Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Was The World Coming To?

I was shopping in my local grocery emporium the other day—emptying my wallet in exchange for an armful of unhealthy food—when a near, dear, and familiar sound started to drift amongst the vegetables (no, I'm not referring to myself and the other shoppers; I mean the green stuff they grow on huge farms).

The melancholy, heart-tugging tones of Glen Campbell’s By The Time I Get To Phoenix softly echoed through the store and momentarily brought me back to one of the most turbulent and pivotal times in American history: the late1960s and early1970s.  I chuckled softly to think that the supermarket surrounding me was still a farmer’s field back then. Those days found me easing my way out of grammar school and heading for the “big time” of high school.  Many of the older kids in my neighborhood were heading for Viet Nam and an uncertain fate.

But, many grownups—known collectively then as The Establishment--feared that the country was headed for hell in a hand basket.

As I glanced around the modern, brightly-lit market, it struck me as unbelievable that nearly a half-century had passed since those Days of Rage. 

That’s what truly defined those years: rage. There was plenty to go around.

By the time I got home, my brief stroll down memory lane had taken hold of me.  Although I had planned on spending a few hours getting some productive writing done, my concentration simply wasn’t there.  I meekly surrendered to the urge to drift back through time and space and return (at least in my mind) to those apocalyptic days.  I consoled myself with the possibility that this sojourn might result in an interesting blog post. (I’m still uncertain about that!)

I settled into my comfy old writing chair, opened a bottle of wine, and selected several CDs from my collection.  A Glen Campbell disk was first into the player.

To the plaintive tones of Wichita Lineman, I immediately drifted back to the days of the Goodtime Hour, Campbell’s summer replacement series which later became a hit on its own.  As a teenager, I enjoyed watching him jamming with musical cronies like John Hartford (who wrote Gentle on My Mind and was an accomplished musician in his own right), Mel Tillis, and Jerry Reed.

Most people don’t know that Campbell was a highly-successful session guitarist in Los Angeles before he started singing.

I’m glad he decided to try his hand at vocalizing.

It’s so sad to hear that he is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  The latest media reports I’ve read indicate that his family has moved him back home from an inpatient care facility.  I don’t expect him to be with us too much longer.  That saddens me tremendously.

His voice--so strong, clean, and expressive in his prime years--poured through my headphones.  The memories of that time so long ago cascaded across my mind like scenes from a treasured old movie.

To the strains of Galveston, I recalled the flood of songs that mirrored the unrest that had been building ever since the first wave of Marines landed on the beach at Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1965.  President Lyndon Johnson and his supporters blithely labeled them as “military advisers.”

America’s post-World War II optimism was nearly gone.  It had been an era of blind trust and obedience toward so-called “authority figures.”  We readily accepted and embraced the words of the leaders older, better educated, more experienced, and wiser than the rest of us.  After the years of agony and pain of World War II and Korea, our country’s leaders wouldn’t dream of embroiling us in yet another war. 

Would they?

But the times, they were a-changin’.

Plainly, the dark clouds were gathering.  Americans were taking sides—dividing ourselves against ourselves--over this mushrooming conflict in a little-known, obscure little country called Viet Nam.

Optimism was being replaced by fear; trust clouded by doubt; and blind faith supplanted by growing suspicion.

Our music reflected the mounting uneasiness festering on Main Streets in every hamlet of the country and in every American home.  The happy, upbeat bobby-socks-and-malt-shops rock and roll songs of the '50s and '60s were being increasingly overshadowed by protest songs and anti-war anthems.

I listened to Campbell giving such eloquent voice to the thoughts of a soldier serving his tour of duty thousands of miles away: remembering his hometown and his family; remembering the girl he left behind and whether or not she would wait for him; wondering if his next jungle firefight would be his last; and admitting to himself his fear of dying.

The music is perhaps my most vivid memory of that time.  The national unrest—amply fueled by the war and the civil rights movement--provided the singers and songwriters of the era with a mother lode of material.  Many folkies rode the wave of anti-war sentiment to successful careers.  Artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, CSNY, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix, CCR, and Peter, Paul, and Mary became household names through their repertoires of protest songs.  To this day, PP&M’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Where Have All The Flowers Gone can still bring back those images of tens of thousands of heartbroken families tearfully gathered at the new gravesides of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons who had been killed in jungles on the other side of the world.

Even Kenny Rogers made his feelings known with Ruby, an inconsolable song about a young married veteran returning home to his wife and facing the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Television played an epic role in the national debate as well.  Viet Nam was the first war to be brought directly into the nation’s living rooms in bright, pastel living color.  Daily and weekly body counts became staples of the evening network newscasts as anchors like Walter Cronkite withheld few details about what was happening on the other side of the world.

Advocates of both hawk and dove ideologies waved bombs and olive branches as they exhorted Americans to support either President Lyndon Johnson or the cause for peace.  You were left with little choice but to take sides; there was little room in the middle.

The war, the generals, the politicians, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and those who supported them were lampooned weekly by television shows such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  The network censors probably lost their collective sanity in struggling to sanitize the program content sufficiently for prime-time audiences.  These shows—and others like them—made for great nighttime entertainment, but only masked the contradiction, heartache, tragedy, loss, and rage that blew in the wind down every street in America like the answer nobody seemed capable of finding. 

Everybody was angry … and that rage manifested itself in a million obvious and subtle ways.

Many of the nation’s young men were angry (and terrified) at the specter of being drafted and shipped off to Viet Nam to become fodder for the meat-grinder that grew more insatiable with each passing month.  Economically-disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods seethed—and then burned—with anger over the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The entire nation—continuing to bleed from the wounds inflicted by the still-unresolved events of November 22nd, 1963--joined them in retching over the televised, senseless murder of Robert Kennedy. 

Serenaded by chants of “the whole world is watching,” the entire world indeed witnessed the hand-to-hand combat between anti-war/anti-politician protesters and the overwhelmed Chicago police that took place on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Gasps of horror could be heard as the street warfare abruptly shoved the convention into the background and took center stage before the eyes of the world.  As a result, decades would pass before the Windy City would again be entrusted with a major political convention.

The politicians stood indignantly before the television cameras and blamed the protesters; the protesters stood indignantly before the television cameras and blamed the politicians.  Nobody won.  Stalemate.  Meanwhile, the American tapestry was being publicly torn apart.

Strolling past the area nearly fifty years later, one is hard-pressed to even envision the mayhem that rocked a now pastoral and peaceful Grant Park.

But the times, they were a-changin’.

My thoughts drifted back to my childhood friends from the old neighborhood.  Back in those days, everybody on the block knew everybody else, and all the neighborhood kids played together freely.  One of my closest friends had an older brother—a “hoodlum” was the term they used back then—who was of prime draft age.  Recalling him now, he reminds me a great deal of Fonzie, the black-leather-jacket-tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold from TV’s Happy Days.  I poured another glass of wine and bid him a whispered tribute.  He now rests in a soldier’s grave, just another kid who got sent to ‘Nam and didn’t make it back alive.  Unfortunately, he had plenty of company.

The next CD in the player was a Peter, Paul, and Mary collection. 

Overwhelmed by the opposing forces battering him on all sides, the Johnson Presidency finally limped to a merciful conclusion.  In many quarters, his departure from the highest office in the land was celebrated as George W. Bush’s would be in 2008.

America had had enough of Lyndon Johnson … and Viet Nam. 

Americans embraced the slender ribbon of hope embodied by Richard Nixon.  But that delicate fabric was ripped apart in 1970 when the new President announced the invasion of Cambodia and the resulting call-up of tens of thousands of additional soldiers.  Mere weeks later, a confrontation between student protesters and Ohio National Guard troops at Kent State University resulted in the appalling shooting of several students.  The resulting photograph has become an icon of the fury and horror that marked that era.

The war’s death toll continued to escalate.  The anti-war protests and demonstrations continued to escalate.  Popular opposition to Nixon’s policies continued to escalate.  The tornado of public animosity caused Richard Nixon’s paranoia to escalate as well.  He publicly railed at a perceived lack of popular support and of being pushed into a political corner.  But the American people were weary and angrily demanding a path out of the national darkness. 

Quietly, behind the scenes, a few delicate rays of light began to part the clouds.

I remember my parents and I gathering around the small television in our living room and watching the draft lottery decide the fate (mine included) of thousands of young men one fateful evening.  The sigh of relief that rose between the three of us was clearly audible when my birthday was selected just high enough to likely spare me from Viet Nam.

The words, “Peace is at hand,” began to appear in the newspapers and on the evening newscasts.

The final CD of this nostalgic afternoon was a 1970s rock and roll anthology.

By then, music had become firmly entrenched in its psychedelic phase, spearheaded by the Beatles and their assorted dabblings.  John, Paul, Ringo, and George were strictly verboten in my father’s house for he despised them with every fiber of his being.  It wouldn’t surprise me if similar prohibitions had been imposed by other bewildered parents as well.

Very few rock and roll bands managed to evoke parental disgust like the Beatles.  What the hell was this world coming to?  Millions of American parents were horrified to find their kids mesmerized by four English guys with electric guitars, drums, drugs, long, bushy hair, mustaches, screaming vocals, and lyrics like yeah, yeah, yeah.  To The Establishment (and when was the last time you heard that word?), the Fab Four must’ve seemed akin to outer space aliens.  As a result, any phonograph or tape deck I purchased would feature a headphone jack enabling me to enjoy my music fix in enemy territory.

After all, when you need to listen to Let It Be or The Long and Winding Road or I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Twist and Shout or I Saw Her Standing There, you need to listen.  Period.  There are certain inalienable rights.

(Trivia questions: what the hell was a phonograph? What the hell was a tape deck?)

I recall my parents visibly convulsing at the music produced by bands with names they considered nothing short of insane: Zombies, Kinks, Blue Magoos, Rolling Stones, Troggs, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk Railroad, Hollies, Grass Roots, Cryin’ Shames, Procol Harum, Lovin’ Spoonful, Three Dog Night, Vanilla Fudge, etc.

Yeah, the times they were a-changin’.

The last CD having been played, I drank one wistful final toast to that brief moment in history and switched the player off.  It was time to return to November of 2015.

It disturbs me to realize that—for many of today’s Americans—this moment in time is nothing more than a footnote or perhaps a chapter in a history book.  For those of us who were there and lived through it, it was significant; it was major; it was a cataclysmic moment in American history.  However, I also sincerely hope that we will never pass that way again.

I do find it somewhat amusing that many of the '60s protest leaders have ultimately embraced very conventional and capitalistic careers.  Perhaps a philosophy of “Now that you’ve beaten ‘em, it's okay to join ‘em” has prevailed.  Perhaps protest marches and demonstrations simply don’t pay the bills these days.

There is still an ample supply of societal issues to protest as we approach 2016: global warming, corporate corruption, pollution, taxes, animal abuse, domestic violence, gun control, child abuse, police and community relations (shades of 1968!), political corruption, privacy, human trafficking, and the list goes on ad nauseam.  There are, of course, demonstrations taking place these days, but they pale by comparison to the coast-to-coast passion and rage that filled the air (along with tear gas) in the late 1960s.

Are we all getting older?  Wiser?  Maybe a bit complacent? 


Would you mind if I considered those profound possibilities AFTER I check my email and run out for a cup of coffee?


No comments :

Post a Comment

Your comment here