Thursday, January 26, 2012

Midnight in Greenwich Village

by Brendan Cavanagh
"I should have been alive during the '60s..." a phrase often heard uttered from my naive lips on late nights spent spinning worn-out records or re-watching old episodes of AMC's Mad Men while contemplating the meaning of life in the living room during my summer and winter holidays at home, or one long, contemplative walks up and down the residential neighborhood streets adjacent to my college campus. For a long time now, as my interest in multitudinous facets of the 1960s increases steadily, I have operated under the not too-incredible notion that were I to have been in the right place at the right time in America, I could have engaged in so many more fulfilling cultural experiences than I do today. I say this with a touch a denial: of course I realize that one) this is a common complaint among many in every age, and two) I am certainly experiencing worldwide transformation and change, the like of which has been and never will be experienced by or understood as it precisely happened to any other generation than mine. Yet still, I long in fruitless earnest to witness and be a part of the radical societal, musical and emotional development that took place in the 1960s in America.

If I ever do make it to New York City someday, I plan to make a pilgrimage to the city's hallowed ground in the eyes of folk music and Beat counterculture enthusiasts, the once-sprawling artistic and intellectual hub of Greenwich Village's coffee-houses and clubs. I imagine one night I'll surreptitiously leave the residence of whomever so kindly takes me in at the time, and take a solitary, contemplative midnight stroll along the rat-infested, crime-ridden sidewalks until I reach the Wreck Room, once the premises of the infamous Gaslight Cafe, where folk musicians like Bob Dylan got their start. I'll slowly sit down on the short set of stairs adjacent to the downstairs entrance to the bar and thoughtfully light up a cigarette, and after shamelessly declining to dole out a dollar to a nomadic, drug-addled homeless man, I'll ponder over what it must have been like to congregate on these very steps with rather peaceable, artistic hipsters (some presumably mild Socialists) just trying to make a buck and / or hear some tunes on the guitar during the folk-music heyday of the early 1960s.

Pulling my concentration away from the real-life prostitute that passes in front of me, my eyes will befall a pair of jet-black leather boots, and looking up I shall spy a recognizable face- no, could it be?- the famed folk musician and former proprietor of the Gaslight Cafe, Dave Van Ronk (start at 0:25). Following an impressive exhalation of cigarette smoke emanating from his nostrils like ephemeral tendrils, he'll urge me inside with a playful boot-prod to my leg, saying, "Come on, man, dig who's playing." Glibly consenting, I'll follow him downstairs to a wooden door buried beneath a sign which bears the legend, "The Gaslight" (Hey, wha' happened?).

I'll spare you, dear reader, from a long-winded parody of Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris. For all intents and purposes, what would have happened is I would come to the realization that, like Owen Wilson's character similarly discovers in Paris, France over the course of the movie, the former premises of the Gaslight Cafe, every night at precisely midnight, magically serve as a veritable time machine to the past for whosoever dareth to loiter about in an oblivious state of total nostalgic immersion. Then numerous self-indulgent scenes would ensue involving me seeing a young Woody Guthrie-idol named Bob Dylan perform live, meeting Allen Ginsburg at a poetry reading and eventually learning how to finger-pick a guitar, thus making my name known as a minor folk-poet-musician emerging from the New York Beat scene. I think Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would probably be hired to advertise my gigs.

All kidding aside, though, my fascination with the 1960s runs much deeper than a mere infatuation with Bob Dylan and Mad Men. Think of all of the radical change that took place then. While not all changes were good,  I find both the good and the bad so damn interesting. John F. Kennedy was assassinated, musical ingenuity flourished at a faster rate than in any other period of popular music, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech before hundreds of thousands of Americans on the steps of the Washington Monument, some of the greatest films of all time were conceived and produced and the United States allegedly sent a man to the moon (though I don't think I believe it, but doesn't it make my argument more convincing?)!

If I were to be transported to the '60s, I'd certainly buy nearly every rock 'n' roll record imaginable. How do I even begin to list the flourishing musical acts of the age? Should I just list five? No, I don't think I can. Here's the unofficial theme song for 1969 and the Woodstock Festival, though, if that sums it up at all:

Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country"

On a more serious note, I honestly believe I would be a staunch activist for peace during the so-called "Summer of Love" and its subsequent years. Surely, I would occupy the middle of my college quad or chain myself to the lunch tables of the undergraduate cafeteria to nonviolently protest the Vietnam War. Ideally, I would head to the South and risk my "image," clean rap sheet and potentially my life to march in support of the African-American civil rights movement. When I read today about the racially-motivated atrocities committed in America at the time, I am inexplicably filled with surging fury, even though that was all in the past and there's nothing I can do about it now in the 21st century (though, yeah, you can argue I can still fight racial injustice today, but let's focus on the 1960s). For instance, listening to Bob Dylan's "The Death of Emmet Till" makes me sick when I think about the guilty, "smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs / For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free / While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea." I would attend Emmett's haunting funeral service. I would be the one to flash the middle finger to the riot squad in Oxford, Mississippi. I would march on the streets of Washington with Joan Baez and rest beside the cool waters of the Reflecting Pool as Dr. King delivers his infamous "I Have A Dream" speech.

Come to think of it, all these things I want to experience in the 1960s, in one form or another, still exist today. Am I a fool to ignore what takes place all around me every day, and waste my time yearning to live in another era simply for its nostalgic value? Do I have any right to be dissatisfied with the present? What makes me worthier than anyone else of time travel? I can't really answer these questions. Even so, there are also so many other points in time I wish I could have experienced. Like, the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the Western Frontier. Who wouldn't want to discover and marvel at the untapped beauty of the West, before the white man raped the Native Americans of their land and settled in? In any case, I'd gladly transport myself to any time before the technology to electronically remix awful techno / pop songs came about because it is absolutely impossible to take naps in my dormitory when my suite mate across the bathroom poorly sings over slowed-down Mike Posner beats.

Postscript- Here's one thing 21st Century technology has going for it. I can shamelessly append this blog post with a link to a very shoddy, albeit groovy recording of a song a few members of my band and I made some progress on recently. I'll be sure to post a link when we can all get together and perfect the song. But I just want to pass this demo along because I'm pretty damn excited to be making original music! [EDIT: Track removed]

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