Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
(America’s) 1969: Dead These Forty Years
A review of Rob Kirkpatrick. 1969: The Year That Everything Changed. New York: Skyhorse, 2009.
Reviewed by Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada)
When we look back on the sixties it is probably 1968 we think of more than any other year but Rob Kirkpatrick reminds us that 1969 was perhaps the year of the decade. Many of its events echo on while others, important footnotes to history, are silently (and sometimes sadly) forgotten. Kirkpatrick does well to take us back to an amazing and eventful year. By contrast, 1969 makes 2009 appear as a relatively eventless time where hostages of the global networks of today serve out our time.
From the book we learn that recently discharged U.S. Army Private Elvis Presley went back into the studio and John and Oko recorded Give Peace a Chance during their “bed-in” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. Bob
Dylan we are told was busy reinventing himself (which he has done many times since). Heavy Metal was birthed – the baby was named Zeppelin I. Earlier in the year The Beatles gave their final brief public performance from the rooftops of Apple Records in London before the police dispersed the crowd in a rather stunning act of public censorship. Spontaneity, one of the 60’s happier children, was put on notice. Somewhere, sometime in the early 1980s I think, it quietly died. It surfaced many times in the 1960s as in May at Zip to Zap – a kind of trial run at what would become Woodstock in August. Proud young members of America’s National Guard, many of them ducking service in Vietnam, dispersed and evicted the crowd. Later that month other National Guardistas would spray anti-Vietnam War protesters in California with an unknown skin stinging powder. This quiet incident in the history of American chemical warfare [of the kind not run by the tobacco companies] went largely unnoticed. Kirkpatrick finds all this part of the zeitgeist of 1969.
Elsewhere among the Pop Cults (but unknown to Kirkpatrick’s book) Walmart incorporated its chain and set out to make the world into an endless garbage dump in which it would serve as the leading conduit running between natural resources and waste. Kirkpatrick also misses that the first Gap store opened in San Francisco – but to be fair – almost no one there noticed it for another twenty years. He does remind us that The Saturday Evening Post died, Mario Puzo published The Godfather, the first ATM machine appeared in New York, and the Manson clan tore a hole in Roman Polanski’s existence. He misses three important births that took place in 1969 – Michael Schumacher, Marilyn Manson and a little show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which first appeared on BBC 1). Ike, to whom it all must have appeared mystifying, died.
Kirkpatrick’s book reminds us that in politics the wastelands opened up. Nixon became President and immediately the war in and around Vietnam would escalate for the final time [less than two months into “Tricky Dick’s” Presidency – Operation Breakfast – the (not so) secret bombings of Cambodia began]. Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne drove off of that bridge on Chappaquiddick Island where both Mary Jo and Ted’s hopes to be President one day, died. Kirkpatrick does not notice that Muammar Gaddafi came to power in Libya where it is still 1969 or that Arafat was elected in Palestine, Golda Meir in Israel, and Willy Brandt in West Germany. The Berlin Wall had its 8th birthday. Charles De Gaulle, having taken his fill of the 1960s finally stepped down in France but not until losing one last desperate referendum. “May” (1968) had eventually won but it would remain a childless phenomenon. None of this seems to matter to Kirkpatrick's understanding of 1969.
Kirkpatrick is also uninterested in the election of Pompidou in France. Nor does he note the FLQ bombings which continued in Montreal while in Madrid martial law was declared and the University closed. Missing the FLQ Kirkpatrick does not mention that Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau was watching closely opting to hold off for one more year before overseeing the Canadian Army invasion of Montreal and an accompanying declaration of The War Measure’s Act. Still, French was made the equal of English by Canada in July so someone must have heard those bombs all the way to Ottawa! Such matters do not take place in Kirkpatrick’s memories of 1969 as his book is very much America’s 1969. Britain began its reoccupation of Northern Ireland and Colonialism’s last pathetic little war dug in. America deepened the militarization of space by invading the moon but Kirkpatrick chooses to simply celebrate it with now well known background notes to the mission. As such Kirkpatrick forgets that in the late summer of 1969 poets wondered if a global pandemic of melancholy might not accompany the coming to earth of all that moon dust. To be safe the US Government kept the astronauts (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins) in isolation for several days. No moon bugs were detected but the 1970s certainly would be miserable. Kirkpatrick does remind us that we were much more forward looking in 1969 as at the time of the moon landing The Year 2525 led the popular music hit parade (Zager and Evans were its ‘one-hit-wonder’ authors).
The Concorde flew for the first time (but since it didn’t land in America Kirkpatrick misses it), spaceships sailed for the Moon, Venus and Mars; the first artificial temporary heart was installed. Kirkpatrick did notice that ARPNET got going in 1969 and would eventually lead to the Internet (the greatest surveillance mechanism to be invented since free speech). Kirkpatrick also notes that the Stonewall Riots set off what would become the American Gay Rights movement but misses an unrelated but deeply ironic development in that the first strain of what would become known as the AIDS virus entered the USA from Haiti. The quote of the year may well have been uttered by Nixon’s aptly named VP – Spiro Agnew – who called critics of his president “nattering nabobs of negativism”. The Chicago police murdered Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark shooting the two dead while they slept. To his credit Kirkpatrick allows the Panther’s side of events to be told. Ironically, Kirkpatrick misses that Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The trial of the Chicago Eight wore on as the Weathermen faced off in the days of rage against the National Guard. Millions took part in anti-war protests across the United States and elsewhere. In April, Students for Democratic Society occupied the Administration building at Harvard. The radical Weathermen faction would have the last laugh however by themselves occupying the offices of the SDS in Chicago for four days in June. The US Army failed in its attempt to cover up the Massacre at My Lai thanks to the story by Seymour Hirst and pictures in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The March Against Death ensued bringing 400,000 to Washington. They were also none too happy to have learned from dissenting government statisticians that the draft lottery was not random.
On December 6, 1969 at Altamont, California an attempt at a “Woodstock West” hosted by the Rolling Stones (who were deeply embarrassed at having shunned Woodstock), erupted in waves of violence. Woodstock might have been the event of the 1960s but the Stones had their revenge – Altamont ended the 60s! Kirkpatrick calls it “the Hippie apocalypse”.
Kirkpatrick’s main claim in this book is that “the ripples of 1969 continued to emanate throughout the rest of the century and into the next”. Agreed, time does not break off like a glass rod and certain threads can be traced for centuries. But what came to Altamont to die was a certain spirit that has never again been recaptured and is increasingly less likely to emerge in our frightened present or the increasingly computer programmable future we now face.
I do not recommend the book to anyone born after 1970 as the events of 1969 will almost certainly appear to them as a kind of science fiction and will no doubt lead, if taken seriously, to melancholy for the unknown and unknowable to them. “There are no children of May” (Baudrillard in Genosko, 2001:124) nor are there children of 1969. What we got instead, were Nixon’s children, Reagan’s children… people like Bush the Son, Obama’s democratic conservatism and robust corporate welfare, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, and all of the rest of them to whom the 1960s must seem horrid for all of its efforts to resist. What we take from Kirkpatrick’s book – a very worthwhile read, perhaps without its author intending us doing, is that 1969 now is very far away – a time of the magnitude of events we are not likely to experience again any time soon.
Happy fortieth 1969! Thank you for your lessons (to a 10 year old boy) concerning the rotten centre of all authority and the value of “long-haired freaky-type people”. My compliments to Rob Kirkpatrick for taking us back to remember. If only more of 1969 had happened outside of America – what a book he could have written!
Gary Genosko (Editor, 2001). The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE.