Two Obituaries for the ’60s

There were more than the usual number of famous names in Monday’s obituaries, including a comedian who used to crack us up and the lead singer for a band that some of our friends can’t believe we don’t remember, but the ones that grabbed our attention were for Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden. The juxtaposition of the clean-cut teen idol with the smooth pop sound and the unkempt activist with the radical agenda was jarring, as they represent the cultural extremes of the 1960’s, and their almost simultaneous passings are a reminder that the influence of that turbulent decade still hasn’t quite come to an end.
Born as Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, Bobby Vee came right out of the rock ‘n’ roll craze of the ’50s, with his big break coming when he and his garage band The Shadows filled in for Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, stop on the Winter Dance Party tour after Holly’s death in a plane crash. That crash not only ended Holly’s legendary career but also the promising 16-year-old Richie Valens’, in the same year when Elvis Presley was drafted and Chuck Berry was sent to prison on a Mann Act violation and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was derailed by the outrage over him marrying an underage cousin while he was married to someone else, a sex scandal trifecta that even The Rolling Stones haven’t achieved, and after that the greasier and scarier sorts of rock ‘n’ roll stars were briefly supplanted by such wholesomely handsome and well-groomed and suit-and-tie wearing singers such as Bobby Vee.
Vee’s first big hit was a strikingly Holly-esque tune called “Suzie Baby,” with the first recording retaining some of the inspiration’s jangly guitar and rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, but by the time he re-recorded what proved to be a smash hit it had been ironed out to fit an early ’60s sense of decorum. He followed that up with a luscious “Take Good Care of My Baby,” written with old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship by Barry Geffen and Carol King, and such professionally rendered pop songs as “Devil or Angel,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Run to Him,” which still stand out among the best of that brief interregnum in rock ‘n’ roll’s reign. Each had a bouncy enough beat and uptempo youth appeal to fit on American Bandstand’s roundup of the latest youth culture, but it was fare more redolent of those ’40s and ’50s crooners and their carefully polished-tunes and earnest politeness that were nearly wiped out by rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s how the ’60s began.
The decade ended with musicians smashing their guitars and setting them afire and playing psychedelic electric guitar versions of The National Anthem, and rock ‘n’ rollers were suddenly even hairier and scarier than those backwoods rednecks and urban ghetto-dwellers of the ’50s had been, and that was the era when Tom Hayden became a sort of celebrity. Born in 1939 to more or less middle class comfort in the placid town of Royal Oak, Mich., Hayden attended a Catholic school where the pastor was the infamously right-wing radio pundit Father Charles Coughlin, then wound up at the infamously left-wing University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he immediately began to acquire a left-wing infamy of his own. He was editor of the school’s suddenly radicalized student newspaper, jailed and beaten for his civil rights activism in the South, a founding member of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-capitalist Students for a Democratic Society, an author of the Port Huron Statement that became a manifesto for the New Left, and was one of the “Chicago Seven” brought to a widely publicized trial for allegedly fomenting riots at the 1968 Democratic Party’s national convention. This was lead-story-on-the-nightly-news and cover-of-The-Rolling-Stone stuff back then, so by the time the ’70s rolled around Hayden was a much bigger star than Bobby Vee.
Hayden wound up divorcing his first wife and a few years later getting married to Oscar-winning and impeccably left-wing actress Jane Fonda, with both soon heading off to Vietnam for a highly controversial photo-op with the North Vietnamese, and although they later divorced they were even more newsworthy than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie while it lasted. After the divorce he settled in the woman he would be married to until his death, and a rather routine career as a politician. He lost a California Democratic primary race to Sen. John Tunney in ’76, but won a State Assemblyman seat in 82, moved up to the state Senate in 93 and hung around Sacramento until 2000, and compiled a record that was undeniably left-wing but not conspicuously radical by California standards. He lost races for governor in ’94 and the Los Angeles mayoralty in ’97 and a seat on the L.A. City Council in 2001.
By the time the 21st Century rolled around Hayden was still reviled by the city’s growing Vietnamese refugee population and aging white Republicans, but newly regarded as something of a sell-out by the newer New Left. Hayden had written memoirs and articles confessing his regret that his anti-Vietnam war stance had spilled over into anti-Americanism, ruefully acknowledging that his Students for a Democratic Society had spawned the terrorist Weather Underground, and lamenting that the free speech and individual rights ideas of that crazy Port Huron statement had somehow led to a newer New Left that clamored for speech codes and group identity politics, and seemed to have forgotten the realism of the Old Left that Father Coughlin had railed against and Hayden’s generation had nearly wiped out, and even his impeccably left-wing voting record could not absolve his heresies or make him hip again. At one point in the early ’80s we caught Hayden’s act live, as we were on a hitchhiking trip up the East Coast and crashed at a friends dorm at Harvard University and went along to lecture Hayden was giving, and we still chuckle at how the crowd rolled its eyes at his saccharine shtick about his daughter’s fear of nuclear weapons and how a professorial looking fellow with a gray beard and patched elbows on his jacket shouted “Send in the Marines!”
Bobby Vee stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, despite the temptations that a good-looking pop star probably encountered, spent most of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s making a good living on the oldies circuit, then settled into a quiet small town life in St. Joseph, Minnesota, then slowly succumbed to an early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Beatles covered “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him,” so the hottest band of the ’60s vouched for his coolness, and the same Carol King who wrote the former song had the biggest selling album of the ’70s with that great Tin Pan Alley hippie manifesto of an album “Tapestry,” and another big fan is the newly proclaimed Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Back when Dylan was a small town Minnesota boy named Robert Zimmerman he had a short stint as the keyboards player with Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and we highly recommend his affectionate cover of “Suzie Baby.”
It remains how to be seen how the ’60s will ultimately play out, but we’re glad to note that this crazy election will almost certainly be the last to feature any of those damned baby-boomers, and we hope that the very best of both Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden will somehow persist, and that the worst of it will somehow fade away.

— Bud Norman

This Time in Baltimore

Monday’s baseball contest between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles was postponed due to rioting, a rare occurrence in the history of the national pastime but what you might expect in post-racial America.
After more than seven years of hope and change the riots all follow a drearily familiar pattern. A young black man dies as a result of an encounter with the police, a mob gathers to demand its version of justice before any facts are known, people who should know better egg them on, and and it all ends badly for the poor black people who are left behind in the rubble. Only the location and details of the death seem to change. This time around it’s in Baltimore, where the rioting has spread right up against the fancy new Camden Yards ballpark, and the young black man died as a result of a spinal while in police custody, but none of that seems to matter.
The latest round of rioting started last summer in the previously unknown St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., where the tale of a gentle black youth kneeling with his hands up pleading “don’t shoot” turned out to be a clear-cut case of an officer defending himself against a potentially deadly assault by a criminal but caused weeks of arson and mayhem, then moved to New York, where the death of a man non-violently resisting arrest for the very petty crime of selling single untaxed cigarettes as the result of a headlock and a pile of policeman was less clear-cut and resulted in the assassination of two police officers. There was next a shooting of a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, that was filmed by one of those ubiquitous cell phone cameras and seems to warrant a murder charge against a police officer, but charges were quickly filed in that case and the victim’s family noisily insisted that all rabble-rousers leave their alone, and little trouble has resulted. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the death in Baltimore, but once again the people inclined to arson and looting and violent assaults on people who had nothing to with any of it and just to want to watch a ballgame won’t await the answers.
The apologists for such behavior will explain that the rioters don’t trust the legal system to provide justice, and are therefore somehow justified in their destruction of the property and violent assaults on the bodies of people who had nothing to do with the alleged crime, even if their notions of justice don’t jibe with the facts as they will eventually be proved, but times have changed since those same justifications for charred black neighborhoods were trotted out by the Kerner Commission back in ’60s. Baltimore’s mostly black police force reports to a black police chief who reports to a black mayor, who in turn is held accountable in regularly scheduled elections by a mostly black population, and should that fail there’s always recourse to a federal Justice Department run by a black Attorney General who reports to a black President of the United States, who now apparently believes he is unaccountable to anyone. While the riots held a ballpark full of fans captive over the weekend the president was about 40 miles of interstate away regaling the White House Correspondents Dinner audience with a comedy routine about his attitude toward governance rhymes with “bucket,” and using some Comedy Central comic as an “anger translator” to convey his righteously black indignation with his critics, and all that apologia about the inherently racist nature of America seemed wildly out of date.
Even if you believe that Republicans and other sorts of nefarious white people still run the country along traditionally racist lines, they have clearly had little influence on Baltimore over the past many decades. Baltimore is a Democrat city in a Democrat state, just 40 miles of interstate away from the Democratic White House, and if the Democrats’ divide-and-conquer strategy of electoral politics didn’t cause the riots in Baltimore there’s no denying that it didn’t prevent them.

— Bud Norman

The Second Time as Farce

Dartmouth University rarely attracts our attention, as its sports teams never make the news and the other departments are almost as easily ignored, but we couldn’t help noticing that a group of students there are currently occupying its president’s office. The story brought on a feeling of nostalgia for our boyhood days in the ‘60s, when such student activism was commonplace, but on closer reading it seems the times they are indeed a-changin’.
Back in what the old baby boomer folks call “the day,” the youngsters used to seize campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and racism and various other things that were said to be unhealthy for children and other living things. These were regarded as serious subjects even by the old fogies who thought that camping in a campus building was a damned fool way of making a point, and it was mostly respectable middle class hippie freaks who were breaking the law, so the practice attracted widespread attention and enjoyed a certain a respectability. The current action, on the other hand, seems simply ridiculous.
The 30 or so occupiers, who call themselves “Concerned Asian, Latino, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled Students,” are calling for the implementation of what they call a “Freedom Budget.” The phrase sounds slightly right-wing, “freedom” and “budget” both being words often invoked by conservatives, but it is actually a laundry list of loony-left demands even by Ivy League standards. Among other things, the CALNUQD-AS insist that: Every department incorporate “at least one queer studies class”; many millions of dollars be committed to increase “faculty and staff of color” and create a “professor of color” lecture series; require professors to be trained in “cultural competency” and “the importance of social justice in their day to day work”; require professors to use “preferred gender pronouns”; provide “gender-neutral” housing and restroom facilities; and free legal assistance and financial aid to undocumented students.
Oh, and they’re also demanding that “all male-female checkboxes should be replaced with write-inboxes to make forms, surveys, and applications more inclusive for trans, two-spirit, agender, gender-noncomforming and genderqueer folks campus wide,” and that every Dartmouth student be taught he (or she, or it, we suppose) is residing on Abenaki homeland. They insist this is necessary because “The burden should not lie with systematically oppressed students (affected by racism, classism, imperialism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and ableism) to ensure our own well-being, safety, and continued existence at Dartmouth.” Lest you think that the continued existence of CALNUQD-AS at Dartmouth seems assured and probably quite comfortable, they add that “our lived experiences at Dartmouth have been so violent that we were driven to write a plan for such assurance — The Freedom Budget.”
This sounds so outlandish that we must apologize for the computer problems that prevent us from providing the links that would prove we’re not making it all at some exaggerated parody, but we invite you to look it up for yourself. We had to look up “cis-sexism” ourselves, as it’s the only one of the listed isms that we haven’t yet been accused of, and it apparently means a prejudice against transgendered or transsexual people, so if that includes a slight level of discomfort we’re also guilty of that.
Maybe we’re just being racist, classist, imperialist, nativist, sexist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, and ableist, but it all sounds like these poor kids need a war or some actual racism to protest. We feel sorry for the poor Dartmouth mathematician who has to come up with a queer math course. We resent the implication in “professor of color” that white people are colorless, as our own off-salmon pink is indeed a color. We’ll refer to people by whatever gender seems appropriate, and cringe at the linguistic contortions that are required to respect some people’s feelings. We prefer gender-specific restrooms, too. You can check off whatever box you want on Dartmouth’s forms, as far as we’re concerned, but we’re not even going to bother to look up whatever what the hell Abenaki land is.
Back in the ‘60s the campus building-occupying hippies at least got a good orgy out of it, but these CALNUQD-AS probably won’t fare as well. They might get every demand they make, given the state of academia, but before the achieve utopia they’ll probably bore themselves to death.

— Bud Norman