1960s: Romanticism and Decline

After years of the right-wing version of the history, there is a tendency to think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of decadence and decline. But thankfully in recent years we have pulled back from the precipice. Or we think of the 60s from a post 1980s and 90s capitalist triumphalist perspective: as colorful and quixotic kitsch denude of any ethical or political import.

Last night I spent a few hours listening to Ginsberg’s Howl, watching Joe Crocker concerts on YouTube and whatnot and I challenge anyone to listen to Nina Simone’s 1969 Harlem Festival (Central Park, New York) performance of “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life” and tell me we’re not a civilization that’s put an additional forty solid years of decline under out belt. To hear a song so simply constructed — it’s just two lists of commonplace items — but so evocative and watch that face like a statue but with the pathos of the entire human condition! Compared to our contemporary world of rampant materialism, status-seeking, vanity, cynicism, cleverness, conformity, vapid luxury, triviality and selflessness (by which I don’t mean generosity), the 60s and 70s look like a golden age of humanist assertion.

I would love to read a systematic comparison of the various romanticist periods of history.

On the other hand, people — at least people my age — tend to think of the period as still historically close, relevant, but when I was watching Joe Crocker last night, it occurred to me that the performances that I was watching are as far removed from us today as the Second World War was when I was a kid. 1968 was forty years ago. When I was ten, the Second World War had ended forty years ago as well and I thought of that as ancient history. The greatest generation are about to disappear, but notice that Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, is a bumbling old greyhair who’s had a stroke for crissake.