Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties is both a fierce political and cultural history and a geographic corrective. The Los Angeles of the 1960s is so much more than the hilly bohemia of folk-rock balladeers, their lives and loves. Laurel Canyon’s music scene is important, but far from its hippie echoes came very different sounds. Riotous chants for civil and gender rights in Watts and the San Fernando Valley. The sharp crack of LAPD batons on activists’ limbs and skulls in marches and sit-ins. KPFK-FM’s pioneering radio programs that contested the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the Bay Area at the start of the decade. Young people speaking their minds, blowing out of classrooms to fight inadequate and unequal educational opportunities for Mexican American youth on the Eastside.
These are the melodies of discontent and protest that we hear in Set the Night on Fire. It weaves them together as, if not a seamless narrative, then an important and erudite collage. The book is in many ways a prequel to Davis’s seminal City of Quartz (1990), which reinvented Southern California studies. Now Davis turns his eye toward an earlier Los Angeles in collaboration with Wiener, historian and journalist, biographer of John Lennon, student of the Cold War in myth and memory.
The two make a very good team. What they are out to do in Set the Night on Fire is reclaim lost radical histories across the city’s neighborhoods and institutions. At the heart of their work is an insistence that the promises of post–World War II prosperity were at best out of reach for most Angelenos and at worst a blatant lie. The 1950s suburban dream of homeownership, two cars, three baby boom kids, a good education, and a good job was nothing but a come-on to Californians of color. Supreme Court rulings that outlawed residential segregation notwithstanding, the white haves of postwar California clapped themselves smugly on the back while reserving harsher claps for nonwhite have-nots. It’s the latter communities and their uprisings—shoving back against the vicious LAPD of Chief William Parker, fighting the racist realities of Vietnam, agitating for structural changes in higher education—that interest Davis and Wiener here.
The book begins with a clever sequence chronicling the 12 months of 1960, each of which is peeled back to reveal struggle, reaction, and response. We meet some of the actors and get a sense of the stakes; in essence, we buckle our seat belts for the crazed and frightening ride of the decade to come. In much the same way, the next 35 chapters move through protest and response, exploring legacies of individual and collective action. Los Angeles in the 1960s, with its black and brown neighborhoods, its hardscrabble community colleges and working-class high schools, looked little like the Laurel Canyon fantasy. Rather, the city here is the one charted by the Doors, whose song “Light My Fire” gives the book its title; what does the riff offer if not another way to say, sing, or shout, “Burn, baby, burn”?
Though Davis and Wiener’s claims about social movements are insightful and innovative, the book can be choppy. That is probably due to the scale at which they have chosen to work: all of Los Angeles, an entire decade or longer (the book extends into the early 1970s, just ahead of Tom Bradley’s first mayoral term), globalism and localism, political diversity. Smart subheads ease the transitions. And well-known events are given fresh treatment, largely because the authors bring first-person knowledge and familiarity to the task. Their discussion of the Watts Rebellion, for example, sparkles because Davis and Wiener avoid the common sequestration of the event as a summer surprise in complacent mid-1960s urban America. They move from the events of August 1965 to the McCone Commission’s feeble analysis and through African American cultural revitalization and Black Panther militarization.
A similar sense of context adds depth to the discussion of Sister Corita Kent, Los Angeles’s most important artist of the 1960s, who is deftly portrayed beyond the usual treatments of her hopeful canvases of bright color. Certainly, that aspect of her work is represented, but her larger story is much more poignant, sad, and meaningful. The backlash and antagonism that she and her religious order, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, faced are given a gravitas here that they, and the entire decade, deserve. The same might be said of UCLA’s unsung civil rights stalwarts John and LaRee Caughey, academics committed to progressive change well beyond the university.
To some extent, the best parts of this long and powerful book are given over to younger voices. Davis has an ear for what disaffected teenagers are saying, and he takes their critiques seriously as a social critic and historian. Wiener, too, understands this terrain. Yet if it’s common to regard the 1960s through the eyes and behaviors of young people—we see them in the protests against the war, in the war, in the counterculture, and as a flank of the silent majority—here they emerge even younger, as the junior and senior high school activists at the front lines of educational reform, pushing antiwar agendas, fighting for gay and lesbian rights, and making claims for racial freedoms.
The vibrancy of young people’s activism in Southern California today is impressive. The teenagers of the 1960s, as Davis and Wiener vividly remind us, are the prophetic, and still-inspiring, grandparents of our contemporary movements for social justice in all forms.
William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a professor of history at the University of Southern California.
• By Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
• Verso, 784 pages, $34.95