Meet the WannaBeatles…

A very long time ago, a young version of myself watched, in astonishment, a band of four guys with crazy long hair rock the normally staid Ed Sullivan show.

If you were there, you remember the moment. It changed you. It changed everyone, in ways that were impossible to imagine at the time. For young people, it ended the shock that set in after John Kennedy’s assassination, months earlier. We needed something new and exciting, and there it was, from England, of all places.

Those who were most inspired went out and got guitars or drums and learned to play them. My friend and drum master, Peter, formed a band that year, and they a had a local hit in Chicago the next year. Many other musicians followed suit. Some of us were a little slower. I took up the guitar a few years later, clumsily imitating the Beatles and Dylan, as I describe in Some Way Outa Here. I didn’t start playing electric guitar for decades, but I’ve played with a few bands and done a few gigs over the last decade.

But I’ve always dreamed of doing a gig of all-Beatles songs. My latest band, named in a moment of utter honesty, is The WannaBeatles and we’re doing it!  My 1960s self would have been ecstatic at the idea of playing songs from Rubber Soul, the White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road on stage. Oh, plus “A Day in the Life,” complete with a delirious ending.

I’ve been amazed at how younger folks, my kids included, have also been drawn to this music. The songs are deeply linked to a moment in time…but they’re timeless, too. Who could listen to Eleanor Rigby without a twinge of sadness, Here Comes the Sun without feeling a warm glow, or Strawberry Fields Forever without being drawn into John Lennon’s through-the-looking glass boyhood memories?

Perhaps my favorite Beatles memory is from the night that my band played behind a chorus of seventh and eighth grade girls, singing an all-Beatles concert for their parents, on the 50th anniversary of that first US TV broadcast. The programs featured some kid-friendly songs like Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Octopus’s Garden. It seemed a little uninspired, the girls singing songs that weren’t connecting.

Before we started the last song, our other guitarist said, “let’s pump this up a little,” and we launched into Here Comes the Sun. It seems like a simple song, but Peter the drummer and Steve the bassist were putting a little extra drive into it. Playing behind the singers, I saw that for the first time, the bottoms were starting to sway, and when we got to the chorus, “sun, sun, sun, here it comes,” the voices seemed to blossom. And from nowhere, the music teacher began the intricate hand-clap that drives the middle of the record, unrehearsed, done perfectly. The voices soared, suddenly a choir of angels. We in the band, too, felt lifted to a new level.

At the last notes faded, there was an instant of stunned silence…like, “what was that?” And as the applause filled the room, I saw that some of the standing parents had tears on their faces.

It took me a long time to bring my own versions of these to the stage, but it’s been a good journey. Want to see the result? Come see The WannaBeatles at the Boom Boom Room (John Lee Hooker’s wonderful club) in San Francisco on Tuesday night. We’re the finale band, after 10pm, with other bands all evening, in a benefit for the terrific Blue Bear music school. Hope you can make it!

Earth Day and the know-nothings

This year, we’re celebrating Earth Day with a march to support the very existence of science. How did we get to the point where know-nothingism is winning?

It’s easy to forget that first Earth Day, in 1970, wasn’t a basket of roses. It was the culmination of a bitter fight for clean air and water that was just beginning to gain traction. Environmentalists were commonly called “Communists,” and calls for clean air were considered an attack on American workers. From the beginning, we were swimming upstream.

Now the stakes are higher – despite 47 Earth Days, the planet is overheating and the future is in doubt. And a cadre of greedy idiots have seized power.

But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the Trump forces are right about one important thing: There are people being hurt by the transition from a carbon-intensive economy to a clean-energy world. The problem is that Trump is more concerned with the owners of the coal companies than with coal miners. Did you see the photo of him with the “miners”? They were coal executives. The miners were behind them, out of the picture. That’s Trump’s energy policy in a nutshell.

Coal miners deserve better. They could be building wind farms on top of the mountains that the coal companies have flattened. The miners could be making electric vehicles. Instead, we’re going to subsidize more coal production.

The miners are, well, the canary in the coal mine. We need to work with them, not against them. They are not attacking science – they’re being lied to about the role of science by Fox “news” and craven politicians like our new Energy Secretary.

Earth Day is about ecology – the interrelationship of living things and their environment. That means all living things, including miners and other victims of the carbon economy. The best hope for those most at risk from a changing economy and deteriorating environment lies with…science.

So let’s march today. Let’s show the know-nothings that we outnumber them – bigly – and we’ll sweep them away if they persist. In the name of science.

In 1970, I began Earth Day in a courtroom, and finished it in a school encounter that opened some minds – including my own. Read about it in Some Way Outa Here.

The Women’s March opens a new era of resistance

San Francisco Women's March

Yesterday millions of people marched to declare “we’re not gonna take it!” It was an outpouring rarely seen in the US and across the world. Led by women outraged by the new president’s misogyny, racism and habitual dishonesty, huge crowds filled streets in cities and towns to say “no” to Trump. It was the birth of resistance to his administration.

There was an air of disbelief that, the day before, Donald Trump had become President. His blustery inaugural address, a dark statement of a country rotting and beset by “carnage,” was nightmarish. But it was a nightmare from which there was no awakening: the next day, he was bragging and lying at the headquarters of the CIA, a dark cartoonish thug who won’t go away.

Against this backdrop, I took to the streets in San Francisco, along with tens of thousands of my closest friends. Under threatening skies, our Women’s March filled United Nations Plaza – the birthplace of an organization that Trump derided as “a club for people to get together and have a good time.” It was a fitting spot. The crowd displayed a sense of unity and optimism that was rare for any demonstration, much less one under such grim circumstances.

The march was filled with women of all ages and colors, many wearing pink knitted pussy hats in defiance of the pussy-grabbing president. The signs and speeches proclaimed that all issues – health care, immigrant rights, climate change, racism and especially economic justice – are women’s issues, and that women’s issues are everyone’s issues.

Perhaps a quarter of the crowd were men, supporting the women while expressing their own determination to resist. The ease with which the men supported their female friends and relatives was remarkable, the fulfillment of a dream of early feminists: Now, we are all feminists.

The march in Washington was possibly the largest ever held. I attended the previous record holder – the November 1969 march for peace in Vietnam. It was a central, formative event in my life (you can read about my experience there in Some Way Outa Here), but yesterday’s events were very different is some important ways.

In 1969, the grotesque Vietnam war had been raging for four years. We went to Washington full of fury and desperation. On that frigid day, 600,000 people filled the streets chanting, shouting, jeering at a president and congress who were oblivious. The huge crowd showed that the antiwar movement was real and a force to be reckoned with, even as Nixon declared that a “silent majority” supported him. We were mostly peaceful, but the unifying theme was anger.

Yesterday’s march was utterly different. Instead of a long-simmering movement finding itself, as in 1969, this was a new one being born. Young people were discovering that they had much in common with older demonstrators, many of whom were veterans of previous movements. There was a sense that the many issues of the day were urgent and inseparable – this was no one-issue movement. There was a newfound outrage that our country has been seized by an unstable man who was foisted on us by a foreign autocrat, and who lost the popular vote to an unfairly vilified woman. Most of all, there was a fierce sense of commitment to resisting whatever atrocities lie ahead.

The 1969 march was a response to atrocities past, still being committed daily. The Women’s March was a statement that there is a vast movement ready to take on a president who seems hell-bent on committing new atrocities. All were agreed: grim events lie ahead, but we are ready to resist, and to someday sweep these people from power.

The 1969 March on Washington was a pivotal moment in American history. The peace movement went mainstream, no longer a fringe. It changed the lives of millions of Americans, myself included. You can read about the personal drama of that weekend in Some Way Outa Here.

The Unforgettable Image

Ieshia Evans
I can’t get this picture out of my mind.

It was in Baton Rouge, after the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police, and the killing of five officers in Dallas.

The woman is Ieshia Evans, a nurse from Pennsylvania who traveled to Louisiana to stand up – literally, it turns out – against police attacks on black people. (The photographer is Jonathan Bachman.) The image is surreal, a frozen moment. Evans has been characterized as a superhero, as the statue of liberty, and the small crack in the street between her and the police has been likened to the opening chasm that divides us.

Such is the power of an image.

Images have made Black Lives Matter possible. Shamefully, they didn’t seem to matter so much until cell phones began recording the deaths of people like Sterling. Finally, the deniability that protected racist police evaporated. The world could see and remember the images of people dying…and of people standing against injustice.

Pictures have the power to reframe the world. It happens all the time.

In the 1960s, the onslaught of gripping images, published by news magazines and newspapers, helped drive the Civil Rghts movement, with images of Southern lynchings, demonstrators being attacked with water cannons and dogs, and the iconic March on Washington in 1963. The pictures of brutality shocked us, but the images of courage, like that of Ieshia Evans, gripped us and wouldn’t let go.

Consider one of the iconic images from the 1968: Olympics – the award ceremony for John Carlos and Tommie Smith:
Smith Carlos 1968

The Civil Rights movement was transitioning to the Black Power movement. The demand for “power,” not just “rights,” made a lot of white people uncomfortable. Carlos and Smith had the gall to bring the movement to the Olympic podium, and the nation was shocked. This photo had an impact that is hard to imagine now – horrifying many, inspiring others. It captured the fears and hopes of the country in a single frame.

Vietnam brought a deluge of unforgettable images. Three are so memorable that most people recognize them, even now: The photo of a young girl, naked, fleeing a napalm attack; bodies stacked at My Lai, massacred by American soldiers, and a young woman bending over a student at Kent State, blood streaming onto the pavement. Each told the story that had to be told. No words were needed.

Another heroic image gripped the world in 1989. The world was in turmoil as Communist countries began to collapse. It seemed that China would be next, as demonstrators converged on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. When the army responded, a single man challenged the Chinese army, stood his ground, and stopped a row of tanks in its tracks. One person, armed only with unfathomable courage.

Images like this tell stories that can change how we see the world. They can change how we think and what we do. They make us question what we assumed to be true, and they can give us courage to act in ways we didn’t know we could act.

As a teenager, the act of John Carlos and Tommie Smith not only gave me new respect for the Black Power movement – they inspired me to similar actions (documented in Some Way Outa Here). Likewise, the photos from Vietnam and Kent State spoke to every American, and drove many of us to action, fueling the antiwar movement.

Of course, pictures never tell the whole story. How many people know what happened to Peter Norman, the Australian on the podium with Carlos and Smith? The silver medal winner, Norman wore a Black Power patch on his uniform in support of the Americans, for which the Australian sports federation banned him from competition for life. It’s easy to forget that the brief victory of Tank Man was followed by the massacre at Tiananmen Square that ended the reform movement. And a few days after Ieshia Evans confronted (and was arrested by) Baton Rouge police, several officers were killed by a gunman who sought to avenge Alton Sterling’s death.

History is never simple.

But now we all carry cameras with us. All the time. Everyone has the power to record events, to report (or even make) news, and to change how we see the world. To change our minds. And our hearts.

You have a powerful tool in your pocket. Use it well.

Ali – The Troublemaker Who Inspired Us

Muhammad-Ali-on-courageMuhammad Ali was a widely admired American icon. Many have forgotten that he was widely hated in the 1960s, a victim of racism and the Vietnam war. But amazingly, he became a hero to many who once despised him.

I first heard of Ali – then Cassius Clay – when I listened to the radio broadcast of his first championship fight in a far-off place called Lewiston, Maine. . I lived in the south then, and the consensus among my sixth grade classmates seemed to be he was the devil himself. Among adults, the term “uppity [N-word]” was common. I was intrigued. Unlike my white classmates, I had attended integrated schools in the north, and a poetry-spouting black boxer was exciting…and a little subversive.

I watched Ali’s fights over the next few years, and came to marvel at his astonishing prowess. I didn’t really even like boxing – I just like watching Ali. Then, in 1966, Ali did something remarkable.

Like so many young Americans, he was classified as eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam war. His response was “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Cong.”

In 1966, this was shocking – the antiwar movement was in its infancy, and the draft was an unpleasant reality of life. Ali applied to be a conscientious objector, citing his Muslim beliefs. The press attacked fiercely, and Ali was branded a coward.

In 1967 he was stripped of his boxing title and convicted of draft evasion. He lost his livelihood at the height of his career, and faced prison. He was branded a traitor by many.

Was he a coward? I didn’t think so. He routinely faced opponents who could have killed him – I had seen the films of Benny Paret being killed in the ring, and knew well Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore.” Boxing took courage. Taking on the American government and giving up his career? This man was no coward.

Ali’s conviction was overturned, but he lost almost four years during his athletic prime. During those years, the war raged, the antiwar movement grew, and Ali became a symbol of resistance. He inspired many of us who faced the draft, showing us that sometimes it was more important to follow your conscience than to do the popular thing. By the fall of 1970, his opposition to the war was vindicated and he was allowed to return to his sport.

In the 1970s, Ali made a comeback, regained his title, and ultimately was brought down by the ravages of a brutal sport. But his determination to prevail gained him the admiration of many who had once despised him; his illness gained him the sympathy of others. He became an American hero.

For me, it’s young Muhammad Ali I remember most – a young man who was not afraid to do the right thing.

My own struggles against the draft are at the center of Some Way Outa Here.


High School Heroes, Villains and a Speech to Remember

Abington High School 1970

The Abington High School graduation ceremony of 1970 was a tumultuous affair, marked by protests and conflict. (You can read about it in my book Some Way Outa Here.) It was an amazing day, summing up the triumphs and tragedies not just of high school, but of a generation that was entangled in battles far beyond the school’s doors.

At the 1970 graduation ceremony, rebellion was in the air. College students had been gunned down by soldiers, weeks earlier, and the Vietnam draft hung over the heads of graduating seniors.

One memorable speech by a remarkable educator, Allan Glatthorn, bears rehearing. We didn’t know it, but it was his farewell to the school.

Abington was then a 4000-student high school, split into two separately administered buildings. It was bigger than many colleges. Some students flourished in pockets of inspiration, while others became lost or disillusioned amid an assembly line education. There were some amazing teachers, some who were less stellar, and even an English teacher named Bill Gavin, who left the school to craft some of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew’s most divisive, hateful speeches.

Like any other school, Abington had teachers and administrators who inspired students, and others who earned their wholehearted contempt. Principal Dr. Glatthorn led Abington to public notice in the 1960s by developing an innovative independent study-based curriculum for the ninth and tenth grades. After that, his efforts to build a more progressive public high school were undermined by conservative administrators and school board, but he fought the good fight at Abington.

Here is his speech, in its entirety:

Address to Graduating Students and Guests , Dr. Allen A. Glatthorn,  June 14, 1970

I say goodbye to you, the class of 1970, with sadness—sadness because I shall miss the zest you brought to our school—and sadness because you enter a world torn by violence from both the left and the right.

For these are strange days, when men commit the vilest deeds for the noblest purposes.

They lie for the sake of truth, practice tyranny in the name of democracy, and wage war in the name of peace.

And the greatest danger in our society today is from all those who commit evil in the name of good.

While man can always find good reasons for the evil he does, the harmful act is no less painful because it was done for our supposed good.

So I call upon you today, not so much to dedicate yourselves to noble causes but instead to commit the good act.

Seek not to commit injustice in the name of justice, nor to repress dissent in the name of freedom. Neither commit violence for the sake of peace, nor hate in the name of love.

And reject the flamboyant gesture.

But choose instead the simple virtues that will surely draw us together—kindness, gentleness, tolerance, and love.

So go in peace, with love in your hearts.

A sick world waits for your healing touch.

His speech was delivered amidst flamboyant gestures – students, myself included, used the occasion to protest the war and the military draft that would soon claim the lives of some of our classmates. It was loud and briefly colorful, but Dr. Glatthorn provided a somber note.

Not long after our graduation, Dr. Glatthorn was forced out.

To his credit, he began work that led to the founding of an alternative high school. It featured a level of academic freedom and opportunity that was unknown at Abington. The school, Alternative East, fulfilled the vision of a group of students working through the Suburban Action Center in 1969-70. (More on this, too, in Some Way Outa Here.)

Dr. Glatthorn’s commencement address is still relevant today. There are still hypocrites and charlatans out there, and a demagogue who seeks to lead the country into the abyss. We would do well to keep Glatthorn’s words in mind.

* * *

I discovered a copy of Glatthorn’s speech after I finished my book about that year, Some Way Outa Here – too late to include. But The book recounts two memorable speeches by students that were also profoundly moving, and worth remembering.

I would be delighted to hear from others who remember that day.

Abington High School 1970

Bernie Isn’t Going Away

Bernie Sanders has sharp elbows. I know – I used to play basketball with him in Vermont. He’s a tough opponent who never, ever gives up.

Sharp elbows are even more useful in politics than in basketball, and Bernie has used them, gently, on Hillary Clinton. As it becomes clear that he will probably not be the nominee, he shows no signs of letting up. Don’t expect him to.

In Vermont in the 1970s, Bernie was a perennial candidate for state office – he ran for governor, the Senate and Congress before (barely) being elected mayor of Burlington. His persistence was remarkable, not just because he never gave up, but because his message was heartfelt and consistent: He was determined to change an economy and government that served the wealthy. He is still running on the same platform, and the events of the last thirty years have proven his critique to be pretty much right on target.

In the 1970s, Bernie Sanders’ name could have been the punchline in a Vermont joke: who will be running for president in 2016? Bernie…ha! Well, the joke’s on us.

I don’t think Bernie expected to win the presidency this year. But I also don’t think he expects to lose, even now. For Bernie, winning is about changing minds, about reframing the debate, about opening the door to the kind of change he believes in so strongly. Sometimes leaders don’t get to walk through the doors they open, but if we can build a more fair and democratic country in the next ten or twenty years, we’ll owe a debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders’ persistence.

Bernie has already won. Now it’s up to all of us to push the door the rest of the way open, push Hillary Clinton through it, and demand real change.

Sharpen your elbows.

Bernie Sanders governor

Tin Soldiers and Trump’s Coming?

Kent State still reverberates today. On May 4, 1970, white middle class America realized what black America already knew: our army can be used against us.

Soon, a President Trump could have our armed forces, police and courts at his disposal. He has already shown an inclination to incite groups of Americans against each other.

In 1970, Nixon did not order troops onto campuses like Kent State – he didn’t have to. In the weeks preceding the shootings, he made a series of increasingly bellicose statements against antiwar protestors, equating dissent with treason and proclaiming that students should be in penitentiaries, not dormitories. He set the tone that made it acceptable for governors to mobilize troops, who then fired on students in Ohio and, lest we forget, the next week at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

When we hear threats to deport 11 million immigrants from America, it’s time to start paying attention. Threats like this lead down a slippery slope toward division and violence.

We’ve seen over and over that power without wisdom is a dangerous mix. Richard Nixon was a smart man with little wisdom, and his presidency nearly tore the country apart. But whatever you think of Donald Trump’s intelligence, it’s hard to imagine trusting him to take care of your dog, much less your country.

In the days following Kent State, construction workers armed with hammers attacked antiwar protesters. They were cheered on by Vice President Agnew and other officials in the Nixon administration.

Fortunately, they weren’t armed with guns. Guns were rare then. Now, millions of Americans own guns and carry them routinely. Imagine the harm that another fear-mongering president could incite by turning people against each other.

Listen again to the anguish in Neil Young’s CSNY song “Ohio.”

Listen to the pain in Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots.” You can get killed just for living in your American skin.

Listen to Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.”

This is where divisive, racist politics lead.
May 4, 1970

Remembering Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan was an American hero of the highest order. He put himself in harm’s way to stop the war machine that was destroying Southeast Asia and a generation of young Americans.

I learned about Berrigan from a teenage Catholic girl on a bus to Washington DC in November 1969. Her older brother had recently been killed, hideously, in Vietnam, and she was searching for ways to stop the war. She told me that when she met Berrigan, she learned that talking, complaining and yelling wouldn’t accomplish anything, that only taking action, at whatever personal cost, would change things. That was the life Daniel Berrigan was living.

Whether it was torching draft records with napalm or hammering a nuclear warhead into uselessness, Berrigan was willing to go to prison or disappear underground. He never stopped working for peace.

When I was faced with registering for the draft in the spring of 1970, it was Daniel Berrigan who inspired my decision. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. (The full story is in Some Way Outa Here.)

Three weeks before my 18th birthday, as I was agonizing over the decision, Berrigan made headlines for disappearing before he was due to start a prison sentence. His courage inspired me.

When he dramatically reappeared two months later. Here’s how the Times reported it:

Berrigan was convicted with eight other Christian resisters for destroying Selective Service records snatched two years ago from Local Board 33 at Catonsville, Md. But he failed to surrender for imprisonment on April 9.
Berrigan went underground instead, promising to surface at a Cornell peace weekend entitled “America Is Hard to Find,” which had been arranged to celebrate his departure for prison.
Movement people and the FBI suspected this bizarre turn was just one last fading act of protest. They were wrong. The holdout showed at the appointed time, gave a brief exhortation to the crowd of 10,000 assembled in the Cornell gym, and then slipped away when the lights went out. Since that appearance, Berrigan has been hard to find.
– The New York Times, June 28, 1970

Berrigan quote

The first Earth Day, 1970

The first Earth Day snuck up on America. Sure, we all knew about pollution – a year earlier a polluted river in Cleveland had burst into flames – but no one had ever tried to build an environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, we stumbled into a mass movement to save the earth.

For the first time, the magnitude of the situation was laid out clearly, in a way that even we high school students could understand. Pollution, overpopulation, looming shortages of food, water and energy – it was astonishing to realize what a mess we were making.

The brilliance of Earth Day was in applying the lessons of the civil rights and peace movements to environmental issues. There were teach-ins, demonstrations and political campaigns. It was up to us to bring the planet back into balance. Briefly, it was the most important thing on earth.

Briefly, because a week after Earth Day, the US invaded Cambodia and all hell broke loose. There were soon students dead in the streets, and even burning rivers seemed secondary. We lost sight of the lessons of Earth Day, and a backlash took hold. The seeming consensus evaporated, and we began to hear how questioning “progress” was un-American. It was years before the momentum was regained.

On that first Earth Day, there was no talk of global warming. Of all the grim scenarios we imagined, warming the planet sufficiently to melt the ice caps was beyond our imagination. We imagined freezing in the dark as our oil ran out, or choking on car exhaust. We didn’t know it was the invisible gasses that would threaten the planet, but we did learn that “progress” could be dangerous.

Looking back, Earth Day 1970 seems like a brief optimistic moment when we – our generation – felt we could fix things before it was too late. But since then the world has barreled down a road to an overheated, sea-drowned slow-motion apocalypse that now seems inevitable.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

In Some Way Outa Here, I tell the story of Earth Day, 1970, and the impact it had on my suburban town.Earth Day 1970

Merle Haggard’s Okie song

Merle Haggard was a music giant – great voice, songs and guitar. He will be remembered well.
But he will especially be remembered for one song, “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s an ode to small town living and conservative values, right? Nope.
Haggard wrote it as a spoof, a parody of what he considered small-town small mindedness. He didn’t expect it to be taken seriously, and he didn’t expect it to be a hit. It was, both. He said later that he regretted writing it, and that he was “dumb as a post” when he released it.
The song was taken up as an anthem by conservative America. It fell right into Richard Nixon’s newformed narrative of a “silent majority” that backed his policies but was too polite to say so – some think the song inspired it.
With lyrics like…
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards out on Main Street
We like livin’ right and bein’ free
…it was taken as a declaration of war on people with long hair who were against the war in Vietnam.
Nixon cultivated the growing divide carefully, unleashing his attack dog Spiro Agnew on anyone who disagreed with him. It blossomed into his “southern strategy,” a carefully phrased appeal to working class whites to abandon the Democratic party. It was based on the resentment against rebellious young people and blacks, and it was extraordinarily successful. It led directly to the wall between right and left that we know so well today.
Merle Haggard’s song was a brick in that wall, but he didn’t put it there. Let’s remember all the other songs he wrote, and remember the man fondly.

Merle Haggard

There’s a lot more about the music of the times in Some Way Outa Here

Hair Wars

Would you go to war over your hair?
Some of us did. When we fought to stop the war in Vietnam and tried to overthrow “mainstream culture” in the process, hair became one of the battlegrounds.

The Beatles started it. Previously, boys had short hair and a “longhair” was a professor or a “classical music snob.” After the Beatles first appeared on TV on February 9th, 1964, long hair became a symbol – first among musicians, then among the rebels we called hippies, and then it became a symbol of rebellion, especially against the war.

Along the way, the symbol became an “issue.” Boys with long hair were called “fags” and “queers,” a curious proposition when most gays were trying desperately to blend into the mainstream. Adults often assumed that boys with long hair were drug users. (OK, some of us were, but hey, they were alcohol-users, right?)

Some of us fought screaming battles with our parents about who was in control. School dress codes were enforced with rulers and sometimes with scissors. You could be sent home – or to the barber in the case of a friend – if your hair touched your ear or your collar.

Girls’ hair wasn’t judged by length, but it was still a symbol. At a time when girls routinely rolled and twisted their hair into carefully concocted styles, long, straight hair was a symbol of rebellion. If it wasn’t naturally straight, it could be ironed to look “natural.”

When a play about the antiwar movement and the “counterculture” arrived on Broadway, it was called – what else? – “Hair.”

A camaraderie grew among longhairs. You felt you could trust someone who had long hair, especially if it was a little scraggly. It meant you had similar values, liked the same music, and spoke the same language. “Far out,” “right on,” and “outasite,” were good…but even your hair wouldn’t help you if you said “groovy.”

And then suddenly, as we turned the corner into the 1970s, everyone had long hair. At first, it seemed like we had won, and that peace and love would reign. Instead, the symbols of rebellion had become the new normal. The war wound down, and the sense of rebellion passed. Eventually, long hair became unremarkable, found most predictably on rock stars.

Hair is still a potent symbol of who we are. But it rarely starts fights or inspires revolutions any more.

You can read about my own hair wars – and how we won – in Some Way Outa Here.

Got any good hair stories of your own? Reply below!

beatles hair-songs

We all went to the moon…and back

When John Kennedy declared that America would send people to the moon, a grand drama began. It rolled out like a TV serial, in episodes that captivated the nation. We thought we knew the ending – but you couldn’t be sure.

When an American went into space – Alan Shepard, who happened to be my mother’s childhood playmate – the race to get to the moon before the Russians was on. Each adventure that followed was a little more ambitious: orbiting the earth, spaceships rendezvousing, the first spacewalk – Ed White was too awestruck to return to the capsule – and then, astonishingly, tragedy, as three astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad. This wasn’t a movie. And the Russians pressed on, relentlessly, with their own exploits.

But America didn’t stand still while NASA raced to the moon. At first, we were pretty innocent, seduced by visions of The Jetsons and afraid that the Russians would steal our future from us. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, the country had been transformed by the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and, most of all, the war in Vietnam. The war, which had raged for four years by 1969, changed our view of the world, and we began to focus more on our own planet than on getting to another one. Barry McGuire’s hit “Eve of Destruction” told us “you may leave the here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.”

Like most young Americans, I was bedazzled by the early space flights. Every time a new mission was launched, we watched it in school on small black and white TVs. We looked on breathlessly, counting orbits, until the astronauts splashed down. But as the flights became longer and more routine, I began to lose interest. NASA tried hard to keep our attention, staging live-from-space astronaut shows that culminated in the spectacular broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

The lunar landing of July 1969, the fulfillment of Kennedy’s dream, rekindled the excitement for a brief moment. It wasn’t just America – the whole world was galvanized as Neil and Buzz moonwalked across our little screens. For me, it was bittersweet – I loved idea of exploring space, and I wanted desperately to float weightlessly, watching the earth below. But the “race” – beating the Russians – by now seemed silly, and I was having trouble justifying  such costly adventures while a war raged and earthlings went hungry.

The next moon landing came as hundreds of thousands of Americans converged on Washington DC for a massive demonstration against the war, and the astronauts were no longer in the headlines. Only the nail-biting drama of Apollo 13, a failed mission that became an unlikely triumph, recaptured our attention.

In the end, the most remarkable journeys ever taken – to the moon and back – were reduced to mere entertainment. When the drama ended the audience turned to another channel.

But the space program had a profound impact on those of us who grew up in the 1960s. It gave us a national goal that we believed in – for a while – and it very literally shaped our world view. The image of the whole earth from deep space taught our generation that we were all sharing the same small planet.

That’s where Some Way Outa Here begins.

earth moon Beatles

Echoes of 1968 in the presidential race

The Donald says “there could be riots” if he is denied the Republican nomination at the July convention. Intentional or not, it’s an echo from the bizarre events of 1968.

In case you don’t remember…the election was about ending the Vietnam war, and fighting poverty and racism. Bobby Kennedy became the Democratic frontrunner for president when he beat Senator Gene McCarthy in the California primary, two months before the Democratic convention. Minutes after his victory speech, he was murdered.

All hell broke loose.

McCarthy, who had first challenged President Lyndon Johnson and precipitated Johnson’s early retirement, claimed the nomination. Kennedy’s ally George McGovern stepped in and claimed Kennedy’s mantle. And the party establishment panicked: They called in Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President.

Humphrey hadn’t run in a primary and was nearly as unpopular as the war-burdened president, but the he was the establishment’s choice going into the convention.

The antiwar movement was determined to have a voice in the proceedings, and the Left descended on Chicago for the big event. There were liberal activists; the increasingly radical Students for a Democratic Society; civil rights demonstrators from the South; and the most colorful of the lot, the Yippies, who nominated a hog named Pigasus for president.

On the night that the convention nominated Humphrey, a huge mass of demonstrators attempted to march to the convention hall. Blocked by police, they sat down in Michigan Avenue. They mayor, Richard Daley, gave the order for the police to attack, and they did, brutally. On national TV, they began gassing and clubbing sitting protesters, who chanted “the whole world is watching!” It was.

Inside the convention hall, the McCarthy and McGovern supporters denounced the “police state” violence unfolding outside. But the nomination proceeded, surrounded by mayhem. Humphrey was so tarred by the events that Richard Nixon eked out a victory in November.

Could something like this happen again?

In this year’s presidential race, there’s one big difference: one of the candidates is threatening violence if he is not nominated. The threat of violence from a candidate is unprecedented in modern times.

Arguably, political violence in America has always benefited the most extreme right-wing candidates. Trump has shown an appetite for provoking confrontations at his rallies, and he knows how to use it to further his cause..

The havoc of 1968 was not limited to rioting. One candidate and another great leader, Martin Luther King, were assassinated by gunmen. The outcome of the election was certainly shaped by violence. The prospect of returning to that era is scary, indeed.

As much as some of us might enjoy the spectacle of the Republican Party eating itself alive, a turn toward intimidation and brute force threatens to unleash forces that may lead in unpredictable, dangerous directions.

In the year that followed the events of 1968, my contemporaries and I struggled to find the lines between peaceful dissent and violent resistance. You can read about it in my new book Some Way Outa Here.

26 Aug 1968, Chicago, Illinois, USA --- The sign over the archway leading to the International Amphitheater welcomes delegates to the Democratic Convention, but from the sea of police helmets in the foreground, it looks like only police are attending. (Sign says "Hello Democrats, Welcome to Chicago" and a bunch of police are seen from the back. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Stories about the end of the 1960s

I’m really excited that readers are sharing their own stories of the end of the 1960s with me…not just telling me whether or not they “like” the book. Whether it’s the music, stories about the draft and peace protests, drugs, the dawn of feminism and environmentalism, and just surviving in a world that seemed to be going nuts – everyone seems to have stories.

That’s how I started writing the book – I discovered that young people  didn’t understand how the military draft affected everyone back then. The idea that any boy could be sent off to fight (and very possibly die or be maimed) in a preposterous war is as unheard of as, well, a world without cell phones. (Who could believe that?)  Then I realized how many other incredible things happened at the same time…and I wrote them down.

What was your favorite memory of the late ’60s? Is it true that if you can remember that time you weren’t really there? And if you really weren’t there – as in not born yet – what’s the best story you’ve heard about the time? I’d love to collect them here. Just click “comment”! Some Way Outa Here 1960s collage

All Along the Watchtower

There must be some way outa here, cried the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.

I fell in love with “All Along the Watchtower” the first time I heard the John Wesley Harding album. (It’s still one of my favorite Dylan albums.) But like so many of us, it was Jimi Hendrix who made this into an indelible, central part of the our personal soundtracks.

It’s a strange song. It’s written backwards – the last line could easily be the first: two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl. The characters are looking for a way out at the beginning, but it seems like it should be the end.

A few months after Dylan released the song, Hendrix tried it out. The result was a thunderous, electrifying guitar explosion that fulfilled the song’s apocalyptic potential. Instead of Dylan’s storyteller vocal, Hendrix sings it like he’s out there on the watchtower when the wind begins to howl, a desperate watchman at the rampart. The rhythm guitars (Dave Mason is playing a 12-string acoustic) turn Dylan’s simple strum into a slapped, crackling force, like timbers snapping. And the topping is Hendrix’ astonishing guitar lead, personifying the howling wind.

Dylan says this is the best cover version of any of his songs. Some people say this is the best cover version of any rock song. I’ll buy that.

But it’s that first line that drew me in, from the first hearing. “There must be some way outa here.” (Actually, Jimi turns it into “there must be some kinda way outa here.” It works.) It’s the vision of being on the rampart in the middle of nowhere, with wildcats prowling, riders approaching, and the wind blowing hard…there must be some way out. Who hasn’t been there?

I was there, on my own private watchtower, a teenager desperate to find something else, someplace else. Perhaps that’s why Watchtower was one of the first songs I learned on guitar…I needed to sing it. Still do. Whenever the wind begins to howl.

The passage of years helped me understand that in 1969-70, this was what I needed, a way out of a time when nothing made sense, and a place that was oblivious to the madness. Suburban life in the late 1960s had the feeling of a place you would stumble on if you fell down a rabbit hole, where nothing was quite real, and you wanted to find the way out, back into the sunshine. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t articulate it.

Dylan’s words and Jimi’s anguished voice and thrashing guitar said it best.

Is there a song lyric that would sum up your formative years?