We missed The Sixties. We were around but had more immediately prepubescent concerns than social justice and foreign policy. In the summer of 1969, while the whole world watched Vietnam and Woodstock, I played little league baseball at the Jewish Community Center in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. I belong to the Blank Generation and I will always love Richard Hell and the Voidoids for putting us into an anthem back in 1977.
My generation is perhaps the most invested of any other in nearly every audio medium by virtue of our place in history, which falls between the wax cylinder and whatever streaming VR hologram technology awaits us in the future. From vinyl records and flexi discs through LP records, reel-to-reel, cassette and 8-track tapes, compact discs and mp-3, FLAC and bit torrent, we have amassed massive personal collections of recorded sound, whether published, bootlegged, pirated or whatever. We have explored the nether regions of regulated airwaves, shortwave and tremendous expanses of wireless bandwidth for reminders of old favorites and zany misadventures in new frontiers.
History was still happening. On the southwest side of Chicago, a small but loud group of Nazis was pissed off when the city started requiring the posting of insurance bonds in order to host events on Park District property, interfering with their rallies in Marquette Park. In protest and desperation, the Nazis decided to march and rally in Skokie, my hometown and fairly strong Jewish neighborhood in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. The court battles and street theater lasted over a year, keeping Skokie newsworthy from spring of 1977 to summer of 1978 and securing a place for my hometown in antifascist lore.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the emerging punk rock scene was lining up with London’s reggae bands and others around Rock Against Racism, a cultural counter attack against the anti-immigrant National Front. I did not really get the punk rock thing at first. I loved reggae music since “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces reached Top-40 AM radio airplay. Cracking Billboard’s Top Ten in 1969, the 45rpm single I remember fondly among the first records I ever bought. The alliance with reggae put the punk rock thing in a whole new light for me.
Chicago’s WXRT started out as a part-time FM rock station sharing a frequency with daytime foreign language programming that included advertising support from the National Socialist White Peoples Party. While theoretically a rock and roll station, ‘XRT refused to limit its DJs and a listener could hear anything from Bach to the Ramones or the Grateful Dead. Not long after the climax of the Nazi-Skokie drama, the rockers were on the frequency 24 hours and its news director C.D. (Charles) Jaco produced an extended history of the confrontation titled “Saviors of the Race.” A great radio documentary piece if you can find it, including wild audio of an attack on the Nazis’ Rockwell Hall headquarters during one of their meetings by militant socialists of the Spartacist Youth League.
By 1979, Rock Against Racism grew across the ocean, putting on festivals in North America, including Chicago. A buddy and I, following our freshman year at college, added ourselves to the effort in Lincoln Park for the promising lineup of the Tom Robinson Band, the Patti Smith Group, Skafish, DOA, Lonnie Brooks doing “Sweet Home Chicago” and more than we hung around for. And even less, as the Patti Smith Group had their gear ripped off and she left town leaving her lead guitar player’s Lenny Kaye Band to fulfill the commitment with whatever gear was left, or that they could borrow, while Tom Robinson had to return to England due to the sudden death of his father. Rock Against Racism did not draw as large a crowd as WLUP DJ Steve Dahl’s fabled “Disco Demolition” in old Comiskey Park but The Loop did not play the same kind of rock and roll that ‘XRT did, either.
The Marquette Park Nazis eventually prevailed in their day in court against the Chicago Park District and abandoned their invasion of Skokie. It was a good fight. We helped make some history, even inspiring a memorable subplot to The Blues Brothers flick. I spent much of the 80s blackout drunk. I thought it was me but in retrospect, I am starting to feel a little better about it all. My demographic cohort made monster hits out of movies like Animal House and Caddyshack only to grow up and elect the likes of Judge Smails and Doug Niedermeyer to lead the country. We dug National Lampoon but learned all the wrong lessons; may Doug Kenny have mercy on our souls.
Rock and roll is the name given to the fast and loud music coming out of radios that station managers had a hard time dealing with back in its day. The name was the brainchild of Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, whose listening area now hosts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shore of Lake Erie. Once upon a time, rock and roll was a fairly revolutionary thing.
But what does rock and roll mean and who does it belong to? Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain is ostensibly “the Uncensored Oral History of Punk” but really was and remains a slice of rock and roll life in a vaguely defined time. Near the beginning is the story of the MC5, a communal 1960s band managed by John Sinclair, a revolutionary founder of the White Panther Party. “A guitar army is what we are,” wrote John Sinclair in his 1971 manifesto Guitar Army, “a raggedy horde of holy barbarians marching into the future, pushed forward by a powerful blast of sound, a whole new people singing a whole new song of ourselves.” It was a long way from Elvis but the likes of Huddy Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry might have recognized it.
Rock and roll can be anything it damn well wants. Music is broad enough to contain all kinds of sounds and rhythms and capable enough to inspire all sorts of reactions, from the personal to the political. Way before Elvis and Alan Freed, Adolph Hitler’s Nazis produced exhibitions of what they judged as Degenerate Music, an idea inspired by the Detroit automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who published screeds against Jewish cultural influence in his Dearborn Independent newspaper.
“Popular Music is a Jewish monopoly,” Ford wrote in The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, a series his paper published in the early 1920s. “Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, the slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”
It is difficult for me not to feel a sense of ethnic pride when learning of the disgust that my tribal ancestors inspired in the ugly resentful souls of men like Henry Ford and Adolph Hitler for writing, publishing and performing good time music for the masses. But God knows, you don’t have to be Jewish to be antifascist and as much as I would like to believe it was, being Jewish is not necessarily a prerequisite to antifascism, either. None of these delineations are hard and fast. Even punk rock has its racist skinheads, which is exactly what made Rock Against Racism necessary in the first place. If what you do is attacked as degenerate by the likes of racists, xenophobes, nativists, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-historical, pseudo-intellectual creeps, then you are likely doing something right.
But when it is embraced by those same creeps, then there is a responsibility to something much bigger than yourself, your generation, its culture and even your country. Deal with it.