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Juan Rodriguez on the mystique and the memories of the ‘60s

By Juan Rodriguez

Why do the 1960s, their spirit and substance, have such a unique aura for Baby Boomers and Millennials alike? Today, those who grew up in that turbulent time tend to bathe, if not wallow, in nostalgia. Today’s young generation tends to view the 60s with a curious envy, as if they missed out on something important, innovative, ad nauseam. The reality of that decade is more nuanced, if no less hurly burly.

First there is the problem of dividing up chunks of time into decade blocks and assigning characteristics to each one. (As CNN has done, relatively successfully, in its recent documentary series survey of the last four decades of the 20th century.) The trouble with this approach is that time is continuous, without clever little themes; one event or trend or movement or bubble is likely a consequence of another earlier event.

The “liberating” sixties pop cultural explosion would not have existed were it not for seminal events and personalities of the previous decade. The 50s are often cast as yoked in complacent conformity, with people in lockstep with the decade’s great post-war consumer explosion (tail-finned automobiles, kitchen appliances, home entertainment consoles and the like) and scientific advances (space satellites, vaccines for diseases like polio).

But against this consumerist backdrop lurked a rebel culture typified by rock ‘n’ roll, which engulfed the slickly tepid crooners of the day. Without Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and the 50s great musical (and sexual) catalyst Elvis Presley, the Beatles and their brethren could not have existed. (In particular, Berry’s songs of self-contained teenage culture could well apply to what’s “trending” for today’s youth.)

By the late 50s the originators of authentic rock ‘n’ roll had been effectively shut down or marginalized in favour of teen pablum (which, alas, even Elvis succumbed to). Yet the seeds had been effectively sown for the original sound to make its way to England, which cultivated a cultist’s taste for the music that
eventually grew into a cultural phenomenon – the British Invasion.

Meanwhile, the Beat literary movement – led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and many others – developed in the underbelly of American consumerist culture. Beatniks had their own language (“like, groovy, man”), fashion (in a word, black) and mores (an aversion to marriage and other “straight” social conventions).

The Beats were more influential than popular; they became every English schoolteacher’s nightmare, and the springboard for the literary wanderings of rebellious adolescents, who took refuge in these words that grown-ups called “kooky.” How else could the authorities describe Ginsberg’s primal poem Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …”)? Drug use (mainly marijuana) seeped into the underground mainstream from black jazz culture of the 30s and 40s (as typified by the hits song Have You Seen That Funny Reefer Man). The furtive cultural cauldron of the 50s could be symbolized by A Coney Island of the Mind, as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it in a title of an early collection of poems that’s remained popular over the decades.

It’s no accident that the British cover of the Beatles second album (With the Beatles) is a black and photo of each Beatle’s head supported by a black turtleneck sweater, de rigueur “gear” for the Beat generation.

The greatest achievement of such sixties youth heroes as the Fab Four, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan was to popularize what had already started (Motown and Soul music) and take it to the next level and beyond. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group today that explores the terrain between sexuality and demented spirituality as intensely as The Doors. You won’t hear a song that actually unabashedly celebrates drug use on today’s Top 40, as was the case with the Byrds’ “raga-rock” opus Eight Miles High.

In short, the pop music explosion of the mid-60s helped set the atmosphere of Youth Power that underlay the more “serious” endeavors of the 60s (the civil rights marches, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the pacifist movement in general, and feminism). As such, it is hardly trivial to say that 60s pop lit the fuse of liberation, not just in politics but in fashion; the bare-most mini-skirt (popularized by “mod” models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton) shows its influence today. Feminism was an offshoot of the civil rights movement; women had the right to behave and dress however they liked, without the permission of men. (Even Frank Sinatra, Mr. Swaggering Macho, was dumped by Mia Farrow, climaxing an ill-starred experiment in inter-generational romance.)

Of course, some 60s pop catered to less sophisticated tastes (i.e. Herman’s Hermits) and, as with any era, there was plenty of dross to go around. But today, compared to the 60s hit parade, playlists are fragmented into genres and radio formats and you won’t hear as much variety on one station as you did from, say, 1964-68. Which is a shame, because musical tastes have grown to embrace the eclecticism that started in the 60s; you can enjoy hip-hop (the dominant form of the last 20 years) and electronica, as well as such outliers as Lucinda Williams.

For the record: My favourite artists of the last 20 years are Radiohead (who best exemplify progressive populism), Goldfrapp (moody electronica) and Portishead (a mélange of edgy styles). (Not to mention dozens of evergreen songs and albums from the 60s!)

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