Michael Gerber
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After reading my post on LA’s legendary radio station KHJ, commenter @Hieronymus wrote,

This is fascinating, Michael. We are roughly the same age and while I’ve been obsessed with the Beatles and 60s culture since I hit double figures, I only really started digging DEEP into the 60s (aside from the Beatles) around 20 years (I know, ONLY 20 years ago, ha!) but what I soon became aware of was how necessary that deep digging was to really understand the world I grew up in. I think we came into this world at the start of the slowing down of whatever the hell it was that started in the mid-50s in America and then bounced back and forth across the Atlantic for a while and reached its peak around 1967-69. I’m not impartial enough to discern how much that period still resonates in the world today beyond obsessives like myself, but its echoes were the ever-present and pervading backdrop of my formative years even before I had any understanding of what it was or what it meant – which is probably why I remain obsessed.

Wonderful comment. This is probably the closest anybody’s ever come to answering the question I get asked occasionally: “Mike, why do you still blog about The Beatles?”

The Beatles are both a concentrated form of “whatever the hell it was that started in the mid-50s in America…”—you can see that working in them as people, and in every single step of their story—and a great entree into many other aspects of it. The Beatles lead everywhere. Like you, @Hieronymus, I felt the absence of the Sixties profoundly as a backdrop to my growing up. I’m working on a piece for my memoir called “Something Happened,” because that’s how it felt in the 70s, something BIG had happened, but I had just missed it, and was getting instead the overripe and mostly used up leavings of it, especially culturally. Sometimes that really worked out (Apocalypse Now explains something essential about Vietnam that living through the real day-to-day Vietnam War could not; comedy was better in the 70s because it takes time for a new set of norms to be digested), but most of the time it felt unfair and deflating. And then the 80s came along and systematically attacked every aspect—not of the idealistic, interesting, compassionate, often quite practical 60s, but of the silly 70s that came after.  If you grew up after Reagan, it seemed you had to choose which side you were on. Art or money? Weed or coke? Tie-dye or coat and tie? Sex with strangers or no sex until marriage? Atheist or Mass in Latin? It’s a bogus choice, but it felt real, and I know a lot of people still trapped in it.

As to whether that era still resonates, I think one could argue that the entire conservative movement in the U.S. is an attempt to roll back what’s happened since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; the invention of the Pill (early 50s); massive post-secondary education (beginning with the G.I. Bill, but really hitting its stride in the massive student populations throughout the West in the late 60s); women’s liberation; gay liberation; racial identity being translated into international anticolonialist solidarity and political action…these are all parts of “whatever happened” which don’t simply resonate today, they are what is happening today. The Sixties are present in our present in a way that the 1930s or even 2010s are not, and throughout the West we are still very unsure whether we like or approve of the massive sexual, artistic, political, and cultural energies that the Sixties unleashed—or what to do with them regardless of our opinion. The only comparable decade is, I think, the 1920s, and technology has made the 60s last much longer and hit much harder than the 20s ever did.

For example: in 2003, before my friend was sent to Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, they were all sat down and played the 1966 movie The Battle of Algiers. That was a forty-year-old movie. Soldiers being sent to Vietnam in 1966 were not forced to watch Howard Hughes’ WWI melodrama Wings before they deployed; the idea is absurd. The Sixties were/are still current, still applicable, and not just in Pontecorvo’s movie, but in the “special forces” glamor created in the Kennedy years, and the modified Howze Board-developed air-cav doctrine we employed over there.

What made the Sixties happen can be approached from a million different angles. For example, it’s highly unlikely that The Beatles would’ve happened without the end of National Service in 1960. The whole Sixties scene in the UK was built on that, and the flood of young working-class Brits into art schools. The cultural flowering that happened on both sides of the Atlantic from 1945-80 was based on lots of things that created feedback loops. First, there were macro-factors like birth rates, access to education and either a fantastically strong economy (U.S.) and/or a strong commitment to the welfare state (U.K.), which leads to a huge middle-class market for pop culture. These macro-factors result in lots of individual actions, like John/Paul/George/Ringo becoming fascinated by American rock and roll, deciding to chuck straight jobs for it, and being able to make a living at it while they’re honing their skills.

At some point, the cycle reverses, in that genius individuals seem to amp the culture as a whole; the macro-factors draw the best, most exciting people into the arts, and the arts give the era a kind of brilliance and leading quality that later eras have lacked. If you lived through the 80s, you remember the culture heroes turning from writers, artists and musicians to…bond traders? Corporate raiders? Some of this is the macro-trend of the aging Baby Boomers, but money-people simply were not able to enliven the culture in the same way artists were. But Lennon felt it! In those last interviews, he and Yoko burble about the benefits of money. That’s a signal that the forces that had been in charge since 1955 or so were fading. The drug culture had soured as behaviors commenced in the Sixties began to take their physical and mental toll; AIDS stopped the sexual revolution cold; and so forth.

It’s very difficult for me to look at much about American culture today and say it is objectively better than it was then; I think a high-water mark of sorts was reached. And even the things that are unquestionably better, like racial/sexual/gender tolerance, have their roots in that period. (The assertion of identity and personhood that is “choosing one’s pronouns,” for example, is a very Sixties thing to do.) Many of the things that are objectively worse—the consolidation and strip-mining of culture; the reemergence of Christian ethno-nationalism; a paranoia and loathing around human sexuality; a seemingly permanent Gilded Age ruled by the absolutely worst people—all seem to have their birth in the post-Sixties period, and often call back to an imagined pre-Sixties period.

I will believe until my dying day that those forces @Hieronymus summed up—we’ll call them “The Sixties,” and date them from 1954-73, beginning with Brown and ending with the Oil Crisis/end of the draft/Watergate—were a good thing. A great thing. Maybe even a unique happenstance in the history of human civilization. I am convinced that I live in Santa Monica because, in 2005, I could still see traces of that Sixties culture here. In the soft drugs, the New Age/Eastern stuff, the poster shops on the Venice boardwalk…in California, the Sixties still live, and sometimes even thrive, and that’s why I’m here.

And why my mind turns to the Beatles, those guys “up in the crow’s nest,” spotting the future.