Review of Michael J. Kramer's "The Republic of Rock"

tags: Vietnam, rock music, counterculture



Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture
by Michael J. Kramer
Oxford University Press, 2013

With the considerable media attention being paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the February 1964 appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, it is rather obvious that the rock music of the 1960s exercised considerable influence over American culture during that turbulent era and continues to cast a large shadow down to the present. Acknowledging this impact, Michael J. Kramer, who teaches history and American Studies at Northwestern University, in The Republic of Rock examines the relationship between rock music and citizenship in the sixties counterculture. In this provocative academic book, Kramer probes deeply into the countercultural archives of art posters, underground newspapers, music, press releases, and interviews to establish how the rock music scene in San Francisco presented both a challenge to traditional values, while simultaneously embracing a hip capitalism which commercialized the counterculture.  Kramer argues that the acid rock scene in San Francisco became a community in which music was a primary avenue through which to address issues of citizenship in what eventually was known as Woodstock nation.

Then Kramer proceeds to take his readers on a “magical mystery tour” of sorts as he connects the San Francisco scene directly with the Vietnam War, asserting that the U. S. military promoted a sense of hip militarism by playing hard rock such as Jimi Hendrix on the official Armed Forces Vietnam Network, tolerating pirate soldier radio stations, and even promoting the formation of soldier rock bands with the Entertainment Vietnam program. The military sought to bolster morale through allowing soldiers to enjoy leisure time with favorite musical styles, maintaining a degree of connection with the world beyond the war in Vietnam. Although the themes introduced in much of the acid rock music were anti-establishment, the military programs never endorsed anti-war attitudes, but as Kramer notes, the strategy of hip militarism was a risky one as it encouraged soldiers to pursue their own definitions of citizenship. Kramer concludes, “The circulation of rock music between the city of peace, love, and flowers and the country of war, turmoil, and Napalm created a counterculture that pulsated with life-or-death questions of belonging, dissent, hope, and fear” (8).

The Republic of Rock begins with a chapter on the acid tests promoted by novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. In what is perhaps the most challenging chapter in the book, Kramer describes the acid tests as efforts to employ hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and electronic music to create a new type of community and identity. The emphasis was upon a multimedia participatory democracy in which there would not be passive audience members simply absorbing the music provided by such groups as The Grateful Dead. The bottom line for the acid tests, according to Kramer, was to discover a combination of individual freedom and community that might transform America into a more radical democratic society. While Kesey was never able to achieve this imagined community, Kramer argues that the acid tests helped to unleash a San Francisco counterculture that oscillated between two possibilities -- “civic transformation through the ecstatic imagination and the realization that this pursuit itself might be a strange new kind of imprisonment in systems of control, especially the consumerist one of hip capitalism” (66).

Kramer pursues these ideas in his study of the strike at FM radio station KMPX and the failure of San Francisco’s 1969 Wild West Festival. As a progressive radio station which fostered independence by its disc jockeys, KMPX played a larger role in creating a countercultural community than Kesey’s acid tests. Nevertheless, this new radio format was full of contradictions as “it perfected a new hip capitalist style through which revolt against mass consumerism could be packaged and sold as a new market segment within consumerism itself” (69). While traditional labor issues of wages and hours were part of the labor stoppage, the most important issue for the striking radio station employees was interference by ownership with the freedom of expression on the air waves. In the final analysis, the strikers went to work for radio station KSAN with a more corporate orientation, leading Kramer to conclude that the discontented workers eventually surrendered to the more orthodox demands of hip capitalism. Similar conflicts were inherent in the Wild West Festival that was envisioned as an arts festival in which the counterculture and mainstream communities of San Francisco would find common ground in a free festival to be funded through a series of rock concerts at Kezar Stadium. However, rifts soon developed within the counterculture community as promoters were accused of seeking to exploit the hippie community and local artists. Organizers were criticized for cooperating with established politicians and the police for a more traditional festival that would promote hip capitalism rather than new more egalitarian visions of citizenship. Kramer believes that there is a tendency to view the counterculture through the opposing images of the Woodstock and Altamont concerts, but he persuasively argues that an investigation into the failed Wild West Festival offers a better “framework for thinking, feeling, discussing, and dancing out the vexing problems of democratic togetherness and individual liberation” (128).

In the last half of his book, Kramer examines how issues of the counterculture, rock music, and democratic citizenship were addressed in Vietnam, where the military attempted to promote hip militarism. This strategy was an effort by the Armed Forces Radio to appropriate the music often associated with a growing rebellion on the American homefront. The military also tolerated underground rock radio broadcasts, and in these programs Kramer finds evidence that soldiers displayed a sense of rebellion against authority which could also be misogynist, homophobic, and racist. While underground military radio failed to foster an ideological position against the war, Kramer maintains that discontent with their lot in Vietnam was certainly evident for many servicemen. A similar perception was conveyed in the Entertainment Vietnam bands sponsored by the military as they provided an infusion of rock that was supposed to raise spirits but often would up encouraging expressions of discontent.

Kramer concludes The Republic of Rock with an examination of the CBC Band formed by the South Vietnamese Phan family who embraced the counterculture, rock music, and peace, while performing for American military personnel on base and in private clubs. The Phan family wanted to be part of the Woodstock Transnational, while officials in both North and South Vietnam perceived rock music as a threat to traditional Vietnamese culture. Kramer observes that rock music arrived in Vietnam through American imperialism, but the counterculture, nevertheless, offered values of freedom, community, and modernism that superseded American empire. This association with the Americans, however, made the Phan family fear for their future in postwar Vietnam, and they eventually found their way to Houston, Texas, where they continue to play rock music.

Thus, hip capitalism and hip militarism ironically brought to Vietnam and the world a sense of civic energy, but through a vehicle of American hegemony.  Kramer notes that the counterculture has faded, although he generally ignores addressing the reasons for this decline, but he insists that the possibilities of rock music and civil culture continue to resonate within the confines of contemporary accommodation to hip capitalism and hip militarism which remain elements of American culture.


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