Reds did a good job of showing the roots of what would become the New Left. But it also shows the anarchic Bohemianism that would become the counter culture.
By the time I was old enough to try and decode the sixties for myself, out of a mishmash of horrific headlines plus vague rumors about young people partying just off-camera the whole time, added to a not-so-groovy set of memories of growing up in a joyless household that was anything but leftist OR a great big party, the whole thing was already being readied for another forty years of copycatting in the marketplaces of pure capitalism.
I knew no more about “bohemians” than I did leftists, in the late 1970s when I began to “experiment” for myself in some of the forms of revelry that my slightly-elders seemed to find so essential, even though they didn’t seem to have their hearts in it any more. That sense that all of it somehow stood for something was thoroughly passe to them. The idea of the all-are-welcome hippie house with piles of dope on the living room coffee table easily gave way to the Animal House imagery of fat, elitist college kids drinking themselves into oblivion to make profligate sex with strangers feel like fun.
Mockery and sarcasm were now the norms of my generation, in that exact same time of youth that yours had been dosing on the beach and listening to Dylan and Hendrix and hoping Mama Cass meant it when she sang of “a new world comin’…” People my age only seemed able to laugh at things that reduced someone or something once held sacred to caricatures, and interpersonal humor was obsessed with pulling humiliating pranks on one’s “friends” then telling them “fuck you if you can’t take a joke.” If your late sixties had been some psychedelic hybrid of the Fourth of July with an endless New Year’s Eve, my late seventies were turning out to be one long April Fools’, and everyone seemed more than ready to play the fool while playing everyone else for one at the same time.
No one seemed to notice how boring and meaningless wearing togas and drinking themselves into a vomiting stupor several times a month was, or else no one cared. My generation was being readied for lives of normalness and drudgery and a permanent acceptance that we would never be agents of any meaningful change, and our current instructions were just to party hearty until it was time to show up at the office and start paying those bills.
I think it was a younger group than my own, the kids of the kids who’d iconized things like Woodstock into the meaning of Life Its Ownself, who fell hardest for the ruse that the sixties somehow represented purposeful social transformation, so long as one was permanently on a quest for a Good Time while seeking it. The idea of following the Grateful Dead all over the country and hearing them half-assedly intone the same out-of-tunes over and over again in thirty venues a year, was just assumed as some mysterious component of making a Better World, especially if one joined Greenpeace and voted Democratic in the bargain. I knew more people who hadn’t even been born in the 1960s who could quote the entire “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” or Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” or tell you the name of every Rolling Stones album from memory, than I ever met among the Baby Boomers who had “been there” but didn’t take all the trivia those times generated anywhere near that seriously.
Whatever the Sixties had been to whoever had experienced them firsthand, my young adulthood saw them being transformed into the biggest consumer craze in history. All through my twenties and thirties in the Reagan-through-Clinton era, every big town had a “classic rock” station that was usually the jobsite-friendly soundtrack that one heard in the homebuilding industry all day long, and I may well have listened to more Jimi Hendrix or early Stones that way than you ever did in your whole life. Every summer all through the 90s saw endless “reunion” tours of iconic sixties bands, and it was mostly young people from that post-sixties era that one would see attending them. Frankly, bands like Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues sounded better and more professional than ever on those tours, now that they were just working stiffs with wives and kids and had discovered that acid and moral anarchy were not the artistic muse they’d once been cracked up to be, but one wasn’t supposed to notice that. The schtick was, you missed it, chump, but here’s a cheap copy for you to enjoy anyway….
If I had been ten or twelve years older, as a young man I would have lived with that same dread men your age did: of that draft number coming up out of the blue, and the miserable conundrum of whether one really could go and kill or be killed and remain human, or else fuck off to Canada or Sweden or go underground, or register as a “conscientious objector” and spend the next several years in a cell or a mental hospital or wearing a red cross on a battlefield, and remain an American. I doubt you really let yourself think about that status as an owned thing prior to yours coming up, but come up it did, didn’t it? This must have had something to do with the angst and desperation underlying all the “hell of a party” urges you and so many other young men responded to in those times.
Somehow, seeing Beatty’s epic treatise of another leftism and another hell of a party in another time, right when that posturing fraud Ronald Reagan was coming to power and getting ready to have his own run as a consumer-craze hawker pitching flag-waving conventionalism as an excuse for just about anything done under that flag, began a lifetime journey of re-discovery for me. Not just about the Sixties and what they had meant, but the whole epoch of left-versus-right division and bloodshed I had lived in, which had already been long underway when John Reed was still drinking and carousing at Harvard before the Great War.
And yes, Reed was a pathetic dupe. For as colorful and adventurous a life as his very short one was, how he lived it was mostly as an impressionable rich kid taking full-time revenge on a controlling father by being as wild and radical as he could manage just to show him up. There was that privilege-guilt that so many leftists try so hard to conceal, that impossibility of ever being anything but a spoiled rich kid while being the only one fooled by all the pretenses that one is something other than that.
The long and short of this is, whatever the influences from whichever sources or experiences, I entered young adulthood fully available for a revolution that had already been either cancelled or turned into a media sideshow, and found that all that was left of it was in university conference rooms and public squares, where boring, angry “activists” were still trying to sell that sixties-era sense that anything from native American sovereignty to saving dolphins was somehow all one great big unified “cause”, (and oh yeah, women’s whatever too, of course), and not wanting to see how fractious and silly their fake “movement” was or how their worst enemies were not capitalists but themselves and their own supposed allies in a “movement” that just plain didn’t even exist any more.
What “Reds” began to show me, was: maybe it never really had.