About five years ago, I started work on a novel I hoped would bring my preoccupation with the collapse of the 1960s together with my other great obsession, Southern California social history. I wanted, naturally, to frame the former within the latter, and I envisioned my book as a meditation on California’s post WWII experience.
I’m not altogether sure what drove me in this direction other than that I’m a 60s junkie, by which I mean that I’m addicted to the 60s as an object of appreciation and intellectual contemplation. I guess there’s also the part of me that’s fascinated conceptually with instances of social disintegration. I listened incessantly to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars when I was a kid. …Some of my favorite books are The Magic Mountain, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Leopard. …As a graduate student, I became enormously interested in the decline of the Old South, and I later wrote my thesis on the collapse of the U.S. Coal Industry after WWI. …More recently, I was really blown away by Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, which is the follow up to his great Guns, Germs and Steel, and deals with the basic question of what makes societies fall apart.
For me, the collapse of the 60s, or the Great Collapse, refers to the destruction of the hopes, dreams, idealism and optimism of the era, and their replacement with disillusionment and nihilistic self-indulgence. Welcome to the 70s! The Great Collapse was not, of course, a singular moment in time, nor was it a linear progression of occurrences. For commentators like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, the 60s already seemed to be coming to an end by the Summer of Love. But then it’s interesting that, from a different point of view, 60s idealism culminated in Woodstock, even though Woodstock occurred well after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and was only separated by several months from Manson and Altamont.
It’s so difficult with this stuff to impose thematic coherence onto all the sequences of events, all the more so because the collapse of the 1960s arguably spilled over into the 1970s and even the 1980s. Would it be entirely far-fetched, for example, to say that Watergate marks the end of the 60s? Or maybe stagflation killed the 60s, or maybe it was the final defeat of the U.S. in Viet Nam. I’ve heard some argue that punk rock was the final dagger in the heart of the 60s, and others say that the 60s finally ended for good when Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election.
This brings me back to my defense of Steely Dan. Along with several other sources, they were a huge inspiration for me in coming up with the concept for my book. I defy anyone to name a body of work that more perfectly captures the aftermath of the Great Collapse, L.A. style, than the seven albums Steely Dan made between 1972 and 1980. And like many of the best interpretations of the Southland experience, Steely Dan’s observations, and their overall vibe, are those of non-native outsiders, giving them a certain critical distance, even as they find themselves getting swept up into the strange sprawling vortex that somehow makes L.A. simultaneously repulsive and alluring.
While the 70s sensitive singer-songwriters mourned the passing of 60s communality, even as they became rich and snorted coke from the ass cracks of underage groupies, punk viewed the hippie dream as a total lie and expressed a deep hatred for the indulgences of the wimpy sensitivos. The greatness of Steely Dan comes from their punky cynicism towards the vestiges of hippie idealism (‘only a fool would say that’), combined with their willingness to engage – albeit detachedly and in a spirit of supreme irony - in the excesses of life at the intersection of Sunset and Vine.
It’ll take me way too long to go through every Steely Dan album, and that’s not my purpose here anyway. This all started because somebody said something unflattering about The Dan, and I felt the need to clarify, at least for myself, why they’re important to me and to what I’m trying to do with my book. I’ve been struggling to make progress on the book lately, but thinking about Steely Dan in relation to the Great Collapse all over again is getting my creative synapses firing a bit more than they have been of late. Hopefully it won’t be long before I’m back at it.