Monday, 15 September 2008

[43] 'We Can Be Together': American Countercultural Music, Film and the trappings of the mainstream


This is an essay I wrote at the start of 2008, for a module I studied on American Counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s. I decided to focus on the music and film (covering Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees and Easy Rider), with specific reference to the dilemma facing artists of becoming part of the conformist, corporate system, at the expense of their countercultural drive.

It's quite long, but I thought I would upload it anyway. I'm sure it will interest someone out there.

I've retitled it - 'We Can Be Together': American countercultural music, film and the trappings of the mainstream

Tell me what you think.


The counterculture of the 1960s featured important innovations in the form and message of art. However, the means for production, promotion and wide distribution of such modes as music and film were in the hands of the major record labels or film production studios. This resulted in an intriguing, often conflicted, relationship between the necessarily provocative and inventive aspects of countercultural expression, and the ‘trappings’ of popular culture. Countercultural expression was often on a localised, individual, or minority scale, usually defined against the mainstream or dominant society; it was feared that actively courting with the mainstream, in the form of the music or film business, would result in compromising the message or expression itself. In the realm of music, the shift from performing as the primary avenue of dissemination, to record sales and marketing, presents a potential conflict in terms of the artist’s integrity as the ‘art’ shifts to ‘product’.

There was a similarly difficult situation in the film industry, where the dominance of the major film studios was seen to stifle the creativity of the medium. However, in the late 1960s, a series of films directed by younger directors, starring younger stars and about relevant issues, brought about a renaissance in Hollywood, and the old generation of studio bosses gave wave to a new group of producers more happy to grant freedom of expression to countercultural and visionary newcomers. This essay will primarily focus on the musical career of Bob Dylan, but, by way of comparison or contrast, further references will be drawn from both music and film.

Indeed, this complicated relationship between the popular and the countercultural is especially seen in Bob Dylan’s career. In fact, it can be argued that his shrewd and profitable courting with the mainstream has been subsumed by cult and myth. As one of the most influential artists in Western music of the 20th century, Dylan’s reputation in terms of furthering the form is secure; however, his public image is almost by nature conflicted. Wilfred Mellers displays this multi-layered image, introducing his study of Dylan by describing him as ‘a singing poet-composer, he is a quasi-folk musician, an artist and a commercial operator’ (1984, p.13). Dylan’s particular flashpoints of mythology and controversy have all involved the clash of the precious and the popular; the most prominent of these is his progression from acoustic, socially-minded folk music, to electrified rock with increasingly abstract, personal lyrics. The period between March 1965 and July 1966, during which time Dylan released the albums Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and had landmark performances at the Newport Folk Festival and on tour in Europe, was one of the more controversial career moves in 20th century music. The hostilities that greeted the incorporation of electric guitars and rock-inspired arrangements were motivated by the apprehension that Dylan had abandoned ‘serious’ music, in favour of fame and fortune.

The electric sound of Rock and Roll was still a young art-form, and did not have the sophistication of other musical genres, such as folk or jazz. However, the style did have a young following, and generated a lot of money through record sales. This let to rock music being stigmatised due to its association with manufactured, mainstream tastes, and by extension, ‘corruption and lies’ (Marcus, 1997, xii). However, critics have stressed that the decision to ‘go electric’ was primarily due to artistic concerns on Dylan’s part. The popular account goes that he was ‘bored’ with the topical, self-righteous concerns of the political folk movement, and developed a more insular, personal approach in his lyrics (Ewen, 1970, p.360). This was first exhibited on the provocatively-titled album Another Side of Bob Dylan, but came into fruition with his electric albums. This period saw a broadening of Dylan’s base of influence; where originally he had styled himself on the dust bowl folk tradition of Woody Guthrie, by 1964, he was taking more inspiration from poetry, from Rimbaud to the beats. These ‘new creative impulses and new themes’ were accompanied by a musical transformation which happened to ‘cater to a new audience’ (op. cit.). Indeed, songs such as ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’ show a distinct development in Dylan’s use of imagery and absurd metaphor.

However, even though the retrospective consensus admits that Dylan’s shift to rock music was an important and creative statement in the evolution of music as a popular art form, the immaculate figure of Dylan as an apathetic hipster, a genius following his muse, is not completely suitable. The mythology of Dylan, and his impact, is linked with crucial decisions and developments in terms of marketing, publicity and business. Although Dylan’s popular success did not strictly come until the single release of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in 1965, his compositions had been successful in the charts beforehand, recorded by other artists. Indeed, his early protest song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, from the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was initially released by Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk-pop group signed to Warner Bros records. This recording was a considerable hit, selling 2 million discs and eventually winning the Grammy award for Best Folk Recording of the year (Ewen, 1970, p.358).

Dylan’s parallel career as a popular songwriter hints at the business-savvy undertones in his career; the publishing royalties from these covers brought him a comfortable income, yet still allowed him to record and perform on his own terms, within the community that suited him, without the concerns of a chart musician. It is intriguing that this phase, or facet, of Dylan’s career is not more openly discussed; even though publishing deals were common at the time, as such respected singer-songwriters as Carole King and Randy Newman found initial success as professional pop song-writers, the subsequent mythology of Bob Dylan, as the post-modern troubadour, often neglects to mention these early displays of mainstream pop sensibilities. It is important to note that, despite Dylan’s subsequent rise to monumental distinction, some of these early compositions are just as, if not more, recognised as recorded by other artists.

Examples of this are found in the early career of The Byrds, whose 1965 debut album, named after the cover ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, featured 4 Dylan songs. The title track reached #1 in the Billboard Charts, and The Byrds would include at least one Dylan cover on nearly all their 1960s albums. Even though they were influential in their own right, especially in Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12 string guitar sound, The Byrds’ approach to Dylan’s music, and subsequent success, reveals a ‘pop-marketability’ that was initially denied to the songwriter himself due to his ‘idiosyncratic’ performance style (Starr and Waterman, 2003, p.278). The pristine vocal harmonies, coupled with the chiming guitars and tight rhythm section, presented a much smoother performance of the songs. This is particularly found in their 1965 single of the song ‘All I Really Want To Do’, originally on Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. In place of the original’s shrill yodel is a palatable ascending harmony, and one verse is replaced with a minor key middle eighth; the composer’s reaction was positive ‘wow, man, you can even dance to that!’ (Mr Tambourine Man, reissue liner notes, Rogan, 1996, p.12). This performance, along with the soulful rendition by Cher released in the same year, manages to somewhat neuter the rough, unpolished quality of the original, while highlighting an inherent pleasantness of the lyrics:

I don't want to fake you out,
Take or shake or forsake you out,
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me,
See like me or be like me.
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.


This extract also displays the shift in Dylan’s lyrical themes, away from the ‘finger pointin’ songs’ of the earlier albums, and towards the more introspective or personal exhibited in the title Another Side…; as well as the rejection of his political and social responsibilities, in ‘I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me…’. This is all expressed in a central conceit against romantic or sexual conformity. Indeed, the roots of his stylistic change are apparent in the music, also, as he would draw on songs from the album in electric contexts later in his career (‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’).

This dichotomy between art and business is associated with Dylan’s involvement with his manager, Albert Grossman. Christopher Gair, in his assessment of Dylan’s relationship between the music business and his artistic expression, stresses that his freedom to ‘appear… uninterested’ in such matters as making money and pursuing ‘greater fame and financial rewards than could be provided by the relatively small folk community’ was down to the work of Grossman (2007, p.168-9). The important distinction between business and expression, as well as the necessity for the artist to seem to focus solely on the art at hand, is related to the debate surrounding Dylan’s turn to rock music. The crucial justifications on behalf of critics and fans of Dylan’s rejection of acoustic folk were based on the belief that he was being ‘true to himself and his artistic instincts’ (Ewen, 1970, p.360). This may be true, but the amount of marketing behind his art is just as important; a memo from within Columbia, contained in the liner notes for the 1991 retrospective, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: Rare and Unreleased, reveals the hidden, corporate and commercial, powers behind the music:

- Contacting radio personalities in your area that have “Americana”-type shows and pointing out to them the merits of featuring Bob Dylan in an American Heritage theme.

- Getting in touch with the casual wear buyers in department stores and men’s stores and convincing them to use Bob Dylan display pieces in their clothing displays. His dress may be considered “kooky” by conventional standards, but kooky or not he is a motivating force of the youth of today, and they like to emulate their leaders.

- Contacting the little theatre groups and drama groups in your area to convince them that readings of the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs would be presenting modern poetry in its finest form.

- Getting in touch with the local newspaper culture editors and showing them the merits of doing a piece built around Bob Dylan, using a changing times theme.

- Putting your ads in your local newspapers on Bob Dylan [in] unusual areas of the paper such as on the sport page, the women’s section or even the financial section...after all, he does mean money...for us at least.

(The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, Liner Notes, 1991, p.20)

The tension is plainly laid out, the actions of those who are interested in the ‘promotion’ of ‘product’ to ‘the youth of today’; the artist who means ‘money’. Also interesting to note is the focus on the aspects of Dylan’s now accepted mythology: his music as part of ‘American Heritage’, his lyrics as ‘modern poetry’, his place in a ‘changing times theme’. Indeed, this is not to the detriment of his standing as a cultural figure, as his music and recorded output do exhibit these features, even if it does go against previous statements against consumer culture:

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

(‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, 1965)

Nevertheless, the importance of marketing and publicity must be recognised. In light of this, even though Dylan’s development in the 1960s may not have been a ‘compromise’ to a new audience or to the demands and needs of the record label, it can be seen how the agencies and instruments available to a popular musical artist, signed to Columbia, were integral in forming the ‘serious’ creative Dylan persona. Viewing his output in the context of marketing and the popular music business further reveals this ‘commercial operator’ side. Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde was the first rock double album, which, while a testament to the prolific and intensely inspired artist, was an expensive extravagance that may not have been allowed to other artists, or those outside of the shelter of major record labels like Columbia.

Of course, Dylan made good use of the freedom and opportunity his record label offered; using the popular media of the rock business in order to ‘turn the tables’ (Mellers, 1984, p.141). He was also one of the forerunners of the musical artist whose career was mostly sustained on cohesive album ‘statements’ as opposed to pop singles and albums created around such singles. Indeed, besides ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and a few other singles (‘Positively Fourth Street’), Dylan’s output was heavily weighted towards albums (Starr and Waterman, 2003, p.284). Despite this focus, 1967 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, a compilation of singles and notable tracks.

However, the cultural mythology behind Bob Dylan was not completely created through the release of product. Another controversial point in his career came in June 1966, after the intense period of inspiration and touring, where Dylan crashed his motorcycle and, during an 18 month recuperation period, ceased to release new material or appear in the public eye. Indeed, this period is still a topic of debate, with biographers such as Howard Sounes approaching the crash as a ‘means of escape’ from the pressures of touring (Scherman, ‘The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery’, 2006). However, whether this hiatus was self-imposed or not, it had an important effect on Dylan’s public standing. As this was during the period where a relevant or contemporary artist was almost expected to release one or two albums a year, along with touring and public appearances, this retreat from the public eye effectively concluded the most influential and tumultuous years of his career. This disappearance also dissolved the erstwhile popular leanings, and allowed for an artistic progression away from the pressures of the music business. The hiatus contained a residence in a rented house, called 'The Big Pink', where Dylan would spend days writing and recording new songs with The Band.

This period was prolific, and as well as writing material that would eventually appear on The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music From the Big Pink, the group recorded well over 100 songs. These recordings, which became known as ‘The Basement Tapes’, were not meant for commercial release, although it is worth noting that these sessions produced songs that were eventually made into hits by acts such as Peter, Paul and Mary and Manfred Mann. Nevertheless, deciding not to release these sessions in an official capacity led to what is perhaps one of the more countercultural aspects of Dylan’s recording history: the rise of the bootleg album.

Recordings from the Big Pink sessions, along with live recordings from Dylan’s tumultuous 1966 tour of Europe, were unofficially released under such titles as The Great White Wonder and In ’66 There Was. The bootleg is by nature countercultural: an illegal enterprise, usually taken from unpolished or rough sessions which are certainly not ‘product’, which is bought and analysed by a close-knit community who communicated outside of the mainstream music channels. Even though there was always an element of depth to a fan community’s approach to Dylan, seen through the obsessive analysis of his lyrics, bootlegs gave a counterpoint to the public personality of the artist and were infused with a sense of ‘legend’ (Marcus, 1997, xiv).

Indeed, the retreat from the mainstream music scene cut Dylan off from the burgeoning psychedelic rock movement of 1967, which included bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, who had been influenced by his run of albums. John Wesley Harding, the calm, country-inspired follow up to Blonde on Blonde, was released in late 1967; Dylan’s style was sparse, allegorical and enigmatic, exhibited in the song ‘All Along the Watchtower’:

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."


This approach was very different from that of the new psychedelic rock bands, and it is thought that this marker of distinction allowed Dylan to transcend not only the mainstream music culture, but also the counterculture of the time, allowing his expression to be analysed on its own terms outside of other contexts (Marcus, 1997, xviii). Indeed, the music business had moved on; this new wave of artists was negotiating the same relationship between mainstream and counterculture as Dylan.

Jefferson Airplane, in particular, were in a similar position. They were the first of the San Francisco psychedelic rock bands to sign to a major record label, and they received an unprecedented $20,000 advance from RCA in 1965 (Starr and Waterman , 2003, p.290). By 1967, they were, like Dylan, bringing countercultural ideas and innovations into the Billboard charts, with the two hits ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’. The latter, with its rejection of a conventional verse-chorus-verse popular song structure, is based around a hazy crescendo, which, coupled with the lyrics inspired by Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice’ novels, suggests an LSD-fuelled drug trip.

Indeed, it is through expression like this that Jefferson Airplane remained a countercultural force, despite controversial commercial decisions, such as an advertising campaign for Levi’s (Gair, 2007, p.172). One such display of defiance against the dominant strands of society is found in the 1969 single ‘We Can Be Together’, which is a rallying cry for co-operation in a culture ruled by ‘private property’ and ‘walls’ (Kantner, 1969). The song features Jefferson Airplane’s trademark harmonies, which, unlike the Byrds, retains a sense of independence in the whole, as each singer has recognisable singing ‘personalities’. This promotes the importance of the individual in the ‘society’ of the band; indeed, each performer exhibits distinct talents and techniques. More famously, the song contains one of the first uses of the word ‘motherfucker’ in a popular song, which was allegedly inspired by the New York based anarchist group, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (‘We Can Be Together… Songfacts’).

In the spirit of Gitlin’s idea of the artist smuggling the subversive into the mainstream, the band performed the song on the Dick Cavett show, references and swearwords included, the first televised used of the word ‘fuck’ on American television (‘The Dick Cavett Show’, August 19, 1969). Despite these undeniably important statements, they are complicated by the business side of things: indeed, Starr and Waterman call Grace Slick ‘the biggest celebrity of the group’ (2003, p.296). Equally, a Robert Christgau review of a live performance by the Jefferson Airplane in New York in 1970 questions the intentions behind the group’s music:

All of us out there, she said, we had paid money for our seats, and with that money the Airplane hired the Cadillac that would protect them from the crowd after the concert..

(‘We Should Be Together’)

The flaunting of profits made from ticket sales reveals the money-making background to the artist; and indeed, the hostility between artist and audience documented in the article is the complete opposite of the utopian, progressive message in their songs.

In the light of these concerns that faced the artist in the popular music world, it is interesting to see the equivalent experience of countercultural artists in the movie business. Like the music industry, the modes of production, development and release was controlled by a small number of big companies. However, whereas record labels and music managers would exert influence in the more business-related side of their client’s career, the position of the film studio was different.

Indeed, the music business has ‘clients’ to promote, while the film business is not ruled by the notion of touring or the public profile of the director or writer. Furthermore, in the late 1960s, Hollywood was in a transitional period, which would become known in the 1970s as ‘New Hollywood’. This new wave of films, which included Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, D., 1969), Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Penn, A., 1967) and M.A.S.H (dir. Altman, R., 1970), featured new techniques and representations, and introduced a new generation of directors, actors and writers. Indeed, the opportunity for funding for these films was provided by a new generation of younger producers and studio bosses, who were more attuned to the cultural climate of the time.

Whereas old Hollywood producers, such as David O. Selznick, would exert tremendous creative control over their films, this new wave were more comfortable granting autonomy to these ‘filmmakers’ (Biskind, 1998, p.14-15). One such example of this was the film Easy Rider, whose producer and star, Peter Fonda, and director, Dennis Hopper, were granted unprecedented freedom in production, from a deal with Columbia pictures, on a budget of around $360,000 (1998, p.61).

This freedom probably would not have been granted if not for Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who, through their RayBert production company, mediated between the filmmakers and the studio. Schneider and Rafelson had made a name for themselves through masterminding the Monkees television and musical phenomenon, and had subsequently turned their attentions to film. The reputation for making money, coupled with the connections within the business, put them in a position to help others. Interestingly, the Monkees project was part of the business-minded, marketing-fuelled popular culture that was disparaged by critics and artists alike.

However, a countercultural depth was shown when the Rafelson-directed film, Head (1968), was released. This film, in its rejection of narrative structure and coherence, also contained pointed satire not only of the Monkees themselves, but of the self-righteous musical counterculture itself. An early part of the film features the Monkees singing a chant, titled ‘Ditty Diego’ on the soundtrack album, which includes the following lines:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies
You say we're manufactured
To that we all agree
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free

(Nicholson and Rafelson, 1968)

There is also a cameo in the film from Frank Zappa, an enigmatic figure in his own right, as a countercultural artist who actively satirised the social aspects of many of his contemporaries. In his cameo, Zappa, delivering his lines in a sarcastic tone, disparages Davy Jones for neglecting his music, as ‘the youth of America depends on [him] to show the way’. The fact that this film, also released by Columbia Pictures, so actively presents and satirises both popular and radical aspects of the artistic process, is perhaps a marker of the relative freedom afforded to filmmakers.

This disparity between the countercultural forces of music and film is also revealed in a particular anecdote from the production of Easy Rider. Originally, the score was to be provided by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a super group consisting of previous members of The Byrds, The Hollies and Buffalo Springfield. The group were one of the more major acts that performed at Woodstock, and appeared on the same episode of ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ as Jefferson Airplane. However, Hopper reacted aggressively to the band’s choice of transport, a limousine; the director reportedly told them ‘anybody who rides in a limo can’t comprehend my movie,’ and threatened them with bodily harm (1998, p.72). This rejection of a popular music group is testament not only to the sincere approach of the filmmakers behind Easy Rider, but also the amount of freedom and autonomy they were granted.

The alternative to Crosby, Still and Nash was a soundtrack made up of tracks by various artists, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf and a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, by Roger McGuinn; this soundtrack was the first of its kind. The musical selections were also relevant to the film’s countercultural representation of drug use, the pursuit of freedom, and dissatisfaction with the values of mainstream society.

Indeed, despite the radical, non-conformist elements of Easy Rider, its non-traditional narrative, its European art-film editing, it still became a hit, grossing over $19 million domestically, one of the highest of its year (Biskind, 1998, p.74). It was also nominated for two Academy Awards, and Hopper won the ‘First Film’ award at the Cannes Film Festival. The marketing behind the film wasn’t out of the ordinary; but it certainly wasn’t as underhand, aggressive and consumerist as that of Columbia’s strategy for Dylan. Instead, the film relied on traditional channels of promotion; one poster quotes a number of positive reviews, from publications ranging from The New Yorker and Time Magazine, to Cosmopolitan. The relationship between the mainstream, popular culture and the countercultural, artistic concerns in this case is certainly more conducive to expression.

Altogether, in the 1960s, the boundaries between certain aspects of the counterculture and the American popular culture were blurred. This crossover offered these artists new modes of production, distribution and marketing which could potentially harm their creative integrity. It must be stressed, though, that this period in film history saw an unprecedented amount of freedom and control given to certain filmmakers. On the other hand, the music business at this time saw the counterculture as a more direct form of profit; the artists were allowed freedom to express themselves, but the framework of capitalism and marketing was perhaps more dominant. Nevertheless, as with Bob Dylan, the avenues provided by this relationship with popular culture still allowed reinvention, innovation and an air of mystery.


Works Cited:

- Bauldie, J. (1991) ‘Liner Notes to
The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 by Bob Dylan’. Sony Music Entertainment.
- Biskind, P. (1998)
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. London: Bloomsbury.
- Christgau, R. (1970) ‘We Should Be Together’.
- Dylan, B. (1964) 'All I Really Want To Do', from
Another Side of Bob Dylan .
- Dylan, B. (1965) 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', from
Bringing it All Back Home.
- Dylan, B. (1967) 'All Along the Watchtower', from
John Wesley Harding.
- Ewen, D. (1970)
Great Men of American Popular Song. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc.
- Gair, C. (2007)
The American Counterculture. Edinburgh University Press.
- Kantner, P. (1969) 'We Can Be Together', from
- Marcus, G. (1997)
Invisible Republic. London: Picador.
- Mellers, W. (1984)
A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan. London: Faber Faber.
- Nicholson, J. and Rafelson, B. (1968) 'Ditty Diego', from
- Rogan, J. (1996) ‘Song Notes to Reissue of
Mr Tambourine Man by the Byrds’, Sony Music Entertainment.
- Scherman, T. (2006). ‘The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery’.
- Starr, L. and Waterman, C. (2003)
American Popular Music. Oxford University Press.
- ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (1969) August 19. ABC. 1969 19 Aug.
- "We Can Be Together" Songfacts’


Bonnie and Clyde. (1968) Film. Director: Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Bros
Easy Rider. (1969) Film. Director: Dennis Hopper. USA: Columbia Pictures
Head. (1968) Film. Director: Bob Rafelson. USA: Columbia Pictures
M.A.S.H. (1970) Film. Director: Robert Altman. USA: 20th Century Fox


Azor said...

Sounes's first name is actually Howard

Mike Leader said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Azor. I'd obviously got my lines crossed with Howard Sounes / Robert Shelton.