Coming of Age in the Sixties
By the time 1969 rolled around, the decade of the 1950s was starting to seem like a century past. America certainly wasn't the place it had been when Ike presided over the White House, that's for damned sure. That really isn't the case as far as the sixties are concerned. Even from the vantage point of 2008, that decade still hovers over America's consciousness to such an astounding degree, it is clear that it won't be going away any time soon.
Consider this: One of the biggest selling CDs of the past year is a compilation of eleven previously released songs by the Beatles (two of whom are long dead), re-mixed and retitled, "Let It Be: Naked". That would be the equivalent of a reissue of Paul Whiteman recordings from the late 1920s making it onto Billboard's Number One position during the summer of 1967! An absurd notion any way you look at it.
Even though I was born in August of 1958 (I'll be fifty on the sixteenth) I still have a very clear memory of the 1950s. That is to say, the decade of the sixties didn't really begin on January 1, 1960, much in the same way that it didn't really end on December 31, 1969. The sixties that we all know, love and loathe began on a sunny, unseasonably warm day in the late autumn of 1963, when the man who symbolized the hopes and aspirations of that era was shot dead in the streets of Dallas, Texas.
Historical hindsight tells us that Jack Kennedy was far from the example of humanity's perfection that so many people believed him to be at the time of his death. But that knowledge does not in any way lessen the horror and genuine grief that most people felt the moment they received the news on their radios and television sets that the president was dead. Some dark and destructive forces were jolted loose from this nation's soul when a bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald's cheap, mail-order rifle shattered President Kennedy's skull on November 22, 1963. America never fully recovered from the psychic shock of that murder. God only knows if it ever will.
"Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call/Don't stand in the doorway, don't lock up the hall/For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled/The battle outside's raging/It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/For the times they are a'changin'"
Bob Dylan, 1963
In this political year where "change" seems to be the operative word, the decade of the 1960s could very well offer the first decade of the twenty-first century some valuable lessons. As with the 1930s, a long-festering societal dysfunction had bought about a nonviolent, social revolution. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the plutocracy's assault on the American infrastructure had left the economy in tatters. In 1932, unaffected by the kind of mindless, twenty-four-hour-a-day political propaganda that exists now on the American air waves, the people had the good sense to go in a new direction of real, tangible change when they sent a disabled, son of privilege named Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House.
Thirty years after the dawn of the New Deal, a very different type of revolution was brewing within the American soul. The sixties saw the rise of the long-repressed outrage of Black America. From the day President Lincoln had decreed the Emancipation Proclamation a century before, they had been forced to live as second class citizens in the north and fourth class citizens in the south. With leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as their spokesmen, they were demanding their piece of the so-called American Dream.
For twenty-five years - from that late afternoon in December 1955 when a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man - black people in this country seemed to be making slow but significant social and economic progress. That progress came to a dead halt in 1980 when the people foolishly decided to send a former "B" movie actor named Ronald Wilson Reagan to the White House. Later on this year, God willing, that dreadful situation may very well begin to reverse itself. 2008 might be remembered as the year America confronted its racist demons by electing the first African American in history as president of the United States. Keep your fingers crossed and your hands folded.
The second revolution to come out of the sixties was the righteous indignation of an entire generation of kids who were being forced to fight and die in an untenable quagmire in a far away land. By the summer of 1968 it was obvious that the outrage expressed against the Vietnam war was not being vented merely by college age radicals. Within time, people of all ages and classes would turn against that "stupid fucking war" (as the late, lamented Molly Ivins once described it).
The dirty little secret about the massive opposition to Vietnam is that it had not a thing to do with the fact that it was an illegal war which was a sin against God and humanity. The reason American colleges exploded in the 1960s was because President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided it was unfair that the poor and working classes were doing all the fighting while the sons of privilege received college deferments. Just take a look at any newsreel of a college protest from forty years ago and I'll guarantee you that - at the very least - eighty percent of the kids in those films are today right wing conservatives. It was the sons of the working class who did most of the fighting and dying in that war. That's not just my opinion, that is a documented, undeniable fact. Look it up.
Sadly, the youth of this doomed country will never wake up to the sins that their civilian leaders are committing against the men, women and little children of Iraq unless the draft is reinstated.
Then there was what can only be described as the "Cultural Revolution". Although not quite as severe and a lot more fun than the one that had occurred in China starting in 1966, its influence is still being felt to this day. Everything, it seemed, was changing. And yet some of the things which seemed so groundbreaking all those years ago look downright silly today - the television "comedy", for instance.
A number of years ago, the cable network Nickelodeon broadcast a week-long Laugh-In retrospective. Looking at some of those programs (as many as I was able to stomach) I was rendered speechless at how awful they were! What was I thinking when I would eagerly tune into NBC every Monday night for no other reason than to hear Judy Carne jabber, "And now, folks, it's Sock It To Me time"? In my own defence I can only say that I was a mere nine-years-old and too young to know any better when that show made its debut in September of 1967. Unlike the comedy of The Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce, the "mod" ramblings and antics of the late Dan Rowan and the recently deceased Dick Martin has not stood the test of time very well. It has all the depth of a Peter Max poster. Sock it to me, indeed.
As much may be said of most of the things that passed as "comedy" in the 1960s. Very little of it stands out forty years later. The only interesting thing today regarding old episodes of Petticoat Junction, Bewitched, Green Acres and Mayberry RFD - is contemplating the fact that at one time people were paid huge salaries for writing such drivel. The TV networks even had to supply these idiotic programs with canned laughter in order to encourage the semi-comatose viewer at home that the crap they were watching was actually funny. Let's face some serious facts here: by the time 1960 came along, the Golden Age of American Humor as personified by the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman and Fred Allen, was long gone.
The passage of time can be a misleading thing. More times than I can count, a person born post 1970 has expressed to me how brilliant he or she thought the music of the sixties was. Truth be told, it wasn't much different than any other decade. The reason the music stands out today has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with memory. We remember "A Day In The Life" and "Like A Rolling Stone". We choose to forget, "Henry The Eighth" by Herman's Hermits and "Do The Freddie" by Freddie and the Dreamers. Memory is everything.
But it cannot be denied that there were cultural and artistic events during that tormented decade which had real and lasting impact. It was, after all, the decade which produced Bob Dylan and The Beatles. The change in the language of the cinema, which had subtly begun to express itself in the previous decade, was in full bloom by the end of the sixties. Although it was an era that saw the deaths of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac, it also saw the emergence of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson. The artistic possibilities of television and videotape were pioneered very early in that decade by a lovable and eccentric madman named Ernie Kovacs. He was the world's first "video artist" although that term did not even come into being until four years after his death in a 1962 automobile accident. No question about it: between 1960 and 1970, trails were being blazed. The times were indeed a'changin'.
The comedy, tragedy and turmoil of the 1960s would all come to a head in 1968, a "whore of a year" as someone once described it. Although the final year of that decade would see the Woodstock Festival - three-hundred thousand hard-core music fans gathered at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, NY - plus Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon (both events taking place within the space of three weeks that summer!), nothing could have prepared any mere mortal for the events of 1968.
With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the spring, the mindless violence inflicted by the Chicago Police upon hapless demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in August, and the endless and graphic carnage from South East Asia that was being televised into living rooms throughout the country - night after depressing night - a sensitive and impressionable ten-year-old could very easily have been overwhelmed by the thought that the world was coming to an end. So it was with me.
But then on Christmas Eve, an epiphany....
That was the night that the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to orbit the moon. Upon emerging from that asteroid's dark side, eternally invisible to the inhabitants of this small and fragile planet, the crew of Frank Borman, Bill Anders and James Lovell broadcast a message to the world. Turning to scripture, they quoted from the Book of Genesis:
"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light": and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness...."
At the conclusion of that transmission, Commander Borman, no doubt reflecting on the turmoil of the year which was about to mercifully end, said these words:
"And from the crew of Apollo Eight, we close with: good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you - on the good earth."
Hearing those words broadcast on the radio, my ear almost pressed against one of the two massive KLH speakers that dominated my father's stereo system, I felt the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders. Somehow, I thought, everything was going to be alright. For decades afterwords, whenever America was confronted with some indescribable national trauma, Frank Borman's gentle words - transmitted from the heavens on that long ago Christmas Eve - would come back to calm me and I would feel better my country. Everything is going to be alright, I would tell myself.
I'm still struggling to believe it.
Back row: Brother Jack
Missing from photo: Brother Jeff (who was an infant at the time) and sister Sarah "Sally" (who was born later that year)