"1968 & 'The White Album'": Panel Talk, 11/8/18

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The informal panel talk described on the poster above will include commentary about and music from “The White Album” as well as the speakers’ reflections about the momentous year, 1968. I was asked by the organizers to provide the local context for the record’s release 50 years ago—November 22 to be exact. I took the assignment for a ten-minute talking slot and made notes that turned into a script, which became a short essay. The end product is longer than I had planned, but as I researched and wrote I picked up more relevant information and my thinking expanded. I needed a structure for my presentation, so I kept going. For the event two days from now, I’ll pull highlights from the essay—facts, anecdotes, passages that will give the audience a sense of the late ‘60s in Lowell, Mass. Below is the full essay for anyone who would like to read the long version, very different from “Revolution 9” as long versions go.

1968 and ‘The White Album’ in Lowell

Prologue

JOAN DIDION’S NOW-CLASSIC 1972 book The White Album begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In her essays, she’s not writing about The Beatles as much as tapping the vibe of the late 1960s to say what it felt like to be alive in that moment. Didion’s world was shifting and eluding meaning—improvisation had upset a solid storyline. She writes, We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” She started questioning her assumptions. Events were overtaking the expected pattern. Even The Beatles were shifting from a tight band to four separate players and back again in their double album called The Beatles and more famously “The White Album.”

“Helter Skelter,” a hard-rock song on disc two, whose name comes from a type of playground slide in England, got turned into an obscene threat by the murderous Charles Manson cult in 1969. Manson, a criminal and self-proclaimed prophet, concocted a twisted interpretation of “The White Album” as an apocalyptic forecast. A group of Manson’s followers butchered five people in Los Angeles, including the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant. Things were still falling apart, the center still not holding—a situation consistent with Didion’s earlier take on modern American culture in her first book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

My Time

     I was born in Lowell and grew up in the town of Dracut close by. In 1968, I finished eighth grade and started high school. To that point I was obsessed with two things: baseball and The Beatles. My family never missed the nightly news on TV, and my parents read two newspapers each day, three on Sunday if my older brother bought the New York Times. We were a current events family, so I knew what was going on. But my political awakening at fourteen years old didn’t happen until I saw the police thrashing anti-war demonstrators on live TV during the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago.

A cousin of mine, Marc, traveled to Chicago with friends from UMass Amherst to protest and was beaten by cops. He’s six years older than me. Marc had the longest hair of any of my cousins and looked and felt like the Sixties to me. His girlfriend was an artist. We never spoke about his politics, but I watched him and soaked up any news about him from his mother, my aunt Rollie. (He intrigued me as a little kid because he had pictures of New York Yankees baseball stars in his room—not Red Sox. The Yankees were winners in those days.)

My rising opposition to the Vietnam War boiled over as I watched the chaos on the Chicago streets and heard young demonstrators chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” Unforgettable scenes and words that shaped me.

A few years later, when reading Norman Mailer’s account of the conventions of 1968 in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the vivid description of that clash in Chicago jumped off the page and stoked my emotions again. The Chicago convention radicalized me, if that’s not too dramatic for a fourteen-year-old. When Graham Nash sang his song “Chicago” at Boarding House Park in Lowell two summers ago, he lit up my nervous system again with these passionate lines: “We can change the world, rearrange the world/It’s dying—to get better.” Just about everybody knew the words and was singing loudly. “If you believe in justice . . ./And if you believe in freedom/. . . open up the door.”

“The White Album”

     In late November 1968, my friend Susan in Dracut walked three miles in the rain to buy the new Beatles double album at a Lowell record shop and hitchhiked home when the paper bag started to soak through. “I was one crazy Beatles fan,” she says.

     At college, another friend, John, a photographer now, remembers “the beautiful color prints of the boys” that his roommate had taped to the wall. Around the same time, the Rolling Stones released their Beggars’ Banquet recording in an off-white sleeve, a second “white” album. John says it took all weekend to “fully consider both albums . . . listening deeply, testing our understanding of the music and lyrics, poring over the liner notes for hidden communiques.” He adds that The Beatles’ plain white album cover was excellent for rolling joints because “the small bits of weed stood out nicely.” John says the music didn’t catch hold of him and his friends until after winter break and the first half of the year. There were thirty new songs to absorb—in so many styles, with so much content.

My lifelong friend Paul recalls friends from high school who could afford to buy the album “debating for months whether it was as good as Sgt. Pepper or a hodgepodge of John’s and Paul’s songs.” Some of them thought it was a mess. He says, “Beatles’ songs [the group and solo] in 1969, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ were overtly political, but not as clever as the lyrics to ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ or as poetic as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’”

     Speaking globally, a growing-up classmate of mine, Willy, says: “To have been lucky enough to come of age as those first Beatles songs hit the airwaves was akin to grabbing the lightning bolt right out of the sky.”

     My experience with “The White Album” lagged. When the album landed, I was still listening to Beatles’ songs from 1964 and 1967, A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour, plus a handful of number-one singles that I had on the small records, 45s. At later high school dance and beer-drinking parties, “The White Album” sank in thanks to a hundred spins on the turntable and repeated eight-track tape plays. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “While My Guitar,” “Bungalow Bill,” even the kooky “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” got us going in the town basements and city living rooms. Before and after the drinking age dropped to 18 years old, we had in our crowd two sets of parents who said they’d rather have their kids drinking downstairs in “a cellar full of noise” than drag-racing on the highway and tossing beer cans out the window if a cruiser fired up its blue lights. Anyone was welcomed to stay over. Nobody crashed a car.

     We rocked out to The Beatles, Stones, Grand Funk Railroad, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young, The Who, and lots of others. But The Beatles provided the musical anchor, “The White Album” and Abbey Road dominating. For about ten minutes I was in a makeshift band that tried hard to copy “Rocky Raccoon,” a mash-up of folk and honky-tonk showing the group’s incredible range. As an older guy I go back to “The White Album” for select cuts like “Long, Long, Long,” a gem featuring George’s voice and guitar with Ringo’s massive drumming.

     My friends and I didn’t connect “The White Album” to politics at the time, even with the song “Revolution” on the disc and the not-so-subtle commentary of “Piggies” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” We took The Beatles for music first and almost exclusively. That’s what we needed. The sound and the energy. We took them secondly for fashion, hair and clothes.

Lowell Time

     Lowell’s population in 1968 was about 94,000—92 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent black, and .7 percent Asian. (The 2010 census showed 52.8 percent white, 17.3 percent Hispanic, 6.8 percent black, and 20.2 percent Asian.) Twenty thousand people left the city between 1920 and 1960, many of them World War II veterans like my father moving their families to the ring of suburbs.

     After World War II, unemployment in the city rose and stayed high. The authorities began tearing down old houses, tenements, and business structures, hoping to attract new companies with open space for expansion. According to one report by neighborhood leaders: “The Lowell region was one of eight major urban centers in the U.S. classified as places with chronic unemployment, and as late as 1965 the jobless rate was 50 percent higher than the national average. From economic deprivation grew crime, neglect of the young and the elderly, poor physical and mental health, dependence of public welfare programs, and the steady withering of community involvement and spirit.”

A friend of mine walked to high school from his home across the river from downtown. He summed up what a lot of young people saw in the city. “I could have taken a bus, but walking the route, surrounded by empty mill buildings with broken windows, somehow reinforced the new independence I felt since leaving grammar school. Everything was bigger, and older, than the town I knew. History had been made here—had been—but the Lowell I walked through every day from 1968 to 1970 was spent and gray, punctuated only by the burnt-orange brick mill walls.”

     Community leaders involved in the federal Model Cities urban renewal project talked about rehabilitating Lowell’s history, mills, and canals as a way to revive the spirit and economy of the city. At the grassroots, activists planned a way forward. They believed in education as a stimulant and pictured a “City of Learning” in a museum-without-walls. Ten years of effort led to tremendous change by 1978, when the city was named a national park, commemorating the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, and the new computer industry created jobs in the region.

On the Streets

     In the nation and world every month of 1968 brought an explosion, from the brutal Tet Offensive in South Vietnam that revealed the strength of the opposition to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as student turmoil in France and Mexico and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.

     By 1968, the Vietnam War was in Lowell’s bloodstream. In 1965, Army soldier Donald Arcand, 19 years old, was killed in South Vietnam near the end of his tour of duty—the first Lowell man to die in that war. He was riding in a helicopter that was shot down by fighters on the ground. He had played basketball at St Joseph’s High School. Jane Hoye, who was engaged to Donald when he was killed, wrote years later that she felt an “indescribable sadness” at the news of his death. She added, “There were no men in Lowell in those days. They were all drafted.”

Donald L. Arcand (1946-1965) Web photo courtesy of loucroft.blogspot.com

Donald L. Arcand (1946-1965) Web photo courtesy of loucroft.blogspot.com

     City officials in 1969 dedicated Arcand Drive in honor of Donald—it’s a prominent road in front of the JFK Civic Center and Lowell City Hall. The same year anti-war activists in Massachusetts began organizing peace marches in the older industrial cities where the military was getting so many of its members. They wanted to save lives. In Lowell, some young people and older residents listened to the organizers describe a plan for an anti-war march in 1970. When the day of the march came, the protesting students, community people, and hard-core anti-war activists from outside the city encountered violent resistance from Lowell rough guys who detested what they believed were anti-American symbols and chants.

     One of the anti-war organizers, Michael, wrote that he saw the large crowd and knew “something big was up. We believed it was our march. We were wrong.” Talking about the clash years later, one local man said he hated seeing the Viet Cong flag being waved in the march. “Our friends were still there, getting killed.”

Students from the two colleges in Lowell marching for peace. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell, from  To Enrich and to Serve: The Centennial History of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell , by Mary H. Blewett and Christine McKenna [Dunlap])

Students from the two colleges in Lowell marching for peace. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell, from To Enrich and to Serve: The Centennial History of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, by Mary H. Blewett and Christine McKenna [Dunlap])

There had been another peace march in Lowell with a better outcome. The community staged an action in solidarity with the national Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. In Boston, 100,000 people assembled to protest, one of many demonstrations across the country. My friend Paul, mentioned earlier, was a sophomore in high school in October 1969 when he and several friends joined a throng of people:

“Walking up Merrimack Street to City Hall under a blue sky with the sun shining through yellow maple leaves. The day was crisp and clear as only October can be at times. Streets were closed. More people joined the crowd when we passed St. Anne’s Church and Lowell High School. The mood was somber. We were protesting the war, exercising new muscles and finding a new voice. For many of us, it was our first political act.

“I felt some concern about participating, as my sister’s boyfriend was stationed in Vietnam, and, of course, my father saw any march like that as unpatriotic. But, again it was like an initial coming-out and acknowledging that I could deal with possible repercussions.”

     What else was going on in the city? All the big and little parts of daily life. In 1968, 2500 people went to Shedd Park in the Belvidere neighborhood to watch Lowell High School’s baseball team play in a conference tournament game. It was the largest baseball crowd in the school’s history. Lowell High lost to its cross-town rival, Catholic Keith High School. With only 400 students, Keith won the Catholic Conference baseball championship and played in the Eastern Mass. Championship game, losing to Reading, 2-1. Baseball was booming, in part because of the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” year in 1967 when they won the American League championship and then lost in the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

     In 1968, my cousins Tommy and Danny and I discovered that we could buy a carton of Topps baseball cards for the wholesale price at the Notini Tobacco Company distribution warehouse in Lowell. What a revelation. Cut out the middle man. In those days the price at the corner variety store was ten cents a pack. Each time Topps released a new series for sale, we’d get a carton with 20 or more packs at a discount. What wealth we had when we spread our fresh cards on the kitchen table. We threw out the thin, hard, flat rectangles of pink bubble gum.

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The Doors played at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967, a music venue near the Lowell train station today. Their song “Light My Fire” was the number one song in the country. Around that time, the Commodore also presented Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Kinks. Fans saw Vanilla Fudge, Moby Grape, Ultimate Spinach, and the 1910 Fruit Gum Company—there was a food trend in names. The popular house band was Little John and the Sherwoods, like Paul Revere and the Raiders. At nearby Canobie Lake amusement park, Sonny & Cher, Brenda Lee, and The Supremes performed. The record stores, Garnick’s and Record Lane, stocked new music. Two AM radio stations kept residents informed and entertained.

     A Teen Talk column in the Lowell Sun newspaper from 1968 described the anticipation of teenagers at Lowell High School waiting for the annual spring Field Day parades and outdoor skill competitions. “There was a fever gripping the students,” according to the Sun. In other news, the Middlesex Women’s Club raised money for college scholarships.

     Downtown Lowell had two department stores and several good-quality women’s and men’s clothing stores as well as shoe stores and two thriving Five-and-Ten-Cents stores, Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. Banks and offices for lawyers, doctors, and dentists lined the streets and filled upper floors of commercial buildings. Stores had regular business hours that included Monday and Thursday night openings. Dozens of churches and many religious schools, Catholic and Hellenic, thrived. In a city that had more than 40 movie theatre since the early 1900s, the city’s last first-run movie theatre, the Strand on Central Street, closed in 1968.

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     The Sixties counterculture writer Raymond Mungo grew up in Lawrence, about 15 miles downriver from Lowell, and became an antiestablishment media star as a student news reporter at Boston University. He had his own take on Lowell in 1969. He and friends decided to recreate Henry David Thoreau’s boat trip up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. When he got his canoe out of the Concord River in Lowell this is what he saw: “There is a strikingly nineteenth-century downtown area, but despite the energetic promotion of the oldest merchants in town, it is slowly corroding as it loses ground to the highway shopping plazas. Life there is sooty, and even the young people look hard and wrinkled. Though it is only a stone’s throw from cultured, boring Boston, it may as well be a thousand miles away for all the intellectual influence it absorbed. We didn’t know it [but our friend Peter] had earlier fled the city, terrified by the fierce looks and obscene catcalls which his long hair had provoked.”

Raymond was not intimidated, knowing this kind of working-class city. Later, a Lowell man put Mungo’s canoe in his truck and drove the travelers to the Merrimack River bank. People living nearby heard about the campers and brought them donuts and coffee.

Beat to Beatles

     Mungo wanted to pick up Jack Kerouac and take him away from Lowell, but Jack had moved to Florida a year before Mungo dropped in. The famous “beatnik” author, in his mid-forties, had come back home in 1967 after marrying Stella Sampas of Lowell, whom he knew in his youth. With his wife and sick mother, Jack lived in a suburban-style ranch house in the outer Highlands neighborhood. In February 1968, his novel Vanity of Duluoz was published. He had put the finishing touches on the story while in Lowell. It was the last of his novels that he saw published. In the book, he re-tells his youthful adventures with football, the Merchant Marine, and New York City subterranean life. A New York Times reviewer called the book “slap-dash” and “one-dimensional.” A recent web search showed seventy-seven media articles about the novel when it was launched.    

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     In the novel he jokes about his lightly disguised seaman character docking in England and spending time with a couple of women who were happy to welcome a sturdy young Yank. The ship carried bombs for the British war effort against the German Nazis. He writes: “We sailed . . . straight for Liverpool. 1943. The year the Beatles were born there, ha ha ha.”

     Kidding aside, twenty-one-year-old Kerouac was saddened by the wartime deprivation in Liverpool: “Here, I saw queues of shawled women (clothing is scarce) waiting in line for some of the palest meat I ever saw . . . . The children are dirty, ill-clothed, and just plain ill.” The German air force mercilessly attacked Liverpool because it was an important port city. John, Paul, George, and Ringo (or Richard as a boy) were all war babies, born between 1940 and 1943. Despite challenging conditions, their families managed to make their lives reasonably comfortable, allowing them to imagine working as entertainers and artists.

    In 1964, Kerouac saw there was Beat in Beatles. The Beat Generation, which Kerouac named, is taken by people in different ways: weariness as in beat down, the musical tempo of jazz, even beatific in a spiritual sense. Poet Gregory Corso, a friend of Kerouac’s, quipped: “Five guys a generation don’t make.” Kerouac’s friend William Burroughs made the short list of people shown on the iconic Sgt. Pepper album cover. I don’t know if that was Lennon’s or McCartney’s doing. Another of Jack’s Beat Generation allies, poet Allen Ginsberg, quickly picked up on the pop magic of the group. He later collaborated with Paul McCartney on “Ballad of the Skeletons,” a song for peace.

     I haven’t found a source linking the Beat writers’ label directly to The Beatles, but there was an affinity between the two. In Liverpool, the talk was about Beat Music and the Mersey Beat for the sound of local bands along the Mersey River. And an earlier name for the band was The Silver Beetles, similar to Buddy Holly’s Crickets in America. Like the core writers of the Beat Generation, the four members of the band functioned as a group, reinforcing each other’s creative ambition. The Beats came through the war as young adults scarred by the carnage and looking for an alternative way to pursue happiness, that essential American dream. Unlike them, the young guys who made The Beatles survived the war as little children, without the damage that was done to the souls of the Beat writers. They were past all that and ran toward the light, drawn forward by the revved-up sound of rock and roll.

     A final thought on 1968. The weekend after Easter, my brother Richard took me to the new Showcase Cinema complex in Lawrence close to Route 495, whose central theater had the largest screen in the area. I was eager to see the film, which, for good reasons, has reached the status of a cathedral among film religionists.

     I didn’t get everything at first view, and I still don’t understand fully the haunting metal monolith and why the all-knowing spacecraft computer frazzed out. I should revisit Arthur C. Clarke’s novel to explore the story more deeply. When I learned that the computer was named HAL because the three letters precede IBM, I appreciated that inside joke. The visual presentation was nothing I’d seen before. The scope of the narrative, the space world gadgets and vehicles, the mythic vibrations.

     Most of all, though, I came away mesmerized by what is called “the Star Gate sequence.” For almost ten minutes, I was pinned in my padded seat while a multi-colored projection washed my eyes, my whole body. I felt as if I was thrusting forward and being pushed back simultaneously. The effect was both kaleidoscopic and a psychedelic tunnel ride, the visual data rushing past on the sides as I, the viewer, arrowed ahead, slipping into the chromatic void through a vertical seam and then flattening to horizontal slicing.

     Through ages of techno-grid travel the context shifts to a morphology that feels familiar even as it stays strange. From a machine world, from an optics carnival, we are transported to places vaguely land- and sea-like. I walked into the sunlight feeling like a hole had been drilled in my head, painlessly, and filled with dream juice that I could not have identified when we got to the show 142 minutes before.

     In a year not half over that already felt messily human and would get uglier and more spectacular, this film, a work of art, had yanked me out of my limited daily experience. Space fascinated me from the start, whether in science fiction or science nonfiction. At the end of the year, the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon and safely touched down in the Atlantic Ocean. Like the Star Gate Sequence, they gave us a new visual, a photograph by Air Force officer William Anders that is called Earthrise, made on Christmas Eve. About half of our planet, blue seas wrapped in white clouds, is seen above a slice of the Moon’s gray surface amid black space.

     Anders said, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

11/6/18 Paul Marion (revised 3/16/19)

* Special thanks to Michael Ansara, Susan April, Paul Brouillette, Willy LeMay, Eileen Loucroft, and John Suiter for sharing their reflections and recollections.