Making sense of the 1960s is a futile task. Rob Kirkpatrick doesn’t even try. His comprehensive 1969: The Year Everything Changed, offers an overwhelming compendium of events in that cataclysmic year. The book’s thoroughness, without over-riding purpose, is apparently an attempt to find the year more influential than, say, 1968. Suggesting the threads of the moon landing, the Vietnam moratorium and I Am Curious (Yellow) will knot cleanly, Kirkpatrick instead ends up with a tangle. If only he’d spent more time trying to unravel it.
But Kirkpatrick has done us great service. He points out that the decade’s most examined year–1968– boasts any number of books (among them Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Charles Kaiser”s 1968 In America: Music Politics, Counterculture and the Shaping of a Generation and Jermi Suri’s anthology The Global Revolutions of 1968). Certainly the political upheavals, not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, mark 1968 as something of a turning point in the revolt against the rigid status quo. Kirkpatrick’s thesis, that 1969 marked “the death of the old and the birth of the new–the birth, …of modern America,” not only gives his text meaning but form. As he explains, “One of the pleasant surprises in writing this book was the ways in which these chapters emerged ‘organically’–e.g., stories of the sexual revolutions of springtime, the flowering of the counterculture in the summer, the apocalyptic standoffs at the year’s end. Life does not happen in neat and orderly ways, as if following a timeline, but the story of 1969 is one that develops in dramatic tension, builds to a climax, and concludes in its December denouncement.”
What follows is a litany of the year’s events, from Nixon’s inauguration and Led Zepplin’s first American tour (which actually began in December, 1968) to the violence at Altamont. In between, he addresses the student revolt, the Jets Superbowl victory over the Colts, details of the moon landing, the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, the nation’s discovery of the My Lai massacre (which occurred in April, 1968), the installation of the first Automatic Teller Machine, the Stonewall Riots and the New York Mets rise to the World Series. Kirkpatrick’s thoroughness provides more than a few memory-jogging surprises (I somehow remembered Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which changed our percpetion of Dylan more than 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, came out a year or two later; likewise Mario Puzo’s epic novel The Godfather). Those paying attention at the time–and what 19-year-old student radical wasn’t?–won’t learn anything new. Instead, Kirkpatrick delivers the pleasure of recount, reminding us of events not thought or discussed for years. Remember Tom Seaver saying, “If the Mets can win the pennant, why can’t we end the war”? Neither did I until Kirkpatrick pointed it out, drawing the chronological connection between the World Series and anti-Vietnam war National Moratorium Day.
What Kirkpatrick doesn’t do is attempt to make sense of it all. The Mets and the war stand apart, as one would expect, despite Seaver’s query. He tells us that he wants to define the year’s “zeitgeist–literally the ‘time spirit'” of that year. He quotes historian and social critic Theodore Roszak (The Making of a Counter Culture) to explain what he is seeking: “that elusive conception called ‘the spirit of the times’ [that] continues to nag at the mind and demand recognition, since it seems the only way available in which one can make even provisional sense of the world we live in.” After reading 1969, the nagging continues. Kirkpatrick is hesitant to take sides in political issues and seems reactionary in his treatment of say the Black Panthers and the Students For a Democratic Society and their frustrations with the status quo. Though there are parallels and influences to be drawn from the roles of politics, art (especially movies and music) and athletics, Kirkpatrick doesn’t offer any. His common thread is little more than the expression of 1969 being exciting times.
In the final chapter, Kirkpatrick does attempt tracing the year’s influence (or lack of influence) into the future. The war– eventually–ends. The environmental movement goes on. Rock music becomes big business and album-oriented. Outdoor music festivals thrive despite Altamont. Free agency changes baseball. The sexual revolution leads to Studio 64. Just as Tom Hayden sees the ongoing legacy of the 1960s in his book The Long Sixties: From 1960 To Barack Obama, Kirkpatrick sees the decade as formative to modern times. “Whether American society had come full circle or had simply circled back on itself, the ripples of 1969 continued to emanate throughout the rest of the century and into the next.” Unlike Hayden, he leaves us wondering at what those ripples stirred.
Still, there’s plenty of thought-provoking room to draw conclusions. Kirkpatrick doesn’t address, say, the irony that the film Easy Rider and it’s anti-mass culture message creates as it influences a generation in dress and lifestyle. But he does quote Jack Nicholson’s character Hanson, stating, “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” We’re left to wonder alone, some 40 years later, how much more has gone wrong.–Cabbage Rabbit