The arrival of The Beatles in February of 1964 and the subsequent cultural changes they fostered (whether consciously or not) paralleled momentous changes in the American social and political landscape. From 1964-70 Boomers found themselves awash in powerful cultural currents coming from, it seemed, every direction:
- The civil rights movement, which had reached its zenith with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial after the March on Washington in 1963 had seen some fruition in the passage of landmark legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. But that movement had begun to move in a more radicalized direction, partly as a result of police brutality. Even as a “loyal opponent” such as Malcolm X was assassinated by members of his own religion, younger, Boomer-aged black leaders emerged such as Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton calling for a new approach to race relations that reflected more the beliefs of Malcolm X rather than Dr. King – an approach based on a concept they called “black power.” Riots in American cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark reflected black frustration.
- The discontents of American youth as expressed in the Port Huron Statement had led to the evolution of what would become as radicalized a political group as any in America: Students for a Democratic Society. SDS, who more than any other organization formed the backbone of the movement that became known as The New Left, reached its zenith in 1968 when members of the Columbia University SDS chapter took over the university’s administration building. The focus of SDS’s ire was the American military-industrial complex . They were joined in this protest by other youth organizations, some even more radical, including the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies.
- The escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam (fueled by the draft which affected the poor and minorities in unfair proportions) served as a crux between these parallel movements for social change. Civil rights organizations protested the excessive numbers of young black men forced to serve in the war. Student and youth organizations protested the government’s coercion of young people to serve the aims of the military-industrial complex. The combined movements’ most powerful moment came at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 where national media showed in glaring detail the brutal treatment of the anti-war/anti-racism demonstrators by Chicago police. The subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7” (pared down from the Chicago 8 because Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers became so disruptive in court that he was removed from the court room and tried separately) became a cause celebre as well as a media circus and was influential in turning even the most conventional Boomers against a system that constantly violated the free speech and other civil rights of any who openly protested against it.
And chronicling all this chaos for Boomers was the music.
Music, the connective tissue of the Boomer generation’s psyche, was changing rapidly. The Top Forty continued its sway over Middle America, but a whole new music scene had sprung up – a scene that was “underground” and that one learned about by word of mouth – and by trying to tune in distant (and then rare) radio stations (AM and FM) that played music by bands who did daring, avant garde, long-form experimental rock music – music that moved beyond even the masters (The Beatles and Rolling Stones). There were new English bands appearing like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (!), and The Who. There was the rise of the West Coast scene led by California bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and Spirit. Hovering over all this was the spirit of Dylan.
The songs these bands wrote were not the simple love plaints of the Edenic period of Beatlemania – they were experiments in sound with lyrics that explored issues like war, drug use, sex, alternatives to Christianity, protest against social/cultural bias, and the individual’s role in the larger culture. They took Boomers a long way from “She Loves You.”
Then came the gatherings of the tribes.
Rock shows went from tight-assed, stay-in-your-seat affairs in traditional theaters policed by ushers trained by the S.A. to free-form experiences in clubs and arenas set up to maximize audience interaction – and self-expression – no matter how “eccentric.”
Advances in sound technology made it possible to have larger and larger rock shows with larger and larger audiences. From the nascent – still highly staged theater-bound – extravaganza the T.A.M.I. Show (and its relations), rock concerts made a quantum leap.
First came Monterrey – the first (and from a career making performance standpoint, the most important) of the “tribal” rock festivals in 1967. Boomer audiences of the concert film (for Boomers this kind of concert experience reflects electronic media’s ability to record and transmit experiences that Boomers accept as equivalent to being present physically) were introduced to, or became more aware of, artists who are now part of rock’s pantheon – The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. As a festival, Monterrey was like the place where it was held – California – laid back, peaceful, totally groovy. It represented all that Boomers found attractive about the counter-culture.
Two years later came Woodstock.
There are two elements about both the actual Woodstock festival and the subsequent concert/experience film that Boomers responded to: first, the (for the time) special visual effects (slow-motion shots, split screens, over-exposures of film) accompanied by “state of the art” sound reproduction made the Woodstock experience as affecting for Boomers who only attended electronically as for those who were actually there; second, the film focused on the audience as much (perhaps more) as on the artists. And Boomers – whether present at Bethel, New York, on those three days in August 1969 or watching Wadleigh’s recording of the events on movie screens in the hinterlands months later – identified and connected to the experience – and felt themselves part of Woodstock Nation.
We were all one. We were young. We were legion. Love was our mantra. Music was our language. And we could change the world – to a fabulous soundtrack. We were, to cite Woodstock’s poet laureate, Joni Mitchell, trying “to get ourselves back to the Garden….”
(Gratuitous aside: I still keenly remember hanging out, cars all around full of friends, at the local drive-in restaurant in my home town and listening to someone’s stereo blast out the soundtrack to Woodstock and – to the horror of the drive-in’s owners – chanting along with the Fish Cheer….)
I’ve said almost nothing, of course, about the elephant in the ‘enormous room” – dope.
That’s for Part 6….