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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

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“The Times They Are a-Changin,'” But Not Fast Enough

Those middle-brows over at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee have once again failed to pay proper respect to our two brilliant novels and countless inches of compelling newspaper copy and all these insightful daily internet essays, an annual slight which we happened to notice while desperately searching for some news to read about about something other than that awful presidential race, but it was at least somewhat heartening to see that the award had instead gone to Bob Dylan.
The selection took everyone by surprise, including ourselves and probably Dylan himself. Dylan is best known not for his little-read and widely-panned prose, after all, but rather for his impenetrable songwriting and nasal singing and sparse guitar strumming and slightly atonal harmonica-playing, so even those Nobel Prize people felt obliged to offer a rather elaborate explanation for their unexpected and apparently inexplicable decision. They could have spared us the effort, as we were around in the ’60s and ’70s and can readily dig all the jive about Dylan being some sort of poet laureate, and after even his creative slump in those long-ago ’80s we’re still punk enough to rather like the idea of our ol’ pal “Freewheelin'” Dylan getting a Nobel Prize in any old category they might have. It gives us hope that our next novel might win a Grammy, or that this daily internet essay will earn that coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award, or that some sort of poetic justice might yet prevail.
We’re at least literate enough to know that his otherwise perfect song “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be more correctly rendered in proper English as “Lie, Lady, Lie,” and to have noticed that a lot of those imponderable lyrics so many of his pot-addled fans have long pondered are pretty much impenetrable to even the most sober listener, and we can’t heartily endorse his Christmas albums or Sinatra covers or some of those ’80s-slump albums, but we have nonetheless been Dylan fans for pretty much as long as we can remember. He first turned up on the radio as a fresh-faced folk singer right around the same time we started listening to the radio, although we were more likely to hear to his songs played by such more polished singers as Peter, Paul & Mary or Joan Baez, and even at that young age we had a natural affinity for his simple melodies and hopeful lyrics about how the answers as are all “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By the time we were old enough to start getting a rudimentary understanding of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests and sexual revolution and other cataclysmic “The Times They Are a-Changin'” stuff that he was singing about he started playing electrified guitar and doing even more nasally-sung and lyrically impenetrable songs, and at that point we were hooked.
It’s hard to explain it to the young folks, but when the acoustic “folk era” Dylan “went electric” at the oh-so-pure Newport Folk Festival back in ’65 it was a big deal, with all the collegiate folk purists feeling betrayed that their hero had gone the wickedly commercialist way of rock ‘n’ roll. As much as we’d liked the folk stuff, we downright loved how he noted that country-and-western players had been electric since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had amped up back in the ’40s, and that those guys had been way more authentically proletarian than all those college-educated folkies he’d been playing to, and even after all these years that “rock era” Dylan still sounds far more quintessentially American to our wind-blown prairie ears. By the time our musical tastes were starting to harden Dylan was scoring top-10 hits with such rough stuff as “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its memorable chorus that “everybody must get stoned,” and the older and hipper kids we got to hang around with considered him the “voice of their generation,” and serious if not-quite-Nobel-Prize-level critics were gushing about something they had gleaned from those indecipherable lyrics, and we congratulated our junior-high selves that we also found something meaningful if inexplicable in that very rough-hewn music. As happy-go-lucky high school sophomores we somehow found ourselves oddly attuned to his beautifully bleak middle-aged crazy and post-divorce “Blood on the Tracks” album, even as we were starting to turn the radio dial to the honky-tonk country and and the old folks’ pop and swing standards and the first-generation punk music to quell our adolescent angst.
During our junior year of high school we got to hear Dylan live in his legendarily all-star-studded “Rolling Thunder Review” tour in what was then called Henry Levitt Arena at Wichita State University, named after local haberdasher, which is now Charles Koch Arena, named after the notorious local free-market billionaire, and we attended it with all those brainy College Hill girls from East High we were so enamored of, and to this day it remains one of our favorite musical memories, which is saying something given all the great American music we’ve heard since then. We caught him again a few decades later at downtown’s Century II, where we were a accompanied by the delightful and sexy but somewhat crazy younger woman we were dating in our own middle-aged crazy post-divorce years, and even though we couldn’t make out any of those supposedly profound lyrics he was warbling we were once again delighted by the strangely musical noise he was making. Our third time live with Dylan was a few years back when he was touring with Willie Nelson and made a stop on a warm autumn evening at the old Lawrence-Dumont baseball stadium by the Arkansas River, and even though we weren’t dating anyone at the time it was also a damned good show. Through it all, even those awful Christmas albums and mediocre Sinatra covers, we’ve been unapologetic fans.
We’re not sure if his career is the stuff of a Nobel Prize for Literature, though, and would have preferred that the award had gone to such writers as Muriel Spark or Robertson Davies before their relatively recent deaths, or to Philip Roth or especially Tom Wolfe in their advanced ages, but then again we’re the old-fashioned sorts who would reserve literary prizes to more literary writers. Those middle-brow Nobel committee people tend to hand these things out according to the latest political fads, though, which explains why the black and female and vastly overrated Toni Morrison was the last American to get the Nobel Literature medal, and although we’re glad to see that a defiantly Christian and Jewish college drop-out from Hibbing, Minnesota, won this time around we can’t help thinking that his reputed but deliberately ambiguous liberalism had something to do with the decision. If you’re handing out Nobel Prizes for Literature to rough-hewn American musicians we’d recommend the ex-con honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year with a body of work that for pure down-and-dirty and right-at-the-heart-of-America-and-this-cruel-world greatness surpasses even Dylan’s, but we can’t expect those middle-brows at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee to grasp that.
Even so, the news of Dylan’s newly-awarded Nobel Prize prompted us to replay that profoundly glum “Blood on the Tracks” album, and that gloriously electrified “Highway 61 Revisited” and all its apocalyptic Old Testament allusions, and revisit a time when top-10 hits weren’t so damn slick and over-produced as they are these bleak days, and it happily hearkened us all the way back to the Depression-era days of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and the real down-and-dirty American music, and all in all it’s made for a pleasant diversion from that awful presidential race. So for that we give thanks to the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, and especially to the still “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, who we hope is still out there somewhere on the open road.

— Bud Norman

Swirling Down the Super Bowl

Journalistic tradition dictates that the day after the Super Bowl be spent analyzing the game, the half-time show, the commercials, all the attendant hoopla, and what it all says about the state of the culture. This is a grim business, given what it all says about the state of the culture, but we are steadfastly traditional and couldn’t find anything cheerier in the few non-Super Bowl stories that somehow squeezed into the news over the weekend.
We claim no expertise regarding the sport of football, but to our untrained eyes the Seattle Seahawks squad seemed to get the better of Sunday’s contest. The score was 450 to 0 or something like that when we dozed off late in the first quarter, and when we were awakened by one of the noisier commercials just before half-time the advantage had somehow increased. We had been hopefully rooting for the Denver Broncos squad, partly because of a brother who lives in the Rockies, partly because they play in the same American Football Conference western division as the Kansas City Chiefs squad we owe our regional loyalty and we were looking forward to rationalizing next year’s failure to make the playoffs by saying “Hey, it’s a tough division,” so the lopsidedness of the result was somewhat disappointing. Something to do with the Seahawks’ blitzing offensive formation forcing the Bronco’s aging quarterback to throw before he had time to check the color of the intended receiver’s jersey, we were told by the thick-necked men in bulging business suits who provided the half-time commentary, but intimations of other problems were apparent to us as early as when the Broncos’ center tossed the opening snap over the quarterback’s head and into the end zone for a safety.
At any rate, by half-time we were almost eager for the half-time show. The Super Bowl’s mid-game extravaganzas are our annual venture into contemporary popular music, and they hold a certain sociological fascination for us because they have come to represent the officially-designated pinnacle of mainstream mass-media show business much as the old Ed Sullivan Show did back in our boyhood, and it’s occasionally interesting to hear what the young folks are doing the funky chicken to these days. This year’s featured performer was Bruno Mars, who is so famous that we are familiar with the name but not so famous that we are familiar with any of his music, and we were mostly struck by the familiarity of his act. There were lots of the lights and fireworks and high-tech stage-craft that characterize the most up-to-date corporate stadium-sized show biz, but the haircuts and the sparkling matching coats and the James Brown-ish choreography were all borrowed from the “show bands” that had all the teenaged girls squealing at National Guard armories across the fruited plains back in the early to mid-‘60s. The music wasn’t bad by comparison to what we hear when scanning the car radio across the dial, but we’d still prefer the less-synthetic sound that The Fabulous Flippers used to put on the Lawrence-to-Wichita-to-Hays circuit back in the day.
At one point in the performance Mars was joined by funk-rock stalwarts The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have been around so long that we can recall catching them in performance at the late and long-lamented Coyote Club roadhouse up on North Broadway. They were pretty good, by our recollection, too cool for stadium gigs, but we were there mainly to hear the great cowboy yodeler Randy Erwin, who was the opening act because of a double-booking accident, and the set he performed in his long johns to spoof the band’s habit of performing in jock straps or less was by far the highlight of the evening. There are a couple of Red Hot Chili Pepper tracks we still like, both of which made it into the Super Bowl, of all places, but it still seems embarrassing that a supposedly cutting-edge performer such as Mars should need them around to make his shtick seem more contemporary.
Few of the much-ballyhooed commercials commanded our attention, but we were struck by the same theme of baby-boomer nostalgia in several of them. One ad for some product or another had Bob Dylan subtly warbling his class nasal country-rock in the background, and a lengthy commercial for the Chrysler Corporation had a grizzled old guitar-strummer who turned out to be Ramblin’ Bob himself. The erstwhile voice of his generation, now the voice of the voice of Chrysler Corporation, extolled the virtues of the America of smoky factories and river barges and James Dean and pool rooms, and course such traditional American carmakers as the Chrysler Corporation, and the mavens of Madison Avenue seem not to have noticed how very strange it was. Dylan’s politics were always stated in impenetrable lyrics and were notoriously hard to pin down, but there’s no doubting he became a commercial-worthy counter-cultural icon to a subset of his generation that angrily decried smoky factories and such old-folks transportation as Chryslers. Throw in the facts that the ruggedly individualistic and quintessentially American Chrysler Corporation was bailed out of bankruptcy with Obama bucks and sold to Italy’s most notoriously unreliable carmaker, that James Dean died recklessly driving a German car like the ones in the new ads touting German engineering, and that Bob Dylan now looks as ravaged as Detroit itself and clearly is not a pool player, and the ad seemed an unsettling commentary on the state of the culture.
The confluence of the mainstream culture and the counter-culture was accomplished long ago, but that just made the Super Bowl weekend all the more dispiriting. There was a funny bit with the Jerry and George characters from the old “Seinfeld” sit-com, but judging from the pair’s appearance that overly re-run show was a long, long time ago. The celebrities in the audience shown by the network cameras were mostly gray-haired, and included a shot of Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles munching on a pizza while he tried to figure out the labyrinthine rules of his confounded America, a past half-time performer and a relic from the era when the Ed Sullivan Show represented the officially designated pinnacle of mass-media show biz. Much like the Chrysler Corporation, the Obama bucks administration, Bob Dylan and Bruno Mars and the modern music scene, and the Denver Broncos’ offensive and defensive coordinators, American culture seems to have run out of new ideas.

— Bud Norman