Where is Marvin Gaye when you need him?
“What’s Going On,” his seminal song of 1971, begins with a cool, communal Afro-party conversational vibe. After a second or two of whatz happenings and hey brothers saxophonist Eli Fontaine’s sudden wail smothers the banter. The over all sound: percussive jazz/funk with just a hint of Caribbean percolation.
Marvin’s calm, reasonable voice rises above the groove. The lyrics suggest we all turn it down a notch, to chill. There’s too many of you crying he sings. Don’t punish me with brutality. Here’ a message I wouldn’t mind hearing more of nowadays: We don’t need to escalate/War is not the answer.
Fin de Siecle Seventies
The same year “What’s Going On” came out, ’71, I registered for the draft in April, donned a green graduation gown (girls wore gold) in May, attended freshman orientation in July in Columbia where I deposited a Roosevelt dime or two Jefferson nickels into a newspaper dispenser for the evening edition of The Columbia Record. The lottery numbers were just out. Not the lottery numbers that inform you that you haven’t won the jackpot but the lottery numbers that told you the odds of your being drafted. You eyeballed the headlines, flipped to page something-A, ran your forefinger down the columns of birthdays.
Some smiled, some scowled, some shrieked. (I danced a jig).
Viet Nam, which had been going on for as long as I could remember, appeared to be deescalating. The zeitgeist of 60’s was late in the process of transforming from a movement into a style. Ubiquitous bell-bottoms signaled corporate infiltration and soon-to-be triumph. (In the good ol’ days you could distinguish someone in the Silent Majority from Bob Weir, but in ’72, you’d sometimes spot bandana-banded longhairs sporting Nixon’s the One campaign buttons).
And though Marvin’s sociological dream of equality didn’t come to pass, folks did chill, quit rioting for a while (unless some urban nightmare sports franchise happened to win a world championship). I’m not suggesting that Marvin had anything to do with these changes. After all, he was fatally shot by his old man.
Here come the 80’s
In a mere fluttering of calendar months: Disco! Corporate supremacy! The charming Parkinsonesque head bobbing and bright billion dollar gleam of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s smile!
It had been a wild, crazy trip, but as Eric Burdon once sang to the tune of “Mother Earth,” “When the LSD trip is over, baby/ You got to go back to mother booze.”
Budget surpluses! Blue dresses!
Terrorism, tax cuts, wars, deep deficits.
The Narrowing Gyre
WB Yeats had this cockamamie idea that history/time coursed in gyres that looped in two thousand year cycles. His famous poem “The Second Coming” embodies the concept with the Antichrist slouching toward Bethlehem to usher in a 2000-year cycle of post-Christian barbarity (not that the Inquisition was exactly a love-in).
Less grandiose statements like what goes around comes around and history repeats itself suggest something similar.
If history does spin in cycles, the gyres aren’t widening but narrowing. As the pace of life picks up, it seems the cycles have taken on a crashing aircraft’s doomed trajectory.
The tribal divisions of the 60’s seem to have returned in the 2000-teens, and so has the real possibility of atomic warfare as two very inexperienced men with very bad haircuts exchange childish insults across the Pacific.
Like the 60’s, we’re living in very scary times, which means we’re living in very interesting times.
I’ll give James Baldwin the final word:
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
Let’s put that to music.