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Stop, hey, what's that sound?

A look at when rockers and political renegades fueled each other as they shared the '60s stage.

October 19, 2008|Zachary Lazar

There's a Riot Going On

Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the '60s

Peter Doggett

Canongate: 598 pp., $27.50

WHAT DO we do in 2008 with Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? As cultural icons, they remain fascinatingly vivid, 40 years after their heyday. And yet as models of political action, they offer less than nothing -- less, because their weaknesses for hyperbole and self-aggrandizement still dog what cannot even be called the "Left" anymore, so far has our culture moved to the right. Witness the recent attempts to connect Barack Obama to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers. It seems the radical left lives on mostly now as a demon for conservatives.

Peter Doggett's encyclopedic "There's a Riot Going On" -- the title references the 1971 album by Sly & the Family Stone -- highlights the relationship between such 1960s radicals and 1960s rock 'n' roll. The picture that emerges is of two groups mirroring each other: radicals mimicking the charismatic star quality of musicians; musicians reflecting back the energy, rage, conviction and sarcasm of the revolutionaries.

In the years of Vietnam, race riots and assassinations, this mirror-play had a powerful context. But why do these images remain so powerful now? They are still sexy, funny, utopian, poetic, militant, nihilistic, violent, apocalyptic. We've been told there's a void at the center of this exploding star, but we can see that it's a beautiful star.

As early as 1964, Bob Dylan foresaw this supernova and began rebelling against the rebellion. Out were the protest songs, and in were the dark, surrealist masterpieces that begged interpretation even as they defied it. "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is," Dylan asserted in 1965 to a craven "Mr. Jones," who might have been straight America, or, just as plausibly, the earnest, folk-music lefties Dylan had turned his back on.

In one of Doggett's most fascinating vignettes, Newton, leader of the Black Panthers, seizes on that Dylan song, "Ballad of a Thin Man," as a political credo (much as Charles Manson would later fixate on the Beatles' "White Album"). If anything, "Ballad of a Thin Man" is an exploration of nothingness, a pulling back of veil after painted veil. But Newton believed it was something different, a statement of Black Power. His cohort Bobby Seale was skeptical: "I could hear the melody to this record," he recalled. "I could hear the sound and the beat to it, but I didn't really hear the words." Newton played the record again and again, explaining and explaining.

As would happen later, when he was tried as one of the Chicago Eight, Seale turned out to be right. He understood that the song was more than words -- it was not just meaning, it was sound.

Doggett covers the waterfront in "There's a Riot Going On." He traces the whole history of 1965-1972: People's Park, the Chicago riots, the Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont, the Manson murders, Kent State. But like any good rock writer, he's at his best when he keys into the visceral, as in this description of the Black Panthers' first public appearances in early 1967: "Most importantly, in terms of their national impact, they imposed a strict uniform code: an impossibly hip combination of black beret, worn at a cocky angle, blue shirt, black leather jacket, black trousers and black shoes. With that single gesture, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense guaranteed its immortality as a symbol of rebellion."

For all their excesses and absurdities, the Panthers come across as a cut above the other radical groups of the 1960s. They were not too grandiose to work for some prosaic but practical good -- providing school breakfasts to poor children, for example -- and they were the bona fide victims of a paranoid and lethal law-enforcement culture. The murder of one of their leaders, Fred Hampton, is a case in point.

But Hampton, who might have been a signpost for this book -- a major figure on which to build an argument -- is quickly lost in Doggett's global chronicle. The confusion of the period is muddled by the book's own confusion about what it wants to say.

Before long, we find ourselves spending more than equal time with the tedious and woodenly self-righteous Weather Underground, who, despite their rock-star looks, sneered at rock 'n' rollers, canceling a rock show at their National War Council of December 1969 in favor of a recital from the Weather Songbook, every bit as hymnal as it sounds. To the tune of "Maria" from "West Side Story": "I've just met a Marxist Leninist named Kim Il Sung, and suddenly his line seems so correct and so fine . . . Kim Il Sung, say it soft and there's rice fields flowing, say it loud and there's people's war growing."

There may be humor there -- I hope there is. But the Weathermen were also great fans of Charles Manson and the fork his follower Patricia Krenwinkel left in the stomach of Leno LaBianca.

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