Saturday, October 26, 2013

The music and the politics of the 60s

I never had a job I didn’t love. From the time I washed dishes at Little Bear Inn to my ministry at Highlands Church, I’ve enjoyed work nearly every day of the half-a-century that’s come and gone between those two jobs.

My career was jerry-rigged with a variety of jobs, each uniquely interesting and fulfilling. Recently I happened on a rather idiosyncratic book that reminded me that over so many years working at so many jobs, the most remarkable was not my time as a politician or a lawyer but rather those years I worked as a disc jockey. Mark Kurlansky has written “Ready for a Brand New beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America.”

Kurlansky locates Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” at the apex of the torrent of change of the 1960s, the years I spun records for a living.

I was a 16-year-old when Charlie Stone hired me to work after school and weekends at KCHY, a rock station with a large window allowing people walking along 18th Street between Carey and Pioneer to look into the control room. It was a pretty heady place for a high school senior to be seen.

The music of the 60s was as much a part of history as the news stories we read. The war in Viet Nam inspired protest music and protest music inspired political opposition to the war. Kurlansky’s book reminded me of that 1965 Christmas morning. Charlie signed on. As the new guy I had the “rest-of-the-day” shift, arriving at 8 o’clock that morning as Charlie read the hourly news. Back then the military announced weekly Viet Nam war body counts, regularly reporting hundreds of deaths of American soldiers and thousands of enemy deaths. They wanted to prove we were killing more of them than they were of us.

I listened to Charlie read the news, gathering a stack of records to play, when Charlie began to sob on the air. A Christmas day body count was too much for him. The memory moves me all these years later. Charlie wasn’t the only one who cried that morning.

Kurlansky reminded me of teletype-bells ringing.  We’d run to the teletype for the news stories that made history. Between new Beatle’s, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys records we read news about Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches and the American-Soviet space race. Barry McGuire saw it all as the “Eve of Destruction.” "You may leave here for four days in space, but when you return it's the same old place."

Bobby Seals and Huey Newton founded the Black Panthers. The Watts and Detroit riots broke out. Bob Dylan sang, “Once upon a time you dressed so finethrew the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?” The higher the draft quotas, the more requests we got for Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Masacree.”

Assassinations were relentless. “Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill with Abraham, Martin and John.” LBJ didn’t run again and refused to help Hubert Humphrey defeat Richard Nixon. Policemen rioted at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. America put a man on the moon. “Tricky-Dick” was elected promising he had a secret plan to end the war.

When people found that out that he didn’t, thousands protested. National Guardsmen killed four of them at Kent State. “Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” Those who still respected the college dean loved Merle Haggard. Spiro Agnew said those who didn’t were “an effete core of impudent snobs.”

A famous DJ said those were the days “when music and society and race and technology all exploded like a bomb.” History wrote music. Music transformed history. TIME said God was dead. The Beatles, John Lennon said, were more popular than Jesus. Somehow it all inspired me to become a preacher.


  1. Christmas day 1965 I went ashore in Chu Li, Viet Nam after 4 months with Special Landing Force 2nd Blt 1st Marines ! We are who we are because of where we've been! Thanks for the music memories !

  2. Thanks Gene for sharing a part of your story…and who you are.