People are Strange

When You’re Strange, a film by Tom DiCillo. 2010

I love the music of The Doors, the times and the legend. Watching archival footage in Tom DiCillo’s Rockdoc, I was taken back to a moment in our history filled with so much hope and promise, yet riven with an overwhelming sense of confusion and loss. Americans were deeply confused about a host of things in the 60s, and just like today, sought long and hard for someone to break on through to the other side.

Morrison was born to be a shaman/showman and blaze new trails.

The film reminded me of a few important details. It’s one of the first biopics to deal at all with the musicianship of the other Doors — Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore. Morrison got all of the attention and notoriety, but they set his voice to music. They also had an almost uncanny ability to keep things together in concert when Mr. Mojo Risen was out of sorts, which was often enough. The Apollonian is generally needed as foundation and protection for the Dionysian. All of one or the other produces abject boredom or disintegration.

Beyond the music, I was struck by a part of the film that showed the beginnings of another split in America, a rebellion of young people against the youth rebellion itself. The film depicts the early stages of the rise of conservatism in America, using the reaction against Morrison’s “going too far” on stage as an illustration. Morrison and his generation sought liberation, freedom and the unchained life. Liberation of mind, body and spirit, their way. The powers that be have never liked that, of course, and they never will. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they have always been very good at co-opting large segments of the population to fight on their behalf against some new manufactured “enemy”. Morrison and the 60s counterculture were made-to-order enemies. They still are for some.

The 60s counterculture died, not due to their own liberation ideology, but from a concatenation of horrific events beyond their control. The murders of MLK and RFK, the endless war in Vietnam, Kent State and Nixon’s crackdowns. Disillusionment and exhaustion killed the movement, and it seemed almost inevitable that we’d lose Janis, Jimi and Jim Morrison in its wake.

In 2010, we have a new round of confusion, and it’s a very sad echo of previous attempts to break our chains. Tragic, baffling and beyond frustrating, as well. Today, the right has managed to convince more than a few that “freedom” and “liberty” are achieved when business owners can do as they please. Owners.  Not workers or consumers — as in, the majority of the planet. Just owners. The new “freedom” is seen almost entirely as the ability of capitalists to be free of any constraints, and the people apparently holding them back are the ones calling for better wages and working conditions and a healthier planet. Can you imagine a CEO going on stage, gyrating to the music of “Light my Fire,” then pleading with the audience afterward to cast off the chains that bind them?

“People, you gotta get those tax cuts for us rich folks!! You need to help us deregulate!! And you need to help us demonize unions and environmentalists!!!”

What counts as freedom today is the purview of a tiny minority of people who actually want to own or run a business. And it is a tiny minority. There are only 17,000 businesses in America with 500 or more employees, and probably just 100 or so out of that number really call the shots. Yet, business is privileged above all other things in this country — above the Arts and education, above the health of the planet, above the common good. Tom DiCillo depicted a revolt against a revolt in part of his film. It’s long past time that we do that again, this time against the phonies and the plastic people who have convinced far too many that our freedom depends on the freedom of the rich. Trickle-down freedom, so to speak.

The liberation of the human spirit is not about business ownership and property rights and the personal accumulation of wealth. Down deep, everyone knows this. That we seldom act on that knowledge, together or apart is, well, strange.

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Post-Script: I bumped into this article after I wrote the above. There are some 27, 000 abandoned oil wells in the Gulf alone, and we don’t know how many of them are leaking. Any one of them could turn into another BP-like disaster. Or thousands. This sort of thing happens when the interests of business are put ahead of everything else. Profit is god. Profit rules. Nothing else matters, not the health of the planet, its future, our future. In the last 30 to 40 years, governments across the globe have embraced neoliberal (right wing) economic theories, which promote nearly unrestrained capitalism and the privatization of public goods and services. We see the results. Skyrocketing levels of inequality, horrific environmental disasters, and more power concentrated in the hands of a few. The only part of the globe going against this destructive trend is Latin America. We should all look to our south with hope and humility.


People are Strange
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