TIME History

Keeping the ’60s on Life Support

Why we can't let go of that awful decade

Feb. 9 marks the 50th anniversary of one more 1960s changed-the-world-forever thing. Be prepared for six more years of them. This time it’s the appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed, mayor of Squaresville, hosts a provincial skiffle band that won the bad-haircut contest.

Why can’t we let the ’60s go? Mea culpa. I came of age during the “Youthquake” and have written too much about it. I repent.

I was driving my 15-year-old daughter and three of her classmates to school on Nov. 22, and I asked them if they realized that it was the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Three girls had no idea. Two girls (my daughter included) weren’t sure who President Kennedy was. We were listening to NPR, and nothing but the assassination was being discussed. One girl said maybe she’d heard it mentioned on the radio.

The majority of Americans alive today hadn’t been born yet in the 1960s. But we of a certain age (the age that grips levers of power, pulls strings of purse and has the biggest mouth) can’t stop reliving each moment.

Partly it’s the poignancy of the decade. It started so well. Handsome young couple in the White House, recovery from the 1960 recession, the Pill, upbeat message movies like 101 Dalmations and Spartacus, Hugh Hefner’s illuminating “Playboy philosophy” and the clean-cut Kingston Trio leading sing-alongs in short-sleeve shirts with big, wide, cheerful stripes.

Then it went so wrong. Shooting and killing and troops in combat gear, not only in Watts and Detroit but all the way over in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam. Feminists were suddenly angry for some, as far as men could tell, feminine reason. I had to maintain a C average to avoid the draft. Turns out you can’t fly after you take LSD. There was a war on poverty. We lost. And it rained at Woodstock.

Other golden eras have come to bad ends–Edwardian England and America’s Roaring ’20s. Yet they don’t have the deathless, Keith Richards staying power of the ’60s. No kid in 1964 was trying to plunk “Keep the Home Fires Burning” on his guitar the way my kid is trying to plunk “Get Off of My Cloud.” In 1979 there were no golden jubilee commemorative leaps from Wall Street window ledges (though, with the Carter economy, it was a thought).

Perhaps 1960 to 1969 keeps bothering us because it was an unsuccessful tragedy. Aristotle’s Poetics explains the failure. First, says Aristotle, the subject of tragedy must be serious. Almost any adjective can be applied to the ’60s except that one.

Also, the hero must have a tragic flaw. We had heroes in the ’60s. They had flaws. But their flaws didn’t lead to their destruction. They were killed by deranged fools.

Aristotle’s elements of tragedy are plot, characters, thought, diction, melody and spectacle. We had a lot of plots in the ’60s, but none seemed to work out. There’s probably somebody in the Pentagon still plotting to win the hearts and minds of Indo-Chinese peasantry.

We had a lot of characters too. Andy Warhol, for example. Would that he did belong to the ages, instead of to the art auction houses.

Thought back then doesn’t bear thinking about. Diction was far out. Melody disappeared with the White Album’s “Revolution 9.” Only in spectacle did the ’60s satisfy Aristotle’s requirements, and as I mentioned, it rained at Woodstock.

But what the ’60s lacked most–what we all continue to wait around for the ’60s to produce–was tragic catharsis, the moment when we are frozen between pity and terror and experience a purging of emotions.

The flappers and sheiks of the ’20s had a stock-market-crash purge. The Edwardians had purgatorial World War I. We had the ’70s, when, if not too coked up to notice, we were frozen between disco and herpes.

The costive emotional bloat of the ’60s is with us still in our national attitudes, manners and mores.

That said, Ringo, George, Paul and John performing “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” on Ed Sullivan is pretty groovy, and, like, you know, man, changed the world forever.

O’Rourke is the author of The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way … And It Wasn’t My Fault … And I’ll Never Do It Again, published by Atlantic Monthly Press

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