Did It is the first and only biography on Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, from noted music producer and scholar Pat Thomas, who previously authored Listen, Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975. That book explored artists like the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Last Poets, Roland Kirk, and Horace Silver, who spoke out against oppression, as well as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Graham Nash, the Partridge Family (!?!) and the Black Power movement.
Both books focus on very specific moments in American history, and Did It! also features music inside the larger political and cultural stories of the original Yippie, alongside Abbie Hoffman. While Hoffman’s image and standing remain frozen in counterculture time, Rubin’s became tarnished to some, as he embraced a job on Wall Street, and, later, became a devotee of things New Age. “Sell Out!," the hippies cried!
Counterculture politics was intrinsically linked to music in the 1960s, as it represented a “purer” stage for revolutionaries to air their views, and presented them with a willing, listening audience. Most, if not all, the important figures exploited the underground press, the hippie “be-ins,” and the musicians of the time. As Thomas’ book tells us, Jerry Rubin was no different.
Folk and protest singer Phil Ochs first met Rubin at a 36 hour “teach-in” Rubin was planning on the UC/Berkley campus in 1965, and Ochs performed several songs throughout that weekend. He would accompany Rubin to the infamous Chicago ’68 protests, a move that would earn him a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s personal “asshole” list, and an in-court appearance before the Chicago grand jury. Ochs would not be alone there; singer Judy Collins, the Fugs’ Ed Sanders, and Arlo Guthrie would also testify. Ochs was also be present at the infamous Pentagon Levitation in October 1967. While Rubin’s views would sometimes differ from Ochs, the two would remain friends until the singer’s suicide in 1976. The book reproduces a very touching typewritten “goodbye” letter from Rubin to Ochs, written posthumously.
Dylan also showed up on Rubin’s doorstep in 1972 with David Peel, but efforts to co-opt Dylan — who by now had largely abandoned “protest music” — into a political tour fell flat. Their paths would cross again on then Rolling Thunder Review tour, which also featured Desire collaborator Jacques Levy, who had coincidentally also testified at the Chicago 8 trial.
Jerry’s introduction of David Peel to John Lennon would prove more fruitful. Lennon would produce David Peel & the Lower East Side, featuring the song “The Pope Smokes Dope,” which was released on Apple Records. He would also introduce them to the band Elephant Memory, friends who regularly played Max’s Kansas City; that band would become the backing band for Lennon’s Some Time In New York City. The association with Rubin and his radical group would also put a target on Lennon’s immigration status, and the two would eventually fall out. As Thomas’ notes “perhaps Jerry should have heeded Stew Albert’s (a like-minded provocateur who would become Rubin’s right-hand man over the years) advice: ‘Watch out, because if you get too associated with John and Yoko, you’re going to be seen as celebrities, and you can’t be a celebrity leader at this time.’”
Abbie Hoffman is the more recognizable of these two Yippies, and was famously hit by Townsend with his guitar for coming onstage during the band’s set at Woodstock. Rubin has his detractors due to the course the rest of his life took, but remains a fascinating figure in counterculture politics. So if you like a dose of music with your politics, or conversely a dose of politics with your music, both of Thomas’ book delivers. The album-style format, complete with song titles as chapter titles sprinkled throughout, make Did It easy and fun to read. It’s packed with photos, and will transport you to a time when politics, music, activists and superstars were intertwined within a generation, its peers and its critics. Sadly, that dream is indeed largely over.
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