In a recent article I wrote on Greil Marcus’ musings on Jim Morrison and The Doors, I claimed that Marcus is a “painter of cultural landscapes” much more than a mere music critic. Here’s another example of what I meant by that, taken from his book about Van Morrison. Here is a bit of the historical context in which a masterpiece of outpouring musical and lyrical beauty – Astral Weeks – came to life:
“From the sightlines in Berkeley, California, where I lived then and now, I recall 1968 as a year of horror and bad faith, fervor and despair. The Vietnam War was poisoning the United States. Most of all there was a sense of knowing that when you drew a breath you were breathing history along with the air, or the smoke – history was being made in the instant. These names made history in 1968: John Carlos, Tommie Smith.
Berkeley was a lookout and a hideout. The great storm of student protest that would convulse the U.S.A. and nations around the world had begun there in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement. When in May 1968 a rally was held in Berkeley to celebrate the poorly understood but exciting revolt taking place in France, activists distributed leaflets denouncing the police violence that had dispersed the rally before the rally took place.
Word of the Prague Spring, even the meaning of the Soviet invasion that crushed it, arrived only in fragments, and no speaker stood up to put the pieces together. News of the massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, just before the Olympic Games were to begin there, were supressed from the start… In the United States few looked; curiosity about the world withered.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis in April, and then, in June, in Los Angeles, Robert F. Kennedy, running for president, was shot and killed, an awful sense of disease, ruin, and damnation seized the country so fully it could only be channeled into pathetic calls for gun control…
The Mexican government wanted a clean Olympics, a clean show, and so did the world. That is why the massacres took place, why the government buried the event literally and figuratively, and why the cover-up was a complete success, with witnesses disappeared or conventionally murdered for years afterward… So the games went on as planned – except for John Carlos and Tommie Smith of San Jose State in California, American entrants in the 200 meter dash. Inspired by Harry Edwards’s Olympic Project for Human Rights, which had originally called for a boycott of the Olympics by all black athletes, they had a plan.
They would run the race; they would win; they would mount the victory stand; and then, as the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner”, before the eyes of the entire world they would bow their heads and raise black-gloved fists in salutes of black power and black unity. With beads around their necks they would signify the deaths of those leaders like King who had been assassinated, and the nameless thousands gone who had been lynched and thrown from slave ships; with shoeless feet they would signify poverty.
On October 16, 1968, the plan was realized: Smith finished first, tying the world record, and took the gold metal, Carlos finished third and took the bronze. In the podium, Smith and Carlos gestured.
They marked, or scarred, their national anthem as definitively as Jimi Hendrix would a year later at Woodstock. Hendrix’s furiously, exultantly distorted, bottomlessly complex recasting of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not only a version of what Smith and Carlos did with it, his version may have been inspired by theirs.”
“When That Rough God Goes Riding – Listening to Van Morrison”.
New York: Public Affaris, 2010. Pg. 46-47
Hendrix. Woodstock, 69. The U.S. anthem. Fucking awesome.