Back in the Summer of ’69

Jimi Hendrix performs “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, 1969. You can hear the bombs, screams and ear-splitting jetfire of Vietnam in that guitar.

At first, I just figured I’d take a minute to mark the occasion of this country’s birth with the above clip of Hendrix’s string/mind/soul-bending rendition of the U.S. National Anthem.  It’s been almost exactly 40 years since the footage was shot at Woodstock, during late summer, in the astoundingly eventful year of 1969.

Then I got to thinking a bit more about 1969. Egads, what a dense historical American nerve cluster! Over the course of those twelve months, one seriously heavy, snaking cultural current swept humanity in some exhilarating and alarming directions. Countless aspects of life as we now know it were irrevocably changed, and it all happened overnight.

In a piece written recently for USA Today, cultural anthropologist Jeremy Wallach called 1969 “the apotheosis and decline of the counterculture” and Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed said: “I don’t think it’s even debatable. There’s an America before ’69, and an America after ’69.”

To give me and mah feller ‘Merkins something to chew on today besides corn on the cob, here’s a list of just a few of the country’s more momentous occurrences, circa 1969:

The whole world watched, breathless, as the lunar module Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon.  Dr. Denton Cooley successfully implanted the first temporary artificial heart in Texas. Four months after Woodstock, the infamously violent, miserable Altamont Free Concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, ostensibly bringing an end to the idealistic sixties. In NYC, the Stonewall riots kicked off the modern gay rights movement in the U.S.  Members of the Manson Family cult committed the Tate/LaBianca murders, horrifying Los Angeles and goading a prurient media circus. The first message was sent over ARPANET between UCLA and Stanford.  L. Ron Hubbard had his organization’s name officially changed to The Church of Scientology, and they started litigating. Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography and the Thoth Tarot Deck were both republished, and Kenneth Anger shot his lesser known –but deeply resonant– film Invocation of My Demon Brother. Barred from reentering the states to hold their planned New York City “Bed-In”, John Lennon and Yoko Ono relocated the event to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Quebec, where they recorded “Give Peace a Chance”.  Everybody got nekkid in the Broadway muscial production, Hair…

The Weathermen banded together to organize the Days of Rage riots in Chicago. The first strain of the AIDS virus migrated to the United States via Haiti.  Wal-Mart incorporated as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.  Over at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, both the CCD and UNIX were invented.  A group of Amerindians, led by Richard Oakes, seized Alcatraz Island for 19 months, resulting in substantial government reform. Sesame Street premiered on the National Educational Television network. In Washington, DC, untold hundreds of thousands of protesters staged a gargantuan peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam war, including a symbolic “March Against Death”.  Lt. William Calley was charged for his role in the ’68 My Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians.  Ohio’s polluted Cuyahoga River went up in flames, prompting a new wave of stricter environmental laws. Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot dead in their sleep during a raid by fourteen Chicago police officers. Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were major releases. The last issue of The Saturday Evening Post hit magazine stands. And last but not least, there was this:

Somehow says it all, doesn’t it?

Or not. I dunno. But the colossal shifts that occurred that year, in the states and beyond, are definitely worth thinking more about at greater length. I wonder if those of us under 40 will ever experience a year similar in our lifetime, or if it’s even applicable.

Happy Fourth, y’all. Enjoy the fireworks.

14 Responses to “Back in the Summer of ’69”

  1. Sam Says:

    I sometimes wish I were alive then, but perhaps my life would’ve felt no more cinematic and meaningful in ’69 than in ’09. Perhaps the year is only epic from a bird’s eye view, and to the individual on the ground it was just as chaotic and incoherent and non-narrative as any other time.

    And sometimes, to test my hypothesis, I think of starting my own revolution. For science. Anyone with me?

  2. John C. Worsley Says:

    Coincidentally, programmers of UNIX and UNIX-like systems also view the history of the world “After 1969” differently than the world before — the UNIX “Epoch” (the moment from which all seconds are counted to calculate the present date) is December 31, 1969/January 1, 1970. UNIX was developed at Bell Labs in 1969.

    Since it could be said that UNIX essentially fathered the Internet we essentially have 1969 to thank for MySpace, lolcats, rickrolling, and all manner of unclean lulz.

  3. Mer Says:

    Hey, John, I actually mentioned UNIX up there! And Bell Labs’ other ’69 invention, the CCD, as well…

    But yeah, between UNIX and ARPANET, 1969 was a busy year for T3h FUTUREZ.

  4. John C. Worsley Says:

    Oh heh! Sorry, followed in through a feed and missed that para.

  5. Alice Says:

    It’s really important to think about past eras like the late ’60s. It’s so easy for us younger people to think that “OH MY GOD THERE’S MORE GOING ON NOW THAN, LIKE, EVER!” or “this is it! The world as we know it is ending!” Really, I think every generation thinks like that, but there have been much more pivotal periods in history.

  6. Nadya Says:

    I love this post! 1969 was an epic year, but 2009 is not yet over, and already it’s turning out to be quite the year to remember. We elected a historic president, Michael Jackson died… OK, OK, so I’m reaching a little bit there. It doesn’t come close to the turbulent year that was 1969. I think the best we can do is study the events of that year, and let them inspire us in some way.

    I love that Jimi Hendrix clip… and Bambi vs. Godzilla blew my mind when we first saw it in grade school!

  7. David Forbes Says:

    Excellent post, Mer. Hendrix’s remains my favorite national anthem rendition of all time and deeply, well, ‘Merican in a way that’s hard to describe. This is a nation founded at its heart by the people forced or kicked out of the rest of the world — schemers, dissidents, zealots, con artists, criminals, slaves, innovators, curmudgeons and dreamers. I think that’s the good news and the bad, why Leonard Cohen’s got our number when he calls the U.S. “the cradle of the best and of the worst.”

    Interestingly, this very weekend I heard someone make a case for 1968 being a “year that changed everything.” Here you make a damn good case for the next year. I had no idea that the AIDS migration and Wal-Mart’s founding both happened that year as well.

    Which brings up something interesting. Those last two, along with many other items on that list, became significant in retrospect. Many momentous events happen right under our noses, seemingly minor or hidden at the time.

    I wonder if those of us under 40 will ever experience a year similar in our lifetime, or if it’s even applicable.

    Yes. We may already be in one. Or it may be 2010 (or 2008, seen in hindsight) that proves to be “the year.” We probably won’t know until we’re far older, if even then. I’m hesitant to believe either that the big days are already past or that our present time is the most important of them all.

    The last decade has seen its own share of huge events, and I have a feeling that it’s far from over. The wonderful and terrifying thing about history is that it never ends — and it’s always applicable.

  8. Jim Says:

    One way of gauging an era in motion is to look at massacres– how many times do groups of unarmed people get shot down? In the late sixties, there was the Prague, Mexico City, Kent State and Northern Ireland “Bloody Sunday” massacres
    (link at my name). Each country had it’s crescendo of “the sixties”. In West Germany, it didn’t come until autumn 1978.

    The US long wave began in the 2nd half of 1955 in which 3 things, criminalized & not so noticed at the time, and now commemorated, happened:
    1- Allen Ginsberg read Howl in SF (10/7/55)
    2- Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat (12/1/55)
    3- Dorothy Day refused to participate in civil defense drills, sitting instead very publicly on a bench in front on city hall in Manhattan (6/15/55).
    The wave reached its nadir in 1986-’87, when everyone gave up hope and distrust and cynicism were most everywhere.

    This year isn’t over yet. There has NEVER been a time when coupmakers have been so roundly condemned as inside and outside of Iran & Honduras (both countries traumatized by the fucked up legacy of the “geniuses” of the CIA). The copenhagen climate negotiations are still five months off–the global groundswell is just beginning. This year may yet give 1969 and 1989 a run for it’s money, if not, alas, 1929 as well.

    Previous global goodwill events (and Geldorf, Michael Jackson & others deserve credit) have been centrally & corporately planned. The reactions via twitter/youtube/facebook to #Iranelection #Honduras #bagua have not– they have emerged from below. Rightwing talk radio has had it’s day– now it’s time for common sense social media.

  9. R. Says:

    Thank you, Mer. This was brilliant. I don’t have anything really to add, everyone else has said so much more so eloquently.

  10. Cliff Says:

    I recently found this cache of trenchant podcast documentaries via the BBC.

    One is called “1968: The year that changed the world?”

    It hits home the truly global nature of change that occurred at the end of the decade. Add to the list in this post yet more protests and upheaval of every sort both outside and inside the US. Makes one wonder what was in the air or cosmos…

    Once the page is loaded, simply search on 1968.

  11. Tequila Says:

    “….We probably won’t know until we’re far older, if even then. I’m hesitant to believe either that the big days are already past or that our present time is the most important of them all…”

    That sounds about right. We build up so much day in and day out in terms of media hype it’s hard to filter out truly historical events from cultural noise. Historians are going to have quite the task in sorting out the mess, more so with the way many see importance as directly connected to how many people mention it via something like twitter.

    Still on the other side of that, we may just end up with a much more varied picture of events as to what is truly historical on multiple levels. If anything we’re at a point were we can even have a much more detailed chronicle of our own lives. Imagine how interesting it’s gonna be in say 20 years when kids can read the blog histories of what their parents were thinking at their age? The embarrassing MySpace pics alone will be gold let alone the web that is Facebook. Diaries have always been one of those golden bits of knowledge historians used to paint a picture of an era after all. Especially when putting historical events into a cultural context. U.S. Civil War diaries were a huge factor in painting that conflict on a very human level. Curious how we’ll use ALL we have available to determine what the key historical events were of our time (beyond the obvious of course…)

  12. Mattson Says:

    I’m going to demonstrate some full-on post-Thelemic nerdishness by splitting a hair with you, Meredith… (you do have one to spare, yes?) Crowley’s Confessions was not an autobiography but an autohagiography. Not that I’m calling him a saint, mind you… it’s just not that often that you get to use the word autohagiography!
    Disinformation published Gary Lachman’s “Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius” a few years back. I thought it an interesting digest of some of the occult streams of a very active and fascinating time. And oh yeah… nice post.

  13. Mer Says:

    Hi, Mattson. It’s been corrected. Thanks! And I really need to get that Lachman book. Viva Disinfo.

  14. gooby Says:

    Add to that list, in a personal note, that was the summer my sister was born! Woohoo! Happy Birthday Monica!!