You may have noticed recent commercials featuring Dennis Hopper shilling for rosy retirement planning with Ameriprise. It’s a clever switch, putting the iconic fuckup in an ad for responsible wealth management, but he feels trustworthy because, after all, he’s on our side, right? Counterculture figures (the more harmless the better) provide aging boomers with gleeful nostalgic touchpoints, opportunities to feel good about all the good done during that storied time known as “the ’60s.” Furthering the comfort are the blisteringly sweet Big Chill sounds of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’“–a bull’s-eye into the hearts of baby boomers (and the rest of us, too, since we’ve inherited the nostalgia, whether we asked for it or not).
But why does the commercial work? Because it uses a great song, sure, with a bright and sweaty riff, a tic-tocking beat and a glowingly young Steve Winwood yelping with a fire that denies the depths of crappiness he sunk to by the ’80s. The song is almost entirely subsumed, one could argue, by its coding on behalf of the nostalgia industry–which is a shame, because it’s a terrific song. Another example: Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” used unabashedly for a zillion film previews but perhaps never more perfectly than with the recent Jack Nicholson vehicle The Bucket List, in which his character is given a short time to live and makes the most of it for himself and likewise-terminal Morgan Freeman by using his vast personal fortune to make memories all over the world (maybe he invested with Ameriprise). Finish the Easy Rider trifecta with Peter Fonda hawking the CD collection Flower Power on late-night infomercials.
Not even the higher culture of theater is immune from the lure of ’60s rock. Tom Stoppard is a product of the era (his first play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, debuted in 1966), and in Trevor Nunn’s current Broadway staging of his most recent play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stoppard takes a tender, sometimes rousing and thoroughly sentimental look at themes familiar to his fans: idealism, ideology, the possibility of love and the transcendental capabilities of art and literature. Rock ‘n’ Roll (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through March 9) depicts the life of young, progressive, Eastern European Communists as, essentially, a struggle against brainless apparatchiks. It’s the story of a Cambridge professor, Max, and his student Jan, a young Czech who returns to Prague in 1968 “to save socialism.” Max is a die-hard British Communist Party member long after Stalin spoiled that club, and Jan’s ambition seems to be to humanize Communism through Westernized artistic hedonism. Jan is a huge rock fan, his shelves of albums his most prized items, and he consistently praises his favorite Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe, for being (given the analogy of repression as a “witchhunt”) “pagans.” This pagan spirit is a persistent theme, and Stoppard ties it in with Syd Barrett (founding member of Pink Floyd), as well as PPU. In the darkness between scenes, thirty-second or minute-long musical snippets blare, and information about each song is projected on a scrim.
It’s no surprise to find the Plastics in a play about the Velvet Revolution: Famously, they were jailed for playing their music, inspiring Charter 77, Vaclav Havel’s damning indictment of the Czech government, which ultimately led to the dissolution of Soviet Czechoslovakia. One might wonder where the other Czech bands are in the story. The Plastics were, and continue to be, highly publicized–but as the New York Times recently wrote, they are hardly the band (or the only band, or the only anything) that “catalyzed democracy in Czechoslovakia.” But let’s not quibble. We have a dichotomy set up: rock music on the one side, meant to evoke a kind of supra-political potency, and actual political life on the other, meant to seem hollow, hateful and really no fun. So the play’s soundtrack ought to reflect that, right? The songs will illustrate the ways aesthetics equal freedom from tyranny.
Of course not. Rock ‘n’ Roll is an affecting play, and most of the music Stoppard chose is awesome while at the same time totally obvious. Hearing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (Dylan), “Astronomy Domine” (Floyd) and “I’m Waiting for the Man” (Velvets) blasted in a Broadway theater was exciting and enjoyable, but there’s no dramatic reason for these choices, aside from all that nostalgic coding. You hear “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” by the Doors, and you see the same montage of flowers in gun barrels, helicopter blades, marching protesters, hippies dancing barefoot in a park. You also hear “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and wonder whether it’s a better reflection of Jan’s resignation to Communist repression than, say, “Sloop John B.” (And really, couldn’t you make “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” resonate with any sorta sad situation?) On occasion there’s a bizarre selection, like a live Grateful Dead track, one of the few written by late member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and only performed by the band on tour, mainly during a tour of Europe in 1972. (We know all this because it’s projected on the scrim while it’s playing. But what does that have to do with Czechoslovakia? Or Communism? Why are we being given this information in the first place?) But then it’s back to some ’70s Floyd, then U2, then backward to the Cure, then further back to Floyd’s “Vera.” This is a play about social change, but the music is corporate rock, and it’s not chronological or seemingly even logical. And why this discrepancy between thoughtful play and lame soundtrack? Maybe the playlist is Jan’s. But, then, he’s a huge record nerd who gets his albums illegally, so why would he privilege only the hit (Western) singles by the biggest bands?
The only moments where the soundtrack seems to reflect something about what’s going on onstage are the two instances when Plastic People songs are played. Tellingly, the audience is introduced to the band through PPU covers of Western tunes fading into original numbers. Of course, PPU did the covers thing only for a short time, and they represent just one of many underground musical groups with a range of sounds and influences active in Czechoslovakia under Communism. It’s instructive here to know that Stoppard, a Czechoslovakia-born ex-pat whose anti-Communist leanings have informed much of his oeuvre, had heard of the Plastic People of the Universe before writing the play but had never bothered to listen to their music. So he had read articles about them, and how important they were. But as Jan says in the play, those articles “never talk about the music.” Playgoers don’t even get to hear a whole song, although they do get to page through a sort of CliffsNotes flier on history, culture, the Plastic People of the Universe, Syd Barrett and twentieth-century Communism. But wouldn’t we want to think of those things as complex items that ought not to be glossed over?
More Floyd! And oh, do we get more Floyd, as the metaphors of Barrett and that wacky flutist Pan are abandoned for the bloated corporate mess the band became. In other words, we have to sit through “Welcome to the Machine,” and we have to watch the words “Welcome to the Machine” unravel from a psychedelic spiral. Amazingly, I heard audience members complain about the volume and saw two patrons actually leave holding their ears. These folks obviously don’t hear “late Floyd” or “early Floyd”; they just hear “grating rock music.” Perhaps they are from the “Greatest Generation,” so that whole shorthand for “the ’60s” thing isn’t working on them.
As the play is wrapping up, a table of middle-aged ’60s vets recall their youthful exuberances: “Hello? We changed the world!” and “We were high on bringing down capitalism.” It’s not clear whether or not Stoppard thinks such exhortations are silly. One is inclined, from the soundtrack, to think that all the rosy things people think about the ’60s actually happened, actually did shake the powers that rule the world to their very foundations. In a subsequent scene a scholar, evidently translating the Latin text from Plutarch, exclaims, “The great god Pan is dead!” So the pagan spirit, said in that classical work to have gone away from the world in the time of Tiberius (later used by Christians to indicate the divinity of Jesus), and connected in the play with the spirit and possibility of rock music, has gone away with Communism? The ’60s are over? Tell that to Dennis Hopper’s bank account.