I am often asked by my Russian colleagues what the 1960s were really all about back in America.They think: Well, he comes from over there and he is old enough to remember (more ancient than dirt would be another way of putting it), I am trusted to know the whole story in real-deal terms. So. I was never a full-fledged, card-carrying hippie, and I sure was not a minister for the Establishment. I spent many of those years in the great state of West Virginia, mountainous wonderland for hillbillies and a graveyard for dead coal miners. Thus I was on the periphery; like many, many others, I mostly watched the 60s unfold on television screens. I listened to a lot of Dylan. Ridiculous as it sounds, my pride and joy was a pair of boots that I bought after seeing Bob Dylan wearing ones like them in Greenwich Village on a record album cover. Those boots had a revolutionary feel to them. A 'wanna-be a ramblin man'' feel. But I didn't dare grow my hair below my ears because my school wouldn't allow it.
Nevertheless, for me the 60s really happened. In fact, I can say, albeit blushing with embarassment, it was the last time I ever completely believed in anything. How is that for a start? Yes, I once believed that the human race would improve. That we would put an end to all wars. That we would learn to love one another. I must have been crazy, but I thought that my generation could correct all those previous ones that had 'failed.'. Blacks and Whites together, etc. I believed that every bit as much as I now believe my breath probably stinks after smoking 20 cigarettes.
But there is nothing worse than mocking and ridiculing an old lover once you have moved on from her. People who do that are asses; one should always maintain an affectionate respect for whoever or whatever once evoked such powerful emotions, regardless of the outcome. So I remember the '60s in that, I guess, more or less wistful way, and not without love. Even if it was mostly an illusion, Yet how did it come about? From what genie's bottle did those years come shooting out at us?
Every individual is in some way a "Steppenwolf" (if you have ever read Herman Hesse -- and they did back in the '60s -- you will understand me), but collectively we are a pack of coyotes howling at the harvest orb in the autumn. A kind of radar overtakes us, and we respond in unison. Sometimes, the results are wonderful, producing, as if on some grand celestial impulse, the Renaissance painters and sculptors, the Elizabethan poets, the French Impressionists. This is to say, a group of inspired and more-or-less like-minded people rise up and change our perception of the universe. Good. Sometimes it happens in a bad way: witch-hunts, lynch mobs, Nazis that assemble under all flags, maniacal religious cults that merely cripple and deform the human spirit. Terrible. So the results vary, but the force behind it all seems blind, characterized only by some almost superhuman energy, simultaneously divine and infernal, which periodically detonates. No one really sees it coming, but afterwards everyone says they know why it did. Like economists..
That is how the '60s were. Quite simply, something happened. Something which had been festering for a long while...all at once, the lid blew off, like Mount Vesuvias, and the world as we knew it was radically changed. Or so we thought. Then, having flared its nostrils, it faded.
There are still a few hippies.And Charles Manson is still in prison. "Flower Power" culminated in mass murder. Some of the hippies became "yuppies" (Young Urban Professionals) in the late '70s. What could you have expected? They were Americans and, after they put the weed and acid tabs away they remembered the Bottom Line. They became their father's sons again. They cut their hair and put on the neckties and blue suits and 'grew up'. French wine, expensive modern art, and, for some, fashionable cocaine replaced "We shall Overcome": and "Kumbaya." (the idealist anthems of the era, a;ways sung in unison while holding hands) And today, these same people pay big money to see concerts featuring the fabled musicians from those days.. It reminds them of the ghosts they left behind. Nostalgia sells, you see. And, maybe even stoned as in the past, they search for their top-of-the-line cars in the parking lots afterwards, and, briefly, feel pure again. Maybe seeing those old rebels, now grown old like themselves, rips at their hearts.
But actually, the '60s neither began nor ended precisely in that decade. Indeed, to understand the American '60s, you have to first understand the '50s. This was the Baby Boomer period when Eisenhower and Nixon were running the show. The much toasted American Middle Class was at its staunch apex. American women did not polish their finger nails or toe nails, and sex was something you did in the dark. Everyone was on the lookout for Commies. The politicians, movie stars, and big-time athletes could drink themselves blind, beat their wives, kick their dogs, etc.,and some of the most famous leading men in the movies, the stud-muffins that made housewives of the era swoon, were, in fact, as gay as 'old Paree' --and no one cared because no one knew. No one wanted to know. It was all squeaky clean. And everybody smoked two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes every day. The 1950s should be remembered as the decade of Hypocrisy..Basically, this lasted until Kennedy won the election in 1960, and even for a couple more years. By then, at school they were starting to teach us what to do in the event of a nuclear war. Many, many instructions were solemnly advanced for purposes of safety, such as "retreat down into the basement of your house, shut all doors and windows," etc., concluding with "put your head between you legs, take a deep breath...and Kiss Your Ass Goodbye." But in the 1950s, God was still in his heaven and He was especially involved in helping America fight the Godless Russians. We, as Dylan mockingly sang, "had God on our side."
Under the surface of this utopia -- and again the Vesuvius image rebounds on the mind -- things were smoldering. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and Keruoac's "On the Road" came out (Classics that should be read if you wish to understand). Bearded hipsters known as "beatniks" began to appear. Lenny Bruce (the first of the great social-commentator 'comedians' and predecessor of Richard Prior and Geroge Carlin) made the scene and drove his rapier into the status quo. Paid the price big time, died a junkie, but changed America. A gay Jewish poet named Allen Ginsburg wrote an chanted his way toward becoming his generation's Walt Whitman (also gay -- these fashioners of American mythology... isn't it ironic?). Elvis started gyrating on the stage, Jerry Lee Lewis was jumping up and down on the piano, and Rock an' Roll had the preachers crying "Satan".But the lid hadn't really blown off. Not yet.
Then Kennedy got his head blown off for real in Dallas. That, in my opinion after these many years, was when not only the Presidential head but the National lid too got blasted to smithereens in earnest, and maybe once and for all.. It wasn't that Kennedy was universally revered or had even distinguished himself as a great president. His re-election in 1964 was no sure thing. Many conservatives -- and the whole American South (haven of the KKK) loathed him, and maybe privately cheered when he died. Indeed, his good looks, wit and erudition, and the regal splendor of his wife, had many of those in Cowboy Country declaring that a return to European-style monarchy was in the offing. But when he was assassinated, America STOPPED. Just stopped. For that whole lonely weekend, it simply didn't function (Except for the National Football League, which dutifully played its games. Joylously.)
People couldn't accept that the outwardly noble, idealistic, youthful, and charismatic young man who was President could be annihilated thusly, could have his face ignited into brainburger before their very eyes. The Illusion of Innocence was suddenly mauled to death, like a tiger devouring a baby That's when it all started to go to hell..But that is when the really creative stuff started swinging too. And, man, it was worth hanging around for. Every great work of art, without exception, is the offspring of some kind of despair. Those early days in what we now call 'the 60s' were born of the same. As Oscar Wilde said back in London, generations earlier, "We were all in the gutter, but some of us were looking at stars."