How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.

JWH

When The Future Has Become the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Back in 1965, I read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein. The story is about a guy named Dan Davis who invents a robot vacuum cleaner. The setting of the story begins in the year 1970 but the story itself was first published in F&SF in October 1956. So Heinlein was assuming a lot would happen in 14 years. Well, two things. One, household robots would appear in 1970, and cold sleep would be perfected so people could pay to be put into suspended animation. In 1965 when I read the book I thought both of these were still futuristic but hoped a lot would happen in five years. I wanted that future.

Not to spoil the story, but Dan decides to take cold sleep and wakes up in the year 2000 when his patents and investments should have grown into a magnificent pile of wealth. This lets Heinlein extrapolate and speculate even further into the future. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned by Dan. In his future, Dan invents Drafting Dan hoping to make another fortune.

What’s funny is I read The Door Into Summer in 1965 when everything in the book was set in the future and I’ve lived long enough so that the book is now set in the past. That’s very science fictionally existential. Essentially Heinlein imagines the Roomba and Autocad back in 1956. And the 1959 Signet book cover artist imagines we’ll be wearing spandex and capes. And even though some people do wear such garb today, it’s not an accurate guess about average Americans in the future. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if that artist had imagined everyone wearing hoodies, shorts, t-shirts, and flipflops?

I remember back in the 1960s having so much hope for the future. It’s mind-blowing to me that next week I’ll be living in the year 2020.

There’s one thing I’ve learned from experience – the future is everything I never imagined. It’s almost as if I imagine something being possible that the act of thinking it cancels out the possibility.

There is no predicting the future. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls, but sometimes they accidentally get things a tiny bit right. People are always thrilled at that. But imagine if Robert A. Heinlein had written a novel that perfectly captured the Donald Trump years and published it back in 1965. How would readers have reacted? Could they have believed it? Most people would have just brushed it off as crazy science fiction.

RAH-Future-History-chart

However, back in the early 1940s, Heinlein imagined the United States going through what he called the “Crazy Years” and later on experiencing religious fanaticism that leads to a theocracy. Quite often in the 1950s science fiction writers imagined the United States falling apart because of religious revivals convincing people to reject science. Doesn’t produce a tiny bit woo-woo soundtrack in your head?

Science fiction is never right about the future, but sometimes it feels a little eerie. Just enough to hear The Twilight Zone music. In 2019 I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. Those stories had a lot of hopes and fears about the future, a future that is now my past. That’s very weird. But it’s also strange how often they get just a little bit right. Just enough to put a little zing into the story.

By the way, The Door Into Summer is an entertaining novel I recommend and features a wonderful cat character, Pete, short for Petronius the Arbiter. Heinlein loved cats, so do I. Here’s how he said he got the idea for writing the story:

When we were living in Colorado there was snowfall. Our cat — I'm a cat man — wanted to get out of the house so I opened a door for him but he wouldn't leave. Just kept on crying. He'd seen snow before and I couldn't understand it. I kept opening other doors for him and he still wouldn't leave. Then Ginny said, 'Oh, he's looking for a door into summer.' I threw up my hands, told her not to say another word, and wrote the novel The Door Into Summer in 13 days.

And here is a 1958 ad for the book that is fun to read today when we can look back to when they were looking forward.

Door Into Summer ad page 1

Door Into Summer ad page 2

Yeah, I know it’s bizarre that I’m recommending you read a book set in the past that was supposed to be our future. However, it still features the sturdy standbys of storytelling, love, betrayal, greed, revenge, and of course, a cat.

Merry Christmas — JWH

What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”

JWH

 

Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

Why Did Martin Scorsese Donald Trump Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 15, 2019

After watching Martin Scorsese new film Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix I read The New Yorker’s piece by Richard Brody entitled ‘“Rolling Thunder Revue,” Reviewed: Martin Scorsese’s Slippery Chronicle of Bob Dylan in Concert.’ It seems all my favorite parts of the film were made up. I had been lied to, I had been Donald Trumped.

When Bob Dylan showed up in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s he became infamous for lying about his past. He told such tall tales that the people around him had to constantly access his reality distortion field. Ever since then reporters, biographers, and documentary filmmakers have sought the truth about Bob Dylan in the same way modern theological scholars have tried to unearth the truth about the historical Jesus.

Whenever I read the rare book that interviews Dylan or watch an even rarer documentary featuring Bob Dylan I hope to gain a bit of insight into the Dylan enigma. So is Scorsese’s film a documentary or mockumentary? What is fact or fiction? Is it 20 Feet from Stardom or This Is Spinal Tap? Scorsese chronicles the Rolling Thunder Revue which itself was a circus of make-believe that Dylan tried to put over that might have been great performance art or a creative fiasco. Should I judge Scorsese harshly for lying to me when he was trying to make sense of a bigger lie? Or was he merely trying to join in the same kind of fun and pull Dylanesque gags too? Dylan and all his friends took on assumed names and characters during the tour – but was that that meant to entertain or divert us from thinking about Dylan as Prophet of the Babyboomers.

But here’s the thing. Ever since Donald Trump crowned himself Emperor of Lies it’s very hard to take any kind of lying in fun. When I was growing up people generally shunned anyone who lied. No one likes to discover they’ve been lied to. Donald Trump is such a large black hole of lying that his massive lies rip apart reality. We have so much fake news and deep fake films that any kind of lying for fun is hard to take. Donald Trump has made any kind of lying a horrendous offense no matter how small or innocent. As far as I’m concerned he’s even ruined Santa Claus.

What’s even worse is how Donald Trump has made lying acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But isn’t that what we all do? We rationalize which liars we accept. Christianity has made a religion out of piling on the fantasy. What truth Jesus might have said has been distorted by two thousand years of compounded lying. Donald Trump has become the international standard for measuring liars. So when I compare Scorsese’s little lies to his, they don’t seem so big. I loathe Republicans for accepting and promoting Donald Trump’s lies, so I now hate to see myself forgiving any liars. Plus, there’s the whole A Million Little Pieces by James Frey ordeal. We really want our nonfiction to be honest.

On the other hand, we all know colorful characters who play the class clown for life and we forgive them for their fabrications. Dylan has always passed himself off as a jester. In the mid-sixties when his fans were about to turn him into a guru of political truth, a Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Dylan freaked out. He began swearing he was just a song and dance man, a roving minstrel that sang clever tunes for your amusement.

Dylan retreated from the limelight after a 1966 motorcycle accident that some claimed may or may not have happened. He knew what the world did to their saviors. That was quite wise. When he returned to touring, first with The Band in 1974, and then with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 he had to develop a new persona. The trouble was, even after he stopped writing protest songs that inspired a generation about injustice, he still wrote songs his fans felt spoke the truth with a capital T. Everyone wanted to be near this modern-day Jesus and decode remarkable parables.

Watching the films Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, and now Rolling Thunder Revue shows what a crazy hurricane of true friends, fake friends, crazy fans, and sycophants that swirl around the man. No wonder Dylan is sick to death of trying to explain himself and enjoys making up his own myths. We know Dylan is a genius from the lyrics of his songs. He is closer to Shakespeare than any of us. Yet, I can’t help but feel his lying makes him like Donald Trump. Trump really has ruined tall-tale-telling, at least for me, if not for everybody.

All of this is not to pan Rolling Thunder Review. If you’re a Dylan fan I highly recommend it, just be careful being taken in by Sharon Stone, Stefan Van Dorp, and other trickster characters. I plan on watching the film again after studying the actual events. The trouble is original Rolling Thunder Revue was chaos. The original tour was meant to produce a film, but the result, Renaldo and Clara was so bad it’s has been hidden away for decades. Richard Brody did get to see it and says:

But too often Scorsese seems to be joining Dylan in dancing delicately around the past. After seeing “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I watched “Renaldo and Clara” for the first time—and I wish I hadn’t, because its strengths only serve to highlight Scorsese’s failures. Dylan and Sara, as the fictional Renaldo and Clara—a couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by a visit from another woman, the so-called Woman in White (played by Baez)—perform in scenes of psychodramatic intensity and romantic anguish. “Renaldo and Clara” also features a remarkable set of concert performances from the Rolling Thunder tour—and Dylan (who edited the film with Alk) treats them with a finer and keener touch than Scorsese does.

Now we have Scorsese’s film that covers up the original film. I now wish they’d release Renaldo and Clara to DVD so everyone else can compare to the two accounts. Trying to decipher Dylan is like trying to solve any of the major mysteries of history. It’s a fun task, but also akin to seeking gold in El Dorado.

JWH