Growing Up Sixties: An Editorialized, Childhood Remembrance


INSPIRED BY THE CNN DOCUMENTARY SERIES

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens, ‘Tale of Two Cities’ …

While written in 1859, Dickens’ words could have been easily transcribed some one hundred years later as a premonitory description for 1960s America – as well as much of Western Europe – with the French Revolution long since past.

The historically reassigned and repurposing of this quote, suitably applied to the Sixties, had occurred to me some years ago – and such similarities would continue as Dickens further set the stage in his book’s opening ...

… it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … We had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”.

It was, indeed, The Sixties …

It was also the age I had grown up in as a literal ‘child of the 60s’, filled with wonder and excitement – and filtered with childlike romanticism. And for many of my older contemporaries … the romance never ended. Just as the 1950s would forever conjure a recollective, first-kiss excitement for conservatives, the 1960s would be that ‘special girlfriend’ for liberalism – as the one most fondly remembered – and the one liberals could never entirely let go of. And very much like that girl, the 60s would continue to haunt with the ‘what if?’ question that lingered for decades – and lingers, still. For there is no romance more profound than that imagined in ‘what could have been’.

But unlike girlfriends – or boyfriends – decade-delineated history is where romanticism meets folklore. And folklore is where legends, real or conjured, are passed on to successive generations ...

For the young conservative of this day, not yet even born, the 1950s – or the purported values associated with it – prompts their adoration ... In contrast, nuevo, suburban coffeehouse liberals born after 1975, say, find their folklore romance in the 1960s. And with these respective, current-generation attachments comes the synthesis and faux recreations of what each has believed they had missed out on. For the young liberals of this day, perhaps more so …

From Woodstock revivals that could never possibly replicate anything other than the name, to ‘Occupy’ movements that enjoyed the luxury of ‘impossible failure’ simply because no discernable goal had ever been set or defined, the 60s would find themselves vaguely reconstituted in freeze-dried form for those willing to believe that ‘Taster’s Choice’ was the same as fresh-ground.

Still, such things would provide a renewed, remember-me stage for Arlo Guthrie and the now late Peter Seeger, say – while those more contemporary would recycle and effectively parody the folk singer’s motif of some 45 years, prior … This, as an example of time, itself, possessing the ability to become a cheap knock-off of itself. But at least the Occupy Movement – unlike the Tea Party – kept its staging and retro-costuming within the same century.

Of course …

There is one area where the suburban mock-up protest movements of this day authentically replicate many of the rallies of the 1960s … The technical majority of the attendees are there for the party … The Event. This may have been less true for the Civil Rights marches, perhaps – yes – though they were certainly not entirely immune to lack of participant’s authenticity. But most rallies – then and now – are little more than expanded Block Parties with media coverage ornamentation.

Understand, those attending … then and now … likely share a common sentiment – as much sentiment, as ‘cause’. But as it relates to the aforementioned romance, there is little genuine passion. And, despite the appearances of those more angry and dissatisfied with themselves than the world around them, the very same can be said of a Tea Party rally … unless, of course, you confuse passion with psychosis.

But most rallies – indeed, entire movements, in some instances – are organized for the spot-lit glorification of its organizers and key speakers, looking for a ready-made audience where ‘cause’ is simply the loss-leader. And for those in that audience, their presence isn’t one of passion … it’s fashion (at the risk of rhyming like Jessie Jackson).

And somewhere in there, with the endeavor to reestablish or recreate one’s own idyllic time – be it the ‘Conservative 50s’, the ‘Liberal 60s’ … or 1776 – one’s romanticized impression is beyond illusionary, it’s Hollywood cinematic – far more colorful and vibrant. And nowhere in there … is reality.

But for those of us who were young children in the 1960s – or who had at least seen the majority share of that decade – there was a laundry list of objective and verifiable, historical facts. As children – even with a limited or variable understanding – we had been witnesses to … The Berlin Wall, The Cuban Missile Crisis, three major assassinations (four, if you include Malcolm X), the Chicago and Watts riots – and beyond, with 30 major city riots of the 1960s, the first televised and unpopular war, Mandela, Six-Day War in the Middle East, Black Panthers, the moon landing … and the Manson-Tate murders as what I had once described as ‘America’s First Pop Murders’ ... all against the backdrop of the Cold War with the Soviets.

Cool.

And should the Kent State shootings of May, 1970 be included as a ‘Sixties Event’? Most would say yes …

In Annie Gottlieb’s excellent book, ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’ that chronicles much of the 1960, a number of notables ‘who were there’ were surveyed concerning their particular takes and recollections. And, as it related to a timeframe, all agreed that ‘The Sixties’ didn’t occur in a tidy ten year period between 1960 and 1970. There were a few esoteric proposals, including that the 60s had actually found its birth with the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. The reasoning was involved. Another suggested that the 60s was just an inevitable counter-response to a neat and injection-molded 1950s, as a catalyst for the decade that followed.

But the theory and time domain that rang most true to me in Gottlieb’s book was this: ‘The 60s began with the first shot in Dallas – and ended with the last word of the Nixon resignation speech’. That was pretty much it for me.

And within this calendar, we – as children – found ourselves growing up in two rather distinct, yet often overlapping worlds: The Socio-Political world and the Pop Culture planet.

I recently posed the rhetorical question to someone who grew up in the same era, ‘Which was the foreground and which was the foreground?’ … I immediately supposed that there were different answers for different people, at different ages, in different locales – and quite different situations.

In no way wishing not to acknowledge those from Long Island who served and lost their lives in Vietnam – ten from my hometown, more commonly, in my childhood world of a somewhat better-off North Shore, ‘Academic Deferment’ dominated the conversation and permeated the air. But those in the less-resourced Farm Belt, Rust Belt, and South had a far more tangible relationship with Vietnam. They fought the war. The Northeast and West Coast protested it. I somewhat oversimplify the distribution – but not by much. In short, while much of America’s youth could luxuriate in ‘Pop’, others were far more familiar … with ‘Bang’.

But for we ‘literal children’ of The Sixties, we were certainly not of draft age. With this, we could fully immerse ourselves in The Beatles and James Bond – our ‘foreground’. Both film and music were changing at a pace previously unknown – as were most other arenas in that decade. Consider the space between the Kennedy assassination and the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967. Four years. And, in that duration, America had gone from a ‘1963 era’ that was far more reminiscent of the Vitalis 1950s – to an acid-dipped, free-love, and often celebrated Haight-Ashbury. Yeah. In four years.

It may be reasonably argued that not everyone took that trip, but – in some sense – they did. They were forced to, no matter how reluctantly, as ‘Summer of Love’ – and beyond – would become an integral part of their day-to-day, sociological landscape, even if … as their ‘background’.

As a child, four years is a lengthy time – summer to summer, school year by school year – or so it seems. But for those older, running on clocks more hastened and adult in their pace, the rate – and sheer velocity – of the changes just had to be staggering ... and previously imponderable.

I argue, with confidence, there has not been a Post-War decade since that has experienced such a metamorphosis, for better or worse – background or foreground.

But for those of us growing up in what was, at once, both a frenzied and exciting world – one of wide-eyed wonder, Pop culture was very much our foreground.

No matter what our catechism, the Holy Trinity was comprised of The Beatles, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – though many of us on Long Island had replaced The Stones with the far more suburban-safe, Simon & Garfunkel – our fellow New Yorkers who chronicled the city’s underbelly in ‘The Boxer’ in such a way that was digestible in our North Shore sanctuaries – where the New York City winters weren’t bleeding us and we never got the come-ons from the whores on 7th Avenue. Our existence was more … ‘Mrs. Robinson’. More ‘Graduate’.

But the Pop culture was also far more diverse than it has ever been since. A single radio playlist could include Sinatra’s ‘Strangers In The Night’ and The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ tucked in the same space between two commercial breaks. This, in a time before the AM band became the disgruntled, CB radio of Right-Wing Talk. And the FM band would begin to take hold, offering music more expansive on the ‘side tracks’.

In was also a time when you could see a light and breezy ‘Rat Pack’ movie as a slightly more adult cinematic alternative to ‘Mary Poppins’ – or have the groundbreaking violence of ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ splash all over the screen at The Beacon Theater on Main Street. And then there was Bond. James Bond. In fact, between ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘The Graduate’ (that – yes - many of us were able to see), we prepubescent boys had been given the template for our imagined destinies.

But much of the decade’s ‘Pop Diversity’ came from the fact that The Sixties was an age of transformation that, no matter how swift, played host to two decades that included the decade prior. There was a fair about of bleed up to, say, 1967. Daytime television syndication would rehash the idealism of ‘Leave It To Beaver’ and ‘Dennis The Menace’ – to be replaced in the evening hours by ‘Laugh In’ and ‘The Smother’s Brothers’, appealing to the suburban version of ‘counter-culture’ with a patio view. After all, for those of us growing up on Long Island’s North Shore, a ‘House Divided’ was just a split-level home in Manhasset.

Still, Glen Campbell played it safe with his ‘Goodtime Hour’, as did a seemingly endless array of ‘Variety Hours’ – and the likes of Andy Williams lingered, still. Truly, situation comedies continued to keep a foot more firmly planted in the 50s – to the extent that the benign, high school ensemble backdrop of ‘Room 222’ was considered ‘hip’.

The likes of ‘Batman’ and ‘The Monkees’ were simply camp and comic half-hours of unchallenging escapism – or distraction, more accurately. And few of us kids pondered how The Monkees managed a ‘4F’ classification at the draft board, outside of Davy Jones being English and likely not meeting the height requirement.

Meanwhile, network programs such as ‘Petticoat Junction’, ‘Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘Andy of Mayberry’, and ‘Green Acres’ provided vehicles where suburbanites could now openly laugh at the hicks, rather than snickering in private. These shows were quaint by design – and ‘country folk’ would be better avatars as Ghosts of America Past, then having a reimagined appeal … especially when the cities were being trashed and burned as recreational fare on the weekends.

Sixties television indeed was, to a greater extent, a refresh of the decade before – while stepping a careful and ambivalent toe into ‘Mod’ … or as business suits had fashioned it. Far more Petula Clark than Janis Joplin. More ‘Georgy Girl’ than ‘White Rabbit’.

It wouldn’t be until 1967 that the networks would reluctantly provide an apprehensive stage for the likes of The Doors and Jefferson Airplane in primetime. Yet, in that very same instant, this child would be additionally watching Sinatra’s ‘Man & His Music’ special with Antonio Carlos Jobim. And, because of the pop culture diversity I had grown up in … I watched with near-equal interest. I suppose it helped that Jobim played a guitar.

But imagine what it was to be a child in this ‘Sixties Atmosphere’ – one comprised of different worlds, often on a collision course. The very term, ‘Pop Culture’ – indeed, ‘Pop’ at all – pretty much didn’t exist until the 1960s. Set this against the backdrop of Vietnam, campus protests, Johnson, Nixon … and urban riots on the neighboring planets.

As a child of the 1960s, it was all you knew – having no other points of reference, outside of syndicated television encores of an era that was fading fast ... and was illusionary in the first place. Even political assassinations had become ‘matter of fact’ in our young world. Indeed, our greatest ‘achievement’ as children – if it could be considered as such – was our ability to selectively filter that world. This, as something we would continue to sift into adulthood – and hold onto to this day in the form of fond remembrances. And therein, again … is the romance. The special girlfriend we’ve been going steady with … ever since.

In my frequent recollections over recent years, I came to realize that the age one grew up in could be greeted in one of two ways: Revolt … or embrace. Keep in mind that the ‘college radicals’ of the 1960s were, as described in Gottlieb’s book, the very ones who had previously sat cross-legged on the floor, watching black & white television in their Davy Crocket hats. They would, in turn, revolt against their upbringing – for whatever reason, often cited as one of ‘dissatisfaction’. Said another way, a flower-adorned ‘Child of The Sixties’ was truly .. a child of the 50s.

Gottlieb’s books aside, it may also be argued – with some evidence to support it – that ‘The Sixties Generation’ was comprised of America’s first Spoiled Suburban Brat generation. Spock Babies, in short. Over-indulged. Under-corrected. Excessively bored.

It was, indeed, the most ‘accommodated’ generation up to that time. And, as these Spock Babies became adults – generating a new generation of their own – their own children would far surpass even them in self-indulgency and egocentricity. But this newer generation would not be as bored as their parents. For, in order to be bored, one has to have an innate interest and intellectual curiosity in something – anything – other than … themselves. After all, there is no boredom when the subject … is always you.

With this, an assessment can be made that the campus-trendy, ‘Sociology Majors’ of the 1960s would ironically create the most mindless, fucked-up generation known … to date. Watch this space for what happens next … For their now-emerging litter, seminated during the generation-long, ‘Night of The Living Brain Dead’ is in the bullpen, waiting to take the mound … that is, if the act of throwing a ball at all doesn’t prove to be too much of an effort for them.

And no – I’m not a conservative, by the way. I’m merely an observer.

But if we are to wax nostalgic over the more cherished legacies of The Sixties – inclusive of the music, the films, and civil rights, say – then one must, in fair assessment, consider what else the 60s has wrought ... In this regard, as one reflects upon what were regarded as the sociological strides and liberties that were achieved in that decade, one may look around now – asking, “and for what?”… Much of what was achieved then has since been squandered – and often by the very people who might have otherwise benefitted – no matter how shy of idealistic goal. Moreover, for those longing for an activist-infused ‘Sixties Revival’, the question may be additionally asked … “and for whom?” …

From an absolutely horrific and senseless ‘urban culture’ that’s bled – indeed, hemorrhaged – into the heartland, to the mall-centric vapidity of the current suburban generation, existing only as mere avatars of a text-field … for whom would we offer ‘progress’? Should we really bother with wastelands where its own inhabitants celebrate the waste – or rather, the behaviors that have created it? And these ‘cultures’ – such as they are, urban to sub-urban, are the trickle-down descendants of the 1960s.

But no … neither liberalism – or conservatism – are exclusively to blame, if you’re looking towards politics. If anything, they have both been contributors – as each have been purveyors of self-indulgency in their own, special way. From liberalism’s 'hedonistic counterculture' (for want of a better term), to conservatism’s commerce-centric world of personal acquisition, both promote a ‘me’ epicenter – each pretending to be for the benefit of all ... and each, respective side … believing it.

Still, in truth, politics is only the scenery. It’s the people, themselves – all of them – who have provided the contemporary foreground. And we started painting that in … in the 1960s. Stand back – and look at the results. For in the end, for many of us – those who had been children, it would simply become … our ‘Romantic Era’.

Long live The Sixties – if only in our broad hearts … and selective minds.

- Joseph -

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