Helter-Skelter

There’s the small shopping center down on the corner here, with a Starbucks and a multiplex and a trendy fitness gym and a Trader Joe’s – where Schwab’s Drug Store used to sit, where Lana Turner, in her tight sweater, wasn’t really discovered – and there at the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, at the foot of Laurel Canyon, there’s a bus stop, a little island of brutal concrete with no shade at all, where there was once a little ramshackle club, Pandora’s Box. Actually it was more of a coffee house, but on November 12, 1966, that’s where the somewhat famous riots on the Sunset Strip began. It was the sixties. The local merchants wanted all the long-hair dope-smoking hippie types to just go away – they simply hung around too much, looking strange, driving the paying customers away. So the police obliged, and it didn’t go well.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have started at Pandora’s Box. That somehow made it all about the new sixties music and the new counterculture then developing – Peter Fonda, who would later make that Easy Rider movie with Dennis Hopper, was arrested there that night – and rioting spread west and the whole Strip was in chaos. It took a few days for everything to settle down.

Probably no one else in the country heard about these riots – it was a local matter, really – but Buffalo Springfield got a new song out of it. That was For What It’s Worth – recorded a few weeks later, on December 5, 1966. Steven Stills and Neil Young lived just up the hill in Laurel Canyon at the time and had been there. And soon enough all the radio stations in the country were playing that song – “There’s battle lines being drawn / Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” and “A thousand people in the street / Singing songs and carrying signs / Mostly say, hooray for our side…”

That was a big hit, and even if no one knew what event Buffalo Springfield was singing about, specifically, they got the general idea. People are always fussing and fighting and not listening to each other, while screaming at each other, and there’ll soon be a riot, or sometimes a war. That’s just how we are. Steven Stills decided to write a song about that, and that this particular riot started at Pandora’s Box is only a bit of obscure delicious irony, and fitting. Pandora’s Box was opened. That the place is now just another Los Angeles municipal bus stop is also fitting.

Still, those were good times. Joni Mitchell was at home just up the hill, in the canyon shade, sipping lemonade and chatting with Neil Young and Jackson Browne, about chord changes or their agents or whatever. The Canyon Rock era was a mellow time:

Some say the Laurel Canyon music scene began when Frank Zappa moved to the corner of Lookout Mountain and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the late 1960s. Former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman recalls writing “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” in Laurel Canyon in 1966 in his house, on a steep winding street with a name he doesn’t remember. The Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison reportedly wrote “Love Street” while living behind the Laurel Canyon Country Store. Michelle Phillips lived with John Phillips on Lookout Mountain in 1965 during the Mamas and the Papas’ heyday. …

Nearly everyone who was there was, at one time or another, stoned; nobody remembers everything the same way. What is undeniably true is that from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s some of the most melodic, atmospheric, and subtly political American popular music was written by residents of, or those associated with, Laurel Canyon – including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, J. D. Souther, Judee Sill, the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, the Eagles, Richie Furay (in Buffalo Springfield and Poco), and many more.

They made music together, played songs for one another with acoustic guitars in all-night jam sessions in each other’s houses. Many of those houses were cottages with stained-glass windows, and fireplaces that warmed the living rooms in the chilly L.A. nights. They took drugs together, formed bands together, broke up those bands, and formed other bands. Many of them slept with each other. The music was mislabeled “soft rock” or “folk rock,” especially in the Northeast, where critics panned it as granola-infused hippie music – too “mellow” and too white. But in truth, it was an amalgam of influences that included blues, rock and roll, jazz, Latin, country and western, psychedelia, bluegrass, and folk. It certainly was a forerunner of today’s “Americana.”

Think of it like Paris in the twenties, where a generation of young American writers – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and others – distilled and defined America, from Paris. They all met at Gertrude Stein’s place – her perpetual salon – and she edited their manuscripts until they got it right. Mama Cass was the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon. Everyone says that. That’s probably not a stretch. They were both large women, in many ways.

Then there’s the dark side, two canyons over, in Benedict Canyon. That’s the tale of Charles Manson – the unemployed ex-con who led his Manson Family that murdered Sharon Tate and four other people at Tate’s home over in Benedict Canyon. On the night of August 8, 1969, Manson directed his family to kill them all. Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski was eight and a half months pregnant. Jay Sebring, a famous hairstylist, would be dead. Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee fortune, was dead. Polanski was in London working on a film project. The next day it was a married couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, over here in Los Feliz – the ritzy neighborhood just under the famous Griffith Observatory. That’s where the iconic movie Rebel Without a Cause starts, with a knife fight, and ends, with a shootout. That was a nice touch.

In short, Charles Manson was no Mama Cass. He’ll die in prison.

The odd thing is that Charles Manson was a singer-songwriter on the fringe of the same music scene out here. Somehow he had run into Dennis Wilson, a founding member and the drummer of the Beach Boys, the guys who had started out in high school as the Pendletons down in Torrance. That didn’t go well – but Manson wasn’t really into surfer music. A year earlier, in prison up north, he had become obsessed with the new Beatles White Album – and particularly the track Helter Skelter – so he decided the world needed his particular brand of Helter Skelter – which seemed to have something to do with an impending apocalyptic race war, and the Book of Revelations, and all sorts of things. None of it made much sense, but a lot of people would die, and there’s this:

After Manson was charged with the crimes of which he was later convicted, recordings of songs written and performed by him were released commercially. Various musicians, including Guns and Roses, White Zombie and Marilyn Manson, have covered some of his songs.

He was on the other side of the music scene out here, the dark side, and all this should be put in its political context. On January 2, 1967, Ronald Reagan became Governor of California, and on January 20, 1969, California’s own Richard Nixon became President of the United States. Reagan said “a hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” On May 15, 1969, Reagan ordered armed police to carry out a dawn raid against hippie protesters who had occupied People’s Park near the Berkeley campus of the University of California. One man was shot dead and 128 other people needed hospital treatment, and there was this:

Reagan then imposed martial law on Berkeley, and his military chief dispatched a helicopter that spread tear gas into schools, homes and a hospital.

Reagan succeeded in cutting UC’s budget, and the Los Angeles Times in 1973 reported the now all-too-familiar results: larger classes, fewer dollars spent per student, heavier teaching loads, packed libraries and dirty buildings. And conditions have deteriorated since then.

There was a lot going on out here in those years – mellow music that defined America and murderous rampages by the followers of the fourth-rate singer-songwriter and the rise of a new and aggressive form of American conservatism – all at the same time. That explains all the new billboards that are popping up here on the Sunset Strip – for NBC’s new show:

Los Angeles. 1967.

Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, “Californication,” “The X-Files”), a decorated World War II vet and homicide detective, barely recognizes the city he’s now policing. Long hair, cheap drugs, rising crime, protests, free love, police brutality, Black Power and the Vietnam War are radically remaking the world he and the Greatest Generation saved from fascism 20 years ago.

So when Emma Karn (Emma Dumont, “Salvation,” “Bunheads”), the 16-year-old daughter of an old girlfriend, goes missing in a sea of hippies and Hodiak agrees to find her, he faces only hostility, distrust and silence. He enlists the help of Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, “True Blood,” “Friday Night Lights”) – a young, idealistic undercover vice cop who’s been allowed to grow his hair out – to infiltrate this new counterculture and find her.

The generational conflict between the two is immediate and heated, yet they’re both dedicated officers and soon realize the need to bring Emma home is more urgent than they foresaw. The immediacy arises because she has joined a small but growing band of drifters under the sway of a career criminal who now dreams of being a rock star: Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony, “Game of Thrones”).

Ringing with the unparalleled music of the era, “Aquarius” is a sprawling work of historical fiction that begins two years before the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. It’s a shocking thriller, a nuanced character drama and, in the end, the story of how we became who we are today.

And from the New York Times review:

Sixties music is a vital part of “Aquarius,” an NBC series set in 1967 Los Angeles, but one of the classic songs not on the soundtrack is “For What It’s Worth.” That Buffalo Springfield hit is best known by the line “Stop, children, what’s that sound” and is woven into almost every retrospective look at the counterculture. … A teenage riot features prominently in the first episode of “Aquarius,” so in this context, the Buffalo Springfield song couldn’t be more fitting. The show’s creators preferred to avoid the obvious.

That would be this:

“Aquarius” explores the sexism, homophobia and racism of the ’60s from a more enlightened remove yet savors those prejudices for their dramatic tension. Repression isn’t enviable, but it can be invaluable to storytelling.

And it keeps getting easier to be graphic about the past. In the first few episodes of “Aquarius,” a 16-year-old girl is coerced into having group sex, a man attempts to sodomize another man at knife point, and a policewoman posing as a free-love hippie chick performs oral sex on one of Mr. Manson’s lieutenants to preserve her cover.

Okay, fine – it’s modern, but there’s this:

Each episode title is a reference to a famous song from the era or one written by Mr. Manson, including one that was reworked by Dennis Wilson for the Beach Boys under the title “Never Learn Not to Love.”

The music is always there, and from the Los Angeles Times:

Aquarius is set in 1967, the year of the so-called Summer of Love, and Charles Manson is in it. Not Charles Manson himself, of course. He is still in prison and will stay there; he used to show up on television every so often, interviewed under cover of journalistic inquiry, but that doesn’t happen so much anymore. Still, though they grow vaguer with time, his name and face persist in the culture as shorthand for a certain kind of boogeyman, a pied piper of death, and a lasting avatar of What Went Wrong with the 1960s – the Bummer of Love.

Not that the show is that focused:

At the center of that drama, created by John McNamara, is detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), a good homicide cop who is in some respects behind his time and some respects ahead of it. He encourages policewoman (Claire Holt), whom his colleagues call a “pretty little thing” and only ask to get them coffee. (That isn’t strictly true. They also ask her why she isn’t married.)

And when colleague Brian Shafe (the appealing Grey Damon), a shaggy undercover cop who is Hodiak’s occasional partner, comes back from a gay bar disturbed at the thought of “men doing that with men,” Hodiak asks him, “What do you care what they do with each other?” But he also bends rules and busts heads and generally runs over whatever stands between him and closing a case.

They may not have the Age of Aquarius right, but Scott Timberg says they get it mostly right:

Its view of “the ’60s” – it’s hard not to refer to the era without scare quotes – and the Summer of Love is a bit too picture perfect; clearly the stylists and costume designers has a blast on this one. But the show’s look at a changing California is not bad at all. In fact, next to David Duchovny’s performance as an old-school, flat-topped police detective, it may be the best thing about the show.

Perhaps the key element that makes it work is the way “Aquarius” looks at both sides of the social and generational tensions of its time and place. Typically, movies and television set on the West Coast in the ’60s and ’70s look at hippies, psychedelic culture, drugs, free love, the civil rights movement and so on. But it’s always the left (or young) side of the equation. “Aquarius,” by contrast, gives us plenty of counterculture and ferment – acoustic guitars, footage of the Sunset Strip riots, endless pot smoke on Topanga porches, marginalized black Angelinos – as well as the conservative reaction that ended up being just as consequential.

That is to say, they get the politics right:

It’s easy to miss it if you only see what Hollywood turns out, but the ’60s was a period of substantial conservative ascendancy – the beginning of the rupture of the liberal consensus – especially in California. Not only did Nixon slither out of Southern California – and get elected to president in 1968 – Ronald Reagan was sworn in as California governor in 1967, a few months before the Summer of Love commenced.

Sunbelt millionaires and suburban moralists appalled by the Free Speech movement, student radicalism, youth culture, “creeping socialism,” black militancy and other developments made up the support not just these two men but generations of conservative power brokers. Radical right-wing groups like the John Birch Society have strong bases of power in and around L.A., but especially in adjacent, conservative Orange County.

That sort of thing had to be in there too:

In “Aquarius,” this works out through Ken Karn, the father of Emma, a willowy teen who runs away with Manson. As played by the Irish actor Brian O’Byrne, Karn is a ramrod straight (or so it seems) hard-ass Republican with a picture of Nixon in the house. His cronies, like most of the cops Duchovny’s character works with, are mostly crew-cut, Anglo-Saxon social conservatives. Karn has ambitions as a Republican politician and his respectability is very important to him; the way his upright life has begun to intersect with the sleaziest element of the counterculture is troubling to him, but also makes him an archetypal ’60s Californian. Rarely while watching the show do you forget about both sides of the battle, and “Aquarius” implicates not just the hippie left for Manson but the political right as well: The Manson of this show has a foot in both worlds.

There’s a reason for that:

The most sustained look at the overlap between the Sunbelt, the 1960s and its movement of conservatism has come from historian Rick Perlstein in his books “Before the Storm” (about Goldwater, hugely popular in parts of California), “Nixonland” and “The Invisible Bridge.”

As Perlstein has pointed out, four million people worked on Barry Goldwater’s campaign, almost twice as many as worked on Lyndon Johnson’s, and a million Americans gave Goldwater’s campaign money – more than 15 times the number who contributed to his competitor. As Perlstein wrote in the preface to “Before the Storm” –

“America would remember the sixties as a decade of the left. It must be remembered instead as a decade when the polarization began. ‘We must assume that the conservative revival is the youth movement of the ’60s,’ Murray Kempton wrote in 1961, in words that would sound laughable five years later. Forty years later, these are words that are, at the very least, arguable.”

“Aquarius” is not as well told as Perlstein’s books, which are vivid and brilliantly researched. Nor is their social history cast with the touch we get from writers like Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald or Walter Mosley. But for network television, this is close enough to pass for sophistication.

That’ll do, and David Weigel, last year, put the third Perlstein book – The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reaganin perspective:

The first in his series, 2001’s Before the Storm, was praised by William F. Buckley. George Will called it “the best book yet on the social ferments that produced Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy” – in a largely positive review of Perlstein’s second book, Nixonland, which became a best-seller. What changed? This time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan.

Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan – Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God.

And that God made his own music:

Ronald Reagan only made sense when the rest of America didn’t. Perlstein’s Reagan was introduced in Before the Storm as a talent who could explain conservatism for all the reasons Goldwater couldn’t. “Goldwater hardly ever mentioned a statistic,” Perlstein wrote. “He presumed you already knew what he meant. Reagan showed you … the stories went by faster than thought, like a seduction.”

In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein explains that Reagan “had a way of telling a story that made it uncheckable.” He’d attribute facts and stories to “magazines” and “polls” without specifying which ones had come across his desk. (If you wonder how the existence of Google might have complicated this, remember what happened when Rand Paul started taking stories from Wikipedia.) Reagan defended Richard Nixon during Watergate so resolutely that the media started to write him off. When Gerald Ford was pursuing détente, Reagan warned that a weak America would “tempt the Soviet Union as it once tempted Hitler and the military rulers of Japan.” Perlstein’s every-news-clip-ever approach rewards a long read; he’ll quote Reagan’s welfare dissembling (a welfare-to-work program helped only 0.2 percent of recipients) and a few chapters later a woman on the street in New Hampshire will praise what Reagan did for those welfare moochers.

Reagan should have been up in Laurel Canyon, writing haunting mysterious songs that everyone found full of pleasant deep inner meaning about America and life and all that, but maybe he ended up doing just that:

Perlstein’s Reagan is incredibly talented, but he wins because the conditions are right for him to win. The country’s inward-looking, self-deprecating mood after Watergate was just that – a mood. It passed. It would be replaced by “a liturgy of absolution” and “cult of optimism.” “Others told you Vietnam was a crime, a waste – or, at best, something very, very complex,” writes Perlstein. “It took Ronald Reagan to explain how simple the whole thing was.”

That’s a songwriter’s talent. And this is the place for that. Pandora’s Box is long gone. Down on the corner here, Schwab’s is now that small shopping center with the Trader Joe’s and the multiplex. But in late 1938, Harold Arlen, on contract to MGM down in Culver City and working on their new Wizard of Oz movie, while driving down Sunset and stopping in front of Schwab’s, seeing a rainbow over Hollywood, came up with the song “Over the Rainbow” – and jotted down the melody. After completing the bridge the next day, the song was ready for his lyricist, E. Y. Harburg to hear. Harburg didn’t like it – no little girl from Kansas would sing such a complex thing. Arlen then played it for Ira Gershwin – living with his brother over on Roxbury at the time – to get a second opinion. Gershwin liked it. Harburg gave in and wrote the lyrics, and the rest is history.

It’s all history. This is the corner where it gets defined.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Cultural Conflicts of the Sixties, Rise of Conservatism in the Sixties and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Helter-Skelter

  1. BabaO says:

    A bit late, but I have to say that I admire your sourcing. Haven’t been to the Yard for some time, and I’d almost forgotten it until one of the old Seattle hippies sent me that column some weeks ago. You make good use of it.

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