Excerpt from "From Ike to Mao and Beyond - My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist"
"Your Sons and Your Daughters..."
Revolution #024, November 27, 2005, posted at revcom.us
In this installment, we jump back to the beginning of Chapter Six.
My family and all my friends and I were still holding our breath, because you don’t know -- twice before I’d been through a situation where things were going well with low dosages of cortisone, and then the symptoms of kidney disease would reappear. So there was the possibility of a relapse now that I was completely off the cortisone. But that summer brought a lot of big changes in my life.
I had been nominated by some of my English professors to be part of an undergraduate honors seminar on John Milton, the English poet who wrote Paradise Lost (and Paradise Regained), over the summer. There were about ten of us in the seminar, which was taught by Stanley Fish, a big Milton hotshot who was only a few years older than we were -- I think he was 24 at the time. He’s now a big figure in academic and intellectual circles more generally in the U.S., and I’ve written a few things recently commenting on some of his books. At that time, I hadn’t heard of him but I was into English literature, I was still trying to write poetry, and this sounded like an exciting thing to do. So when they asked me, I said sure.
We met for a number of weeks, five days a week for several hours, and it turned out to be a fun seminar. One time Professor Fish brought in this guest lecturer who talked about a certain aspect of Milton’s work, and I was wearing my dark glasses in the classroom. While he was talking he kept pausing and looking at me, and finally he just couldn’t take it any longer -- he turned to me and said, "Why is it that you’re wearing shades in this class?" And I don’t know why, but for some reason I had an answer ready, and I responded without even hesitating: "Plato has written that the eyes are the window to the soul, and I don’t want anybody peering into my soul." Even that guest lecturer couldn’t help cracking up at that point.
I met Liz in this seminar, and she had a big influence on me. I was already anxious to be more involved in political affairs, and she came from a progressive family -- her parents had been sympathizers of the old Communist Party. She told stories about how people she knew had to bury their Marxist books during the McCarthy period. She had a radicalizing effect on me, to put it that way -- for instance, I was drawn to the Free Speech Movement (FSM) when it broke out that fall, but she had a big influence in getting me more deeply involved in it.
I was going through a lot of changes in a kind of a telescoped way, the way you do when big, world events happen one after the other. There had been the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and then a couple of years after that the Chinese exploded an atomic bomb. I remember walking with somebody after we’d gone to a civil rights demonstration in the Bay Area against one of these local businesses that wouldn’t hire Black people, and there was this BIG headline in the local newspaper: "Chinese Explode Atomic Bomb." I turned to the person next to me, who was more radical than me at that time, and I said, "Man, that’s scary, that’s bad." And he said, "No, I think it’s a good thing." I said: "Why? That Mao, he’s crazy, it’s not good for him to have the atomic bomb." And he answered, "No, it’s a good thing, because it could mean the U.S. won’t be able to fuck with China so easily." I still was not by any means a communist and, as reflected in the comment I made about Mao at that time, I still accepted a lot of the anti-communist propaganda and bullshit. But I was open. The prejudices I had were clashing up against somebody else who had a different understanding and was challenging me -- that kind of thing was repeatedly happening. So, when he said this, it wasn’t like I just dismissed it. I didn’t say, "Oh I see" and just agree with him, but on the other hand, it became one of those things circulating in your mind.
This was when the U.S. was escalating the war in Vietnam, in the period of 1964 and ’65. I hadn’t yet made up my mind about Vietnam, even at that point. In fact, during the Free Speech Movement there were some people in leadership of that movement, including Mario Savio, who were making statements against the Vietnam War. And I wasn’t sure that I liked that -- I was still wrestling with questions about the Vietnam War, and I felt this should not be a dividing line, or a necessary point of unity, in the FSM. But all these things are clashing in your mind in times like that.
Torn by Kennedy and the Democrats
Just to backtrack for a minute, the Kennedy assassination was a perfect example of the contradictoriness of my thinking. I came to class at the university that day and everybody was stunned and saddened that Kennedy had been assassinated -- they were all openly grieving. And I remember one of the women in one of my classes got mad at me because I was sort of aloof and not expressing any emotion. But then, as it sunk in, believe it or not, I actually wrote a poem memorializing Kennedy a few weeks after that. I sort of felt like Phil Ochs at that time, who talked about his Marxist friends being unable to understand how he could write a positive song about Kennedy -- and about how that’s why he couldn’t be a Marxist. And that kind of speaks to where I was at, at the time.
My father was part of the Democratic Party. Toward the end of his life, he became more alienated from the whole system and more outraged about the injustices in the U.S. and what the U.S. is doing around the world -- but for much of his life he was a real liberal Democrat. In fact, he had been offered a position in the Kennedy administration, but he turned it down because I was in the Bay Area and too sick to move, and he didn’t want to be separated from me while I was sick. My parents, of course, were very upset about the Kennedy assassination, and in fact I think my dad went to a meeting and read this poem that I wrote memorializing Kennedy.
This kind of contradictory thinking that characterized my parents, and myself, at that time, is fairly common among progressive people. You see a lot of the injustices and what we sometimes call the "running sores" of the whole society and the way in which it grinds up people, and you see ways in which the people presiding over the society are responsible for this. But you still carry along the illusion and have the hope that they can be brought to their senses, that they can be made to see that this is wrong, and -- since they’re in a position to do something about it -- you want to believe that they will do something about it, if they can just somehow be made to see what’s wrong. That’s an illusion that is often difficult to shed; it takes a lot for people to fully cast that off, and that was true for me too.
Into the Student Life
At this point, in 1964, I was finally able to leave home. Since I had been cut off from a lot of social experiences, I wanted to go live in the dorms, even though I was by then in my third year of classes. But there was still a question of whether my health requirements would allow that. Among other things, I had this very strict diet, where literally every day I was calculating how many milligrams of sodium I could eat, and things like that. Finally I had a discussion with my doctor and he said, "You know you’re probably at the point where if you’re just careful about what you eat, if you don’t eat salty foods and don’t add any salt to anything, you’ll probably be all right in the dorms." That was the big hang-up about living in the dorms at that time: I had enough strength, but there was also the question of diet, because something that threw my system off could give me a severe setback.
This friend of mine from high school named Tom was living in the dorms, and we got it arranged so that he and I could be roommates, which made it easier for me. That was a very important step for me at that time, given how dependent I’d been forced to be. Even though I loved my family, I wanted to be taking steps to be on my own more.
While the dorms, obviously, have their limitations, this was a positive experience for me under the circumstances. Mainly people go in the dorm when they first come into the university, and then move on -- but since I hadn’t been able to do that, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit for the short time that I was there. Tom, my roommate, was a progressive guy and also a big sports fanatic like me. This was a time when even life in the dorms was beginning to be affected by the big changes sweeping through society and the world. That kind of ferment was finding expression throughout university life.
At that time I still physically bore the scars of being sick and I was also struggling to overcome them psychologically. My friends used to talk me into going to parties, and my love for singing provided a way for me to sort of break out of my shell socially. I’m not exactly even sure why or how I got the nerve to do this, but when I’d go to the parties -- and I didn’t have to get drunk or high to do this, either -- often at a break I would just start singing. I would sing R&B songs or Motown or whatever. I even did this in the dorms. We had four dorms together in a group where everyone ate at the same cafeteria, and at the big meal on Sunday they used to have a microphone for people to make announcements. So one Sunday at the urging and daring of my friends, and somewhat on my own initiative as well, I actually got up and just took hold of the mike and started singing this Mary Wells song that I loved, "Bye, Bye Baby" -- and the whole place just responded. So that became a Sunday institution during the time I was in the dorm.
Dylan and "Beatlemania"
I remember also when the Beatles first came to the U.S. It was a big deal. They were on one of those shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, and everybody in the dorms gathered around the TV to watch the Beatles -- except for me and Tom, who really didn’t like or care about the Beatles that much and were also making a statement that we had other kinds of music we were into and we weren’t going to get caught up with the herd. In retrospect, I’ve sometimes said, in explaining how I really didn’t get Jimi Hendrix at the time, that some of the influences I had from high school -- the friends I had, and the musical interests -- had given me almost a "narrow nationalist" view: "Jimi Hendrix, what’s he doing playing all this psychedelic white hippie stuff?" I’ve since come to understand how narrow that was, how I failed to appreciate something that was new and breaking with some conventions and molds, and I’ve tried to learn from that, not just about music but more generally.
But even recognizing that narrowness, there was something that I still think was valid in how Tom and I were making a statement: "What’s the big deal about these English white boys coming here and singing rhythm-and-blues?" I remember a friend of mine telling a story about a track meet in L.A. that took place during this time, and how Mick Jagger was staying in the same hotel as some of the athletes in the meet. At one point a number of them surrounded Mick Jagger and said, "Oh, you’re supposed to be a big singer," and they started singing all these different doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues songs, and challenging him: "Let’s hear you sing this one, let’s hear you sing that one." And I cracked up when I heard that -- I thought it was a great story. So, in sort of the same -spirit, Tom and I were not gonna become part of Beatlemania. Later on, I came to appreciate especially John Lennon a lot, in a different way -- especially for his political and social views, but even musically. But back then, we were not gonna get swept up in "Beatlemania."
Bob Dylan was another story altogether. There was this one guy at Cal who used to sing the whole repertoire of Bob Dylan music, and he had the Bob Dylan look as well. I’m sure there was this kind of phenomenon all over the country, and I’m also sure that this kind of "imitation" was exactly the kind of thing Bob Dylan didn’t like, but this guy had the harmonica and the guitar and everything, and that’s actually where I first started hearing some Dylan songs. Then, as I got more political, I really got into Dylan. I remember in particular the album The Times They Are A-Changin’. They were changing, and this brought a lot of generational conflicts.
One time, when we were together with my parents somewhere, Liz and I put that song on the record player and played it very loudly, sort of right up in their face: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand..." So, even though I -didn’t want to have anything to do with the Beatles, there was a way in which Bob Dylan spoke for the whole social and political upheaval that was occurring, especially for a lot of youth out of the middle class, but not only for them. A lot of his early songs had to do with the civil rights struggle, outrages like the one captured so powerfully in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," about the killing of a Black maid by this rich young white planter in Baltimore. And the poetry of Dylan also captured me -- because I was into poetry, and the poetry of his songs just really drew me. I didn’t see him as a white boy who was just mimicking other people’s music. I looked at him as a poet-musician and somewhat a voice of a generation who was speaking to a lot of things at a point where "The Times They Are A-Changin’."
Next week: New People, New Influences; Malcolm X; and Straddling Two Worlds