It’s difficult to define the edges of an epoch. Sometimes thoughts, ideologies and fashions seem to gel together so cohesively into a period of time that we claim them as a separate era. Are we always aware when they begin though? Or where and when they come to an end?
The decade of the 1960s is certainly one of the clearest examples of period of time that has taken on a tangible identity. Remembered, eulogised, elegised, mourned for and mythologised, the 1960s evokes clearer, stronger and more emotional responses than almost any other. The only question therefore, is ‘why’?
Culturally, the ’60s saw the continuation of the artistic liberation that had begun in the 1950s. In both Britain and America, music, art and cinema had started to better acknowledge and represent the voices of the young. Presley, Pollock and James Dean had become icons of a new class in the States whilst, recovering from the gloom of rationing, Britain focussed on angry playwrights like John Osbourne and Harold Pinter that were breaking down social and artistic barriers with their irreverent and challenging drama.
Of course the ’60s had its own icons too: The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luthur King. Though it’s true that these couldn’t belong to any other decade, it’s not as if they came out of nowhere, out of the clear blue, so to speak. They evolved and appeared as luminaries do in any other time.
It may be worth bearing in mind also, that though the ’60s gave us all of the icons mentioned above, none of them survived passed 1970. As good at giving birth to icons, it would seem, the 1960s was equally good at burying them.
Heralded for its optimism, its preoccupation with love and liberation, in reality the ’60s witnessed the burgeoning of the Vietnam War and the first use of conscription since WW2; vehement racial segregation; the pinnacle of the Cold War, the clandestine cleansing of supposed communist ideals and the widespread paranoia that ensued; violent student protests and the politically motivated murders of public figures that had advocated liberalism and pacifism.
Okay, you may argue, freedoms need to be fought for, bought and paid for, but then why ally the ’60s with peace and love and not struggle?
The end of the sixties is often accredited to the free Rolling Stones concert held at Altamont, northern California, on December 6th, 1969. Billed as ‘the Woodstock of the West’, the concert was organised by the Rolling Stones but also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. A free concert, the event was alleged to have been ‘policed’ by the Hell’s Angels for $ 500 worth of beer.
In an attempt to recreate their momentous free gig in Hyde Park the previous July, The Stones’ concert at Altamont would be famous for very different reasons.
Stirred up by reports that members of The Hell’s Angels were being violent towards the ‘hippie’ crowd, tensions at the concert began to seriously escalate. Numerous accounts of beatings were reported throughout the event until, right in front of the stage, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death. In full view of the Maysles brothers’ camera that was capturing the concert for a documentary, Meredith Hunter can be seen brandishing a long-barrelled revolver before the alleged killer, Alan Passaro, bundles into him with a flurry stabbing movements.
Three other deaths were reported at Altamont that night though none other were as a result of a possible homicide. Where as Woodstock became synonymous with the ’60s idyll of peace and love, Altamont became a symbol of the death of this dream and the end of the 1960s.
As if one ending wasn’t enough, the incident that took place at Kent State University in Ohio five months later is also credited as the day the ’60s ended.
In reaction to President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, students around the world had begun to stage huge protests. At Kent State these protests took the shape of a huge ‘student strike’ and a rally conducted on the grounds of the university campus. On May 1st, a late night demonstration in the surrounding town had turned disruptive. The police were called but a crowd of about 100 people, made up of a mixture of students, bikers and out-of-town youths, began pelting them with stones and bottles. Three days later, on May 4th, another demonstration on campus was just getting started when an armed team from the Ohio National Guard turned up to disperse the protesters.
It was then, just after midday, that certain officers of the National Guard opened fire on a section of students; they wounded nine and killed four. The devastating aggression of government forces toward young adults of their own country in the final blossoming of their education is a travesty in any time period. That it comes so closely on the heels of a decade that supposedly cherished peace and understanding puts things into a very clear perspective.
Could this of happened in the 1960s? Of course it could; everyone involved had lived through and had been shaped by the previous decade so there is no logical reason to suggest otherwise.
The result would therefore point to the conclusion that to construct timeframes of certain historical periods can be misleading. Though ideas, attitudes and fashions may seem to connect together to cause cohesive eras, this is almost never a complex enough reading to be truly valuable. The response should then be to resist mourning the passing of certain time periods and instead to focus on that which is possible today or tomorrow. Imbuing the past with a sense of magic and majesty can do little but tarnish the perception of the present. One who insists on revelling in the glories of the past cannot then prepare to glory in the future.