Man, I am getting so tired of the 60s. The so-called “decade of discontent” has lasted for like — what, 50 years now? I’m sick of knitted ponchos and big plastic sunglasses and sky-high up-dos. I’m sick of Jackie O. biopics and Mad Men figurines and Bob Dylan’s never-ending flood of demo tapes. I’m sick of the greatest generation and the lost generation and the entire culture industry of American “intergenerational dysfunction.” And I’m sick of neo-hippies and neo-cons and all the other boomers in Washington who use foreign and domestic policy to replay their teenage misadventures in Vietnam, Berkeley, Woodstock, etc.
I get it: Today’s paranoia and political unrest inevitably recall the 60s as a period of great social upheaval, a period in which every aspect of daily life — sex, clothing, television, music, drinkware, etc. — supposedly became charged, violently, with political meaning. So they say. But the 60s as a whole has been black-boxed, Warhol-style; they live on in a sort of shrink-wrapped commodity form, as a series of stylish gestures and public poses. In fact, despite what you might have heard from your gypsy-skirted aunt, it’s no longer simply the case that style is political, but that politics itself has become confused, for too many liberal Americans, with mere style — a means of expression, rather than an exercised right.
And now everyone’s drinking the Kool-Aid — even the indie kids. The past year in alternative music saw yet another moldy sporing of 60s style: psych-noise, AM radio, West Coast, girl group, garage, etc. Not all of this music gives me hives, but too much of it lacks the experimentalism of its sources and far more of it fails to think through its own imitative gestures. Emerging on the scene like some late last act of the 1966 Trips Festival (you know, after all the LSD ran out), The Royal Baths are committed to the darker, nihilistic side of the psychedelic era. Heavy on guitars rather than organs, drones rather than jams, their dark dirges split the difference between the surreal epics of Bay Area veterans like Blue Cheer and Jefferson Airplane and the hipster nihilism of New York’s Velvet Underground. That said, their music completely lacks the experimental streak of either milieu; it explores neither the borders of sound nor the borders of consciousness, opting instead for a strung-out, zero-degree miserabilism, a kind of anti-cool anti-happening, a bad trip in the most banal sense of the term.
It’s not that The Royal Baths’ music is awful or lacks any sense of fun. In fact, it’s perhaps an all-too-perfect copy of the real thing. Opener “After Death” is nothing less than a primer of 60s acid rock instrumentation (reverbed bass, muffled toms, fuzzed-out lead); the chanted lyrics deftly outline the classic dropout attitude as both mystical and depressive (“… take my body home… gonna see the king…”). “Nikki Don’t” works effortlessly in the vein of VU’s own uncanny odes to troubled girls; with its falsetto ba-pa-pas and cutesy chimes, the song provides a disturbingly pretty take on a dark world filled with bad drugs, horny boys, and evil fashion artists. And then there are the drug dirges: “Sitting In My Room,” with its sitar-like lead and double-backed vocals, captures all the queasy restlessness of a late-night binge, and “Pleasant Feeling,” which juxtaposes flat vocals against an atonal whine, slowly stomps off into the heroin-streaked sunset. But unlike many of the other revival acts on the Woodsist label (Woods, The Fresh & Onlys, etc.), The Royal Baths don’t seem to be doing much more than rolling and smoking their own sources. It’s all color-by-numbers, kitchen magnet poetry, Oliver Stone movie-making; any listener casually versed in this tradition can predict not only all the chord changes and rhymes, but every mystical wah-wah and modal warble on the horizon.
Sure, Warhol himself made a career of “merely” reproducing well-known images and icons; his most gripping work also multiplies, with little to no alteration, public images of death: electric chairs, automobile accidents, dead celebrities. But the music of The Royal Baths doesn’t even come close to capturing the tragedies of postmodern culture — the mini-dramas of melancholy and obsession — that enlivened “Factory”-made pop art and made it, even at its most superficial, a deeply historical form. Perhaps you can give the band credit for playing the death card all the way to the bitter end. Some of the later songs on the album actually make a compelling case for the dark beauty of the overdose — or, as they like to call it, “the charcoal gates of hell.” But if the album pushes its negativity to the point of negating the 60s itself, this ultimate dropout is itself (as a form of rebellion) the quintessential 60s gesture. Ultimately, the album gives us nothing but death itself in an infinite loop, as if the worst downer of the era is forced to replay itself over and again, in ever less and less groovy ways.
At best, The Royal Baths reduce the 60s to one long bad trip, for which, perhaps, I’m grateful. In the parlance of The Dude, it’s all paraquat — musical buzzkill — and maybe it’ll keep a few of the younger kids away from the decade. If not, I propose, for 2011, a moratorium on all Brian Wilson references and girl group harmonies and fuzzed-out guitars. It would be nice to start the new year like, perhaps, a new year, at least in terms of music. But, sure, until then, I’ll take one more hit, for old times’ sake — one more tab of the old turn on, tune in, drop out. There’s nothing else going on in December anyway — one more hazy winter doze — but when I wake up, I’m gonna smash that fucking lava lamp.