Like many of you reading this, my first reaction to the news of Ted Kennedy's passing Tuesday night was one of sadness. But also that it had been expected, ever since it was first learned that the Massachusetts Senator had brain cancer last year.
On a deeper level though, it really feels like the final chapter of an era has finally been written. Camelot is over once and for all.
For those of you too young to remember, the word Camelot came to symbolize the hopes that many people who grew up in the '60s had, first for the presidency of Ted's older brother, President John F. Kennedy, and later for the candidacy of his younger brother Robert.
I was just a kid then.
But the memories of that time are forever etched into my consciousness — with the years 1963 – 1968 having a particular resonance. Five years may not seem like that long to some. But to a kid, it's a lifetime. The music which formed the soundtrack of this historic period in particular has continued to resonate with me throughout my entire life.
I remember the day that JFK was shot almost like it was yesterday. I was seven years old. They let school out. As I was making the one block walk home, I noticed an ambulance at the house at the end of my street. The old guy who was always out gardening in his yard was lying on the ground, surrounded by several of the ambulance guys. I later learned that he had a heart attack. I never did hear if he survived it or not.
There hadn't really been a soundtrack to my childhood up to this point. But a few months later that all changed with the arrival of the Beatles. When the mop-tops from Liverpool conquered America on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was one of the millions of Americans who watched. Actually, I had to really pester the hell out of my parents to let me come out of my room past bedtime to see what all the fuss was about.
The Beatles — with all of their "yeah, yeah, yeah" innocence — were about the coolest thing I had ever seen up to that point. For many young people like me, they also represented the perfect antidote for the shock we were still feeling from the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination just a few months before.
For the next four years, the Beatles' musical progression — they went from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to Sgt. Pepper and the White Album in that time — was remarkable, and would form the soundtrack of our lives during that tumultuous period. The Beatles may have been British imports, but they would see young America through Vietnam, civil unrest, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, among other things, like no other cultural force on earth.
Ironically, the death of Ted Kennedy this past Tuesday comes at a time when the Beatles' entire remastered catalog is being digitally upgraded for release next month. I guess what goes around really does come back around again.
By the time JFK's younger brother Robert was gunned down just after the California primary in 1968, I was in the sixth grade and starting to form a lot of the ideas and values that would carry me throughout my life.
In the nearly five years since JFK's murder, the music had changed nearly as much as the times themselves. In addition to the Beatles' remarkable artistic transformation, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had gone from "I Get Around" and "Little Deuce Coupe" to "Good Vibrations" and Pet Sounds. There had also been The Byrds, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, psychedelia, and of course Dylan.
The songs forming the soundtrack to the RFK chapter of Camelot didn't come right away. With the nation reeling again from yet another Kennedy assassination, many of us found ourselves wondering if there even really was a Camelot at all. At 11 years old, I just remember praying that Bobby Kennedy would make it — not really comprehending the fact that he was already dead.
The songs mostly came later. The Rolling Stones shouted out "who killed the Kennedys?, when after all it was you and me" in "Sympathy For The Devil." Dion made a comeback with "Abraham, Martin, and John." David Crosby eulogized Bobby in his two songs with Crosby Stills & Nash, "Long Time Gone" and "Almost Cut My Hair."
Woodstock hadn't even happened yet, and it seemed like the '60s might be over. Certainly, Camelot seemed to be.
Underneath a pseudo-veneer of peace and love, the music of the late '60s also began to take on an angrier, more defiant, and increasingly violent tone over the next few years. Jefferson Airplane urged its "Volunteers Of Amerika" to "tear down the walls, motherfuckers." The Beatles sang "you say you want a revolution" and the Stones had their own "Street Fighting Man." Even top 40 radio seemed to get into the act, by running John Fogerty songs with Creedence Clearwater Revival like "Who'll Stop The Rain" and "Fortunate Son" up the charts.
By the time 1969 rolled around, Jim Morrison would be busted for exposing himself at a concert in Miami. The dreams of Woodstock would give way to the horrors of the Stones at Altamont. A year later, the Beatles would break up, and Morrison would be dead, as would Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The innocence was pretty much gone.
And now with the passing of Ted Kennedy this past Tuesday, so too is Camelot. Although I'm not at all sure there ever really was a Camelot.
Certainly there was the idea of such a thing, and although the music of the period certainly helped to change things over time, the political dreams of JFK and RFK were never to be fully realized. For all of his own accomplishments as one of the greatest legislators of the past century, Ted Kennedy's own dreams of Camelot were pretty much jettisoned after a fateful night in 1969 off a bridge at Chappaquiddick.
And what of the soundtrack to Ted Kennedy's chapter in this story? Is it disco? Punk rock? Eighties new wave? What music will we think of when we remember his death? The Black Eyed Peas? Kings Of Leon? Coldplay's Viva La Vida? Springsteen's Working On A Dream?
Because music today doesn't quite carry the same resonance — at least not in the same way that it did in the '60s — we may not remember any songs at all. On the other hand, there are artists who haven't yet been discovered, and songs which haven't been written.
If Camelot in fact does live on, it will do so through them. And through the legacy of Ted Kennedy.