This blog is sometimes critical of boomer culture. But Lex puts up a video of Jackie DeShannon & we all watch, pleased by the aesthetic & energy, the charm of a singer quite representative – to some – of the sixties. Those years went through cultural changes that, looking back, were breathtaking. But those of us who were teens moved through them as fish in water; we were obsessed with ourselves, of course, but we had no perspective; we’d never been young before.
In 1963 Jackie Kennedy balanced her little pill box atop masses of hair. A freshman in college, I’d encase myself in garter belts & nylons for class or stretch pants designed for ski slopes nowhere close to Nebraska. We ratted our hair. By 67 or 68, we were wearing see-through blouses and no bras, our dresses were so short my daughters finding one of my old dresses assume it’s a tunic, our hair hung below our shoulders, often below our waists. Sometimes changes come from the pragmatic – the pill & pantyhose. Now, dresses are about any length we want. For decades, they inched up and down, but in the sixties, they moved from the knees very high & then down quite low. The movement was so fast and extreme, styles merged & women in pants, in minis, with dresses trailing the ground appear at the same workplace, the same party.
One of my friends, Scotus, likes to see the movement between the early & late sixties as a contrast between the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963) and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”(1967 ). He’s got a point. But I’m amazed at how different our memories are: it wasn’t just different perspectives on the same music, idea, movie, place – the object at the center of our thoughts, often our obsessions, were different.
Lex says there were great bands in the sixties: “The Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Chocolate Watchband and the Sonics and the Nightcrawlers all made some great records” he says. I look at the names & can’t remember any. I ask around. A couple of my colleagues remember the 13th Floor Elevators from sock hops in their youth – they were Texan. My husband remembers them, remembers the Sonics. But they weren’t in the mounds of LPs he brought to our marriage. Looking through Amazon & utube, I suspect Lex’s choices aren’t all that idiosyncratic. Or, perhaps, its just that there was so much out there to consume & our lives, the songs, the world wasn’t staying still for long. One of my colleagues looks at the list, remembers the sock hop, but then wants to talk about the one song on every Elton John album that is just great – the one he pulls out and listens to over and over. And the Stones – ah, what the Stones meant, he & my brother would agree: it was they that they remember. And someone, just last week, was ecstatic with Stones tickets. But they’re even older than we are, I said. Well, its hard to see them as a North Star, but maybe they are.
I can get over my head really fast when it comes to pop music – I’ve got a lousy ear & haven’t always cared much. But my acquaintances are not that way. And I find each speaking of different icons.
In my youth, the era of the great musicals was slowly winding down, but some of us loved those passionately. (One of the bizarre but not unrealistic moments is when Debra Winger, smoking pot & listening to old musicals, prepares for her wedding in Terms of Endearment.) I can remember one of my friends belting out those old musicals – bouncing them off the walls of parking garages at night. He ended up playing them for decades at a piano bar, only quitting a couple of years ago. For many people, though less often for teenagers, Frank Sinatra was still adored and these were years he put out some of his best. One of my boyfriends loved Dean Martin & watched his show, quoting it the next day. He was not, of course, one of my more musical friends. But lately, I heard a cd and realized that Dino had virtues – his voice caressed the lyrics, warmed the song.
My friends were various & various in their passions. They were even more varied in their abilities. One guy in our group was already on his way to being a well-respected composer – though in the manner of “serious” music today, his name & his music are not widely known & he’s an academic. But I can remember his significant other, my dear friend, rocking on the bed, mouthing the lyrics to Joan Baez & Odetta, filling his poetry with allusions to Dylan. Meanwhile, another friend was quite serious about becoming an opera singer and in her apartment the records she’d pull out were opera.
In high school, we longed for the cool of coffee houses & West Coast jazz. In college, we first found the folkies – The Kingston Trio, The Belafonte singers, Peter, Paul & Mary, even Pete Seeger. The Beatles were great & everybody loved them, the soft folkies came & we listened. But when it all came down to what was in the back of our minds in those years, it was Dylan and those like him. The guy that lived in the attic in the first house where I rented a room was obsessed – buying out the front row of seats. Fifteen years later, I ran into him. He was driving a cab, but that was his day job. At night, he still sang in a local club: I wondered if he also kept that case of harmonicas he always slung across his shoulder. I remember once during that weird year we all shared our troubles & our bathroom, he phoned in sick; he suffered, he said, from the potato famine. (I guess all those folkies really wanted to be Irish.) He introduced me to Ian & Sylvia. My husband, a thousand miles away, had come to love Eric Anderson. (And, by the way Lex, we didn’t smoke dope. We might later on, but this was way too early & we were all way too Midwestern & besides, hell, we were sufficiently out of it on our own.)
The Beatles led the great British invasion of those years; it seems fitting that a group that clearly loved being together celebrated romance in such songs as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “When I’m 64.” That freedom & quirky buoyancy was reflected in Georgy Girl and Morgan and especially, The Knack. (Though Blow Up notes the down side of that free for all.) On the other hand, the American who began as Robert Zimmerman & took on a name resonant of the Celtic bard tradition writes of isolation and loneliness: “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Tambourine Man.” Americans watched The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, the tone that Easy Rider ends with – the “We blew it” – was ours. So, as British novels end in marriage & American ones with a hero “heading out for the territory,” in mid-twentieth century, our pop heroes represented different voices. The Beatles’ official site describes them “Unafraid of growth, dogged individuals with a powerful devotion to the group ethic, the Beatles accepted each other’s offerings and really “cooked” to make each record a feast that left us breathless with admiration. They never stood still.” Meanwhile, the loneliness at the core of Dylan resembles that we hear in the center of Sinatra’s quiet and later in the quiet spaces in Willie’s songs. One of my husband’s friends wrote a phenomenological study of Nelson’s lyrics, arguing what most characterized them was a haunting & beautiful loneliness, even emptiness at their center.
I try to explain to someone a generation younger – it wasn’t really that Dylan was counterculture. It wasn’t really that we were anti-war. We weren’t political – no one much was yet. (Well, Pete Seeger, of course.) Our music & our tastes came out of the fifties and its obsession with mental illness & alienation. We were prepared for it by the beats & the jazz our parents listened to. Brubeck cool. Sure, Dylan sat at Guthrie’s feet, but we didn’t know Guthrie. We didn’t care. We just wanted to sit around & talk about ourselves – throw in something from the novels we were reading, philosophy & history but in the end, it was always about us. Shannon’s right to complain about our generation’s naval-gazing, solipsism. But I’m not sure that we were that much worse than most are during those years. Still, there were so many of us and somehow, some of us never made our way out of that solipsism, that inward gaze of late adolescence. Probably the rest of you can give up on any of us still lost – I think we’ve passed the point of no return.
But, as always, our cultures were more various than this implies; most of us take a bit, remember how we felt because we did something & in the background a song was playing. The Beatles changed us and experience changed them. “Eleanor Rigby” (1966) catches loneliness, too. By decade’s end they are splitting up. Meanwhile, Dylan has gone to Nashville. Mellower in Nashville Skyline, mellower in those riveting duets with Johnny Cash, he’s singing “Lay Lady Lay” (1969).
When I came to Austin in the early seventies, life changed for me. I was beginning to grow up. Early in our courtship, we went to the great Dripping Springs picnic; we only had a day – there were papers to grade and papers to write. But Willie Nelson had arrived & much happened in Austin city limits following that 3-day festival. I remember the director of my husband’s dissertation, a quite respected Victorian scholar, commenting that in Austin he’d come to like country music, too. (I suspect he started knowing something about music; I didn’t.) His point was that country music was about grown ups – cheating, yes, but also families and death and faith. I came to love the lyrics, too.
To our marriage, my husband brought mounds of records, a hundred country/western songs he’d been writing, and a variety of instruments – from the medieval to the hammer dulcimer to the guitar. They fill up cabinets & nooks around our house; for countless nights they’ve also filled our living room with smoke & beer bottles &, well, its not fair to call them drunks – certainly not any more. Now the guys he plays with don’t drink much and never smoke indoors. We’ve grown older. Still, I flee, moving around the house, the music filtering in. I’m pretty much musically illiterate, but that’s okay with me & generally they don’t care. They can hang out at my house. (And, thankfully, I no longer feel an obligation to go to those August festivals.)
As with languages, my children are much more gifted than their mother. Our heritages were complicated in those days. But I suspect theirs will be more complicated. I’m moved inexplicably by the Irish cd, Faith of Our Fathers. Much is inexplicable. The variety offered on Amazon & Ebay, on Utube & Itunes – these all weave the present with the past. What will their memories be? All listen to John Prine over and over, as does their father. But one is writing scholarly papers on Gretchen Wilson & Loretta Lynn; another keeps MoTown on the car speakers, and the third played cello, listens to Indy stuff & has now married a guy whose era may be closer to Lex’s but his taste is, I suspect, quite different. My other son-in-law gives me a cd of opera from his parents – it barely registers with me; they genially give me credit for a more sophisticated taste than I have. And he brings to the marriage his pure voice, trained in a German choir while my other son-in-law played trombone in a Prague bar. This summer we tried to organize the cds; I’m lost in the classical but I’m not very good at organizing any of it. What do we do with this? Or that? How do they cohere? Ian has given us Gypsy music – where does that go? What do you do with Brave Combo? Sneaky Pete? My husband’s uncle? Our daughter chooses “Psaníčko” for her wedding – folkie, yes, but who else will have that particular memory?