In 1968 itself it often felt as if they had put something in the water. It was a mixture of longing and exhilaration, and that choking feeling that something important was going on somewhere nearby, and you would have no peace of mind until you found it.
In fact, I now think, they had put something in the air, most especially in the music. It had been working on us for years. Mostly it was not politics, just the clever use of certain chords and rhythms to fill us with excitement and anticipation. Take the extraordinary Phil Spector hit of 1963, Da Doo Ron Ron – the key phrase in the lyrics was intentionally nonsensical, but the thunder of the opening drums and all that followed had a clear message which bypassed all the civilised senses and went straight to our primitive core. It said “Do what thou wilt”.
I remember that particular song echoing through more than one summer of the middle Sixties, and I suspect that it had far more of an effect on young minds than the overtly political lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1964 The Times They Are a-Changin’. The lines that had real, powerful influence were much more along the lines of the apolitical Beatles’ 1967 song Getting Better, with its sneers at uncool teachers and rules, or She’s Leaving Home, of the same year. This curious song, based on a real case of a teenage girl who slipped away from her home to run off with a croupier, ends with the seemingly final words “bye bye!”, which always sounded to me like a cruel dismissal of her parents’ distress at her departure (“we gave her most of our lives”). In fact she did eventually come home, pregnant. And then she aborted the baby.
That would not have made much of a song. But nobody wanted to know about such sordid outcomes. We all thought we were in a safe suburban garden, somewhere in Enid Blyton Land, where our actions could not have grave consequences for us or for anyone else.
In fact we were on the edge of the Wild Wood. We had no idea of the real nature of the ancient dangers from which our parents’ supposedly crabby morals were protecting us, or of the madness, death and ruin that would wreck the lives of so many who were seduced by the troubadours of the time. When we stopped to think about it, we were scared and lost, as Leonard Cohen put it so beautifully when he asked around the same time, “Where do all these highways go, now that we are free?”
And then, after several years of this, came the May events in Paris, and – some weeks earlier – the strange outbreak of violence outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, on St Patrick’s Day 1968. I was at Grosvenor Square that day, and a few weeks later longed to be in Paris, and – though I was more or less clueless about the causes involved – I think I now understand why.
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