Flower power in the weeds - book review: The 60s unplugged
If you can remember the Sixties, it turns out you probably were there after all, writes Fordyce Maxwell
THE 60s UNPLUGGED
AH, THE Sixties. The Beatles, flower power, mind-enhancing drugs, free and unlimited sex, magical music festivals, student power, JFK and Che to hero worship. Bliss it was to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
No wonder those of us of a certain age think we remember it well, even if our personal experience of most of that first paragraph was close to zero. As it was, a point DeGroot makes frequently, for the great majority of our generation. He quotes a letter to Oz, a magazine founded and riding on the message to the young that flowers, love and lots of sex could change the world:
"I can't play guitar, write poetry, act or sing and my understanding of politics and economics is limited. So what happens to me in the great cultural revolution? In my 19 years I've had three women, a nervous breakdown and some bad education. Can't you people realise that 20 miles north of (London) NOTHING HAS CHANGED."
Written in 1969, that puts the Sixties more in perspective. For the lucky, the Sixties were as uneventful – find a job, make a living, look forward to a Saturday night out – as the Fifties and the Seventies.
For the unlucky – a dozen African countries, North and South Vietnam, the American soldiers who served there, millions of Chinese destroyed by Mao's ego and Cultural Revolution, black people in the US, the starved of Biafra, and many more on DeGroot's list – the Sixties were living hell.
A professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, DeGroot is American and the bulk of his debunking book is about America. It's a matter of degree. Britain had Mods and Rockers, the Beatles, Mary Quant, Portobello Road, the Grosvenor Square protest, Harold Wilson and the Isle of Wight music festival. America had the killings of John Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the shooting of dozens of students and hundreds, if not thousands, of black people, city riots, "the carnage of Woodstock".
"The British may have been the stars in the Sixties cultural revolution," says DeGroot, "but in the political upheaval they were bit players. For most of the decade the pursuit of happiness kept British youths too occupied to get excited about serious issues of life and liberty… Students for the most part went to classes and took exams."
DeGroot's description of the Woodstock Festival of August 1969 is a good example of his myth-busting style. Millions now claim to have been there beyond the estimated half million who were. Many claim to have heard Joni Mitchell sing live the eponymous song that revives "memories" of the event. Yet Mitchell wasn't there. Her manager called off her appearance to get her to a TV studio to plug her latest record.
There or not, her song suggests Woodstock was paradise. Not so. Torrential rain had turned the field into a fetid swamp without toilets. There was not enough food or water. Pete Townshend of The Who said it was the worst gig he ever played, "a disgusting, despicable, hypocritical (commercial) event". Thanks to the film, do we remember it that way, even those who were there in the mud and faeces?
In more than 60 Sixties vignettes DeGroot takes the same approach, his cool, clipped sentences disentangling fact from myth. So you thought it was fun, he asks. "How many people, when considering those times, think about Sharpeville, the Gaza Strip, Tlatelolco, Biafra, Jakarta, Curt Flood or the cannibals of Guangxi?"
For too long, DeGroot contends, the Sixties has been a sacred zone. Throw away the rose-tinted spectacles too many of us have worn since youth and what do we find? Mindless mayhem, shallow commercialism and unbridled cruelty in much of the world. Spot the difference with any other decade.
The problem, he suggests, is that too many Sixties histories have been written by those who cared too much about the decade. What was needed was a history written by someone who didn't give a damn. He says: "I do give a damn, but in a way that I hope will be seen as refreshing." It certainly is.
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