When something phenomenal happens and you give it some thought – how did it come about, what were the forces at play, was it simply a matter of timing, was it inevitable, who can explain it? – it sometimes seems to be made of a complex set of circumstances. Dauntingly so. At other times, it just seems like kismet.
I’ve been involved in discussions about my memoir What It Was: Growing Up When the Music Mattered, which covers coming of age in those tumultuous years after World War II – the Fifties, of course, but especially the Sixties and Seventies. A lot of people were growing up then and in many ways this country was trying to grow up, too.
Many of us became part of the counterculture, enough of us in fact that it was for fifteen years or more the dominant popular culture in the country. It also was in direct opposition to many of the tenets of the American Dream.
This was not the same country that went through a depression and went off to war. The United States was now The Most Powerful Nation On Earth. It was A Triumph of Democracy. We had An Economy That Is the Envy of the World. The Communists are the Enemy. They Want to Destroy Our Way of Life.
That’s what people told you when you were a kid. That’s what you tried to understand, make sense of, incorporate in to your efforts to grow up, fit in, find a place that was yours, that felt right.
There were lots of rules. Yes sir and no ma’am, what your parents tell you, what your teachers teach, what your religious leaders say is holy or sinful. So you did your best, went to school, did your homework, played sports, church on Sunday.
There were lots of kids. They lived in little houses bought with the G.I. Bill by newlyweds home from the war. The dads went to their jobs, the moms took care of the home front, the kids had a ball. There was growth everywhere, homes, schools, office buildings, shopping centers, roads and bridges being built.
The country was booming. People were proud. They expected you to buy in to the system without question. Why wouldn’t you? This is prosperity.
There was music, too. You were aware of it but it was stuff your mom listened to. How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? Your Cheatin’ Heart. Kiss of Fire. Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes. Eh? Not your thing.
After a while, doubt came into your life. Doing what you’re told isn’t always comfortable. You noticed that the rules weren’t the same for everybody. Adults would say one thing but do something else.
Hypocrisy was a word you learned. There seemed to be a lot of it going around. You didn’t know who or what to believe.
Then one day, listening to the radio, there was Elvis. Heartbreak Hotel. Play it louder! Play it more! It was the beginning of a deluge. And nothing was ever the same again.
Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, so many great singers and a lot of great songs. It was different, exciting, seductive. It was what was happening and you wanted to be happening, too.
People said it would corrupt our youth, which made it even more appealing. We were ready and willing. You didn’t have to think about all this music. You just felt it and it felt good.
Then there was folk music and jazz, the Beatniks, Kerouac, the first hint of folk rock, the British Invasion, and then there was The Summer of Love, Monterey Pop, and once again nothing was ever the same.
You were now fully of the counterculture and it was amazing. A complete transformation from what you’d been raised to be. And you liked it that way.
Thinking about it all these years later, so many things come to mind about it. Seminal moments on the highways and byways of your life. Too many to talk about here, at least this time around. But when I saw this photograph the other day of two people I really admired then and now, I was struck by the fact that the U.S. Government, my government, was out to get them both.
They do look kind of dangerous, wouldn’t you say? Suspicious characters caught perhaps in a conspiratorial moment. One of them refused the draft and he was a Black Muslim. The other smoked marijuana and he was a Beatle. Both of them opposed the war in Vietnam and said so, loud and clear. Is it any wonder the USG felt it necessary to persecute them?
That was where my life path led me. These were my people. My community. This was the counterculture. My government and so many people from my past, the ones who raised me and tried to restrain me, were the Culture we opposed, the Establishment. It found us unacceptable. And vice versa. But we persevered.
It was a time of passion and pleasure, art and no small amount of artifice, aspiration and belief that a better way could be had. There was progress toward social justice and environmental consciousness. But capitalism asserted itself and held sway.
Eventually, some of the essence of the counterculture was infused into the policies and practices of the established order and in other ways the culture we tried to build was seduced and undone by it. Neither was ever the same thereafter. But the struggle goes on.
“When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window, I’ll be gone, You’re the reason that I’m traveling on…” Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. Bob Dylan.