It's not that I'm hopelessly nostalgic for the 1960s—sorry, aging Deadheads, but I got rid of my last tie-dyed T-shirt long ago. (Though I do have a fetching Nehru-collared day-glo paisley shirt I bought on St. Mark's Place in 1969: tossing it is unthinkable.) But two recent cultural events did bring a nostalgic tear to my eye and a third brought a clench to my aging, hairy belly.
First, I saw Howl, a new film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won the Oscar for the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Starring James Franco in an eerily convincing performance as Allen Ginsberg, it recounts the tale of an obscenity trial brought against bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti for purveying Ginsberg's magnum opus. Employing court transcripts, an interview with the author, and perhaps-superfluous animations, the story is sometimes a bit flat, but nevertheless affecting. Though there could be more context—watching Mary-Louise Parker as a puritanical English teacher doesn't convey just how repressive the mood at the time really was—it's a fine remembrance of one of the opening salvos in what has since become known as "the culture wars." And those wars are far from won: given the choice, many freedom-loving Americans would still be happy to ban "Howl's" celebratory phrase "..who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy…" from the pubic, er, public square.
Say what you will about the beatniks, about the looseness of Ginsberg's later writing and his finger-cymbal-clanging hippie-dippyness, he was truly a pioneer, a blithe avatar of buggery. The film shows, in part, why he deserves queers' everlasting respect and thanks. Too bad that—I bet—your average gay club kid would look blankly at you and ask, "Allen who?"
Shortly thereafter, I went to see Bob Dylan in concert. Now, for many of us of a certain generation, Dylan stands not only as one of the greatest songwriters ever, but a weirdly fascinating figure whose trajectory from earnest leftie singer to speed-tinged rock 'n roller to born-again Christian to croaky old roots-music bluesman has been that proverbial long, strange trip. As have been many of ours, we people, mostly older, who found ourselves in the audience that night. Now, unlike Ginsberg, Dylan never seemed the least bit pro-queer; in "Ballad of a Thin Man," he made a thinly coded reference to gay blowjobs that was at least as scornful as it was celebratory, and he once reputedly derided the Warhol scene as "faggy and decadent." E'en so, the cover of his latest album, Together Through Life, shows two guys kissing. Or maybe it's a man and a woman. Or just like a woman.
In any case, it was an excellent concert, and when he finished his encores with "Like a Rolling Stone," I felt elated, but also, as I had at the end of Howl, guiltily teared up.
Something about time passing, yes, but also about the hopes and angers of youth. And about history.
Back in the 1960s, see, we, some of us, honestly believed we were on the brink of a new world, one free from the money-grubbing Moloch decried in Ginsberg's poem. And if the hopefulness of "The Times They Are A-Changing" was already morphing into the edgy scorn that snarled, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"…well, the times they were a-changing, and so was Dylan, who most assuredly did not need a weatherman to see which way the wind blew.
And speaking of blowing, just days after Dylan's concert came Mr. Jones's revenge: Glenn Beck's demagogic D.C. tentshow, which, he modestly predicted, would be The Pivotal Event that would lead America once again to greatness and bring us all back to G-O-D. (Presumably both Mr. God and Mrs. God, actually, since the lachrymose Mr. Beck is a Mormon convert.) Yes, so much has changed since the days of Howl and Highway 61 Revisited, but now the rightwing righteous were out there on the mall, and woe betide those of us who believe in transgressive art, sleazy sex, and the power of a poetic idea. Those of us with what writer Chris Collins, writing of Warhol's Factory, calls "a joyful contempt for bourgeois culture."
One of the least attractive parts of the '60s gestalt was the paranoia that ran through the counterculture like bongwater. Okay, it's true that if the FBI wasn't watching you, the DEA was, but still…
Yes, since Howl was written, queers have gotten their rights, even (sometimes) gotten married, obscenity laws have taken a hit, and rock and roll has become so popular that it's used to sell laxatives.