Soundtrack of the Sixties: An Elastic Essay

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a poem and an essay. I’m sure you know what I mean. The pretentious essay comes off looking like a failed poem, and the successful essay often seems imminently poetic.

I have long been ruminating about the essential misconception so many entertain about the sixties. Those younger than me, who were not around to experience the sixties, read about them in their history books. It is ancient history to those folks. It was certainly a controversial decade and remains so today. Like any controversial period, it has grown distorted over time. Everyone seems to have their own axe to grind.

Some divide the decade into subunits. There is the “flower power” era, that is depicted as short, sweet, and imminently misguided, followed by a quick and decisive descent into decadence and madness. The cut-off point is the massacre of innocents carried out by the Manson Family in smoggy LA.

This simplistic dichotomy, like any simplistic dichotomy, lacks sufficient subtlety to do the decade justice. I experienced the sixties and remember the Manson Family, but did not notice any appreciable change in my fortunes after that event. But then, I did not live in LA.

Instead of distinct turning points, I experienced a sweet and gentle soundtrack consisting of tunes and personalities that have become totally unfamiliar to subsequent generations. It wasn’t just sounds. There were a series of films that made me feel gently good.

The underlying theme running through these cultural products was not the oft-repeated mantra of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” but rather the easy acceptance of an alluring pervasive innocence. Critics would argue that this was an ugly era of wars, assassinations, riots and conflicts, a battle between races, political ideologies, and generations, with nary a moment’s peace to be found anywhere. These critics would argue that this particular soundtrack of the sixties was pure escapism, a conscious effort to get away from all the ugliness.

I would like to think that it was far more than that. I would like to think that it was a spontaneous outpouring of youthful exuberance that had nothing to do with conflicts, escapism and conscious trends.

In our present era of growing unhappiness, there is so much pressure to become “worldly,” to quickly put innocence behind you and embrace “adult” pleasures. Innocence is not prized as a virtue worthy of emulation on its own merits, but is rather derided as an embarrassment to be quickly expunged and never shared with anyone, lest you become the subject of ridicule.

This was not the case in the sixties. My soundtrack for that era was a celebration of innocence, the pure joy of it.

Blake Edwards teamed up with Peter Sellers and they made a series of comedies that personified the Sixties. But one stands out. It was a film called “the party,” and starred Sellers as a hapless, but happy bumbler who is routinely eaten alive by the worldly achievers all around him. At the party, he teams up with another innocent, played by Claudine Longet, who was then in real life trying to make it as a singer singing soft bossa nova, a key component of the sixties soundtrack. Her wistful vocals provide a quintessential sixties moment. The end of the film in which the two wistful innocents set off to enjoy a new day and a gently rising sun is a capstone moment.

Melanie was a hippy songstress who sang about “I don’t eat animals ‘cause I love em, you see, and I don’t want anything dead inside me.” She wore the long hippy dress and the straight hair and the bangs, and personified hippy innocence. The type of “earth mother” who could be a friend without jumping into bed. It wasn’t about “free love,” but a genuine openness to affection without a hint of exploitation.

Burt Bacharach was an incredible musician whose songs were everywhere. He was the special muse for Dionne Warwick. His music, often derided as unhip and uncool, was actually incredibly complex while achieving a special melodiousness. It was cool, but not cool, but celebrated innocence, because “that’s what friends are for,” and “what the world needs now is love sweet love, not just for some, but for everyone.”

I was particularly attracted to John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful. They sang light and breezy tunes, written by Sebastian and permeated with a reverence for Americana, jug band music, and pop tunes, blues, and old time Jimmy Rogers country. It was good time music.

Sebastian wrote a special song celebrating innocence called “You’re a big boy now.” It was the theme song for a low budget coming of age movie of the same name, an early pre Godfather film directed and written by Francis Ford Coppola. Coming of age films were really big in the sixties, and I enjoyed them immensely. Innocence was a theme running throughout this genre. For the child had to “come of age,” but it did not have to be an ugly event, but rather a celebratory one.

How about Jazz With Flutes. That was really big in the sixties, and I loved it. I was a devotee of Herbie Mann, who made many jazz with flutes albums. Sixties jazz loved the flute. For me, it came to personify the decade, and I found jazzy flutes everywhere. Like many sixties Jazz musicians, Herbie Mann made Bossa Nova albums. Bossa Nova with flutes is in my mind, a perfect sixties soundtrack combination.

Of course Audrey Hepburn will always be associated in my mind with the sixties. She had a joyful and zesty, yet innocent persona that reached its apex in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a wonderful film adaptation of a wonderful Truman Capote novella directed yet again by Blake Edwards. The film embraces the paradox of Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly. She clings to her innocent persona while immersed in what is actually a gritty New York milieu. What a brilliant story.

Other films that encapsulate the soundtrack of the Sixties and the examination and embrace of innocence include:

The Apartment – a brilliant story with brilliant performances by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

The President’s Analyst – a luminously light farce about the discovery by the President’s Analyst (played by James Coburn) that the who world is run by “the phone company.” At one point, Coburn is on the run from the world’s intelligence agencies (including the Canadians), and falls in with a hippy band (portrayed by the hippy band – Clear Light). Unlike many commercial presentations of hippiedom from this era, the portrayal is lighthearted, fun, and totally non-judgmental.

In the film “A Thousand Clowns,” starring Jason Robards, and adapted from an erudite stage play, a burned out intellectual takes a boy genius under his wing, and nurses him through his rite of passage and “coming of age.” The film embraces innocence without a shred of sappiness.

Diana Rigg passed away at the age of 82 in September 2020. In the sixties, she was a siren in a wonderful spy sendup the Avengers, exported from the UK. She was dazzling, zesty, and upbeat, a total rejection of the usual cliches about the cynical burnout of the sixties.

The American version was “Get Smart,” a brilliant Mel Brooks vehicle, in which the US spy Maxwell Smart talks into his “shoe phone,” and tries to discuss state secrets inside a “cone of silence” that makes it impossible to converse.

I could go on and on. Once you change your focus, evidence leap out from everywhere. It would be a great project for a budding intellectual to examine this entire phenomena in exhaustive detail.

But it would have to be fun.

The import of all of these products was that too many people were taking for too much of the sixties far too seriously, and that it was best to let go.

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