1968: Rock n’ Rolls Greatest Year
I am a sucker for those glossy Time-Life magazines that tempt me at the supermarket check-out line. Last week I added one more of these to my collection: “Music of 1968: Rock n’ Rolls Greatest Year”. I already have the Time-Life overview of 1968 (“The Year That Changed A Generation,” or something like that). Because this is the year we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of that tumultuous year, I felt the need to offer some of my reflections on the music of 1968. So, here goes.
The Time-Life music issue is exactly what you should expect. Right down to the Beatles on the front cover and Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, and Jimi Hendrix on the back cover. The book’s chapters cover familiar ground–in addition to those artists pictured on the front and back covers, we have coverage and pictures about Motown, protest songs, the increasing importance of women in music (i.e. Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, Grace Slick, Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, et. al.), the Rolling Stones, and James Brown’s legendary Boston concert that helped calm the unrest that followed in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
For Rock ‘n’ roll lovers –
And the opening paragraph also sounds very familiar: “For rock ‘n’ roll lovers, 1968 hit the mother lode. Psychedelia ruled, and so did protest, Motown and Johnny Cash’s twang. The Rolling Stones blasted back onto the airwaves with ‘Beggar’s Banquet.’ Heavy metal was ascendant. The Beatles, in spite of personal resentments and professional differences, followed ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ with an LP that since has embraced as even more iconic . . . .” And so on. Nothing very surprising here. Even right down to the concluding sentence: “Rock ‘n’ roll helped change the conversation in 1968: It also changed the world”. Don’t be surprised if the same sentence appears in next year’s 50th year commemorative tribute to how 1969 changed the world.
Although my list would include some of the same names and faces, there would have to be room for three great jazz albums. These include Miles Davis’ “Filles de Kilimanjaro” and “Miles In The Sky,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like A Child,” as well as for Randy Newman’s debut album, Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” and a few country hits like “Stand By Your Man” (which has gained renewed traction with the MeToo movement), “Harper Valley PTA”, and “Wichita Lineman”.
Of course, I would recommend albums like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” The Rolling Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet,” Cream’s “Wheels On Fire,” and The Band’s debut “Music From Big Pink.” This was also the year that saw the release of one of the most significant classical albums of all time–Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Moog synthesizer-driven “Switched On Bach.”
And, how can we begin to discuss the significance of 1968 without bringing up (somewhat literally) what may very well be the worst pop song of all time? What I’m talking about is Bobby Goldsboro’s cringeworthy (No. 3 on Billboard’s top songs of the year) “Honey.” Someone had to lower the bar all the way to the ground, and this is it. The fact that this song hasn’t been remade is one of pop music’s enduring mysteries; of course, I am grateful this has been the case. Along with why we haven’t heard any new versions of “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. This was one of my favorites from the year that changed the world. Not because of its lyrics but because I have marveled at its cheesy organ accompaniment for these past fifty years.
It was also 50 years ago that Van Morrison gave us “Astral Weeks”. This enigmatic album that still has the power to mesmerize and perhaps to amuse as well. This album has proclaimed as visionary and pretentious. It is the greatest album ever made or an experience we should best forget. In Ryan’s Walsh’s evocative new book, ASTRAL WEEKS, a new appreciation of Morrison’s album is given. As well as an alternative history of pop music in 1968. We should not focus on how this album reflects the larger cultural history of 1968. Rather, Walsh chooses to place this album squarely into the context of the city in which it’s recorded.
In 1968, Boston, like it’s 18th century predecessor, was an epicenter of American protest, radicalism, weirdness, and alternative lifestyles. According to a review written in “Boston” magazine, Walsh’s book is one “of the finest books written about Boston [because he] weaves the stories of luminaries who had crucial experiences in Boston–Morrison, Lou Reed, Timothy Leary, James Brown–around the forgotten and often astonishing history of the city when it was old, weird, and grimy.”
For me, Walsh’s book is important. It highlights the fact that all history is ultimately local history. In that we also experience the facts of history in the most intensely personal ways. The reason most people rebel against the experiences that have had of history as presented in a classroom is that this kind of experience is rarely personal. It seldom tries to make connections between sterile “facts and dates” and history-as-experienced.
The history of Boston in 1968 is therefore as important as trying to examine the history of an entire nation. The Time-Life version of history is never as intense or relevant as coming to the realization that the same song I listen to is not the same one to which you listen because our experiences are never quite the same. Context is so important, and that’s what makes Walsh’s book so essential.
Walsh’s motives in writing his book should take into account when we are incline ourselves to indulge in nostalgic fantasies about 1968:
The story of the late-sixties counterculture in America has told before, especially in regard to the drama unfolding in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. But what happened in Boston has gone largely unremarked”. And so has the history of places like Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport, and my hometown of Sparta, North Carolina. All these places touched the history of 1968. In ways far different than the perspectives given in standard American history textbooks. It is time to revisit the history we thought we knew. Walsh’s book is a good place to start.
See you next week.