Notes on Panel Talk: 1968 and 'The White Album'

I sent a midnight report to my friend John in Chicago after the panel talk about 1968 and “The White Album” in Lowell last night. Below is a slightly cleaned-up version of two email messages fired-off soon after I got home and was still pumped-up about the event. Thanks to Jesse Heines for the photograph and the technical support for the production, from marketing to PowerPoint presentation.

History professor Bob Forrant with the mic. Look closely to see his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. From left, Greg DeLaurier, me, Bob F., John Wooding, and Will Moylan.

History professor Bob Forrant with the mic. Look closely to see his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. From left, Greg DeLaurier, me, Bob F., John Wooding, and Will Moylan.


We had a very good event in Lowell last night. About 75 people turned out, many from the ‘60s youth generation plus a bunch of college students and members of the youth group of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. 

The program began with the music professor Will Moylan deconstructing "While My Guitar" from the original, remastered, and rough-cut versions. He spoke movingly about how The Beatles have been a through-story in his career in sound recording technology and performing. He said the White Album message from JPG&R was that anything was possible now in music—and maybe beyond.  (Follow your bliss, Joe Campbell said to Bill Moyers years later)

I was next up with a "sketch" of Lowell in 1968, talking about the slow-motion tragedy of deindustrialization after 1920. I used data from my essay on population decline (loss of 20,000 people from 1920 to 1960 and sky-high unemployment heading to 12 percent at the peak in 1975—official joblessness was probably 25 percent if you considered random part-time, full-time underemployment, working under the table, etc.). But the "tale of two cities" is that 92,000 people still lived in Lowell while it was leaking oil badly, making it a viable consumer hub for everything from dress clothes and records to medical services and entertainment like The Doors playing at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967 when "Light My Fire" was number 1. The city still functioned even as people struggled to make ends meet. It would take 90 years for the population to exceed 100,000 again in 2010 (106,000). Also talked about the anti-war demonstrations in the city in 1969, 1970. A woman in the audience said she marched in several demos with Lowell State College students. I have two protest marches documented, one ending in a violent clash between local roughs and hard-core protestors, one of whom had a VC flag. Young men from Lowell were getting killed in Vietnam.

The other three speakers talked about their own Sixties and Beatles experiences. Three professors from UMass Lowell. Bob Forrant, history department, was at Woodstock and the Chicago convention (beat up) and other demonstrations. He said the music, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, others, was a soundtrack of day-to-day life for young people. It was there all the time, and it kept coming in new and surprisingly good forms. For him and others, hearing it now is a time machine for emotional transport back to the days of late Sixties, early 70s.

Greg DeLaurier, political science department, was at Altamont in California, the dark side festival with the Stones where a man was killed, and various anti-war protests. At the height of the Vietnam draft, he joined the Air Force and was sent to Thailand where he and his fellow draftees serviced the cold hard bombers that rained terror on the farmers in Southeast Asia. He is very open about being totally fucked up in the service, and he wasn’t alone. Greg talked about a close friend dying in the war and another losing an arm.

Tour poster for The Beatles and pop music stars in 1963. This show was in York.

Tour poster for The Beatles and pop music stars in 1963. This show was in York.

John Wooding, political science, grew up in England and saw the Beatles in 1963 at his hometown theatre in Northampton, on a bill with Tommy Roe and Chris Montez. He was ten, taken to the show by his older brother. He found pics of the show online on a blog written by some guy in England. The show poster has at the bottom, The Beatles. His remarks widened out to the cultural and political turmoil in England and Europe in general, from Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" anti-immigrant rantings in London to the student riots in France that toppled one administration, as well as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Jesse Heines, computer science, ran the laptop for music and slides—he didn't make a formal presentation but at one point talked about the selective service lottery and the birthday number that sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands if not more than a million in that phase of the war. He was lucky---a doctor friend of the family wrote him up as too ill to serve and got him medically deferred. He choked up talking about it—and then he said his lottery number out loud, 90, which led to maybe the most affecting moment of the evening. I responded by saying my number was 62, followed by ten or twelve other guys in the audience saying their numbers. We all knew our number. It was generally understood that anyone with a number below 150 was on track for combat in Vietnam. Our music professor on the panel had number 4, so I don't know how he got out of the draft. Sitting in the back, Rosemary said it was a chilling moment for her to hear the men say their numbers. 

The audience was engaged. Many questions and comments, people sharing their own reactions to “The White Album” and the Sixties in general. People asked about favorite songs on the double album. “While My Guitar” won the small polling sample. Other votes for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” “Back in the U.S.S.R,” and “Long, Long, Long.”

The panel was part of a larger project called Lowell: A City of Learning, which is an emerging effort to get Lowell designated by UNESCO as a world-class City of Learning, of which there are dozens around the globe but not one in the U.S. Lowell would be the first designation, possibly in North America. Not sure if Canada or Mexico has one. The chief organizer, my friend John Wooding, the Englishman who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been working with folks in Cork, Ireland, to get Lowell into the system. There's a review process. Cork has the designation. It's an interesting venture. The event last night was essentially a teach-in or free-school session led by local persons with valuable knowledge. 





A bit more.

Last night I met a young woman from Argentina who enrolled at UMass Lowell to play field hockey. She's an art student. I was blown away. Argentina. Came up by herself and got situated on campus and then found her way downtown for the 1968 talk on the recommendation of an art professor. She asked me to send her a summary because she missed a lot of the conversation due to people speaking English fast—of course we were. She's bilingual, to start with, a light-year beyond my language literacy.

So, we had this event last night. Not extraordinary, really, but remarkable all the same, and I came away thinking one cannot underestimate the life experience of those who are close by. People live larger lives than often advertised. Of the five guys on the panel, and we were all guys like the Dave Clark 5, here's some of what we had witnessed or been part of collectively in the Sixties and later:

  1. As a kid, saw The Beatles in Northampton, England, in 1963

  2. Served in Thailand during Vietnam, servicing bomber jets

  3. Got head cracked at Chicago convention riots while protesting war

  4. Made the scene at Altamont (survived to tell about it)

  5. Made the scene at Woodstock (survived and not seen naked in the documentary film)

  6. Got spit on by Johnny Rotten in a British club (not intentional, a ‘70s thing)

  7. Helped crowd try to levitate the Pentagon as anti-war protest (unsuccessful launch)

  8. Escaped the Vietnam-era draft with an advantageous doctor's report

  9. Recorded music at the Hit Factory in NYCity some time after John Lennon did Double Fantasy there

  10. Shaved and cut ponytail to campaign for Clean Gene McCarthy in N.H. primary, challenging President LBJ

  11. Skipped school to see Cream in London and sat four feet from Eric Clapton (AKA, God, according to Tube graffiti)

  12. Edited Jack Kerouac's early writings, now published in three languages (major beatnik beginnings)

Emily Dickinson wrote, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" But surprisingly, people find themselves or put themselves in the flow of History, the wide, fast stream of events and situations that shape us as our mortal coils unwind. Sure, some people just stay in the house, but more people than one might assume jump in the big river that’s never the same twice.