by Charles Kaiser


Bringing It All Back Home

THIS is the story of what happened to America in 1968, the most turbulent twelve months of the postwar period and one of the most disturbing intervals we have lived through since the Civil War. In this century only the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust have punctured the national psyche as deeply as the dramas of this single year. Nineteen sixty-eight was the pivotal year of the sixties: the moment when all of a nation's impulses toward violence, idealism, diversity, and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope-and the worst imaginable despair. For many of us who came of age in that remarkable era, it has been twenty years since we have lived with such intensity. That is one of the main reasons why the sixties retain their extraordinary power over every-one old enough to remember them.

The sixties and the thirties were the only modern decades in which large numbers of Americans wondered out loud whether their country might disintegrate. From this distance the massive unemployment of the Depression looks like a bigger threat than the upheavals of the more recent period. But unlike the still puzzling moods of the sixties, the nature of American despair in the thirties was never mysterious: People were miserable because they were hungry, fearful because they weren't sure anyone would ever figure out how to put them back to work again.

Nothing was quite so straightforward in the years leading up to 1968.

The role of affluence was the first imponderable. Particularly within the white middle class, Americans had assumed that their phenomenal postwar prosperity would be purely liberating. To those in college during the sixties, it was liberating in one respect. Years of relatively low inflation had produced a cheap cost of living (a first-class letter cost 6 cents, gas 37 cents a gallon, a custom-made shirt $7.50, marijuana $20 an ounce), so we felt little urgency to decide who we would become when we grew up. We were free to experiment and anything seemed possible: Everything could be changed. Paradoxically this same abundance was both deadening and radicalizing. Deadening because we couldn't emulate our parents' achievements even if we wanted to, since we had no Depression to climb out of (or Nazi menace to conquer); radicalizing because the absence of an obvious economic challenge forced us to think about how we might reinvent ourselves. And for the opposite reason, equally radicalizing for poor blacks, constantly reminded by practically everything on television of the chasm between ghetto life and white suburban life.

Disdain for our parents' materialism was only one factor in the search for some sort of new spirituality. The failure of religion was also significant, especially for those whose parents were the children of immigrants. My father's parents were Russian Jews who came to this country in 1906; his early rejection of an Orthodox upbringing was one shortcut to becoming completely American. In our family, faithful secular celebrations of Christmas and Passover were the answer to the religion question. Whatever belief my parents grew up with had been eroded by the Holocaust and perhaps subconsciously shattered by Hiroshima. Like many of their contemporaries, they were convinced that Freud and Einstein had answered nearly every consequential question of the age. Awed by these men and the Bomb, they were propelled toward the conclusion that God had become obsolete.

The kids I knew who did get formal religious training were hardly more likely to be believers than I was. Especially to young Catholics, the old-fashioned orthodoxies seemed utterly implausible in the nuclear age. In the sixties religion was treated with unprecedented irreverence by popular culture in America. It was Easter 1966 when Time magazine's cover asked "Is God Dead?"; Christmas 1967 when Dustin Hoffman used a crucifix to barricade the church doors in The Graduate.1

In the summer of 1967, the New York Times reported "Most campus activists are comparatively intelligent, stable and unprejudiced [emphasis added]." The story revealed that "a disproportionately high number of activists are Jewish" and "very few are Roman Catholic." Eight separate studies indicated that activists "are slightly less alienated than nonactivists, and no more in rebellion against parental ideas and authority than the rest of the student body."2 In 1968 just 43 percent of all Americans went to church weekly, according to a Gallup poll.3

We were the first generation to be born into the world with the Bomb, and our early intimacy with the reality of Armageddon gave us a unique adolescence. Like many leitmotifs of the sixties, this one burst forth during John Kennedy's presidency. Everyone who went to school in the fifties knew of the possibility of nuclear war through CONELRAD and those eerie air-raid sirens, commanding us to dive under our desks or curl up on the floors of windowless hallways to evade the imaginary radioactivity. By the spring of 1960, 70 percent of the public favored the construction of air-raid shelters in every community; by the fall of 1961, 53 percent thought a world war was likely within five years.4

Yet the threat of the definitive horror became palpable only once, in 1962, when President Kennedy peered over the edge of the abyss during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Going from routine air-raid drills to knowing that the world really could end at any moment was like the difference between watching a murder at the movies and coming home to find your parents pinned down in your living room by a stranger with a shotgun. The seeds of a much wider generation gap were sown when every one of us, simultaneously, for seven days, came home every afternoon to watch all our parents looking down the barrel of the same enormous shotgun. We did awake physically unscathed from this nightmare. But it eliminated our confidence in our parents' ability to control the world or protect us from its wickedness. It's the kind of experience that works subliminal wonders for one's willingness to question the wisdom of one's elders.

Barely one year later, the memory of the missile crisis was displaced by John Kennedy's assassination, still the most petrifying instant in my lifetime. The panic we felt that Friday wasn't simply the result of the love affair much of the nation was having with this sexy man who had defeated an evil-looking rival and then injected every aspect of his presidency with emotion. More important was the fact that no president had been murdered since McKinley was shot in 1901. After that gap of six decades, only Americans over sixty-five could remember a presidential assassination. The possibility of such a catastrophe had evaporated from the national consciousness. When White House aide Ralph Dungan called Hubert Humphrey on November 22 to tell him, "The president has been shot," Humphrey asked, "What president?"5

If nothing was more shocking than Kennedy's murder, probably nothing he accomplished was more significant than the simple fact of his election to the presidency. Until John Kennedy broke a 171-year-old barrier of prejudice, only undivorced Protestant men had served as American chiefs of state. Neither Democratic liberals (who infuriated the Kennedys by getting Eugene McCarthy to nominate Adlai Stevenson in 1960) nor Democratic Southerners supported this Irish Catholic's nomination: The power base he used to force the party's embrace was created by his family, almost entirely by his father. None of the Kennedys lost an election from 1948 until 1968-a record that preserved their fabled aura of invincibility throughout that period. John Kennedy did lose the fight for the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nomination to Estes Kefauver. But after Adlai Stevenson lost to Eisenhower in another landslide, professional politicians regarded Kennedy's loss as the most fortunate failure imaginable.

In 1960 Kennedy carried the popular vote for president by an infinitesimal one-tenth of one percentage point. But he was still the first person to prove conclusively that a non-WASP could achieve unlimited upward mobility in America. His success made the country seem more susceptible to outsiders than it had been at any other time in the twentieth century-an exciting circumstance for everyone who nurtured the hope for substantial change through the quiescent fifties, especially those committed to achieving real equality between blacks and whites. Kennedy's selection in 1960 was one of the first volleys in the decade's war against all kinds of intolerance, hypocrisy, and exclusivity. This many-sided assault produced one of the proudest and least appreciated legacies of the sixties.

Thus, as 1968 began, these were some of the sources of the malaise gnawing away at many of the six million draft-age students in college, the largest group of undergraduates in American history: an absence of religious conviction; an unwanted intimacy with the nuclear void; an unexpected familiarity with political assassination-Malcolm X's in 1965, as well as John Kennedy's in 1963-and a yearning for the idealism that was the most evocative part of Kennedy's presidency. Together these disparate elements fed two seemingly contradictory but actually complementary impulses: the desire to create our own culture, a world of our own where we could retreat from the world of our parents; and the need to embrace causes larger than ourselves, crusades that would give us the chance to define ourselves as moral people. Neither impulse could have been satisfied without our two most powerful inspirations: the war and the radio.

Everyone from Marshall McLuhan to Theodore White has made what is now a reflex observation about the preeminence of television within the modern American psyche. They were not wrong; but as far as the Vietnam generation is concerned, I think they were only half right.

It was true that for viewers of every age, including thirteen-year-olds like myself, nothing could equal the shock of watching Lee Harvey Oswald's murder, live, on Sunday-morning television* the electronic catharsis produced by John Kennedy's televised funeral the following day. Five years later television news was bruising everyone's nerve endings nightly. In 1968 it brought the War in Vietnam and the war in the ghetto into every dorm room and living room with a power no other medium could match. The pictures Americans saw made millions of them intensely uncomfortable with themselves: pictures of the South Vietnamese national police chief shooting a suspected Vietcong in the head during Tet, of Martin Luther King's casket, and of Bobby Kennedy's bleeding body on a hotel kitchen floor; pictures of the uprisings all over America after King's death and the worst fires in the city of Washington since the War of 1812. Ghetto insurrections were followed by campus revolts, most dramatically at Columbia University. For the first time since their invention, televised pictures made the possibility of anarchy in America feel real. These scenes fueled the campaigns of Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon. They also destroyed Lyndon Johnson and crippled Hubert Humphrey's effort to succeed him.

For Americans from the generation that fought in World War II, I doubt that anything equaled the emotional power of these pictures. A young man, then a sophomore at Harvard, remembers his parents in Tell City, a tiny Indiana town, watching the riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968: "The beating of protesters was a very big shock. Nothing like that had ever happened in their lives-in their entire lives."6

But for everyone their son's age-all the men eligible for the draft during Vietnam and all the women who were not, the two million who fought in the war and the twenty-five million who, like me, never did-everything on the tube tearing us apart was almost perfectly balanced by the remarkable unity we achieved through the music on the radio. It was the only place in the history of the United States where, for a fleeting moment, we created a world of seemingly genuine racial and sexual equality, embraced by everyone under thirty-and millions more who fell in love with the beat.

To us, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Four Tops, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Everly Brothers, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Eric Clapton, Country Joe and the Fish, Chubby Checker, Laura Nyro, Simon and Garfunkel, Gerry and the Pace-makers, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, the Band, Blood, Sweat and Tears, B. B. King, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Martha and the Vandellas, the Mamas and the Papas, the Kinks, the Kingsmen, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Lovin' Spoonful, Santana, Traffic, Bob Johnson, the Bee Gees, the Temptations, Jethro Tull, Brian Epstein, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Moody Blues, the Blues Project, Muddy Waters, Them, Joni Mitchell, Bill Graham, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, Herman's Hermits, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Percy Sledge, George Martin, ? and the Mysterians, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Del Shannon, Berry Gordy, the Animals, the Searchers, the Safaris, the Zombies, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Dionne Warwick, Mary Wells, the Hollies, the Youngbloods, the Yardbirds, the Young Rascals, Ten Years After, the Righteous Brothers, the Walker Brothers, Roy Orbison, Paul Butterfield, the Persuasions, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Dave Clark Five, Richie Havens, Phil Spector, Van Morrison, the Velvet Underground, Carole King, Petula Clark, Jan and Dean, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jackson 5 were the ones who mattered most. These black and white men and women from Liverpool, London, Hibbing, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, and the rest of the artistic kingdom of America and Great Britain were the composers, performers, managers, and producers who filled the airwaves with the most eclectic-electric-wrathful-revolutionary-romantic-soulful-psychedelic music ever played, simultaneously, on every rock-and-roll radio station in the world. The songs they produced kept us alive, even a little hopeful, through the most terrifying year of the decade.

Almost by osmosis, John Kennedy's adventurous spirit penetrated the culture, probably even more deeply than his politics. In 1960 his hair was considered unusually long for a presidential candidate, despite a new haircut for the campaign. After he became president, his private life stole a march on the decade in ways we never imagined at the time. Mary Meyer, one of his many girlfriends, introduced him to marijuana-and joked about getting high in the White House while the president had his finger on the Button.7 When he traveled to Vienna in 1961 for his first summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev; the notorious speed doctor Max Jacobson was one of his companions. **

If aspects of Kennedy's life-style anticipated the youth culture of the sixties, in a peculiar way, his murder expedited the inauguration of its icons. No other death depressed us as completely. More than ever before, we needed an emotional lift: distraction, a place to put it all, to bury our anguish and rediscover our joy. Just four weeks after his four very young, very sexy, and (we thought) very long-haired Englishmen didn't just fill this emotional void: They took absolute control of our hearts and minds in a way that no one else ever would again.

It began in America with the release of two minutes and twenty-four seconds of music on December26, 1963, which by February 1 had become the number-one-selling single in the country. The utterly sentimental lyrics just happened to be a perfect fit for the sensibilities of the largest generation of adolescents America had yet produced. But there was much more than sentimentality to this song. Driven by Ringo's relentless, underrated drumming, it also had a chorus-mistaken by grown-ups for a screech-that we recognized as a primal scream.***

Christina Orth, high school senior, Piedmont, California: "I remember going round and round in circles in a Volkswagen convertible with the top down and the radio way up, with Dede Mitchell and her boyfriend, Pat Gilligan, and just screaming at the top of our lungs, 'I want to hold your hand!' We were the first three people in the whole school to hear the song."8

Jane Berentson, high school sophomore, Barrington, Illinois: "A boyfriend of mine had brought their records back from Europe. They were presented to me, like, here are these amazing people called 'the Beatles.' And I agreed. The girls all decided right away which one they were in love with. And the boys all decided which one they looked like."9

Sal Matera, eighth-grader, Brooklyn, New York: "If you told the tough guys they [the Beatles] were better than Elvis, they beat you up." Did you think they were better than Elvis? "Yes. But I didn't say. Only to the girls 10

And there was also this witness from Minnesota: "We were driving through Colorado. We had the radio on, and eight of the Top Ten songs were Beatles songs. In Colorado! 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid... But I kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go. ... In my head, the Beatles were it. . . . It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before."11 The name of this witness was Bob Dylan.

Kennedy taught students of the sixties the power of the individual: how one man could change the way a whole country felt about itself, particularly if the man was young, charismatic, and followed an elderly general into the White House. The Beatles illuminated the power of collaboration, and their message was even more surprising. These Liverpudlians proved that four kids from a decaying British port, rock-and-roll musicians without money or connections, just good looks, a canny manager, and colossal talent, could change the way the whole world felt about itself, practically overnight.

By the time their masterpiece appeared in June 1967, the rarest thing in America was a teenager with his hair combed straight back with Vitalis-and the Beatles were the most famous people on the planet. Critic Langdon Winner explains: "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper's album was released. In every city in Europe and America the stereo systems and the radio played, 'What would you think if I sang out of tune. . . Woke up, got out of bed... looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder...in the sky with diamonds, Lucy in the . . .' and everyone listened. At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food-Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend-the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I've ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."12

The release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the summer of 1967 was even more important in one other respect. Our fiery embrace of this fabulous foursome wasn't merely the source of almost perfect happiness; it also represented our biggest bet ever against the supposedly better judgment of our elders. (Newsweek did make "Bugs About Beatles" its cover story in February 1964, but it dismissed them visually as "a nightmare" and musically as "a near disaster." 13) With Sgt. Pepper, youth won its wager. Despite the explicit contribution of controlled substances to this album, it forced even the most skeptical adult critics to admit that rock and roll could be art. For the first time ever we had proved to the world, and to ourselves, that we really could be as perceptive as our parents.

TO MANY, the Rolling Stones looked like the Beatles' archrivals, but the boys from Liverpool provided plenty of clues that they actually considered a slender fellow from Hibbing, Minnesota, to be their supreme competitor: the one who always wore his harmonica on his chest, the one George Harrison simply called "the man."14

Contrary to his own legend, Bob Dylan-born Robert Zimmerman-had actually been a model high school student. "His ratings by the teachers on personal appearance, social adaptability, courtesy, emotional stability, trustworthiness and honesty, dependability and self-reliance, industry and effort, civic responsibility, and cooperation were all very high," according to the Hibbing superintendent of public schools. 15 But his yearbook revealed that he planned "to join Little Richard."16 He was distracted from that ambition when he read Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory.

From then on, "he wanted to have free rein," according to his father, Abe Zimmerman. "He wanted to be a folk singer, an entertainer. We couldn't see it, but we felt he was entitled to the chance. It's his life, after all, and we didn't want to stand in the way. So we made an agreement that he could have one year to do as he pleased, and if at the end of that year we were not satisfied with his progress, he'd go back to school."'7

Dylan turned twenty-four in 1965. By then he had recorded four albums, The New Yorker had profiled him, the New York Times had canonized him ("the brilliant singing poet laureate of young America"), his father finally believed in him, and the former Bobby Zimmerman had abandoned the solo style that made him the most celebrated folk singer of modern times. He would never repeat himself.

From the beginning Dylan had an uncanny ability to anticipate trends and events. And like the Beatles, the chronology of his career was intertwined with John Kennedy's life and death. "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the only one of more than three hundred compositions he has ever described as "definitely a song with a purpose," was recorded four weeks to the day before Kennedy was killed. "I wanted to write a big song in a simple way," he explained in 1985. "I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it." He was in Times Square when he learned Kennedy had died, and that night he sang the song in concert: "It sort of took over as the opening song and stayed that way for a long time."18 More than anyone else it was Dylan who taught a generation to make quick and brutal judgments. His anger was our public badge; the saddest songs we ever learned became our secret link. He knew they were his secret weapon.

In June 1965 he released "Like a Rolling Stone," a rock-and-roll breakthrough. It was the first song big enough to explain his abandonment of simple acoustical accompaniment; it also came closest to being the anthem of the generation. It was revolutionary, and not only because of its six-minute length, which made it the longest cut ever played until then on rock radio. (There was a fitting subliminal message there: To make money off us on this one, at least they'll have to mangle their format.) With organ, piano, tambourine, drum, guitar, and harmonica accompaniment, this was the song that shouted out a generation's deepest anxieties and most glorious dreams:

How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?'9

To me, its lyrics meant: Trust yourself. Be grateful that you will never find peace until you figure out a way to reinvent yourself. To everyone else, they meant everything else.

In the thirties Woody Guthrie was the preeminent musician in a great American tradition: the artist who discovered how to merge culture with politics. In the sixties Bob Dylan became the modern master of this art. His persuasive example attracted hundreds of professional imitators, and on every high school and college campus in America, millions of amateur followers. By the beginning of 1968, his songs were ubiquitous on the radio, performed by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez to Elvis Presley and the Byrds. For a generation in turmoil, he had become a thousand times as influential as his spiritual father. His purposefully ambiguous lyrics cemented his connection to the growing collective he identified in "The Chimes of Freedom" as "every hung-up person in the whole wide universe." Bob Dylan's combination of culture and politics created more than combustion. This was alchemy: the alchemy that produced the mood, color, and spirit of the sixties.

So it was not the draft alone that spawned the unrest that would change (the way Americans behaved at home-and the United States behaved abroad-not only in 1968, but also for twenty years afterward. It was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and marijuana and LSD and a thousand other things besides our vulnerability to the war that gave us that fleeting sense of ourselves as a generation apart, a generation with a mission. Certainly our opposition to the war was rooted in self-interest-or, more precisely, self-preservation-but it was the best example of enlightened self-interest in our time.

And it was this very young mystic poet from Minnesota, more than any other artist, who fostered the mood that would help persuade another poet-also a mystic, also from Minnesota-to accept the challenge that every other elected official in Washington rejected. The challenge was to run for the presidency of the United States and bring an end to the War in Vietnam. The man who accepted the challenge was Senator Eugene McCarthy In 1968 no other nonviolent act would change American politics or American foreign policy so permanently.

* The gory eight-millimeter Zapruder film of John Kennedy's mutilation wasn't shown on television until many years later. The most gruesome frames were even omitted from the sequence of nine color stills published in Life immediately after his death.

**Jacobson injected his numerous celebrity patients, including Tennessee Williams and Cecil B. DeMille, with what he described as a vitamin mixture. Amphetamine was actually its active ingredient. He finally lost his license to practice medicine in 1975. [New York Times 12/4/72 and4/26/75.]

***RCA's release of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 and his subsequent explosion on the national scene were probably more revolutionary cultural events-but in that instance, there was no synergy with the Eisenhower administration.

Reprinted with permission from the Author
© Copyright 1988-1996 Charles Kaiser

Notes from the Introduction

On to "This Wheel's on Fire", the 11th Chapter of Mr. Kaiser's book which deals with the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

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