The Rock Counterculture Had a Dark Side. Joan Didion Saw It Coming

In the early days of her career, Joan Didion had a taste of what some music and arts journalists have had to endure over the years: the monotony of record-making. It was 1968, and Didion, working on a story, visited an L.A. recording studio to watch the Doors tinker with Waiting for the Sun. According to Tracy Daugherty’s Didion bio The Last Love Song, she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also wanted to scope out Jim Morrison as the lead in The Panic in Needle Park, the junkie love-story movie they’d written. (The part eventually went to Al Pacino.)

What Didion found instead was tedium. The band waited, and waited, for Morrison to show up, leading to Didion having to focus on band small talk, bags of uneaten food and a Siberian Husky with different-colored eyes. A sense of torpor lingered over the proceedings until, finally, Morrison, in black leather pants, arrived. Even then, nothing much was accomplished. Morrison lit matches and placed them near his crotch. “There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever,” Didion wrote; she bailed long before the record wrapped.

Over the course of her career, Didion, who died on Dec. 23 of Parkinson’s disease at 87, wrote on a myriad of subjects — murder, grief, Central America, Miami, movie stars, California. Her coverage of the music scene of the Sixties and Seventies was just a small part of her oeuvre, and she pretty much left it behind after she and Dunne co-wrote a remake of A Star Is Born starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. But that world clearly fascinated her. “Rock and roll musicians are the ideal subject for me,” she said, with obvious delight, in the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. “They would just lead their lives in front of you.”

Her interests weren’t simply prurient. Didion’s observations on the Doors were tucked into her iconic essay “The White Album,” in which she grappled with beginning “to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” In the late Sixties, she couldn’t have found a better example of the center not holding than the rock counterculture. Along with other stories in “The White Album” — the title itself a rock reference — the sight of one of her favorite bands mired in show-biz ennui embodied one of her narratives:  that “the world as I understood it no longer existed,” and that even the things that were supposed to save us, like rock & roll, were dissolving before our eyes.

The first hint of that viewpoint arrived two years earlier. In 1966, Didion profiled Joan Baez for the New York Times (the piece, “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” was reprinted in Slouching Toward Bethlehem). At the time, Baez was a deity of the folk and protest world and was launching an Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Northern California. In Didion’s reporting, Baez came across as earnest — with an “absence of guile” — but the depiction of the unconventional classes at the school, complete with ballet classes (to Beatles records) and reading discussion groups, was fairly withering. As Didion wrote of Baez, “She does try, perhaps unconsciously, to hang on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder, however ersatz or shallow, of her own and anyone’s adolescence.” At the time, many believed that musicians were the key to helping solve society’s ills; Didion clearly had her doubts.

The subtly scalding title essay of “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” found Didion in San Francisco during 1967’s Summer of Love. Everyone else in the media was covering that season in that city as if there were a new dawn rising. But in her story, originally for the Saturday Evening Post, Didion instead found runaways, drug abusers, spacey groupies watching the Grateful Dead rehearse, white Mime Troupers in blackface taunting Black kids, and a five-year-old on acid who admitted to liking Bob Weir. The piece unfurled one hippie-world nightmare after another, and Didion foretold the way Haight Ashbury would soon be overrun by dealers, tourists and harder drugs. (Even the Dead moved out soon after.)

“Rock and roll musicians are the ideal 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 attended by a hard-drinking Janis Joplin. Didion mentioned it in “The White Album,” where she also wrote that “music people never wanted ordinary drinks. They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat,” and ate dinner at ever-changing hours and lived on unpredictable schedules. What she didn’t cover in the story (but spoke of in the doc) was when she went to check on her and Dunne’s young daughter Quintana in her bedroom during the party. There, Didion found drugs on the floor, left over by party guests. She couldn’t believe anyone would have done that — another indication that, in her mind, the rock world was starting to plug into dangerous self-indulgence.

In the context of Didion viewing the decline of Sixties idealism through the prism of its leading soundtrack, there probably wasn’t a better example than A Star Is Born. Didion and Dunne came up with the idea of updating that movie (two versions already existed), but with nouveau hip couple James Taylor and Carly Simon in the roles of the dissipated rocker and rising starlet. Taylor and Simon passed, as did Cher, and eventually the project wound up with Streisand and her producer and boyfriend, Jon Peters.

By the time the movie was completed, Didion and Dunne had been fired (leaving with a sizable payday, including 10 percent of the movie’s grosses). While it’s hard to say which parts of A Star Is Born came from their typewriters, the idea that the downward-spiral male lead was now a fading, debauched rocker (not an actor, as in the previous versions) was of a piece with Didion’s journalism. Played convincingly by Kristofferson, John Norman Howard guzzles alcohol and stumbles around onstage and off, hell-bent on ruining his career and singing excruciatingly bad fake-rock songs like “Watch Closely Now.” He’s the embodiment of Didion’s fears about what would become of 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 heading for Paris.

Sadly, Didion wasn’t wrong about the music she was drawn to; the years after “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” “The White Album,” and A Star Is Born were riddled with corpses and music-biz flame-outs. Just as fellow New Journalism legend Tom Wolfe regretted not following up on an early tip to write about an emerging style called hip-hop, it’s unfortunate Didion never dove into pop music’s rebirth by way of other genres. She never tackled punk, gangsta rap or rave culture. Then again, one can only imagine what she would have made of G.G. Allin or Burning Man or the recent horrors of Astroworld. She wouldn’t have been slouching toward Bethlehem — she likely would have collapsed altogether, grappling with the moment when the party truly got out of hand.

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