Extinction, Ennui, Ecology
With 2015's international attention to climate change, I ponder cultural tendencies towards stasis and towards healthy life on the planet in my midwestern part of the United States growing up.
I. Cold War
Mine was not the generation that was drilled to "duck and cover" to avoid atomic war, though in high school I did pick up a pamphlet from Ann Arbor (Michigan) City Hall on building a fallout shelter in high school, first published a decade before during the Cuban missile crisis. I wonder how international tension may have worried our parents, and thus been reflected in tension in the house, symbolized in those Herblock cartoons featuring a grim Kennedy, Kruschev, and Mr. H-Bomb menacing a (parentally-) meek John Q. Public.
There was a pessimism, embodied by Barry McGuire's 1965 hit "Eve of Destruction", whose songwriter P.F. Sloan lived fifty more years. Even then, it was met with an optimistic, creamier-voiced answer song "Dawn of Correction". The people whom United States policy endeavored to make extinct, the Native Americans, began to be noticed in pop songs like "Indian Reservation", "Half Breed" and "Alcatraz", the latter acknowledging the island prison's activist takeover.
In the visual realm, underground cartoonist Ron Cobb drew grim dystopian moments, and SLOW DEATH comics called attention to environmental degradation, mordantly illustrated by Greg Irons (this artist's charging buffalos and signage were visible upon San Francisco's Van Ness Street restaurant Tommy's Joynt about 1980).
II. Young Decadents
My high school friends were aesthetes, thoughtfully choosing the rock and blues songs the musicians covered, artists opinionated in which comic artists' manner they drew. We drew comics, wrote and performed mostly original songs, made Super 8mm movies, published in the official high school papers or our own 'zines.
Decadent college-town teenagers puffed hashish through hookahs with a parent's stolen Mateus wine in the bottle filtering the smoke. I bought Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil and, after CREEM Magazine printed some of her texts, Patti Smith's poetry book Seventh Heaven, as well as her oft-mentioned mentor Arthur Rimbaud. We devoured "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" when it appeared as a two-part article in Rolling Stone magazine, like a guidebook to recording travel experiences' heightened sensation. We were also moved by "The Apocalypse of Our Time is Upon Us" by Howard Junker; as melancholy as Hunter Thompson's Las Vegas musings, this piece pessimistically noted how events like the dismal Altamont rock festival were harbingers of nothing less than the end of the world. Fifteen year olds, especially those nocturnally perusing Brian Reade's large 1969 book on Aubrey Beardsley and Albrecht Durer's opportunistic 1499 Apocalypse of St. John woodcuts, took this very, very seriously.
In a journal I know I wrote how all flavors bored us, at sixteen. Pink Floyd's "Careful With That Ax, Eugene" culminated in a climactic primal scream, and was used in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" while an elegant house exploded in slo-mo...the kind of fantasy high schoolers indulged. About a year later an eccentric mix of backward-looking saxophone and futuristic sythesizers in Roxy Music, whose odd crooner Bryan Ferry complained of ennui, captivated us.
Were we high school sensibilities bookish little poseurs? Or average literate kids, with a requisite mix of braggadocio and fear?
III. No Future
I do recall a weird feeling during the 1973 Air Force Red Alert during one of Israel's wars.
Legs McNeil and Gillian Welch's Please Kill Me: Oral History of Punk wisely begins in Michigan, with interviews with members of the MC5 and Stooges. Despite Ann Arbor's college-town ambience, their ramshackle households and excursions into Ypsilanti and Detroit helped shape the urban, and urban decay, aspects of their aesthetics.
In 1976 the Sex Pistols sang "No future, no future for you". Roger Miller moved to Boston and fronted Mission of Burma, fed up enough to sing "That's When I Reach for My Revolver". But there were dystopian currents, as heroin, which (tied to the Vietnam War and southeast Asian heroin smugglie) decimated the black community, then the MC5 and Stooges. Perhaps Punk was an ecological movement, urban recycling greased with cynicism more than ideals of the decade before. But were the '60s really that earnest? The Yippies' wry humor stands out, and were a decided influence on Michigan's White Panther Party.
IV. Tree Town Goes Green
In this era Ann Arbor moved from displaying little red, white and blue shields of the mid-'60s proclaiming Ann Arbor and "All-American City" and instead took on the mantle "Tree Town". The City Seal, that showed a rounded-arched arbor, was replaced by one with a spreading deciduous tree.
In April 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated on the University of Michigan campus. Though still a Forsythe Junior High ninth grader, Paul Remley wrote "Of Cars and Cans" for the Ann Arbor Gazette, an underground newspaper edited by the aforementioned Roger Miller and David Swain at Pioneer High School. Out of Earth Day energies, Ann Arbor's Ecology Center was founded, and guys from my class later helped organize its Recycling program.
Even my rock-ribbed Republican father (1906-2000), who voted GOP Presidential Candidate in every election between Calvin Coolidge and Bob Dole faithfully recycled, rinsing bottles and cans, flattening aluminum foil, tying up newspapers. His New England thriftiness was embodied in frequently saying "Waste not, want not", as well as anger at learning of "planned obsolescence" built into cars in the early 1960s. Perhaps a tendency towards frugality served me well as an artist in 1980s bohemian San Francisco.
The Ecology Center, active 45 years later, has helped close over 150 trash incinerators in Michigan, among other beneficent projects. Perhaps distracted hedonism will always coexist with activism, now as then.
Mike Mosher often ponders Michigan's Revolutionary Era for Bad Subjects.
Photo of the "Graphic Arts Club" (Graphic Story Journal staff) from the 1972 Pioneer High Omega