In The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture, Author Michael J. Kramer explores the cultural rebellion and historical development of the 1960s in San Francisco through the lens of rock music. When comparing rock music to the U.S. military, Kramer suggests that rock music had a much more positive impact on professional, educational, entertainment and artistic developments. Further, Kramer considers that rock music an integral, revolutionary component of American culture, stating that rock music “sustained a hyper-charged interplay of identity and community, personal experience and public participation, self-expression and collective scrutiny, cultural exploration and political engagement” (Kindle Locations 151-154).
In Part 1 of his book, Kramer uses historical events and movements to support his thesis regarding the impact of rock music in American culture and democracy.
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters
In Chapter 1, Kramer introduces Ken Kesey, a former novelist who believed that psychedelic drugs could be used as a tool for enlightenment. After deciding to turn away from his career in writing, Kesey and his friends began to explore interpersonal group communications in both their art and their partying, which increasingly became one and the same (Kindle Locations 646-648).
By 1964, Kesey’s privately held social experiments became a contributing puzzle piece of psychedelic rock. Through loud music, light shows, psychedelic poster art, intense communion between performers and audiences, and other hallucinogens, Kesey and The Pranksters’ events soon turned into somewhat religious experiences for the attendees, stimulating joy, personal meaning and citizenship.
While the experimental parties (called Acid Tests) were fun and lively, they were also deeply rooted in politics and social construct. According to Kramer, the events became collective attempts to reshape the meaning and boundaries of collectivity itself. Attendees found themselves trying to understand the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within the setting of Cold War American power, abundance, and, more ominously, the ever-growing shadow of the escalating war in Vietnam. (Kindle Locations 683-687).
The infamous Acid Tests revolutionized rock music and brought citizenship imbalance to light, exploring the problematic ideologies of American exceptionalism, racism, and sexism.
Rock Broadcasting and Hip Capitalism
Even more significant to counterculture was KMPX, one of the first “underground rock” radio shows. According to Kramer, KMPX became the site of a struggle over the stakes of citizenship in the growing counterculture of the Bay Area (Kindle Locations 1265-1268).
In 1967, KMPX, a previously “hip” radio station, in very poor financial shape, resulting in very low wages for the staff. The show, then _ was brought to life when Larry Miller, a disk jockey that worked from midnight to 6am. Miller left behind KMPX’s pop hits formula and started playing rock and roll music in cohesive and transitionally appealing sets. Miller’s approach was so commerically successful that program manager Tom Donahue started rearranging the daytime setlists to compliment Millers setlist.
By the spring of 1968, KPMX’s had multiplied its income by 500%. Despite the success, however, KMPX failed to raise the wages of its staff, even those who were largely responsible for the growth and success of the station. This led to a staff strike led by disc jockeys, engineers, salesmen, and even the program director where they demanded better wages and working conditions, and they also to acquire greater artistic freedom and creative control.
The staff’s longing for community, individuality, and creative expression was shattered by egotism and commercialism, thus leading to a revolt towards hip capitalism.
The Wild West Music Festival of 1969
In Chapter 3, Kramer remembers the almost existing Wild West Music Festival of 1969, which was poorly funded and ultimately canceled.
According to Kramer the “non-event” became a crucial moment in the history of the Bay Area counterculture and its engagement with citizenship. Wild West also sheds light on the narrative of rock music festivals and the counterculture as a whole (Kindle Locations 1798-1801).
As the plans for the festival grew bigger and bigger, people started asking how the (free) festival would be financed, and who would be funding it, and how inclusive it would be. This led to tensions between “freedom and control,” which eventually led to countercultural activists deeming the festival an exploitation of hip capitalism. This further minimized funding opportunities and led to the cancellation of the festival.
While the festival never came to life, Kramer finds symbolic power in the short-lived dream that is the Wild West Music Festival; suggesting that it “left tie-dyed swirls wherever it spread.” In fact, it even found its way across the Pacific Ocean, in the midst of the American military intervention in Vietnam.
All in all, The Republic of Rock gives a compelling insight regarding historical events where people used rock music as an outlet and a medium, to express their thoughts on the power imbalance between citizens and institutions – such as the US military. Further, The Republic of Rock outlines the heavy impact that rock music had on the rebellion against the power imbalance between citizens and America’s democratic systems.
- How are the historic events mentioned in The Republic of Rock still relevant in today’s American culture?
- What do you think would have happened had the Wild West Festival come about? More importantly what impact do you think it would have had on American culture?
- Exactly how did rock music offer a different experience of citizenship than the U.S. military?
- In terms of community and expression, how is punk in east LA today (refer to Los Punks) different than rock in San Francisco in the 1960s? How are they the same?