I was there. And I still have the cloth I used to cover my mouth from tear gas. Growing up in Berkeley during the 1960's did not make for a typical childhood. After all, for a short time we had the National Guard bivouacked across from Berkeley High School. Drugs of all variety where readily available and cheap ($1 for a tab of LSD). Attitudes and mores were changing as fast as our teenaged hormones.
There were no pep rallies, even though we had the number one basketball team in the state. The prom was sparsely attended (I assume so anyway, I didn't know anyone who went). Instead of social events we were concerned about social issues. The times were a changin' and doing so in our very midst.
I made frequent trips up the street to the University of California campus for demonstrations. There were the People's Park demonstrations and anti war and anti draft demonstrations. I saw young people literally thrown into paddy wagons and struck over the head with billy clubs. I also saw a helicopter overhead with streams of tear gas pouring out of it flying directly above me. "My God, my own government is attacking me!" I said aloud. At that moment I became a radical forever. (Some of that tear gas wafted down the road to the junior high school where some years later I would teach.)
The Sixties represented a cultural revolution, the reverberations from which are still felt today. Its roots ran deep and included the Beat Generation of the 1950's and the Civil Rights Movement. It's catalysts were the Kennedy Assassination, the Beatles and outrage over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. (In terms of the "spirit of the Sixties" I consider the decade to have been from 1964-1973, as will be reflected throughout this writing). So of course it was also a time of, as the cliche goes, political unrest. Never before have politics and culture been so inextricably intertwined.
Protest songs that were birthed in folk music became integral to the ever changing strains of rock and roll. Young people's music became less about puppy love and more about the times they lived in. Long hair was in and it, along with fashions, became a personal expression not just of individual style but of political leanings. It was a time of free love, hippies, be-ins, open drug experimentation, liberation movements and peace signs.
I was in the heart of it. Living in Berkeley and across the bay from San Francisco where hippies were so prevalent and the Summer of Love took place in 1967.
I remember the time fondly because of the incredible sense of hope and purpose so many of us enjoyed. We believed that we were part of positive change, that mountains could be moved and we could some day live in a world of love not war. While its true that today the world is as violent as ever, significant progress has been made in many areas. Out of the Sixties came an acceptance of humans in all variety. Witness the changing roles not just of women and African Americans but other ethnic minorities, gays, the handicapped and both the young and old. The Sixties forever put a dent into the monolithic power held by older, straight, white Christian males.
The impact the Sixties had on our culture is incalculable. As with politics, everything felt new and important. However we did not have an LBJ or a Nixon in opposition to us, just our hopelessly square parents.
Absent a time machine there's no way to truly experience what a time was like but one can certainly get a sense of a bygone era. It can be fun too. You need not read non fiction books, watch documentaries or visit museums (although those are all wonderful ideas). You can sit back and watch movies, listen to music and read novels.
I have provided 12 movies, songs and books to choose from, all contemporary to the period. Disclaimer: this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Especially in the case of music where I could have offered five, six, even ten times as many choices.
The problem with films is that the movie industry didn't really catch up to the Sixties until a few years into the next decade. This is mostly a reflection on the nature of film production. The first film on the list is the definitive Sixties movie, the Strawberry Statement. Sadly it is not available on DVD and TCM rarely airs it. However you can watch it on Amazon On Demand and I highly recommend you do so. It is the story of a young college student who finds love and a social conscience though the protest movements then taking place on his campus. I watched it recently for the first time since it its initial release and was amazed at how well it holds up and how accurately it captures the time period. It also features one of the best soundtracks in film history. Other than Getting Straight, a rather weak entry I admit but one that does concern itself with campus protests, none of the films I've listed deal with Sixties per se. However they were all popular then and emboldened our counter cultural beliefs. Especially If..., M*A*S*H and Harold and Maude.
For the songs I've for the most part selected music that not only is of the time but speaks to it. I've included some lyrics in a few cases to illustrate that point. The books start off with two by Jack Kerouac that were written in the Fifties but they certainly were important to the Sixties and popular then. The other books were released in the Sixties and had particular popularity among the young and disaffected.
At the end of included some photos from protests. Mostly from ones I attended, though I know of no picture of me at a demonstration. Perhaps I should check out the FBI files.
It may seem presumptuous of me to dedicate a blog post but in this case I'm going to go ahead: This is dedicated to James Rector, an innocent bystander killed during the People's Park Demonstrations in Berkeley on May 15, 1969. The last photo shows that tragedy.
The Strawberry Statement (1970)
Getting Straight (1970)
Easy Rider (1969)
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
The Graduate (1967)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Harold and Maude (1971)
(Also see the Smothers Brothers TV show on DVD. They were cutting edge and constantly embroiled with censors as they took on the war, the administration and all facets of the power structure. They were also very funny and among their guests were the hottest musical acts of the time.)
What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me So you can see
What's going on
Something in the Air, Thunderclap Newman
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
And you know that it's right
We have got to get it together
We have got to get it together now
Ohio, Neil Young
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Paranoia strikes deep Into your life it will creep It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Vietnam Rag, Country Joe and the Fish
Come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
he's got himself in a terrible jam way down yonder in Viet Nam
so put down your books and pick up a gun we're gonna have a whole lotta fun
And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for don't ask me I don't give a damn,
next stop is Viet Nam
And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
ain't no time to wonder why,
whoopee we're all gonna die
My Generation, The Who
White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane
Light My Fire, The Doors
San Francisco, Scott McKenzie
Can't Find My Home, Blind Faith
American Pie, Don McLean
Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
(Also listen to Janis Joplin; Simon & Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills and Nash; folk singers such as Joan Baez and the Mommas and the Poppas; the British Invasion especially The Beatles as well as such bands as the Kinks and the Dave Clark 5; and soul music like The Temptations, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson.)
On The Road, Jack Kerouac
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
Myra Breckenridge, Gore Vidal
The Graduate, Charles Webb
Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut