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Reporting the Counterculture.

Reporting the Counterculture. Richard Goldstein. Unwin Hyman, $34.95. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as anthology. Today's American culture borrows energies-and bogeymen-from bygone times more successfully than it generates its own. As girths widen and hairlines recede, reporters in their thirties and editors in their forties have revived the days when tie-dyed giants in long hair stalked the earth. The worst thing about the recycled sixties blips and collages, which have choked the media during recent anniversaries, is that they lie by sentimentalizing. Inadvertently, they shore up the mainstream belief that sentiment precludes clear thought. Subjectivity or objectivity, says this belief: choose one. One virtue of the best of Richard Goldstein's Village Voice pieces of 1966-1971, now brought to life between hard covers, is their reminder that partisanship and insight need not cancel each other out. In those years, Goldstein proudly unlearned the inverted pyramid journalistic form he had been taught at Columbia, and signed up for what he calls, a bit pompously, "the struggle for subjectivity." His beat was rock, hip culture, widening out to movement politics on the left. In reading his pieces about the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, even about a hack songwriter named John Kramer, what's clear is that Goldstein succeeded in tracking rock music across American culture precisely because he loved and felt rock music. The distant, Associated Press approach could never in a million cold facts have gotten the story. Out of his unabashed love for rock culture, Goldstein distilled the recurrent insight of his collection: in the counterculture, hope and hype were entangled from the start. "The most fragile thing to maintain in our culture is an underground," he wrote from San Francisco in 1967. "No sooner does a new tribe of rebels skip out, flip out, trip out, and take its stand, than photographers from Life magazine are on the scene doing a cover... American culture is a store window that must be periodically spruced and redressed." The freak culture of the hypothetical new age, Goldstein reminds us, had barely arrived in the Garden of Eden before it went into free Fall. "Flower power," he noted as early as 1967, on the occasion of the murder of two Lower East Side freaks, "began and ended as a cruel joke. The last laugh belongs to the mediamen, who chose to report a charade as a movement." This "bizarre camaraderie between the fourth estate and the fifth dimension" was rampant. Goldstein could have made the point that it was the straight press-playing by the self-made rule that what newsworthy people say is automatically news-that was most easily gulled. But his loving subjectivity at least got him close enough to notice that, while Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones may not have understood what was happening, he was already figuring out how to package it.

At his best, writing on the transitory promises and lasting inanities of pop culture, Goldstein finds his way into some of his characters-and then extricates himself just in time. A case in point is his treatment of one Steve Paul, a once-renowned New York club owner, who delivers himself of flawless "epigrammatic gems that go nowhere but look great," like "I refurbished this place by adding myself." (Goldstein dryly notes that Paul watches to see that written down.") Goldstein's own sensibility serves as a resource: his willingness to serve, for a moment, as Paul's foil testifies to the man's powers and gives some insight into how the pop business works. Likewise, in his most arresting political report, Goldstein recreates his epiphany as a would-be revolutionary, telling how he came to yell "Pigs eat shit!" from the steps of the Art Institute during the Chicago Democratic Convention.

But no reportorial theory or method rises to all occasions, and "struggle for subjectivity" misrepresents what Goldstein actually does. His writing comes alive when he sees with binocular vision: one eye watching the scene, the other watching himself, each eye wide open. "In the sixties," Goldstein writes in his introduction, "it was easier . . . to sparkle and sass than to expose what lay beneath-in my case, doubt." When he buries that doubt, what he gets is one shallow fact after another, as in some unmemorable reportage of the 1968 Colum- bia University uprising, or blind rage, as in an uncritical report of the 1971 Marin County trial of Ruchell Magee and Angela Davis for the killing of a judge and the maiming of a prosecutor in an attempted prison escape. Operating on its own, subjectivity oversimplifies the story. The facts that passion sees aren't necessarily deeper than the facts that passion screens out.

Goldstein has a nice, flamboyant way with phrases. "Show business is such a squid," he writes in the course of a profile of Tiny Tim. "Tao on tap," he calls the massification of hip. "Churchmen and social workers in mufti eyed each other suspiciously like rival CIA agents assigned to the same cell," he writes of a Haight Ashbury meeting. "The cop you are likely to meet on the [Sunset] Strip stands next to his bike like an erection in navy blue." But the flip side of flip is glib, and Goldstein does succumb. Subjectivity is still a subversive act," he writes today. Oversimple again. If you take a sassy Voice style, freeze it into the form of the pop profile, add a lot of money and 20 years, you get Vanity Fair.

The truth is that "the struggle for subjectivity" was won, but the war was lost. Alongside the inverted pyramid, we now have the inflated ego, and neither by itself will do. That's why old-style New Journalism cannot be resurrected. As Goldstein perceptively writes, the techniques of New Journalism "were refined at the moment when we first began to grapple with the power of mass media to standardize experience, and its embrace of subjectivity was an attempt to resist this processed consensus." But tactics that worked in the sixties today have curdled into the automatic and mindless first person or the canned eccentricity of a Geraldo Rivera. The smoothly tailored pseudopersonal voice that fills today's slick magazines might as well be machine made-a voice devoid of critical selfawareness, a voice as ignorant as it is smug. Now that many reporters have adopted the spiteful kvetch as their voice, the question isn't whether subjectivity in journalism is a good idea, but what kind?
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Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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