Rock And Revolution

By Jonathan Kundra

Circus, July 1969

As the traditional structures of family, religion and politics diminish in power and influence, it is becoming clear that music, specifically rock music, is emerging as the most inclusive and binding force among the majority of young people in America today. Rock music has the power to bring together what God, Mom or apple pie can't; it's powerful, and it goes deep.

As the role of music has changed, so has the relation of the musician to his "public" and to society at large. For the first time in history, the musician is seen secondarily as an entertainer, and primarily as a spokesman and often the embodiment of a collective, and for now, an underground, system of values. The blacks, the poor and the young have this in common: they look upon America as a country that is no longer theirs. They are ready for revolution. And the music reflects this.

The Chicago Convention of last summer seems to have been the ultimate traumatizing experience, which is one fell swoop, brought all the loose ends together into a horrifying clear vision of exactly how far-gone things really were. In talking with the musicians for this interview, one of the most frequently used phrases were, "Well, at this point, I just don't know anymore." Repeated over and over, like a litany of bewilderment.

There exists a wide spectrum of opinion within the scope of their dissatisfaction, ranging from John Kay's advocation of strategic violence to Joe McDonald's insistence of peaceful co-existence. A common vein of anger and frustration runs through all replies, the exception being Frank Zappa, who always seems to be equal to a situation, be it national, global or cosmic: "Sure, it's bad, but that sure ain't gonna' stop me. Why should it?"

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speakin' their minds
Gettin' so much resistance from behind
     You better stop children, what's that sound?
     Everybody look what's going down ...

                                    "For What It's Worth"
                                    – The Buffalo Springfield

Q: Well, we're gathered here, on what's practically the eve of the Chicago Convention. It's now almost a year later; as the dust clears we find ourselves with Richard Nixon as President, and the Chicago "Conspirators" facing jail terms and fines. Somehow, it doesn't seem as if things are getting better, or that there is much chance that they will. As musicians, whose work and very existence is often seen as being "subversive," and as individuals concerned with making a place for yourselves within America, 1969, how do you feel about what's going down?

Ochs: I don't know; I just see nothing but terrible things going up. I see the Vietnamese war coming right home, and the same story being replayed here. I see an awful lot of people being killed here; an awful lot. I tend to think the country's going to be destroyed. I don't see how it could be saved; if it is saved it's only going to be after some fantastic amount of violence, and out of the ruins will come a smaller "saved" version of America.

Q: You mean like McLuhan's vision of America as a network of independent principalities?

Ochs: Quite a possibility. But I think the wounds run pretty deep. I have a kind of Biblical feeling of moral reckoning. Like, by the laws of God and nature, it's just got to come right back to us. The proverbial Day of Reckoning. But at bottom, I really don't know. I mean, I used to, in my earlier arrogance I always thought I had a Clear Light vision of where everything was at politically, and so on, but now there's so much pure madness that it's very difficult to figure anything out.

McDonald: I find it very difficult to find out where politics is at, just at this time. So, it's difficult to align myself one way or another. I'm doing my thing, and some of it is political. It always has been. Some of it is ambiguous enough to be related to the Revolution, and probably will be. But it's not as overtly political as it used to be.

St. Nicholas: The beer is here!

Q: What did Chicago do to your head? I understand you were there during the Convention last summer.

Mc Donald: We were really enthusiastic and really very naive, right from the beginning. We were talking about it for seven months before it happened, and at that time we were hoping for a kind of mammoth love-in music festival. But in between, I got turned off McCarthy, and found out he was really nothing, not even a hype. Just nothing. A week before the Convention, we publicly withdraw our support from the Yippies, and split.

Zappa: There was a fire in the place we were playing at in Chicago. That was about a week before the Convention. We were getting stopped by the cops; we had to buy them off right and left.

Ochs: After Chicago, this great depression came over me. The new album (Rehearsals for Retirement) touches on this quite a bit; that is, the idea behind it is the death of the old concept of America. The songs generally relate to that. The final death agony of the liberal electoral myth of politics. The album runs a kind of cycle: like, things are getting worse and worse, we get engulfed in paranoia, we turn to drugs or mysticism or mediation, and in that state the cops come in like a huge shock wave. Then Chicago, to try and salvage things, and Democracy dies before our eyes. Almost like a Broadway play! And then there are some rather mythic things, like the song about the submarine Scorpion. It sank without a trace, and I got the idea that the captain and crew decided to stay down there because they got so disillusioned with life in America. before Chicago, I was a long-time radical singer. I was supporting McCarthy, much to the criticism of the other radicals. I was at the conservative part of the radical movement at that point, and still trying to help create the Yippie and the Pig and everything else. Plus supporting mobilization in terms of sober left-wing politics. It all acme to a head in Chicago, and it all collapsed for me at that point.

The towers cracked and trembled
And the boats were tossed about
When the fog rolled in
And the gas rolled out
     From Lincoln Park, the dark was turning ...

                                    "William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed."
                                    – Phil Ochs
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet, boy
'Cause summer's here and the time is right for rising in the streets, by ...

                                    "Street Fighting Man"
                                    – The Rolling Stones

Q: What about violence? Do you see it serving a purpose? It certainly is part-and-parcel of the American way of doing things.

McDonald: I think violence is a self-destructive trip. If some guy thinks he can wipe me out, and vice-versa, we're existing in an atmosphere of paranoia. And in that atmosphere, we can never liberate our minds. And if we can't do that, our potential as a race is pretty much wasted.

Zappa: The chance for a violent revolution in America is always there. There's always that many stupid people. I think it would be a ridiculous waste of time – a typical loser's revolution. Makes me vomit to hear the word. People don't know what a revolution is. Everything that they ever read, everything they ever thought about a revolution is completely irrelevant to this day and age, especially in the United States. There are more subtle ways to the altering of things. It's not a question of picking everything up and dumping it, and starting over again. I simply don't believe that. There are a lot of good things about the way society is set up today. The main problem is education. The education of the people who elect those representatives. An uneducated mass cannot function in a democracy. You just can't make a rational decision about a governmental representative if you're voting for a smiler's clothes. It's a question of being provided with inferior software; their computing mechanism is just not supplied with the proper software to allow them to make the right kind of decisions. They compute a problem and come out with ... well, you feed in two plus two equals ... and they come out with something like 75! I feel a particular promise, believe it or not, in short-haired kids from suburban middleclass families. The ones who never wanted to be hippies. Those are the one who are going to change it; right now they're around fifteen years old. The long-haired guys are too stoned. Too stoned to make rational decisions. They come up with answers to social and political problems that are just completely beyond their comprehension. I wouldn't want to have any part of a revolution engineered and executed by today's crop of young rebels, because they wouldn't have the faintest idea of what to do after they took over.

Kay: There are many people who get stoned out of their minds, ad do a lot of talking. Maybe some of them are really doing something, even though they are misguided in some cases. Zappa has really taken too much of an opposite viewpoint though, possibly because he doesn't get stoned. What he says is an over-simplification, mainly because drugs and long hair don't always go hand in hand. The suburban short-hairs that he talks about are into as big a drug scene as anybody else! I do agree that there is a fringe-layer that gets stoned out of their minds and does a lot of talking; maybe some of them are really active, but it's a gross exaggeration to say that if you turn on, you become negated as a social or political force. I don't think that drugs do anything in general to everyone; each person reacts in his own way. Some drop out and become totally unproductive, others go through a cycle of getting disillusioned, dropping out, getting bored with doing nothing, and finally coming back into the system. Their heads are just as wide as when they were talking acid, but they want to be active again. I think Frank is wrong in that respect. What's probably closer to the truth is a conglomeration of people; short-haired, long-haired, stoned, and so on. Actually, the ones who will really change the laws will be the law students in college now, and the people who will be voting in five or six years.

Q: Then, do you think that the existing political systems are pretty much irrelevant right now?

McDonald: Yeah, irrelevant, but still necessary. But it's not the system that matters, it's the attitude of the people involved in the system. If they're out to get the best ideal for the rest of the people within that system, then that makes all the difference. But you can't just abolish systems; people need those structures. It's just the motives of the people running them that get corrupted. What has to happen is a Global Community. Actually, we are a Global Community, it's just a matter of realizing it. We're all depending on one another anyway.

Zappa: The biggest joke I ever heard was America described as a "melting pot" because none of it ever melted!

Q: How about the normal channels of change: elections, referendums, courts, the whole "democratic process"?

Kay: There's really no way to bring about substantial change through the regular channels. But demonstrations aren't going to do it either. What I'm saying is that frustrated emotional outbursts generally accomplish nothing except getting a lot of people busted; and what we're interested in is a positive end result.

St. Nicholas: Yes! The tail-bone end – whoee!

Do you think that my pants are too tight
Do you think that I'm creepy?
Better look around before you say you don't care
Shut your f....g mouth about the length of my hair
     How would you survive
     If you were alive
     S...y little person

                                     "The Mother People"
                                     – The Mothers Of Invention

Q: How do you see your music in relation to kids in America?

Kay: Depends. They all have varied opinions. Some of them say that you're just saying something they felt anyway, which in itself is good, because everyone needs a support or a crutch. You know, "Aha, there's another one like me!" There are others who differ with you, and some who wish you'd expressed yourself in a more shocking manner. It all varies, but very few of them have no reaction. The music is thought-provoking. I'm more concerned with the young kids who have no exposure to very much of anything, rather than the kids who are going to be at the Fillmore this weekend. They can go most any weekend, they know all the groups. The kids in Iowa, or Montana get very little of the rick scene and so they are ready to grab at anything and dig the hell out of it.

Zappa: It's a different thing with young kids, they should be aware, because they're going to have to take over the duties of the old people. They're prepared to learn, and they can accept all those changes. The old people are simply hardened in their ways. But most of the boys and girls of America are the same as the mothers and fathers of America, they're just little carbon copy duplicates. They think the same thoughts, and they act the same way. They'll eventually belong to the same political party; they're gong to take up right where mommy and daddy left off. In order for the ones who have been able to save themselves from that fate, in order for them to continue and do good work, they have to be shown that somebody appreciates the fact that they escaped. We appeal to those people. We let them know that anybody can create their own spaces within the world.

Key: Precisely. That's why they look for the underground press and rock as a medium. Then we go there and perform, and the kids come backstage and ask us questions, trying to find out if we're really sincere in what we're doing, and if we have any suggestions as to their particular dilemma. They want to identify with one another, have some sort of organization where they know they are part of a movement. It's the old thing: there's safety in numbers, and power in numbers. I think in some cases, although I can understand the frustration, it's too early to go out and change things violently. I feel it would be a lot better to use that energy to get more people on your side, rather than some of the activities that are now directed at overthrowing certain things that you're disenchanted with.

Q: What about kids? Do they seem any different from the people you grew up with?

McDonald: Well, there seem to be more and more of them. They always were there, but not so noticeably. They're expanding their perceptions and consciousness to the point where the concepts of reality and the structures that go with are constantly being torn down and enlarged.

Kay: The kids that are twelve to sixteen that are living in the Midwest and the South are in that adolescent stage of development where they would like to survive and be individualists. A lot of them shuck school, parents, church, and whatever other influences they've had. However, a lot of them don't. It's extremely important to recruit them right now, so they don't wind up sitting on the fence, and are on our side.

You say you want a revolution, well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution, well you know
We all want to change the world
     But when you talk about destruction
     Don't you know that you can count me out!

                                      "Revolution 1"
                                      – The Beatles

Q: So what are you going to do?

Kay: I'm as confused as the net guy as to where it's going to go, and what we're going to do, and what it's going to solve once we do get there. But one thing that I'm definitely for is change; I'd rather take the risk of finding out that it may not work out, than to just sit back and accept what is here and now, because I'm definitely not pleased with it. I'm radical to a degree, and I do believe that the time for non-violence may be over; but on the other hand, I think it's somewhat silly to take a few isolated people and push them into a violent action that is supposed to produce change. If you don't really have the support of a large number of people, I don't think you can accomplish very much.

Zappa: I like the idea of "allowing things to happen." What better statement against fascism? I believe that all different styles of life can exist peacefully side by side if people allow other people to be what they are.

McDonald: Well, what it really comes down to is, making myself happy. As for social behavior, if you're hurting anyone else, it's probably wrong. And that's why the social problems can't be solved in the context of the mentality of the world today. The leaders systematically exclude gigantic portions of the human population as being radically different from them. Which is entirely a false concept. We have a tendency to involve ourselves with our own kind, or what we think is our own kind. Like, hippies mixing only with hippies, black only with blacks, students only with students, and this creates incredible myths and misunderstanding.

Ochs: I really don't know. I wrote a new song which I sang at the rally after the Carnegie concert called "All Quiet on the Western Front" and one line runs: "I think I'll join the National Liberation Front," and that's sort of my feeling now. I suspect that after Yippie, it might be healthy for some form of new political group to come onto the scene. A group which is more sober, rather than more crazy. In other words, a real National Liberation Front, whose purpose is to liberate America. Totally broad-based, which could take into its ranks the Kennedy people and the McCarthy people, and the dissatisfied street people. But they'd have to really be together to get it together. And not only in America; I think a whole series of NLF's throughout the Western countries would be a healthy development. A very heavy militant coalition of interests, able to include all sorts of people.

McDonald: I recommend compassionate action. To be compassionate today is the most revolutionary thing you can do. To act in a compassionate manner is the most revolutionary thing you can do. It eliminates almost all acts of violence, and forces upon you a responsibility for the rest of the world.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)