Saturday, June 21, 2008

No Colors Anymore...The Sixties Painted Black

In recent years a number of novels that revolve around Sixties radicals coming to terms with their pasts have hit the bookstores. Some of the better attempts at this are Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep and Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document. Each of these novels provides a different take on the theme and manages to pull off something quite different. Into this quickly populating genre comes Bob Sommers' Where the Wind Blew. This novel begins with the protagonist on the run and hiding in a national forest camping out of his car. His wife, who knows nothing of his past and knows him only as a successful businessman in Kansas, is left to run the family business and answer questions from a rightwing talk show host who is only to eager to bring down anyone who might be linked to the 1960s radical movement.


As the story unfolds, we find out that Peter St. John's true name and past is discovered accidentally by a high school reporter who set out merely to do a profile of a successful businessperson in her tranquil Kansas town. Her discovery of St. John's previous name through an internet search leads her to ask even more questions. St. John tells her the truth about his past. Part of that truth is that this name is Peter Howell and he is wanted for involvement in the bombing of a corporation involved with military production that accidentally killed four people, including three of the bombers. Peter tells the high school reporter what happened, attempts to insure his family's economic stability and hits the road. He has no idea where he is going but knows somewhere in his soul that he must make amends with his past.

Told in a series of flashbacks that tell about his growing involvement in an independent radical cell grown frustrated with the never-ending war in Vietnam interspersed with a chronicle of his journey away from his suburban mask as Peter St. John, Howell/St. John becomes a fugitive once again. This time, however, he is running from his second life back into his first. He recalls his girlfriend from college who lost Peter to the antiwar movement while she perfected her cello playing and music composition. He relives the night of the bombing and the mixture of machismo and politics that brought the cell to undertaking that act. He recalls the tension after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia—an action that led directly to the decision to set their bomb. Throughout the story lies an undercurrent of doubt and guilt—for the deaths caused by the bombing; for leaving his St. John family. For not doing enough to stop the war and giving up.

Sommers' novel is an emotionally taut tale. Like the strings on his old girlfriend's cello, the story is tuned perfectly. One twist of the pegs to the left or right would make the story less than what it is—either too flat or mere melodrama. Where the Wind Blew is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a time when the apocalypse was always just around the corner. It is also a look at how the period we call the Sixties is never far from the present, no matter what we do to deny it or how far we run. It is the story of one man's redemption in a journey both literal and figurative back to that time when his transgressions, no matter how well-meaning, continue to ripple through time.


Unlike Sommers' novel, Zachary Lazar's Sway offers no possibility for redemption. A disturbing fictionalized story of the dark urges released in the freeform milieu that was the 1960s counterculture, Sway brings the lives of Charlie Manson's Family and the Rolling Stones together. Although these two never met, the story Lazar creates makes a connection between the two plausible. Little Richie, a late friend of mine who was part of the communal experiment (that still thrives) known as the Hog Farm, used to talk about parties he attended in late 1960s Los Angeles. These parties might be at some Hollywood producer's spread or just at some hippie's place. Whenever Charlie Manson and his crew showed up, there was what Richie called “a perceptible chill” that fell upon the place. One didn't even need to have a sixth sense to feel this chill, either. It came, Richie said, with the people in the group.

The tenuous connection the Rolling Stones and Charlie Manson did have was the filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anger, who is still alive, was a maker of innovative films that blended ancient Egyptian spirituality, Aleister Crowley-like occultism, motorcycle gangs and other urges of the 1960s counterculture into collages of disturbing imagery and music that work on the subconscious mind. His film Lucifer Rising featured the hapless rock musician Bobby Beausoleil. Beausoleil, who was linked with Manson, was convicted of murdering Gary Hinman—a murder which turned out to be the prelude to the series of grisly slaughters in 1969 known as the Manson murders. Anger also spent some time with the Stones, even including a couple members of the band in cameo roles in Lucifer Rising. If one broadens this a bit, it is fair to say that the other, more ephemeral connection the Stones and Anger shared was a curiosity with the dark side of the era's spirit. Implicit in that curiosity was the realization that this darkness was the essential complement to the period's light.

It is not Lazar's intention in Sway to enhance the physical connection between Anger and the Stones in his novel. Instead, there is an understanding that grows as the novel progresses that the connection between the Stones and the Manson Family exists solely in the era's zeitgeist. This zeitgeist is the same one that informed Peter Howell and his fictional cell of radical bombers. Indeed, it is that zeitgeist that killed the bombers and the employee who happened to be too near the explosion. Lazar's Anger defines one aspect of this zeitgeist early in the novel, utilizing the psychological term thanatomania; or suicidal or homicidal madness. Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racial, generational and class warfare; heroin, pcp, and methamphetamine abuse on a large scale. Environmental destruction. Some saw capitalism and its Soviet heresy as the cause for this mania. Others looked into religion or the dark arts for their explanations.

The 1960s represent an emotional and intellectual crucible that we still refer to, even if we are not conscious that we do. Those who lived through the period either revisit it more than they would like or, like Peter Howell's self-made reincarnation as Peter St. John, have put as many artificial and emotional barriers between themselves and that period to ensure they are never reminded of the time. One wonders if the Stones revisit that historical moment every time they perform or does it take an unfortunate reminder from somewhere or someone to remove them from their artificial and gilded conventional present, much like the high school reporter’s discovery of Peter Howell’s past removed him from his Kansan suburban reality?

If it is the latter for the Stones, do those reminders bring back only the fear and none of the joy from the apocalyptic time we call the Sixties? Or are they more circumspect, acknowledging that it was the contrasts between the two realities and their vying for the same emotional and psychic space that enhanced the tension of that struggle?


Ulrike Meinhof was a real person that lived what could easily have been a fictional life. A leftist journalist in West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, she went from being a pacifist to a founder of the revolutionary terrorist Red Army Faktion (RAF). In fact, the organization was often referred to as the Baader-Meinhof Gang after the surnames of its founders, even though both founders were captured in 1972, well before the bulk of the group's actions . The story of her life from the moment she committed herself to armed struggle is a story of bombings, bank robberies, hijackings, murder, underground life, romantic trysts with comrades and probably others, capture and imprisonment and death. All of this was chronicled by the German media in sensational fashion. Before Meinhof made the leap into terror, she was an editor of the German journal konkret. Her columns for that journal were literate and pointed analyses of the conquered state of West Germany, its fascist legacy and the left alternative.

Recently, Seven Stories Press released many of these writings in an English translation for the first time. Titled Everybody Talks About the Weather...We Don't, the text is introduced by the editor, McGill professor Karin Bauer. Bauer writes about Meinhof's life and death and the meaning of what came between. Clarity of thought and emotion are the overriding tone of Meinhof's essays, as they provide insight into the intellectual journey of a thoughtful and intelligent person—a journey taken by many western Germans as they watched their government regurgitate and forgive parts of its Nazi past in the name of freedom and security.

Although it is difficult for many to separate the RAF Meinhof from her previous role as writer and editor (and maybe it isn't even something one should do), the essays here represent a Meinhof whose rationality lacks the frustration apparent in her move towards bombings and murder. They are certainly critical of the new NATO-built neocolony known as West Germany, and they are critical of that entity from a leftist perspective that saw the Christian Democrats as more Nazi than Democrat and began to see Bonn's Social-Democratic Party (SPD) as a political successor to the party that sucked the life out of the 1918 German revolution. In other words, Meinhof came to believe that the SPD was part of the capitalist machinery she opposed. As the Sixties progressed, she and much of the German extraparliamentary left saw collaboration with that party's leadership as politically impossible because, after all, it was collaboration with the enemy.


In a rather bitter footnote, Meinhof's daughter Bettina Roehl (who Meinhof abandoned when she went underground) blasts what she terms the myth of Meinhof and the German New Left. In a rather conventional attack on the “communist conspiracy,” Roehl points to East Berlin's partial funding of konkret in its early years and later revelations about interactions between the RAF and East German intelligence as evidence enough that the new left in Germany was just another element of that conspiracy. It is not my place to wonder how much of Roehl's apparent hatred of all things Communist is related to her sense of abandonment, but it is useful to remember that for every contact made by the Eastern bloc's intelligence agencies and every dollar sent to a western journal, there were at least an equal number of contacts made and dollars sent in the opposite direction. That was the nature of the bipolar world of the Cold War.


Roehl's anger and dislike of the radical movement her mom killed and died for serves as an all-too-real metaphor for the nature of love in a time when all human relationships were being redefined and often torn asunder, if not for freedom than for another kind of love that seemed more important. That love could be Anita Pallenberg's rejection of Brian Jones for something else that included Keith Richards and freedom or it could be Peter Howell's growing involvement in the revolutionary antiwar movement in the name of a love for the Vietnamese people. Then again it could be his decision to leave his created Kansas family—a decision made today but certainly informed by his Peter Howell past. It could even be whatever pushed Ulrike Meinhof away from her role as mother, leftist writer and speaker into the RAF’s affair with murder, mayhem and suicide. Such decisions aren't always the best decisions in retrospect, but love doesn't always work like that, even the love of an idea. Sometimes, one just has to make the leap. When they do, any and all consequences are secondary at best. For better and worse.

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