(This memoir by Bill King originally was published in Beatlefan #90, September, 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of these events. We thought it would be a good way of now noting the 45th anniversary.)
It’s a year for anniversaries. Beatlemania. D-Day. And observances of the I-remember-where-I-was events that packed that yin-yang summer of 1969.
Yes, I remember Woodstock. I was there.
OK, so I wasn’t up to my ears in sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and mud on Max Yasgur’s New York farm. But I was in Woodstock, in Georgia’s Appalachian foothills, where my family was “roughing it” for a week in a rustic cottage — complete with color TV with which to stay in touch with the rest of the world, which seemed to be going mad.
So it is that my memories of Woodstock and the Manson Family killings forever are entwined with images of us sitting at the breakfast table, trying to pick millions of tiny bones out of the catfish we’d snagged in Lake Allatoona.
It was as if the spicy social and cultural gumbo that was the ’60s was boiling over in the latter days of summer as my senior year of high school approached. Already in July, we’d had the wild contrast of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in an ancient ceremony and the modern marvel of man walking on the moon — both telecast live around the world via satellite.
A few days after the moon landing, Teddy Kennedy, who earlier that year was the fifth most admired man in America in a Gallup Poll, had gone on national TV to try explain Mary Jo Kopechne’s death in his car at Chappaquidick.
And then, that jam-packed week at the lake, we heard of the bizarre and bloody Beverly Hills murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends, followed by the similar slaughter of an L.A. grocer and his wife the next day … Northern Ireland erupting as Catholics and Protestants took their age-old hatred into the streets, prompting the introduction of British troops … the gathering of more than 400,000 at that place in New York with the same name as our vacation site for a three-day rock fest that became a cultural watershed … and Hurricane Camille tearing up the Gulf Coast, killing 283.
We didn’t know it yet, but another cultural upheaval was taking place in London,where The Beatles were burning out in a creative supernova. The day before Sharon Tate was butchered, the Fab Four strolled across a certain zebra walk that was to be immortalized in the most famous record album cover of all time.
Even for those of us who lived it, 1969 seems like another world … a world where the hot new home entertainment item was the 8-track tape; the hottest new band was Creedence Clearwater Revival; Johnny Cash was pioneering country crossover; adolescent boys were falling in love with Olivia Hussey of “Romeo & Juliet” while Henry Mancini had an unexpected chart-topper with the film’s theme song; and Hollywood was courting the burgeoning youth market, with “Goodbye Columbus,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Midnight Cowboy.” A film that satirized the new sexual freedom, “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” was due out soon and “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was testing pornography laws across the country.
TV’s tame answer to all this sexual license fell well short of Broadway’s nudity-laced “Hair” and “Oh! Caluctta!,” but some ABC affiliates nevertheless were nervous about the new comedic anthology, “Love, American Style.” The networks were on their own youth kick, with Michael Parks roaming the country in search of the Meaning of Life in “Then Came Bronson,” cool teens and caring teachers addressing relevant concerns in “Room 222,” and Aaron Spelling trying to follow up on his “Mod Squad” success with “The New People,” about a group of college kids stranded on a Pacific island who must start all over. For our little brothers and sisters, there was a goofy new sitcom about this lovely lady with three daughters who met this man with three sons of his own. …
As school got underway, we seniors briefly lost and regained our off-campus lunch privilege; we argued the upcoming Vietnam Moratorium Day nationwide anti-war protest in Coach Warlick’s Current Affairs class; we still watched “Dark Shadows” when we got home; and, in the latter half of September, tracks from the forthcoming “Abbey Road” album started showing up on the radio. Stations in a few cities also began programming the rough-hewn tracks from the abortive “Get Back” album, taken from advance acetates that had leaked out.
A taste of the times can be had via the “Posters, Incense, and Strobe Candles” bootleg, taken from a recording of WBCN in Boston airing the “Get Back” album on Sept. 22, 1969.
That same night, on my 17th birthday, The Beatles were seen on TV in a disjointed promotional film for the summer hit “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (with a drum beat replacing each mention of “Christ” and a couple of minutes of “Give Peace a Chance” from that May’s Montreal Bed-In inserted in the middle).
The occasion was the star-loaded premiere — with Tom Jones, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Oliver, Buck Owens, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also on the bill — of ABC’s “The Music Scene,” a hip but ultimately short-lived variation on “Your Hit Parade” notable mainly for introducing Lily Tomlin.
Leafing through a TV Guide from that week, and listening to that “Get Back” bootleg, I am swept back to a time when outrage still was tempered with hope, that heady mix of anything-goes and lingering innocence made life a thrilling adventure of discovery, there seemed to be no limits to what we could do … and when, not coincidentally, The Beatles were at the apex of their musical and cultural influence, a presence so powerful and pervasive that it crossed almost all socio-economic boundaries.
For our children, it must be difficult to fathom the unique position the Fabs had in 1969. But if they imagine the combined impact of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, David Letterman, Kurt Cobain, Fabio, Madonna and, yes, even dead Elvis — and multiply it several times — they might come close.
The Beatles occupied a sort of pop culture Mount Olympus. No mere stars, their every move triggered worldwide interest and trends. Their lyrics and even their album covers were examined for meanings in the uniquely ’60s belief that these rock ’n’ roll demi-gods must know something we didn’t.
(This, of course, resulted not only in that ludicrous media uproar in the fall of ’69 now known as the Paul-is-dead hoax, but also in the revelation at the Manson trial a few months later that Crazy Charlie considered The Beatles to be higher beings who were sending him messages through their music. “Helter Skelter,” he believed, foretold an impending race war and was the alert for him to get on the right side by slaughtering some pigs. In reality, it used playground imagery as an analogy for sex.)
Back then, The Beatles were so unbelievably hip that we figured anything they did must be hip, even if it didn’t appear so on the surface. I remember when I first heard the “Abbey Road” album: A group of us had gathered at a schoolmate’s house to work on a Senior English class report (something boring by Joseph Conrad) and it wasn’t long before our attention wavered and we adjourned to Mary’s basement bedroom to listen to the new Beatles LP, which I hadn’t yet scraped up the bucks to buy.
Anyway, we listened in awe as Mary guided us through “Abbey Road,” and I’ll never forget her preface to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which today is viewed in the same light in which The Beatles themselves saw it — as the “corny” one — but which Mary, who was known as one of the school’s artsy intellectuals, imbued with some unknown quasi-mystical meaning beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.
“This one is too far out,” she said breathlessly as the song began.
And, you know, listening to the tale of Maxwell Edison and his deadly silver hammer in the wake of the summer of ’69 … well, it did seem that way.
2014 POSTSCRIPT: I recently sent this piece to Mary, who at first didn’t recognize herself in it, and then was bemused that I described her as an “artsy intellectual.” She also couldn’t believe she had ever used the phrase “too far out.” I can’t swear those were her exact words, but that’s definitely how I remembered it 20 years ago, and still do. I also should note that, while I’m not sure anyone would have described me as an “artsy intellectual” in 1969, that’s the group I mostly hung out with in high school.