Book delves into epic events of that transformative year
By Craig Wilson • Gannett News Service
March 22, 2009
If you remember the '60s, as the joke goes, you weren't there. It was
the perfect storm of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. A hippie haze of
happy days. And a few not-so-happy days.
Dozens of books have been written about the decade, but 40 years
later, author Rob Kirkpatrick has narrowed it all down to one epic year: 1969.
The subtitle of his new book," 1969: The Year Everything Changed"
(Skyhorse Publishing, 288 pages, $24.95), may sound hyperbolic, but
Kirkpatrick makes a good case that it "was" a year "of landmark
achievements, cataclysmic episodes and generation-defining events."
"A lot of people talk about 1967 as 'The Summer of Love' and 1968 as
'The Year the Dream Died,' but there wasn't one book about 1969. It
fills a gap," said Kirkpatrick, 41, who was 1 year old when rain fell
on the throngs of rock fans at Woodstock.
1968 had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert
F. Kennedy. Then came 1969, which Kirkpatrick calls "a year of
extremes." It was a tumultuous time when it seemed as if history were
being made almost every day:
For the first time, gays fought back against the New York City police
as they raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich
Village on June 28.
Camelot lost its luster when Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge at
Chappaquiddick on July 18. His young female passenger drowned.
Neil Armstrong walked on the moon July 20, the first man to do so.
Charles Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others
in Los Angeles on Aug. 8.
Woodstock, the now-mythical music festival in upstate New York, began Aug. 15.
Lt. William Calley was charged on Sept. 5 for his role in the 1968 My
Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers slaughtered more than 500
In an effort to bolster his standing amid protests against the
Vietnam War, President Nixon delivered his "silent majority" speech on Nov. 3.
And that was just the news.
Adding spice to the mix, nudity took center stage in "Oh! Calcutta!"
and "Hair," while the porn film "I Am Curious (Yellow)" and "Midnight
Cowboy" raised eyebrows. ("Cowboy," about a male hustler, became the
first X-rated film to win the Oscar for best picture.)
Even ABC's "Love, American Style" was considered risqué because it
dared to portray couples having casual sex.
Completing the year's resumé are the now-classic movies "Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Easy Rider," seminal books such as
Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and John Cheever's "Bullet Park,"
the debut of "Sesame Street" on PBS, and the World Series victory of
the Miracle Mets over the Baltimore Orioles.
"What intrigued me was the pattern of how the dial of the '60s got
turned up in 1969," Kirkpatrick said. "The revolution was no longer
just in the city streets but had made its way to the suburbs. It was
in Iowa and Indiana. It was even in Zap, N.D." (Kids who had gathered
there over spring break destroyed much of the town.)
Kirkpatrick said he was surprised when sections of his book began to
emerge "organically." Nixon and the covert war in Cambodia in winter.
The rise of the sexual revolution in spring. The innocence of
Woodstock in the summer. The tragic Altamont concert in California
(one homicide and three accidental deaths) on Dec. 6, where the
Rolling Stones played before an unruly crowd as the Hells Angels
acted as police.
"The year played out in an arc," Kirkpatrick said. "It had a definite
and dark climax.
"People still point to Woodstock as the apex of '60s counterculture
but call Altamont, which happened just four months later, the 'death'
of '60s counterculture. It's a fascinating concept: the heights and
depths of a generational movement, all in one four-month period."
That same dichotomy held true, he says, for technology. Man walked on
the moon, while back on Earth pollution was so bad Ohio's Cuyahoga
River went up in flames.
And then there was the soundtrack. Some pop culture experts say 1969
is all about the music. Led Zeppelin introduced heavy metal, The Who
gave us the rock opera "Tommy," the Rolling Stones were in top form.
It was also the year The Beatles broke up.
"There were truly seismic shifts in music and popular culture" in the
late '60s, said Joe Levy, editor of the music magazine Blender.
Levy, 44, said "the reason we remember 1969 is because of the twin
poles of Woodstock and Altamont. The community of peace and love and
the nightmare of chaos and disorder."
Levy said "Gimme Shelter" by the Stones "(Oh, a storm is
threatening/My very life today/If I don't get some shelter/Oh yeah,
I'm gonna fade away)" is the signature song of 1969. "It's a song of
immense foreboding, the sense that something awful is just on the
horizon," he said.
Kirkpatrick said his definitive song of 1969 is "We Can Be Together"
by Jefferson Airplane "because it encapsulates the revolutionary
spirit of the time." "(We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything
they say we are we are/And we are very/Proud of ourselves/Up against
Kirkpatrick said, "The modern American society that we know today was
just beginning. What followed in the '70s proves his point: The end
of the war in Vietnam. Nixon's resignation. Roe vs. Wade. The Me
decade. Even short hair.
"I don't think it's even debatable. There's an America before '69,
and an America after '69."