[The rivertop freeze is taking its sweet time to unbuckle and depart. Not much I can do about it except to keep piling on the wood, and to write. Fly fishing? It’ll be a while. But this is a workingman/woman’s blog. I can’t just whisk off to the Caribbean on a whim. I need to write, and to keep in mind those readers who enjoy this blog. Since I try to repeat myself as little as possible, my subject matter might seem a bit digressive at times, but there’s a point to it, as surely as the sun will reappear and the trout rise again.]
“The 60s are Back!” gushed a late 1990s flyer for a literary magazine requesting thoughts about the strange old decade. I remember reading the flyer and stopping in my tracks. Why would anyone proclaim such a thing? Had the past few years produced some kind of cultural equivalent to that time of madness and assassination, of social protest and war in Vietnam, of the hippies and the Beatles, etcetera? Was I really 30 years down the road, too encrusted and anesthetized to see the similarities?
Glancing back, I saw myself standing in the junior high gymnasium after lunch… It was one year past the time when a teacher had rushed into our school library tearfully announcing President Kennedy’s assassination. The nation had been reeling from racial inequality and strife, from a look at the Cuban missile crisis, from a glimpse of Armageddon and the brink of nuclear war… Malaise was in the air.
I was in the school gym and the large speakers were blaring Beatles music. Everyone was shouting and singing to the likes of “I wanna hold your ha-aa-nd”– energy and articulation overcoming the numbness of our lives, at last.
I was never quite in synch with those times. I preferred Dylan and the Rolling Stones (then) over the Beatles. I enjoyed the instrumental Ventures and garage band geekiness on 45 rpm records. Hair would not begin to creep down testily until 1967, and would not fall free of all restraint until 1970.
I hated the decision of my parents to remove us from rural eastern New York to an urban plot along the Mississsippi River in Wisconsin. I didn’t feel like I could live without the fields and forest I had grown with. One day, however, my new friend Ian and I were browsing through a record store, amazed at the blur of possibilities. The rippling psychedelia of Vanilla Fudge blasted from a stereo and carried us into the streets. Set me free, why don’cha babe! …From there on out, Diana Ross and Top 40 pop was history, as far as I was concerned.
In my 60s rites of passage, music was all garbled up with the presence of girls, of course. The scent of dope was in the air. One girl was unlike all the other females of my decade. She was an acquaintance, and then a friend, with sophisticated tastes in art and music. Like listening to good music itself, she helped me comb away frustration from the pleasures of my age.
My friend Ian had come to the city of LaCrosse about the same time that I arrived there. We were neighbors and attended high school classes together. After graduation Ian enlisted for the war in Vietnam, and I attended South Dakota State on the pretext of furthering my education. Correspondence with my war pal grew increasingly sporadic, but Ian eventually returned to LaCrosse in one piece.
I transferred to a university in upstate New York and never heard from my Wisconsin friend again. I would soon skirt the fringes of war, drugs, sex, and deep relationships, thus entering the grubby fist of the 1970s.
I mention all of this because my involvement with the 60s and early 70s youth culture was the biggest stride I ever took in the way of self-education. Eventually I learned that dealers, death, and materialism had fully penetrated the aesthetics of the so-called revolution, even in rural America.
My experiments in “mind expansion” ranged from blissful involvement to trials by fire. I do not endorse the paths I took, nor do I disclaim them. They worked for me, and needed to be taken. That’s all I can say for sure.
Every generation has its own pleasure drugs, mentors, and rites of passage. In my case, I was able to return happily to a world of country living that I had known when I was a kid. In a sense, I never grew up at all.
In response to that literary flyer of the 90s, I decided that if the 60s had returned in spirit I had no idea where those years were hiding. We baby-boomers would do well to let them go although, admittedly, that time of youthful dreams and creative energy and vision is powerfully influential.
Only now, after the passage of all these decades, have I found a way to express how I feel about that time. Only now can I admit that I’m unable to let that period go, or even wish to erase it from my life.
I’m still learning from the 60s/70s because the struggle for identity in this soul-crushing present era never ends… I live with the earth and feel its strength. I recognize the falsehoods of consumerism and see some dangers in the dominant paradigm of political and economic power.
I still like to think I can work for peace and a healthier environment. Whereas I may have rocked to the Beatles and to Frank Zappa and the Mothers playing “Louie Louie” (ca. 1969) at the Royal Albert Hall, I’m still finding new music that I should have found back then.
Take the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, for example. I’m ashamed to say that I never really listened to the band at its peak. Every once in a while, an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) is actually deserving of the honor.
Now, if I can only find a way to keep the grooves in my vinyl LPs free of dust, and capable of tracking a dulling stylus.
This is a great reflection! I have two takeaways, stemming from this post but also involving some of my own previous thoughts. 1) Somehow, the generation that saw its own collective (sudden) mortality in sharp focus–and responded by agitating for change–lost its way and became today’s Problem. That’s not to say, of course, that every Boomer has become a “have cake and eat it too” hypocrite–in fact, I know several of you who aren’t. And 2) I don’t see, collectively, a younger generation with the power to say “Enough!” to Boomer greed and consumerism, the way your generation did to its own elders. Maybe we haven’t been galvanized by a sufficiently traumatic event (although 9/11 would suggest otherwise); but more likely, the idea of a communal response to injustice isn’t enough to overcome fragmentation and apathy.
Thanks for that thoughtful response! Here’s how I see it, more or less… My generation was born into a time that hardly had a future. For much of the 60s, it looked and felt like the End, with crisis after crisis. Drug use/abuse offered an escape like never before. Stress brought on a renaissance, of sorts, with a flowering of creativity and hope which, unfortunately, came crashing down after a few short years. 9/11/01, as horrible as it was, amounted to one major event producing grief and a flexing of muscle that made this nation want to kick ass, for better or worse. It wasn’t the same as that feeling brought about by the truth of mutual destruction, which never really ended till the late 80s. Music, art, and community gave hope when we had nothing to lose by saying “Enough!” So why did the majority of the starry-eyed Boomers translate into the dominant paradigm of this day? I don’t know for sure, but your last sentence seems to nail it on the head. Idealism belongs mostly to the youth. Some of us got away, and still feel like kids at heart.
I’m fascinated by the ’60s, even though I was five when the decade ended. I remember one of my brothers going to Vietnam and throwing pennies in a well with my grandmother to wish him home safely. It’s interesting to hear the perspectives of people who lived that era and experienced the events when they were original.
Fascinating it was, Jim, in addition to being frightful and electric. That image of your brother and grandmother throwing pennies in a well for safe homecoming is poignant and takes me back in a similar way. There’s so much of that era that’s beyond me and my own experience, maybe for the better.
The ’60s, even though I wasn’t quite four years old when the decade ended, looms large in my consciousness. The era was really the opening of the floodgates of so many things that define my world -socially, politically, culturally- its influence can’t be understated. Of course, it took me many years to begin to understand the workings and implications of its dominant phenomena, and I’m not sure that I fully get it to this day. In the early ’70s, I knew that a war raged somewhere else in the world, I knew that war was divisive. I have tiny sliver of a memory of my mother’s brother leaving for Vietnam. I knew what a hippie was, even if I didn’t get what they were on about. But the biggest legacy of that time to me personally was its music. It was largely ’60s bands that defined and continue to define popular music for me. The Beatles, Stones, The Who, CSNY, Hendrix, the Doors – all of them and more are the cornerstones of what I consider essential listening. And I’ll admit that I’m jealous that while you may have missed some bands here and there, you got to watch the whole spectacle, good, bad and ugly, unfold right in front of you.
You were just getting in the door, Bob, when the 60s closed up, but obviously you saw enough at a very young age to make you curious and want to explore, to your benefit later on. Like you, I think I’ve benefitted most from the music that was spawned in that era and still resonates to this day. You know, I attended university in a nearby village that also has a second school, a state university. I was there as a student from late ’69 to ’75. In that period I benefitted from the many upcoming bands of renown, many who played for only $500 or more for a long evening of music. I’ll bet I averaged a band every 2 weeks while schools were in session.For the most part I saw these bands for the cost of showing my student I.D. It started with the Dead in the fall of ’69, who played most of the night for a couple hundred kids and teachers. Then in quick succession I saw James Gang, Quicksilver, John Mayall, Spirit, Moon Dog, Mountain, Cactus, ZZ Top, Byrds, Hot Tuna, John McLaughlin, Tom Rush, 10,000 Maniacs, and many many more that I can’t think of at the moment. It was almost unbelievable. And I was lucky for that. And better able to forget the ugly. Thanks, my friend.
Hi Walt. Hope you and your family is well great writing as always we’ll I didn’t whisk off to the carabean but spent 7 days in key west and did some fishing there off shore. Can’t wait till spring hope to see you at the meeting.
Hey Dale, Glad that you survived that grueling, tough, warm, beautiful climate down in Key West! I want to hear about the fishing. When spring finally gets here, or the prospect of it looks promising, hope to see you in Slate Run.
Arghh…now I’m really jealous! If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and see the Byrd’s of that era – especially if Clarence White was still in the band.
A unique time period, Bob. Lots of fun. As for the Byrds, as I remember the band then, I recall being a little underwhelmed by them. Mostly I remember McGuinn and a couple others visiting the U Pub shortly after the concert. Maybe my brain receptors were a little foggy that eve.
Good one Walt. I still vividly remember the day that a nun burst into our classroom and proclaimed that president Kennedy had just been shot. We were promptly whisked off to church to pray. Unfortunately it didn’t help.
On a happier note, there were many concerts. Some at the MSU Fieldhouse in Bozeman. ZZ Top (I thought, man they make a hell of a lot of noise for just three guys!), Fleetwood Mac (before Buckingham and Nicks, they originally wrote and recorded Black Magic Woman – different from Carlos’ version, but good just the same). A few notables from Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City ….. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Eagles (just after Joe Walsh joined the band)……
Thanks Les! Didn’t know that you were living in the shadows of Geezerdom where I am currently well-ensconced, but yes– it seems that everyone today who had consciousness in ’63 recalls quite vividly the moment when Kennedy’s assassination occurred. I’m not surprised that you heard some good music there in Bozeman. When I drove thru in 2010 I remember hearing a great FM station for a while (followed by some pretty good fishing). ZZ Top were noise producers everywhere they went, I’ll wager. As were ELP. I think seeing ELP was the only time I actually had to leave an auditorium to listen from the hallway. Painful! As for Fleetwood Mac, the original band, pre-Buck. and Nicks, when Peter Green was still healthy, would’ve been the band to see. One of the truly great ones.
You have no idea how this post brings back vivid memories of my ups and downs during those turbulent times in the 60’s and even the 70’s in my life. I lived all the phases you mentioned during your growing up and maturing years. I say the word maturing because most all of us back then were kids at heart and trying to find an identity. We thought we would be young forever and all that mattered was that moment and time we were living then.
I still remember where I was when I heard the news of John Kennedy; sitting in my 9th grade English Class. Some memories you never forget and that was one of them. Thanks for a strobe down memory lane
Oh, most welcome, Bill, and thank you for your flashback memories. Those were turbulent, remarkable years indeed, and I’m mighty glad that you and I survived them, no matter how infallible we might have seen ourselves then. So many of us were in school at the time of Kennedy’s assassination. From your description I can figure that your age is a couple years above me, since I was in 6th or 7th-grade study hall, in the library, when the news broke out. No doubt there are many other vivid recollections we could share from that decade. Thanks, again.
Your post stirred up a’ lot of sediment. I enjoyed the many reader’s responses as well.
I’ve heard that generations have a soundtrack that kicks in around their teens and twenties. Maybe the potent mix of sex, spirits and music as well as mortality aren’t exclusively 20th Century (or during any time in the Anthropocene) as is our inability to greatly alter events.
I wouldn’t say 60’s youth dropped the ball much worse than those before. I’m sure American ’50 culture was as riven and a release from the World Wars and Cold War conservatism. But the consequences are unraveling greatly for those who follow.
A few years ago I walked into the Jack Kerouac exhibition at The New York Public Library. There, unfurled the length of the exhibition hall, was the original scroll of On The Road and the objects, relationships, manuscripts, recordings of his life filled the rest of the hall.
It blew a hole in my sense of our own era and the continuous underpinnings of cultural resistance.
I asked an older friend who was a book editor in those days what was with the Beats and he said “A lot of drugs.” And were those guys crazy for jazz.
Time turns us into iconic clichés – Beatniks, Hippies, Punk, Grunge… and we miss the detail. Kerouac hated the hippies. “The meaning of beat was said to be beatific, at least in the sense – a spiritual passion for life. “The point of beat is that you get beaten down to a certain nakedness where you are actually able to see the world in a visionary way,” Allen Ginsberg said.
Got to see CSN&Y on the Living With War tour and Neil Young said to his band mates he’d join them but he wasn’t singing any of that whale sh*t. And John Fogerty and Creedence, with Fortunate Son, tell me none of you have lost it.
Glad the post helped stir up the “sediment,” Steve, but hope it didn’t cloud the picture too much. I’d say that the major issues of the 60s, although unique in form are not exclusive constitutionally to this baby-boomer generation. Every generation has had its crises and uniqueness, but what sets apart the 60s is dynamic energy and expressionism, at least to those alive who can remember living thru it all. Take that scroll of Kerouac’s book, for example. I knew that he disdained hippie culture, though I’m not sure why. Beatitude, in all its nakedness, doesn’t seem to me so far removed from the original visions of the more popular 60s counter-culture movement. As for Fortunate Son, a lot of that sentiment and anger is alive with us today. So, thanks for commenting, and I hope I haven’t missed your point by too much.
You don’t miss much.