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Spooky Action At A Distance

Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s

By Robert Levin

Edited Excerpt From The Sursumcorda Interview

On the '60s


It's admittedly facile to cast it this way, but you could say that what we mean by "the '60s" began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the moon shot - the moon shot and the Yippies failed attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out the "demons" that inhabited it.

At bottom the '60s were a reaction to the prospect of total annihilation posed by the invention of the hydrogen bomb and they were rooted in the belief that what was wrong, what had brought us to this place, was the denial and suppression of our true selves, of the human beings we were intended to be.

This belief - variously shaped, nourished and focused by a convergence of psychedelic drugs, birth control pills, the popularization of Freudian psychology and Eastern philosophies, glaring racial and gender inequities and a clearly unjustified war in Vietnam - opened virtually every tradition and institution, every custom and convention and every embodiment and instrument of authority, order and structure, to attack. On one level or another everything from the antiwar, civil rights and woman's rights movements, to the antimaterialism and sexual abandon of the period, to spontaneous prose, rock and free jazz, stemmed from the perception that somewhere in antiquity humanity had taken the wrong path and that the course could be corrected.

The enemy was the superego, the cultural, social and psychological restraints we'd inflicted on ourselves. Destroying the superego would yield the good human beings we were supposed to be. Again, as Marcuse put it, it was a "revolution of unrepression." We wanted to abolish the apparently arbitrary and misbegotten rules that artificially limited us and led to deluded thinking and behavior. We wanted, ultimately, to abolish the constricting forces of guilt and shame themselves. Guilt and shame were invented by authority, they were trips governments and parents laid on you to keep you in line. We wanted to take an unfettered pride and joy in our bodies. We wanted to be free of the guilt and shame that had crippled and disfigured us.


This is where Jerry Rubin was coming from when he exhorted us to "kill" our parents.

Of course I'm talking about what the '60s were in their deepest aspirations. The vanguard figures - like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Norman Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Marcuse - envisioned a kind of benign anarchy, a society with no need for governments or police; a society ordered by natural needs, appetites and rhythms and made up of men free of neurosis and in perfect harmony with both nature and other men.

And fueled as it was by the sheer number of people involved (and in what seemed every department of the culture) I don't think the sense of utopian possibility we were feeling could possibly be exaggerated. Certainly the intensity of the psychic fevers we were experiencing in the East Village (which to me was Ground Zero) can't be overstated. In the East Village, and in addition to all manner of radical political activity, there was an amazing pullulation of iconoclastic art in every category - dance, music, theater, poetry, painting. People like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Ornette, Cecil, Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Kate Millet, Yvonne Ranier, Meredith Monk, Ed Sanders and the Fugs (I'm forgetting a couple of dozen other major players) were all living and working within a one-mile radius and feeding, challenging, validating and energizing one another.

But upheavals like this were hardly limited to New York. They were occurring everywhere - San Francisco, Paris, on every college campus and in the smallest towns. And, Jesus, we were going to the fucking MOON - successfully breaking the very law of fucking GRAVITY!

So those of us who were sucked into the vortex of the '60s can maybe be forgiven the fact that we were failing to recognize something very basic - that we were challenging a reality that was beyond our capacity to fundamentally change. There was, after all, only so far we could go without entering into a void. We could tinker with social, cultural, economic and political systems - make reforms, expand our horizons, achieve more justice - but essentially society already reflected the best we could do.

I mean we didn't recognize (and I'm standing behind Ernest Becker here) that the very problems we were attempting to overcome - the constraining social and sexual codes, the emotional hang-ups and the destructive tendencies we wanted to jettison - were actually working solutions to our worst and deepest problem. I'm talking about the problem of being mortal; about the problem of living inside a body that's ultimately going to kill you; about the problem of being born under a death sentence (a sentence reserved for the worst of crimes) and of which, if you think about it, the burden of guilt and shame is a natural consequence.

We didn't appreciate the legitimacy and necessity of repression and delusion. We didn't understand that as debilitating as repression and delusion were they enabled us to deny and distort certain untenable truths of existence and to make an otherwise intolerable condition somewhat manageable. We didn't realize that we had no choice, that what made us crazy, stupid and destructive (what, for an obvious example in the current world - and to the objective of transcending death in heaven - has spawned all these suicide bombers and Christian Fundamentalists) was our profound and abiding need to mitigate the terror the fact of death causes us. We didn't see that the reality of the human condition REQUIRED us to be uptight and insane.

Off-the-wall as it sounds, you could say that the hydrogen bomb was invented in order to create, for its inventors at least, a controllable and therefore relatively comforting death locus.

But in our millennial zeal we were oblivious to such things and I think that at the Pentagon and with the Apollo landing, we were secretly expecting some kind of palpable divine ratification, expecting God to show His face and prove us right. That didn't happen, of course. Acid visions turned out to have no physical application at the Pentagon. And the moon was only a barren rock - no Kubrickian monolith buried there to validate the project. It was disappointments like these, disappointments equal in their size to the size of our ambition, that took the heart out of the '60s.

It wasn't long afterwards, remember, that mind-expanding drugs began to be replaced - and necessarily - by mood-elevating stimulants like cocaine.

Beyond the moon shot it was just the motor revolving down after it's been shut off. I mean the '60s are commonly judged to have ended when we finally withdrew from Vietnam. But they'd already expired at the foot of the Pentagon and in the deserts of the moon.


This work previously appeared in New York Review: NewYorkReview.Org

© Robert Levin 2006