The Summer Rock Went Dark
The Summer Rock Went Dark
By Alan Goldsher
"Cease to resist, come and say you love me
Give up your world, come on and be with me
– The Beach Boys, “Never Learn Not to Love”
Lyrics by Charles Manson. (Yes, that Charles Manson)
It’s the summer of 1968, and for Joe RockFan, things are getting weird, depressing and downright scary. Joe learns that the Beatles, fresh off of 1967’s oftentimes celebratory (albeit oftentimes strange) instant classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, have become a fractured entity, and are cutting their latest outing not as a unit, but as four separate individuals in four separate Abbey Road recording studios. Weird.
Joe watches The Mamas & The Papas – the same iconic folkie quartet who, the previous year, had a hit album anchored by joyous covers of “My Girl” and “Twist and Shout” – break up, because seemingly out of nowhere, Mama Cass Elliot lets it be known to bandmates Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips that she wants to blow off the group and go solo. Depressing.
Joe hears that the Beach Boys recorded a composition by a creepy dude (and future mass murderer) named Charles Manson – and this after Joe had spent much of last year glued the hippy dippy trippy anthem “Good Vibrations” from the gang’s mostly cheerful (albeit mostly strange) album Smiley Smile. Downright scary.
So what happened? Why did Jim Morrison move so quickly from a call to get naked (“Hello, I Love You”) to a call to arms (“Unknown Soldier”)? Why did Jimmy Page leave the psychedelic blues-rocking Yardbirds for the louder, heavier pastures of Led Zeppelin? How did 1967’s Summer of Love end up paving the way for 1968’s Summer of Rage?
One possible theory: Backlash.
Throughout the history of contemporary American popular music, a goodly number of artistic shifts came about as direct responses to a previous artistic shift. In 1948, for example, the sessions that composed Miles Davis’ chilled-out, heady collection The Birth of the Cool were an antidote to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s frantic flights of bebop fancy of the previous three years. And in 1965, Bob Dylan flipped the bird at the backward-looking folkies who insisted on claiming him as one of their own when he busted out his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan, it should be noted, spent much of 1968 in virtual hiding. It’s been said that he laid low because was happy being a husband and father, but one could surmise that Bob stayed off the road and out of the recording studio because he didn’t want anything to do with the year’s bleak musical and societal vibes.
Another simpler, and possibly more logical theory: Everybody was sick of love.
That’s understandable, because 1968 wasn’t a particularly lovey-dovey year: The Vietnam War had begun in earnest; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; and tons of Chicago policemen beat down tons of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention. In retrospect, nobody should have been surprised that the Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet – which featured such war-soaked couplets as “Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution” (“Street Fighting Man”) and “I rode a tank, held a general’s rank while the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank” (“Sympathy for the Devil”) – was possibly the year’s most notable artistic and popular success.
Thanks in part to the high-profile busts of John Lennon and Timothy Leary, drug users were starting to realize that psychotropics and cannabis weren’t all fun and games. One of rock’s saddest drug-oriented cautionary tales from 1968 was that of Pink Floyd’s guitarist, chief composer, and co-founder Syd Barrett. Brain-fried by incessant LSD ingestion, Barrett was booted from the band he’d helped create after a lengthy public meltdown that saw him act out by, for instance, strumming one chord for an entire concert – or not even playing at all. It wasn’t until his death in 2006 that Barrett’s contribution to both the band and the psychedelic rock movement was fully acknowledged and embraced.
Syd Barrett, founding singer, songwriter and guitarist of Pink Floyd, in 1967. (Getty Images)
Much of the discontentedness that pervades a percentage of today’s music scene can be traced back to 1968; once rock went over to the dark side, it never really came back. After Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” helped psychedelic rock morph into heavy metal, and after MC5 laid down the roots-of-punk bombast “Kick Out the Jams,” it’s no surprise that so many artists have succeeded in reaching a wide audience by exploring their darker sides. Tori Amos, for instance, has spent the last decade mining the depths of her soul, creating a body of work that, while often harsh to the point of discomfort, is both magical and resonant. And with its blend of stick-in-your-craw melodies and sincere social awareness, much of Bruce Springsteen’s recorded output from the last decade – most notably his 2002 outing The Rising – would have felt right at home in that tumultuous summer of ’68. All of this goes to show that if it’s written and performed with heart and reverence, musical darkness can be quite bright and beautiful.
Alan Goldsher is the author of "Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" and "Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read,” as well as several novels. For more information, you can visit Alan at www.alangoldsher.com.