The White Album:  The View From Los Angeles in 1969; and How the 1960s Gave Way to The Long Hangover of the 1970s

The White Album: The View From Los Angeles in 1969; and How the 1960s Gave Way to The Long Hangover of the 1970s

April 5, 2019, Freud Playhouse, Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA

Lars Jan’s staging of The White Album has returned to Los Angeles; and suddenly I feel drawn back to 1969, a year that was in a sense my first real introduction to Los Angeles as three things simultaneously: a place (its suburban and studio/dream factory aspects clear enough, but otherwise hard to define), a new or radically revised way of living, and an idea. It was also in a way my introduction to pop culture. I might call it a re-introduction, but the period between 1966 (or possibly still earlier) and 1969 really marked a transition to a new way of listening, looking, or otherwise responding to the products of contemporary culture, whether in film, music, theatre or books. That we might also have had a parallel attitude and course correction in high culture didn’t need to be pointed out to us. We already saw and comprehended the blur between high and low, even if we couldn’t necessarily articulate it then. It was everywhere. You could see it at street level in New York; but, even in the isolation of its suburban stretches, you felt it in Los Angeles—in the media, over the airwaves, in the consumer culture, in political attitudes, and a morph in social attitudes one might (inaccurately) think corresponded to some warp in his or her own character or sensibility. Something had changed, and our attitudes had changed with it.

Joan Didion touches on this alternately unseen and luridly screened pulsepoint in the journalism and essays she bound together with an essay that is really a micro-memoir, a scrapbook of her reporter’s notebooks of this transitional cultural moment, and a kind of anti-auto-da-fé, all rolled into one. The title was as shrewdly chosen as everything else in the essay and the anthology, except that the placement of the ‘tracks’ was even more precise than anything George Martin could have envisioned for the album he made with that quartet of pop-gods we knew as The Beatles. Ironically, the Beatles are mentioned nowhere in the title essay or the rest of the collection—although the Doors, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Flying Burrito Brothers (and Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell, and Marvin Gaye by way of song references) are. As always, Didion is acutely attentive to process and procedure, the technique and mechanics of production, and the slippages between unexamined assumptions and concrete realities they reveal. She has a connoisseur’s eye for the signal-to-noise decay of bureaucratese, the language of public relations, and the argot and locutions of social groups and subcultures. Always self-critical, but even more so in The White Album, she also turns her gaze—this time with a magnifying mirror—on herself, as she registers what she apprehends, sometimes inchoately but always insightfully, as a tectonic shift in culture and society.

Lars Jan is an interdisciplinary artist whose work integrates large sculptural and kinetic installations of various scales from small theatre stage or art gallery to multi-media sound-stage or site-specific locations. Although he has been working in Los Angeles since graduation from CalArts in 2008, and has presented work at REDCAT, the Hammer and Fowler Museums, I was unfamiliar with his work until a 2018 show at Charlie James Gallery, which was a gallery-scale installation of work he had presented the preceding December at Art Basel Miami Beach, entitled Luminaries. Like much of his recent work, Luminaries bore directly on the anticipation of disaster and disappearance that is a feature of everyday life in the Anthropocene. (A preceding, on-going series, Holoscenes, treated the same conditions in reverse and in microcosm, with performers acting out everyday tasks or gestures literally submerged within a column of water.) The ABMB iteration of the piece presented a hollow, illuminated large-scale replica of 1 Hotel South Beach only a matter of a few hundred yards from the actual Hotel South Beach on Collins Avenue. Given my limited awareness of the scope of his work, I was intrigued if not shocked by the news that he was workshopping a performance piece based upon Didion’s The White Album last year. I shouldn’t have been. The scope of Jan’s work has encompassed staged performance, theatre, dance and spoken word performance, as well as free-standing plastic fine art; and not surprisingly he had assembled a team to help him produce work before even being enrolled at CalArts. I should say ‘teams’—plural. Those teams comprise Jan’s Early Morning Opera. Jan and his EMO team(s) seem to take on different collaborators (and different technologies) with each new production.

But Didion’s The White Album could not help but strike me as a departure on many levels: its reliance upon the text, indeed the importance of Didion’s voice in the essay; the variation of scale and incident, from the space of private contemplation to the public space of the press conference, from the house on Franklin Avenue in the neighborhood’s “senseless killing” phase to Eldridge Cleaver’s San Francisco apartment, from jails to college campuses, from moving cars, to recording studios to law offices, to department stores and backyard swimming pools, courthouses and clinics. Then there’s the matter of the internal dissonance between that assertive voice and the skepticism she extends to her own process, its product and the unstable meaning of any and all of it; also her very person, which Didion describes as “small,” “unobtrusive,” even “inarticulate” (as she does in Slouching Towards Bethlehem). I think Didion would be slightly surprised to hear herself referred to as an “icon”; on the other hand, as she acknowledges, her performance was “adequate” enough to be named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year” as early as 1968; nor could she be oblivious to being a subject of a Jurgen Teller-photographed advertising campaign for the fashion label, Céline. (Arguably Julian Wasser could be said to have something to do with Didion’s photographic ‘iconicity’.)

I spoke briefly with Lars Jan and his principal collaborator and lead performer, Mia Barron, in advance of the Friday evening performance at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. Barron, in at least one sense, embodies Didion’s voice, dressed in more or less a skirt-and-sweater simulacrum of Didion’s ‘anonymous cross-cultural business traveler’, and reciting the entire 15-section essay verbatim.

Jan’s view of Didion (“There’s Joan Didion, the writer and Joan Didion, the character—an unstable character, acting out that instability.”) may have as much to do with the period of the 1960s-70s as her latent iconicity. That she is both the lens for and framed by events that are themselves re-framing the culture and shifting the way we see them has an implicitly oracular power. Barron takes a similarly dualistic view of Didion’s voice as a theatrical instrument. “Her voice is not theatrical in a narrative sense; it’s trying to make sense of events as she’s speaking them out loud—talking aloud as this kaleidoscope happens.”  

We spoke about the distinctions between Joan Didion’s various public and personal voices: her singular, conversational and public ‘interview’/’reading’ voice, with its dry, slightly monotone delivery, the slightest suggestion of a midwestern twang that lifts up the inflection of one syllable or drops another—how that voice as transposed to the page matched the cadences of her speaking voice with surprising fidelity. We also know that the speaking voice is not necessarily the ‘interior’ voice whether that exists simply in her mind or as it may fall on the page. Barron may be said in a sense to be delivering Didion’s interior voice—delivering it, so to speak, inside out. Barron has a strong, clarion delivery as the reliable-but-destabilized personal narrator laying out this constructed progression of reporter’s notebook fragments.

But there needs to be more variation here. A lot of this has something to do with pacing. It’s a substantial and episodic text and there are a number of other voices that must be (and are) placed within this hiccupping stream of narrative. In the performance (I hesitate to call it a ‘play’ in any conventional sense), although many if not most of these passages or citations are voiced by other performers, they have the vague effect of issuing from Didion’s thought stream—re-lived and re-voiced moments (though I think we can trust Didion’s notebooks for accuracy). This may be a deliberate choice, and it occasionally works; Jan and Barron are foregrounding Didion’s own voice and viewpoint here after all. But in dealing theatrically with some of these historic personages, it may serve the material better to hear and see a more distinctly etched, more articulated representation of those characters—particularly the Black Panther characters who embody the very real or potential shift in the political and cultural order (as opposed to the more superficial fault-lines of culture and fashion). They could be placed behind glass as they are here (or a scrim), but they should be well lit and amplified. Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Charles Garry, their (white) lawyer—these are very real people set well apart from Didion’s mind and person.

As I was watching the stage production last night, I had a momentary flashback to some of the stories and journalistic essays Susan Sontag published contemporaneously with The White Album; e.g., her reporting of “A Trip to Hanoi” (from 1968, but published in 1969 in her anthology, Styles of Radical Will) and the stories in I, etcetera (1978). We’re watching a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction or recomposition of character and identity as the events unfold in these pieces of reportage and ‘reliable’ but precariously balanced narration. It’s important for this sense of process—the reaction, the destabilization, surprise, apprehension, even occasional (however rare) fear, reflection—come across. In other words, it’s a clear voice, but it’s not a single voice.  

This is a theatrical exposition of a mind and personality confronting a progressively destabilized social, cultural and political actuality and losing her sense of personal control of the world immediately around her as those more distant actualities press close upon her personal domain. In a sense, this is a story that could be about almost anyone; and—this is slightly off-topic, but—I’m thinking straightaway that we need (as a larger society) to hear (and see) a lot more stories from seasoned black voices who have been confronting these slippages more or less continuously over their lives between their home communities, through academia, and into their adult lives and careers. (I’m thinking I may be processing the performances of a couple of black performers who strengthened the EMO ensemble.)

I asked Jan if he had considered layering in any material from other parts of the larger anthology into the theatrical text or as aspects of the staging. “I actualy have a quote from ‘On the Morning After the Sixties’ in my director’s notes.” As Jan related it to me, the verbatim reading of the essay functioned first as a stage instruction. (“We wanted to give ourselves an instruction—to perform every word of the essay.”) Jan certainly considered every part of the essay. He mentions Didion’s ambiguous reference to Living Theatre performances at U.S.C. at some point proximate to her coverage of the Doors’ 1968 recording sessions for Waiting for the Sun, and tells me that the Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, attended every performance during that run.

The audience participation aspect of the staging is inspired to some extent by this reference. A section of volunteer members of the audience were seated on stage and moved in response to certain cues; at points even penetrating the glass pavilion that stands in more for Didion’s vulnerable psychological state than for the Hollywood Franklin Avenue house where she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were based for much of the time during which she was reporting the stories that were the basis of the essay. “This is a kinder, gentler version of that provocation…. Thinking about the distinction between participating and watching is really at the heart of the performance…. She’s at this journalistic remove. But she’s also revealing this internal crisis. It’s so incisive about her own struggle to put the pieces together.”  

I’m not sure what quote Jan was specifically referring to in his director’s notes, but the one I was thinking of from that particular essay (among other passages from, among others, the essays on the Hollywood film industry and the community around it, her Hawaiian ‘sojourns’, local politics and civic concerns), was this one (in which she refers to the labelling of the 1950s era generation of college students that preceded mid-late 1960s student activism as ‘silent’):

“We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless that was man’s fate.”

“I think in talking about her inability to create narrative, she tells a very meaningful story for our time,” Jan said at one point. That Didion’s essay, the sense of her struggle to make coherent sense of these variously intersecting, parallel and asynchronous political and cultural shifts, might be applicable to a contemporary struggle to make coherent sense of the environmental, political and social collapse around us, is conceivable. But the real commonality is simply the absence of meaning: “Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, etc. … but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” This is the last line of the essay, and it’s a bit lost in Barron’s final take before the glass house (designed by Georgina Huljich for the architectural/design firm P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S), but it’s at the dark heart of everything that precedes it.  

It wasn’t until 1972 or 1973 that we really felt the 1960s were over. Not that we really wanted them to be over—there was too much unfinished business; the struggle was far from over (consider the struggle for black lives alone). The cultural convulsions both high and low continued to reverberate for some time into the succeeding decades. But we could step away from the ‘barricades’ (in one sense or another); and we had to. It wasn’t just conservative pundits who spoke about their exhaustion after that decade. There was a brief interval when Americans had some legitimate hope they might build upon what had been accomplished during those years. But it wasn’t to last.

After the Civil Rights movement, Second Wave feminism, the end of the Vietnam War, and Watergate, some backlash might have been inevitable. That certain political, but mostly social, norms had been upended was a clear and necessary outcome. The truth of the matter is that in 1969 we were scarcely aware of them as ‘norms’ (okay, so we were still fairly unformed as to matters of order and power). We had collectively pulled a few threads loose in the social fabric and cut it on a much more flattering bias. But the resewn seams weren’t all that secure. The foundation of those changes was a certain level of economic security and scientific progress buttressed by literacy and continuing education.

There are some key differences between that time and the present, principal among them the dystopian reversals in the sectors and forces instigating and actually effecting changes—most of them destructive. It’s not simply the difficulty inherent in making coherent sense of inherently disruptive forces. It’s that the scale and magnitude of such disruptive forces have distorted their impact and scope.

We think of the last three years as being a time of unprecedented violation of ethical norms; and of course it is. What’s unusual about it is that it’s a top-down violation of the norms: the individuals and organizations in the nominal (or actual empowered) leadership positions are variously and brazenly disrupting, derailing, or disfiguring their organizations or the operations of their prescribed functions, and openly (to one degree or another) violating ethical norms, notwithstanding legal curbs and sanctions intended to restrain or deter them. But then thugs are rarely deterred by anything except the threat of their own destruction or incarceration, as Didion managed to convey succinctly in her reportage and commentary on the Ferguson brothers’ murder of silent screen star (and sometime neighbor), Ramon Navarro. Another interesting phenomenon is the extent this top-down disruption and violation of norms has diffused into other sectors—into the Senate, with senators like Mitch McConnell who can be said to have paved the terrain for the larger thuggeries to come under procedural cover. Political oppression has always been with us to one degree or another, but not since the pre-Civil War have we seen thuggery indulged so publicly and nakedly.

In the years following The White Album, Didion would turn her attention increasingly to broadly observed political commentary (e.g., the essays, mostly from The New York Review of Books, collected in Political Fictions). She took note with thinly disguised derision of the ‘thin moral ground’ of “God’s Country” (as she titled the last essay in this volume), meaning the American political landscape as viewed through the lens of “compassionate conservatism,” then the mantra of the Republican Party behind the candidacy of George W. Bush. Whatever “compassionate” planks might have been inserted into the Republican platform in 2000 were to be incinerated by 2003. In 2019, that platform increasingly resembles the “Helter Skelter” vision that inspired the murder and mayhem unleashed by Charles Manson—the 1960s’ dark climax for Didion in The White Album. And not unlike Paul Ferguson, I have no doubt Mitch McConnell will find some meaning in it. But there is none. Joan Didion had already disposed of these questions in her second novel, Play It As It Lays. “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” But we keep on playing—and regardless of what comes in “on the next roll.”  We have to work on that.