The rock counterculture had a dark side. Joan Didion saw it coming.

Early in her career, Joan Didion got a taste of what some music and arts journalists have had to endure over the years: the monotony of the record. It was 1968, and Didion, working on a story, visited an LA recording studio to watch The Doors tinker with Waiting for the sun. From the biography of Didion by Tracy Daugherty The last love song, she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also wanted to name Jim Morrison as a leader in the Panic in Needle Park, the drugged love movie they wrote. (The party ultimately went to Al Pacino.)

What Didion found instead was boring. The group waited, and waited, for Morrison to show up, which forced Didion to focus on small group discussions, uneaten bags of food and a Siberian husky with different colored eyes. A feeling of torpor lingered during the procedure until, finally, Morrison, in black leather pants, arrived. Even then, not much was accomplished. Morrison lit matches and placed them near his crotch. “There was a feeling that no one was ever going to leave the room,” Didion wrote; she bailed out long before the record was closed.

Over the course of her career, Didion, who died of Parkinson’s disease on December 23 at the age of 87, has written on a myriad of topics – murder, mourning, Central America, Miami, movie stars, California. Her coverage of the ’60s and’ 70s music scene was only a small part of her work, and she practically abandoned it after she and Dunne co-wrote a remake of A star is born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. But this world clearly fascinated her. “Rock and roll musicians are the perfect subject for me,” she said, with obvious pleasure, in the documentary. Joan Didion: The Center will not hold. “They would just lead their lives in front of you.”

His interests weren’t just lustful. Didion’s observations of the Doors were incorporated into her iconic essay “The White Album”, in which she struggled to begin “to doubt the premises of any stories I had ever told myself.” In the late 1960s, she couldn’t have found a better example of center failure than rock counterculture. Along with other stories in “The White Album” – the title itself a rock reference – the sight of one of his favorite bands mired in show biz boredom embodied one of his tales: that ” the world as I understood it no longer existed, ”and even the things that were supposed to save us, like rock & roll, were dissolving before our eyes.

The first clue from this point of view came two years earlier. In 1966, Didion profiled Joan Baez for the New York Times (the play, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”, was reprinted in Collapse towards Bethlehem). At the time, Baez was a popular and protestant world deity and was starting an institute for the study of nonviolence in Northern California. In Didion’s report, Baez came across as serious – with an “absence of guile” – but the portrayal of the school’s unconventional lessons, with ballet lessons (according to Beatles records) and discussion groups. reading, was quite withered. As Didion wrote of Baez, “She tries, perhaps subconsciously, to hold on to the innocence, the turbulence, and the capacity for wonder, however superficial ersatz, of her own adolescence. and anyone’s. ” At the time, many believed that musicians were the key to helping to solve the ills of society; Didion clearly had his doubts.

The subtly searing title essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” found Didion in San Francisco during the Summer of Love of 1967. Everyone in the media was covering this season in that city as if a new dawn was breaking. But in its history, originally for the Saturday night messageInstead, Didion found runaways, drug addicts, space groupies watching the Grateful Dead rehearse, white Mime Troupers in blackface mocking black children, and a five-year-old on acid who admitted to liking Bob Weir. The play unfolded one hippie world nightmare after another, and Didion predicted how Haight Ashbury would soon be overrun with dealers, tourists, and harsher drugs. (Even the dead moved out soon after.)

“Rock and roll musicians are the perfect subject for me,” she once said. “They would just lead their lives in front of you.”

Back at her and Dunne’s house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, the couple threw a wild party that was attended by alcohol drinker Janis Joplin. Didion mentioned it in “The White Album”, where she also wrote that “the music people never wanted regular drinks. They wanted sake, champagne cocktails or pure tequila,” and had dinner at changeable hours and lived on unpredictable schedules. What she didn’t cover in the story (but which he talked about in the doc) was when she went to see her and the youngster. daughter of Dunne, Quintana, in her room during the party. There, Didion found drugs on the floor, left by the party guests. She couldn’t believe anyone would have done this – another indication that , in his mind, the rock world was beginning to tune into a dangerous self-indulgence.

In the context where Didion saw the decline of ’60s idealism through the prism of its main soundtrack, there was probably no better example than A star is born. Didion and Dunne came up with the idea of ​​updating this movie (two versions already existed), but with hip new couple James Taylor and Carly Simon as the dissipated rocker and rising starlet. Taylor and Simon were successful, as was Cher, and eventually the project ended with Streisand and her producer and boyfriend, Jon Peters.

By the time the film was finished, Didion and Dunne had been made redundant (part with a significant salary, including 10 percent of the film’s gross receipts). Although it is difficult to say which parts of A star is born Coming from their typewriters, the idea that the downward spiraling male lead was now a debauched and faded rocker (not an actor, like in previous releases) was one piece with Didion’s journalism. Played convincingly by Kristofferson, John Norman Howard drinks alcohol and stumbles on and off stage, determined to ruin his career and sing excruciatingly bad fake rock songs like “Watch Closely Now”. He epitomizes Didion’s fears about what would happen to the rock counterculture – it’s as if the increasingly bloated Jim Morrison had lived a few more years and resumed touring with The Doors instead of leave for Paris.

Unfortunately, Didion was not wrong about the music that appealed to him; the years after “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”, “The White Album” and A star is born were riddled with corpses and fires from the music world. Just as Tom Wolfe, another New Journalism legend, regretted not taking a first piece of advice for writing about an emerging style called hip-hop, it is unfortunate that Didion never plunged into the pop music renaissance. through other genres. She never touched on punk, gangsta rap or rave culture. Then again, one can only imagine what she would have done with GG Allin or Burning Man or the recent horrors of Astroworld. She wouldn’t have slumped towards Bethlehem – she probably would have collapsed completely, struggling with when the party really got out of hand.

Elizabeth J. Harless