September 15th, 2008


A Curious Bump in Time

Many of you reading these words were not alive in the 1960s. I must admit that I was alive then, though I was not old enough to be a part of any of the celebrated excesses of that era. I did try to make up for that during the 1980s, but my modest exploits would pale before the mythology (or indeed the reality) of the 60s.

What I want to discuss today is the bump in time I mentioned in the title of this post. It began around 1972 and lasted for several years thereafter. By the time this bump ended, the 1960s had become a distant memory in the collective mind of American culture. I was aware of this anomaly as it was happening, and though I’ve continued to collect data on it, I’m still not satisfied that I understand all of its causes.

In the fall of 1973, I entered high school and immediately began reaping some of the benefits wrought by the trailblazers who had gone to my school only a few years earlier. If I’d been a student there in the 60s, I would have been required to wear a tie every day, but by 1973, it was merely required that I wear a collared shirt. The code for haircuts had been rephrased to a vaguer guideline: “sensible and manly.” Yes, that’s precisely what it said in the student handbook. In actual practice, I never knew anyone who was called to task for their hairstyle, and many of us wore our hair quite long. There was a policy that prohibited the wearing of beards, and though it was enforced, it wasn’t really a problem. First of all, most high school boys aren’t yet able to grow a proper beard. There was one guy I knew of who came up with an admirable workaround. He was able to grow a full, lush beard so what he did was allow his sideburns to creep slowly down his face for a matter of months, until there was only a finger’s-width of space between them running down his chin. His other way of getting away with it was that he was A) Always well groomed and neatly dressed, and B) A quiet, well mannered fellow who never gave his teachers a moment’s trouble. This was a wonderful object lesson in The Art of Getting Away With Stuff in a Codified Environment. But I digress.

By the early 70s, 60s oldie radio stations were beginning to sprout up. Part of their playlist reached back to 50s artists like Elvis and Chuck Berry, but they were also playing songs from 3 or 4 years earlier and unapologetically referring to them as oldies. For the sake of comparison, consider the hit songs of 2004 – if you heard “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas or “Take My Breath Away” by Jessica Simpson on the radio today, would you expect to hear the announcer refer to them as “golden oldies?” I’m thinking you wouldn’t, yet this was what was happening in the early 70s.

This phenomenon was not just occurring in the area of pop music – it extended to every corner of society touched by the 60s counterculture. Bell-bottom jeans, which had begun as a homemade hippie innovation (aside from their historical roots as naval wear), could now be bought at your local Sears Roebuck & Co. But the larger expression of this phenomenon is trickier to quantify – it had to do with how the average person thought about and referred to the 60s. We suddenly began to refer to things that had happened “back in the 60s” as if it were a long time ago, as if we were referring to a time and place when the world was very different, and we were very different. It suddenly felt like a long time ago, and nobody seemed to consider this bump in time to be a strange thing – which was strange.

There seems to have been a confluence of factors that led to this state of affairs. A big one had to be the winding down of the Vietnam War. Though it formally lasted until 1975, it had entered its endgame phase a few years before that. I think another spike in the timeline goes back to that mad year of 1968, when we saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the upheaval in Chicago during the Democratic convention and the election of Richard Nixon. The following summer gave us Woodstock, which may have seemed to some at the time as the dawning of a new age but which in retrospect seems more like the last rush of a long high before the hangover set in. I also include the breakup of the Beatles in this collage, though I don’t see their dissolution as a cause but rather as an example of the evolutionary changes that were overtaking that generation.

The last major piece of the puzzle, I suspect, is simple demographics. The daring folks who had brought us all of those new ideas during the 60s, who had broken down the walls that needed so badly to be demolished, who had pointed out the hypocrisies that spent so many years hiding in plain sight – those folks had moved on to the next phase of their lives. They felt the need to put down roots, to become a part of mainstream culture, even as they redefined what the mainstream was. The hard lessons and scars they’d picked up along the way had taken the blush off the flower of their idealism, and it had all happened so quickly. Oh, the idealism didn’t die utterly, not at all. Many of those people became, and still are, vital forces in society and in their family and social groups, and they are still living the ideals of freedom and personal empowerment that propelled them into the social maelstrom of 60s counterculture. Their VW buses may have morphed into minivans and their love beads may be in the back of the jewelry drawer now, but they haven’t all abandoned the notions that gave them joy and enlightenment 40 years ago.

Speaking of demographics, there’s another important point about the 60s that is little talked about. It’s this: most young people were not hippies or members of the counterculture by any stretch of the imagination. That generation, like every generation, consisted mostly of people who were conformists at heart, though it was the non-conformists who got their photos in Life Magazine and their images transmitted on the evening news. The cost of forgetting that simple lesson can be awfully high. For example, the National Guardsmen who shot and killed four students at Kent State University in 1970 didn’t appear to have figured it out.

So we come back to my generation, the first group to inherit these new freedoms without having had to work for them; without having had to live in a world without them. I must invoke the words of actor Douglas Campbell, who once said to me, “Those who inherit an institution have a very different view of it than those who founded that institution.” He said it in reference to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, which he helped to found, but he intentionally phrased it in general terms. He meant that those who inherit something have an unavoidable tendency to take it for granted, and that over time, this changes the institution into something other than what its founders intended. In the case of theaters and other cultural institutions, it also led Campbell to state that “institutions must sometimes be left to die so that a new generation can found new institutions.” In the case of broader social change, I think it means that we will sometimes, through our own neglect, lose the lessons and freedoms handed down to us so that we may remember how important they are and fight once again to win them back. This cycle is perhaps a little sad, but utterly human in character, and it applies utterly to the freedoms we enjoy in this country – to the freedoms won in the upheaval of the 1960s just as to the freedoms cherished by this country’s founders. The price of forgetting those lessons will come as a much harder bump than the one I have described from the early 1970s.
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