Brown's "Please Please Please" and "I Don't Mind" that clutter the Who's first album.
Black music defined British groups in ways that were unusual in the United States. John Fogerty remembered the playlist of Creedence Clearwater Revival's predecessor the Golliwogs-who got their name because it sounded "British" to the PR men in the front office at Fantasy Records-as a typically eclectic American mix in which "Mustang Sally" and "Green Onions" showed up alongside "Wipe Out" and "Louie Louie." In contrast, many of the British bands prided themselves on playing nothing but black music. Burdon remembered the English R & B scene as "a genuine underground. It was amazing to find out that what we were doing in Newcastle, which we thought was strictly our thing, was being done in other places by other people."
In London, the Rolling Stones established their reputation with an approach almost identical to the Animals'. The Stones got together as a direct outgrowth of their shared interest in black music. Keith Richards described the crucial moment: "I get on this train one morning and there's Jagger and under his arm he has four or five albums. I haven't seen him since the time I bought an ice cream off him and we haven't hung around since we were five, six, ten years. We recognized each other straight off. `Hi, man,' I say. `Where ya going?' he says. And under his arm, he's got Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Muddy Waters. `You're into Chuck Berry, man, really?' That's a coincidence. He said, 'Yeah, I got a few more albums. Been writin' away to this, uh, Chess Records in Chicago.' "
Unlike Dylan, whose acid-etched meditations were as likely to concern Ezra Pound as Howlin' Wolf, most of the English bands went out of their way to pay honor to their sources. Ten days into their first U.S. tour in 1964, the Stones took a break to record at Chess Studios, where they met Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters, who, Stones bass player Bill Wyman remembered, "helped us carry our gear inside." He helped them do a lot more than that. The Stones' early records were filled with Chicago blues, and Muddy's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" was their first U.S. single. They felt equally at home in Memphis. In addition to recording Southern standards like Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart," the Stones went out of their way to see every Southern soul star playing in the cities where they performed, expressing particular admiration for Wilson Pickett.
The relationship between Jagger and James Brown reflects the nature and the tone of the interactions between the British rockers and their black idols. Brown took genial glee in reporting the origin of Dagger's "distinctive" stage mannerisms. The Stones were scheduled to follow Brown at the filming of a TV special, The TA.M.L Show. Never one to underestimate the competitive elements of performance-he once booked Solomon Burke as an opening act and then paid his "rival" for the title "King of Soul" to sit and watch his show-Brown remembered:
The Stones had come out in the wings by then, standing between all those guards. Every time they got ready to start out on the stage, the audience called us back. They couldn't get on-it was too hot out there. By that time I don't think Mick wanted to go on the stage at all. Mick had been watching me do that thing where I shimmy on one leg and when the Stones finally got out there, he tried it a couple of times. He danced a lot that day. Until then I think he used to stand still when he sang, but after that he really started moving around.... Later on, Mick used to come up to the Apollo and watch my shows.
Brown didn't resent the interest. He described the Stones as "brothers" rather than "competitors" and emphasized that the British groups-he specified the Animals, Kinks, and Beatles as well as the Stones-"had a real appreciation for where the music came from and knew more about R&B and blues than most Americans."
It wasn't that white American bands were totally ignorant of what was happening in black music. Some pockets of American popular music remained interracial even after the collapse of the first generation of rock and rollers. From the start, white groups in the ethnic enclaves of the East Coast played an active part in the doo-wop scene. The list of doo-wop classics includes records by black groups such as the Penguins ("Earth Angel") and the Five Satins ("In the Still of the Night"); white groups such as the Mystics ("Hushabye") and Dion and the Belmonts ("I Wonder Why"); and integrated groups such as the Dell Vikings ("Come Go with Me") and the Crests ("Sixteen Candles"). The Four Seasons' "Let's Hang On" combines doo-wop harmonies and R & B intensity; their ability to place two singles- "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry"-at the top of the R & B charts anticipates the "blue-eyed soul" of the mid-sixties. Although no white soul singer came anywhere close to the appeal or power of Otis Redding or James Brown, a somewhat incongruous group of white musicians have succeeded on Billboard magazine's "black" charts-which have variously been labeled "Harlem Hit Parade," "Race Records," "Soul," and "R & B," which, Little Richard always joked, stood for "real black."
The success over the years of distinctly "black"-sounding singers like Teena Marie, Hall and Oates, Bobby Caldwell, or even the young Elvis Presley, who had six number one R & B singles, comes as no real surprise. The Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration") and the Rascals ("Groovin'," "People Got to Be Free") fit in easily with the soul mix of the mid-sixties. Righteous Brother vocalist Bill Medley credits black audiences with helping the duo overcome the resistance of white programmers who considered their sound "too black." "One thing we're most proud of," Medley said, "is that the black audience accepted us point blank and they didn't have to, they just didn't have to. The great thing about the black audience is that if you are emotionally cuttin' it, that's what it's all about."
But it's anyone's guess why the Beach Boys enjoyed as much "R & B" success as the Rolling Stones. Part of the reason may be that the Stones-whose biggest "crossover" hit, "Satisfaction," peaked at number 19-began to record during the fourteen-month period when Billboard eliminated the separate black chart. The magazine explained the decision by observing that the pop and R & B charts had become so similar that there was no point in publishing both. Primarily a testament to Motown's crossover success, the decision suggests a belief that the nation was on the verge of a fundamental change. Three decades later, the idea that race may soon be irrelevant seems as remote as it must have in the 1850s, when Abraham Lincoln argued that the only solution to the race problem would be to return emancipated slaves to Africa. The music of the sixties offered a tantalizing promise of a world where blacks and whites could live together, work out their differences without denying who they are. But the glimpse proved fleeting.
The Minstrel Blues
The British Invasion illuminated some shadowy corners of America's multiracial culture. As Ralph Ellison suggests, many black-white cultural exchanges can be understood as an elaborate minstrel show. Even as it perpetuates stereotypes and exploits blacks economically, Ellison argues, the cultural imitation across racial lines reveals connections we usually prefer to deny. Contemplating the minstrel show, Ellison writes: "It was as though I had plunged through the wacky mirrors of a fun house, to discover on the other side a weird distortion of perspective which made for a painful but redeeming rectification of vision.
The early history of minstrelsy anticipates both the painful and redemptive dimensions of the sixties cross-racial musical dialogue. In 1828, a white man named Thomas "Daddy" Rice saw a black man performing a strange but compelling song and dance on a street in Charleston, South Carolina. Rice bought the man's song, dance, cart, and clothes for fifty dollars. Within a decade, Rice had parlayed his imitation of the original into a lucrative show business career, creating a sensation in New York, touring London, and scattering the cultural landscape with land mines that continue to go off on a weekly basis. Already well known as an "Ethiopian Delineator" when he met the black man who would make his fortune, Rice participated in one of the most popular forms of nineteenth-century American popular culture. Groups such as "The Six Original Ethiopian Serenaders" painted themselves in blackface and presented grotesque cartoons of black life. Advertisements for the "Congo Melodists" promised authentic renditions of the "Nubian Jungle Dance," the "Virginia jungle Dance," and the "African Fling."
Audiences lacking direct contact with African Americans typically confused the parody with the real thing. Visions of comic dandies, childlike Uncles, and sex-crazed ape-men erased the complex black humanity of Frederick Douglass and the grandfathers of the Delta bluesmen. Ida B. Wells and the grandmothers of Mahalia Jackson and Ella Baker were reduced to coal-black Mammies and high yella jezebels. The situation got so far out of hand that black performers were forced to don blackface and alter their speech because they failed to accord with the "reality" defined by white minstrels. No surprise that many blacks recoiled in anger and disgust from any imitation of black culture by white performers.
The economic impact of minstrelsy was even worse. Rice's ability to parlay the fifty dollars he paid his source into a fortune wouldn't have surprised many of the black musicians of the fifties or sixties. The long-standing segregation of the record charts encouraged white artists to release sanitized "cover" versions of black hits. Pat Boone became a star on the basis of mummified covers of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," the Charms' "Two Hearts," and the Flamingos' "I'll Be Home." His hit versions of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti" make a significant contribution to American humor.
On many occasions, the black/white minstrel dynamic amounted to something like pure theft. One of the most notorious cases concerned the Beach Boys' rip-off of Chuck Berry. Riding a wave of hits that began with "Surfer Girl," the Beach Boys (whose business affairs were run by the Wilson brothers' father, Murry) released "Surfin' USA." The song's infectious rhythms, sweet harmonies, and celebration of teenage fun as American myth established the group as uncontested rulers of surf music. The only problem was-despite a record label crediting the song to Brian Wilson-it's Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" note for note. It took a lawsuit to get Berry songwriting royalties and credit as Brian Wilson's "collaborator."
Although that's one of the worst cases of direct financial exploitation, it's not the only one. And the relationship doesn't have to be that direct. Ben E. King observes that the arrival of the British bands polarized a musical scene in which "there was no separation. We had collected a people to listen to a music but when they came along ... that changed the whole attitude of the music in the racial way." King expresses a measured anger shared by many other soul singers: "There was a bit of jealousy because we were cut off at a time we was getting ready to become stronger than strong ourselves. All the signs were there that the music that was being created right here at home was gonna be tremendously big. And then all of a sudden these kids came along and stopped all that. It was a strong pill to swallow." Ironically, then, the increased attention the British Invasion brought to the Chicago bluesmen came, in a very real sense, at the expense of their soul brothers and sisters.
The Stones did a decent job of sharing the financial rewards with some of their sources. They consistently chose black acts to open for them on their tours, thereby exposing Ike and Tina Turner and B. B. King, who opened for them in 1969, to new and larger audiences. Still, the elements of minstrelsy in the Stones' music are undeniable. Some of their cover versions re-create the sources almost exactly. Every rhythmic subtlety and vocal glide in Jagger's rendition of "You Better Move On" comes directly out of Arthur Alexander's original. The example takes on additional significance when you realize how very "Jaggeresque" the song sounds. Jagger's odd accent patterns and the drawl dropping off into a quavering blue note sound more than a little familiar to anyone who knows Alexander. The problem isn't that the Stones were covering black material, it's simply that there's no reason to prefer their "You Better Move On" to Alexander's or their remake of "Can I Get a Witness" to Marvin Gaye's original.
That's the basic problem with the British version of the minstrel show. Like the folkies, the Brits were least interesting when they came closest to realizing their goal of authenticity. They sounded best when they quit worrying about how John Lee or Muddy or the Wolf-let alone that master of contrivance Chuck Berry-did it. Not that the straight imitations sounded bad. They just didn't amount to much in the way of response. Even when it was good rock and roll, it didn't have much soul.
Both the Stones and the Animals dealt with the problem by following the basic blues principle of taking a good hard look at their own lives. The Animals' response to the blues is much more convincing in "It's My Life" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" than in their workmanlike covers of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" or Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City." Like the Chicago blues, the Animals' best music isn't limited to the circumstances it grew out of. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" spoke to the soldiers in Vietnam and the residents of the Denver barrio as clearly as to Burdon's neighbors "in this dirty old part of the city / where the sun refuse to shine." The Animals' response to a world where "people tell me it ain't no use in trying" echoes, but doesn't imitate, Mahalia's determination to walk in Jerusalem. There's a fierce determination in Burdon's voice when he vows to escape if it's the last thing he ever does. He focuses on the personal level, but the drive for a better life echoes Curtis Mayfield's call to keep on pushin': "We gotta get out of this place. / Girl, there's a better life for me and you."
But there were some differences between British blues and soul and their black antecedents. The most crucial distinctions involve the relationship between individual and community. Like thousands of the white American teenagers who bought their albums, the Animals believed that finding yourself required rejecting the place you came from. That isn't just a white thing, of course, but most black musicians treat the desire for escape as something that binds the blues "I" to the gospel "we." To say this is not to condemn it "It's My Life" worked precisely because the Animals were singing about their complicated relation to their community, not trying to recreate the one between Muddy Waters and the straw boss on Stovall's Plantation. The song got a resounding amen from white rock and rollers everywhere. Bruce Springsteen used it to explore his tangled feelings about New Jersey during his early tours. For the Animals, for Springsteen, for most of their white audience, voice and self had to be defined against community first. Then, maybe, you could think about bringing it all back home.
The Stones' search for a voice that didn't simply imitate or exploit their black mentors, complicated by their enormous long-term financial success, reveals some of the most difficult problems of the minstrel dynamic. Like the Animals, the Stones produced a string of classic sixties hits expressing their highly specific sense of reality: "Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown." Grounded by drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman (whose precisely embellished runs set the standard for hard-rock bass in part because they never miss the polyrhythmic point), the Stones explored the murky depths of existential ennui in a consumer society that all too often confused brand names with the meaning of life. The Stones took the blues to places Jean-Paul Sartre and the electric Dylan knew well. That's probably why French New Wave film director jean-Luc Godard built one of his greatest films around the recording sessions where "Sympathy for the Devil" grew from country blues riff to a swirling inferno of rock and roll nihilism in fierce debate with gospel despair. Released in Europe as One Plus one and in the United States as Sympathy for the Devil, the film maps the paths that led the white musicians of the mid-sixties through the mythic South to an existentialist homeland where they could play their own kind of blues.
In "Sympathy for the Devil," "Paint It Black," and "Gimme Shelter," the Stones call out from the heart of a darkness where politics and passion dissolve into pure howl. Balancing their listeners on the razor's edge between smug satire and an empathy you wish you didn't feel, the Stones slam you down in the path of a crossfire hurricane spawned somewhere in Robert Johnson's Delta and raging through the hearts of darkness that define the "white" world. The Stones nailed the core of white life and, with a difference, black life in a world of hedonistic advertising and ninety-nine-floor apartment blocks. "Satisfaction" explodes in anger, rage, at a world where the ads promise fulfillment now, but the women tell you to come back, maybe next week. And you know they're lying. Because chances are you were lying to them. Everybody's on a losing streak. Nobody's even pretending not to know what Muddy Waters meant when he sang "I Can't Be Satisfied." When the Stones called out for satisfaction, they meant yesterday. When Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin covered the song, their responses carried the weight of hundreds of years. The fact that a lot of people understood all three versions held out at least the hope that, a hundred years after Daddy Rice, white listeners might be starting to get the point.
Otis, Jimi, and the Summer of Love: From Monterey to Woodstock
Just after he finished a blistering version of "Respect" midway through his set at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Otis Redding slowed down the tempo and announced that it was time for " a soulful number." Behind him, Booker T-resplendent like the rest of the MGs in a lime green mohair suit no one in the audience would have even considered wearing-whispered a gospel organ chord while Otis launched into a monologue introducing "I've Been Loving You Too Long." "This song is a song, you know, we all ought to sing some time. This is the love crowd, right? We all love each other," Otis began softly, but suddenly his body tensed, he leaned forward, and his voice took on an intensity straight out of the black Georgia churches he'd grown up in. "Am I right?" he called out. "Let me hear you say yeah." The overwhelmingly white crowd of forty thousand roared its response, doing its part to make Otis's performance one of the defining moments of 1967's "Summer of Love."
Mesmerized by a vision of San Francisco as a new kind of community created by and for the "gentle people with flowers in their hair," John Phillips, guiding force of the Mamas and the Papas, joined with producer Lou Adler and a handful of established musicians to organize the Monterey Festival. In many ways, Monterey fulfilled the promise expressed in Scott McKenzie's hit version of Phillips's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)": "Summer time will be a love-in there." The three June days on Big Sur radiated positive vibrations, personal and musical. Despite Phillips's leanings toward benign pop harmonies, Monterey brought together an intriguing cross section of black and white music. Along with McKenzie, the Association, and the Mamas and Papas, the lineup included the Byrds, who made the clearest political statement of the festival with their version of Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom"; San Francisco icons the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish; and a gaggle of blues-rock bands including Canned Heat, the Electric Flag, the Steve Miller Band, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Sam Cooke's old friend Lou Rawls introduced soul to the mix with a moving set of "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," "Dead End Street," and "Tobacco Road." It was a shame and a pity that the Impressions and Dionne Warwick canceled scheduled appearances and that Smokey Robinson's presence on the festival board failed to overcome Motown's aversion for situations it wasn't sure it could control.
After Otis and Jimi Hendrix played their sets, no one was thinking much about what they hadn't seen. Their performances were the unquestionable highlights of the festival. And it wasn't that they lacked competition. Emerging as challengers to the Stones, the Who tore through an incendiary set, panicking Adler when they destroyed their equipment during their patented Theater-of-Cruelty-meets-l'enfant-terrible "My Generation." It was a coming-out party for the new San Francisco bands, many of which followed the Brits into the more psychedelic regions of the blues. Fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin screamed her white blues into a major recording contract. As Eric Burdon sang in his tribute to the festival, "Monterey," "the Byrds and the Airplane flew."
And Hendrix looked down on them from above, introducing the rock audience to the jazz innovation and spiritual exploration that would dominate the late sixties. Even though rock critic Robert Christgau dismissed him as a "psychedelic Uncle Tom," Hendrix's Monterey set permanently altered the love generation's idea of what it was all about. And part of it was that no one had any idea just exactly what "it" was. Using every trick he'd learned while serving his apprenticeship on the chitlin circuit backing up Little Richard, Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers, Hendrix gave the crowd a taste of psychedelic voodoo. Insinuating himself into a mindscape prepared by Dylan and drugs, he set the night, his guitar, and the sexual imaginations of countless members of the counterculture on fire with a mixture of Chicago blues ("Killing Floor"), rock standards ("Like a Rolling Stone," "Wild Thing") and then-unknown songs that would become his standards ("Fire," "Purple Haze").
There was a lot to like about Monterey. But if you slow down the film and look closely, you can see cracks forming in the commune walls, sense the hopes of the New Left and the beloved community beginning to fall apart. Part of the collapse had to do with political vision. As California Dreamer Phillips wrote in "San Francisco," the Summer of Love was all about "people in motion, people in motion." The problem was that motion doesn't make a movement.
The distinction is crucial. Most of the people living in the communes in the Haight supported radical political ideas. Almost everybody believed in some sort of racial equality. Flat everyone wanted to be free. But the politics remained abstract, expressing a belief that you could dream community into being and that somehow things would simply change. Which wasn't something that anyone who'd been paying attention to the South was likely to put much faith in. Whatever their differences, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Huey Newton, who was busy forming the Black Panthers just across the bay, had no illusions that evil was going to go away without a struggle. Even the hippies in Memphis and Atlanta had a harder edge. No one with long hair down South was likely to forget the reality of violence.
The blurred political vision of the Summer of Love marked a distinct retreat from Port Huron. Members of the counterculture experimented with ideas of community, tried them on for size, and, if they didn't fit, put them down and rolled another joint. Pockets of activism developed, dissipated, re-formed. You could see it as participatory democracy in action. Or as solipsistic self-indulgence. Was it a counterculture or a new niche market? Buffalo Springfield nailed it in "For What It's Worth" when they sang, "There's something happening here / what it is ain't exactly clear."
By and large, by 1967, black folk didn't much care. Monterey, and the scene that give birth to it, was mostly a white thing. You could see it-the Monterey Pop crowd shots rarely manage to capture more than a couple of black faces in any frame-but you could also hear it. Janis Joplin, one of the few Southerners to perform, blew the crowd away with "Down on Me" and "Ball and Chain" partly because she didn't have to compete with KoKo Taylor or Aretha Franklin. And if black folk didn't care much about Monterey, which at least had Otis Redding and Lou Rawls to recommend it, they cared even less about Woodstock.
In the mythology of the sixties, Woodstock marks a pinnacle, the moment when the vision of an alternative community-a Woodstock Nation-came into clearest focus. For a few days, the festival bloomed into the third-largest city in New York. Births perfectly balanced deaths (three of each). Despite the chaos-abandoned cars clogging the access roads, shortages of pretty much everything, a rainstorm that basted the scene in mud-people kept their cool.
The music-for anyone close enough to hear it-lived up to the audience. The presence of Joan Baez linked the celebration to the folk revival and the (no longer quite) New Left. Arlo Guthrie brought his father's legacy with him. Blues rockers from Ten Years After and Canned Heat to CountryJoe and the Fish showered sparks across the fields. Creedence Clearwater Revival didn't exactly play the blues, but they showed the crowd that a bunch of white boys from California knew the impulse well. Hendrix delivered the keynote speech with his electronic sermon on "The Star-Spangled Banner" as theme song for Vietnam, making rockets explode and napalm light up the dawn. Sly and the Family Stone took everyone higher, ascending into a rarefied atmosphere where the soul Sly picked up in his mother's storefront church in San Francisco turned to vapor and poured back down as the best rock ever made. When the Family Stone, on the upswing of an arc that would descend into the deepest abyss the era had to offer, invited the Nation to dance to the music, Woodstock responded with a kaleidoscope of motion.
It seemed like a dream and, at least if your idea of community involves blacks and whites, it mostly was. The tensions of Monterey had grown. More black musicians performed at Woodstock than at Monterey-Richie Havens, the Chambers Brothers, Hendrix, Santana. But other than Sly soul was conspicuous only by its absence. Sly embraced rock in ways Otis might have gotten to if he'd lived. But nothing at Woodstock asked the overwhelmingly white nation to extend its boundaries. As the Summer of Love drew to a close, clear signs of the racial polarization of the late sixties had begun to emerge. Hendrix provided a flash point.
Even the best white guitarists experienced Hendrix's performance as a kind of revelation. Recalling the first time he saw Hendrix play, Mike Bloomfield said: "Hendrix knew who I was, and that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death. I didn't even get my guitar out. H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying-I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument.... How he did this, I wish I understood. He just got right up in my face with that axe, and I didn't even want to pick up a guitar for the next year." The Who's Pete Townshend experienced Hendrix's virtuosity as a put-down with distinctly racial undertones. Prior to Monterey, the Who and Hendrix had argued about the order of performance. At the airport after the festival, Townshend walked up to Hendrix and said, "Listen, no hard feelings. I'd love to get a bit of that guitar you smashed." To which, rock critic Charles Shaar Murray reports, Hendrix replied, "Oh yeah? I'll autograph it for you, honkie." "I just crawled away," Townshend admitted. The confrontation both grew out of and deepened Townshend's sense of racial insecurity. Contemplating the differences between his own place in the interracial music scene and that of Eric Clapton, Townshend reflected: "I think the difference is that Eric feels perfectly natural with his adoption of blues music. He feels it inside; I don't. I don't even really feel comfortable with black musicians. It's always been a problem with me, and I think Jimi was so acutely sensitive in his blackness that he picked that up. [After Monterey] I felt a lot of hate, vengeance and frustration. Possibly because of my sensitivity, my uneasiness with black people. I felt I deserved it somehow."
Hendrix's response to Townshend suggests the tensions that would overwhelm the movement in the late sixties; Otis Redding's performance and response to the white counterculture suggests a different set of possibilities. Otis dug the feel of Monterey, reached out to the love vibration, tried to figure out what it had to do with the kind of tenderness he'd learned to coax out of the moan. Exhilarated by the response he received at Monterey, Otis wanted to expand the conversation. He immersed himself in the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and began to study Bob Dylan's songwriting. On December 7, he went into the studio and recorded "Dock of the Bay." Although Stax wasn't at all sure the record should even be released, it was by far his most popular crossover song. At the same time he was reaching out to a broader audience, Redding maintained his awareness of his roots. He'd spoken with James Brown and Solomon Burke about establishing an organization to provide health care benefits and pensions for older black musicians.
And then, on December 10, his plane went down in Madison, Wisconsin. Every time I look out my front window, I see Lake Monona, where Otis died. Whenever I play his great songs-"Pain in My Heart," "Try a Little Tenderness," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Ton of Joy"-I wonder whether Otis might have been able to bring the hippies, my people, into a deeper understanding of the gospel impulse. At times the counterculture closed its mind as tightly as the Rotarians and militarists it despised. But Otis knew full well you couldn't forget the elders, the ancestors, your straying brothers and sisters. If you're going to make it real, you've got to find a way to connect with the folks who have no interest in putting flowers in their hair. Otis was willing to talk to anyone. The crowd at Monterey seemed, for a fleeting moment, to hear.