The watershed year when the future angrily separated itself from the past. The world at large experienced radical change in this short trip around the sun. There are just some “pivot” years that thrust the door wide open and barge through with the winds of change. Years that provide excruciating tragedy accompanied with euphoric triumphs that set the tone for decades to come. 1968 was definitely one of those years.
Forty years ago today, Robert Kennedy died from gunshot wounds suffered when was gunned down the day before in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. It was seemingly the boot that kicked the door in and escorted the “the revolution” of change through the portal.
I turned four in the fall of 1968 and one of my first vivid memories was of the day Robert Kennedy died. My young mind couldn’t fully understand the weight of the situation, but I had a distinct feeling that things were dire….and there was a shift of some sorts happening.
Each night, after my father came home from his business, we all sat in the living room while my mother cooked supper and watched Walter Cronkite on “the news”. I vividly remember the riots, the war, the dogs, the water hoses, the crying and the desperation coming from all three channels of that big console TV.
And, like the soundtrack in an epic movie, music provided the backdrop. To be sure, music and musicians were as affected by the times and ’68 provided the metamorphosis from the safe, idealistic music of doo-wop and surfer tunes to hard guitar licks and lyrics of conviction and angst. Music’s personality was also losing its innocence, becoming raw, painful, soulful, rhythmic, pure, free and exploratory.
In January, the Tet Offensive brought the war in Vietnam to a crescendo and directly into our homes. The posthumous hit from the great Otis Redding, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, ushered in the year, a short month after his tragic death in a plane crash, providing a bittersweet premonition of the year to come.
The early Spring of 1968 brought relative calm in the year of turbulent change and the #1 song in the land mirrored the docileness of the proverbial “calm before the storm”:
Honey, Bobby Goldsboro
As tempartures began to rise, numerous college campus protests were the topic of the day. And then, the powder keg of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched angry and inconsolable people rioting in the streets, burning their neighborhoods and vowing retribution. Fear of the future was like a lead anvil on my chest and I was very worried for my family–my brother in particular, because he was 13 at the time and I was afraid that he’d have to go to Vietnam and I’d never see him again.
Notice The Beatles birthday cake.
When MLK was killed in early April, officials in Boston turned to the great James Brown to try and quell the violent backlash of rage and oppression in Beantown. They not only encouraged Brown to perform but actually televised the performance, via tape delay. Because of the broadcast and officials urging people to stay home and watch it on TV. James Brown performed and addressed the audience helping to Boston avert an explosive situation.
Got the Feeling, James Brown
But the world turned on….My parents continued to have their usual Summer house parties and that helped to quell some of the fears of the outside world.
That’s my Daddy, center and my Mamma in white
While they weren’t exactly playing and singing protest songs, they were all huge Johnny Cash fans and I distinctly remember them “covering” Folsom Prison Blues:
I also remember everyone under the age of 30 being completely and utterly ga-ga (technical term) over The Beatles. Perhaps the most pivotal year in their reign over Rock, 1968 saw The Beatles incorporate under the Apple Ltd. partnership in an effort to produce other arists, where they promptly signed a hot young acoustic artist named James Taylor.
Something in the Way She Moves
George Harrison was inspired to write Something from James Taylor’s melodic soul stirrer from his debut album on the Apple label, and showed up in 1969 on Come Together. In 1968, The Beatles were going through massive transformation and the outcome of their retreat to the studio from May to October was the fabled White Album. The rush of music and lyrics during this time came from The Beatles trip to India to “study” with the Maharishi Yogi, as well as John’s painful divorce. The Beatles top selling single of all time, Hey Jude, was Paul’s cathartic ode to Julian, John’s young son.
The White Album included 45 tracks of raw, multi-faceted talent that may just be the best album ever recorded. The got by with a little help from their friends, including god (and wife stealer), Eric Clapton on While My Guitar Gently Weeps:
In August of 1968, the Republicans made the fateful decision to nominate Richard Nixon as their candidate for President and a few short weeks later there was a major altercation between protesters and law enforcement at the Democratic National Convention. Tempers were on the rise and music reflected the sentiments of the day:
People Got to be Free, The Rascals
But perhaps the fall of 1968, brought the most significant changes. The space program put the first manned spacecraft in orbit in October, captivating weary Americans with the anticipation of The Last Frontier.
One of the most famous images of 1968 is the picture of U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black gloves in solidarity of the Civil Rights Movement.
As they were protesting, the Motown Sound was taking over the charts and one particular artist, with one particular smash hit was storming the national scene.
Heard it Through the Grapevine, Marvin Gaye
Shortly thereafter, the milestone album of Astral Weeks by the milestone artist, Van Morrison, was released in early December. The eight songs of Astral Weeks would become one of the seminal albums of the era and a literal roadmap for many soulful artists to come.
Lester Bangs summed it up pretty well in this 1979 quote:
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled to almost none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation and probably wouldn’t have done anything about it if I had.
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece – i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far – no matter how I’d been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.
I don’t really know how significant it might be that many others have reported variants on my initial encounter with Astral Weeks. I don’t think there’s anything guiding it to people enduring dark periods. It did come out at a time when a lot of things that a lot of people cared about passionately were beginning to disintegrate, and when the self-destructive undertow that always accompanied the great sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in it’s maw and was pulling straight down. so, as timeless as it finally is, perhaps Astral Weeks was also the product of an era. Better think that than ask just what sort of Irish churchwebbed haints Van Morrison might be product of.
The music of 1968 was a product of the times, but in many ways the times became a product of the music. Messages that couldn’t openly be talked about in “polite” company were often put to music where the messages were loud and clear but many deaf ears (i.e., anyone over 30) didn’t have the decoder.
After Nixon was elected, the country seemed to breath a collective sigh. Not a sigh of relief, but one of giving up. There would be no turning back, no return to innocence. We were all in for a penny, in for a pound.
1968 went out with a bang as one of the last bastions of early Rock & Roll, The King himself, was piped into our living rooms, LIVE and in living color, resplendid in black leather. Slim, trim and really on his game, this was the last of Elvis’ truly great performances and in some odd synergy, he was a posterchild for the changes afoot. Man, he was smokin’….
Elvis finished up the concert and the year with likely the most apt song for a country and a world that had been so wounded over the last year. Like a microcosm of life, 1968 was filled with pain, trials and tribuations but there was a bastion of hope and promise that dreams of peace, happiness and prosperity could be realized.
If I Can Dream, Elvis Presley
As for me, I received a Mrs. Beasley doll and an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas that year, so some of my anxiety was lessened by the excitement of the season, Santa Claus and family gatherings. However, I really wouldn’t rest easy for a few more years when the draft was discontinued and we pulled troops out of Vietnam. By the time I was in the 2nd grade, the riots and protests seemed to quell. However, I do remember getting Christmas cards extolling “Peace on Earth” and thinking that it was such a pipe dream. But it was an ideal…just like all of those ideals from 1968 that lived on and truly changed the world, both in song and in deed.