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The Rockologist: Remembering The Kennedys And The Soundtrack To Camelot

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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.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/Gre Donald Gibson

    Great article, Glen.

    The way you threaded the music of the late ’60s into your article — and how you contrasted it to the music of today (which you rightly pointed out as having nowhere near the cohesiveness and collective purpose as the generations of music before it) was particularly insightful. Unfortunately, iconic/historic events of recent memory don’t inspire the kind of great music that those of the late ’60s did.

    Even 9/11, for all the patriotic posturing of artists afterward, didn’t really inspire much great art. We got The Rising and a poignant Alan Jackson song, but not much else.

    In contrast, MLK’s assassination inspired a movement of music, from Isaac Hayes & David Porter writing “Soul Man” in reaction to race riots to James Brown writing “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) to Aretha Franklin writing “Think.” We don’t have that kind of solidified purpose in music now.

    It’s sadly ironic that Ted Kennedy’s death at 77 to cancer is just about the most universal (and “normal” if you can call it that) passing which his family has encountered. Assassinations and small-plane crashes aren’t exactly how the average person dies. Unfortunately, cancer is. I think a lot of people are relating to that aspect, in particular, of his passing today.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks a lot Donald…and particularly for the mention of the many songs that the MLK assassination inspired. Although my focus was more specifically on the Kennedys, those songs you mentioned, along with so many others likewise inspired by the civil rights struggle are certainly no less important in telling the whole story of those amazing, but also troubling times.

    The triumphs of the Kennedy family are pretty amazing when you measure those against the many tragedies they endured. The fact that Ted lived to such a ripe old age is a miracle in and of itself.

    -Glen

  • http://mongo.not.me Mongo

    Good one Glen. Didn’t realize all that bad stuff, including Chappaquiddick, happened in 69. Since Teddy managed to survive his brothers and become a long-running senator of no small renown, I’ll give him the 1969 song Everyday People by Sly & The Family Stone.

  • zingzing

    “Even 9/11, for all the patriotic posturing of artists afterward, didn’t really inspire much great art. We got The Rising and a poignant Alan Jackson song, but not much else.”

    residents-demons dance alone

    much, much more subtle, but infinitely better than either of those

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Mongo. Yeah ’69 was kind of a weird year. On the one hand you had Altamont, but on the other you had Tommy, Let It Bleed, and Abbey Road. Thanx for commenting.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Zing! Nice to see you back over here in music. You’ve been slumming over in politics way too long….

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    “The way you threaded the music of the late ’60s into your article — and how you contrasted it to the music of today (which you rightly pointed out as having nowhere near the cohesiveness and collective purpose as the generations of music before it) was particularly insightful.”

    music is so much more fragmented today than it was then. thank disco and punk for that. and after the abject failure of the 60s in general (call it nixon, call it the early 70s, call it whatever you like), the idea of political, life-changing music wasn’t the same anymore. many still try it, and some succeed, but most have turned inward, or toward pure entertainment, or into product.

    of course, that’s not to say that this change is a bad thing. some of the songs you remember as highly political were more personal than you’d think, and some of those that truly were political are drivel.

    because the times were so highly politicized, with the age-gap, the anti-war protests, the “time’s a changin’,” etc., everything seemed meaningful on a larger scale. but that’s not the truth. the truth is that a vast majority were sitting on their couches in front of their hi-fi’s saying “damn right, i’m gonna do something, too.” but they didn’t do anything, and the songs were just echoing what was actually happening in society, not the other way around.

    another truth is that the music industry is so much larger now. what you hear on the radio is 1% of the music made. the other 99% you have to search for. it’s not going to hit you passively. and there’s plenty being thrown around down there. back in the 60s, you had your major labels, and then you had your local labels. bands could hope to have a local, or maybe regional impact on a smaller label, but for any true shot, they’d have to attach themselves to a corporate giant. just think, the velvet underground were on MGM.

    nowadays, there’s hundreds of thriving indie and micro labels. artists even self-release. political music is everywhere, but it just doesn’t get on the radio. don’t blame music, blame clearchannel. it’s old fogies running numbers and making 40-song playlists that get heard everywhere, while millions upon millions of songs never have a shot. and trust me, the stuff you don’t hear passively is the good stuff these days.

    all that said, the 60s weren’t as good as you would like to remember. not even the music. do you remember the dreck? the crap? nah. it was 40 years ago, and the oldies channels don’t play that shit and the record companies don’t bother to rerelease it.

    end. rant.

  • zingzing

    now that i think of it, the initial quote that set off the rant was pretty accurate. but that’s not the music’s fault. it’s all still out there. it’s just not as easy to locate.

    right now, as the time before it, and the time before it, etc, is the most free that music has ever been. it’s an ever-expanding universe of sound. to begrudge its growth is to reverse history, and that’s not happening.

    sorry if my rant seemed like bashing on 60s ideals stuff. if the original intent of that statement was “music was better in the 60s,” then that’s just laziness. but now that i reread it, i’m not sure that’s what it’s saying. knee-jerk. jerk, knee.

  • Jordan Richardson

    right now, as the time before it, and the time before it, etc, is the most free that music has ever been.

    Damn right.

    Good piece, Glen. Really enjoyed reading it.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m not saying that 60s music is any better than now, and the last thing I want to do here is open up that whole can of worms because it’s an argument neither of us can win even if we wanted to. Art is, and always been subjective.

    The truth is though that you are right about at least one thing Zing. There is infinitely more out there — and good, groundbreaking, innovative stuff too — now than there was then. No arguments there. But therein lies the problem.

    Finding that rare nugget amounts to searching for a needle in a haystack because of the quantity and availability possible now through the Internet alone.

    What’s lacking is a distribution system that brings the most important new voices to the largest audience possible…rather than one that makes anyone’s songs available, as long as you find them. The missing piece of the puzzle here is promotion.

    The only thing that separates the sixties from the present in terms of music, is that the underground music actually was also the mainstream music. There are a variety of reasons for that — which are far too long to go into here without writing another article.

    Because of the times, because of the war — because of the freaking draft more than anything — voices of political dissent bled over into pop culture like no time before or since. The voices themselves have always been there, but the mass media was more receptive because the issues rose to the top of the collective consciousness, and because for a brief moment in time, the corporate interests were more or less forced into listening — or some hippy dippy bullshit like that anyway.

    When I compare sixties music to the present day, it’s not so much a matter of artistic quality (although some pretty amazing innovation clearly occured then), as it is the way it resonated with the culture at large.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    “The only thing that separates the sixties from the present in terms of music, is that the underground music actually was also the mainstream music… When I compare sixties music to the present day, it’s not so much a matter of artistic quality (although some pretty amazing innovation clearly occured then), as it is the way it resonated with the culture at large.”

    those are two very good points that i can agree with. there just wasn’t a national underground (as opposed to local/regional hits) then like there is now. that’s the great thing about the punk movement. it meant anyone could do it. no more did you need money or even instrumental prowess. you just needed creativity.

    as for your other point, i think that that is very much connected to the first point. post-punk, when anyone could do it, it was like the big bang. suddenly every point of view, every interest, every style, had unlimited amounts of raw data, and the music world fragmented and split. there was no one music culture, nor one pop culture. there were so many that trying to keep up was nearly impossible. (and i don’t think that’s a bad thing.)

    to say it again, i had a knee-jerk reaction to the original statement (being donald’s, not yours), but i think i may have read too quickly.

  • zingzing

    and yes, the innovations of 63-68 or so were truly mind-boggling. just listening to how pop music changed during that time is dizzying.

    but look at the changes from, oh, say 75-82. or the changes in hip hop from 79-92. or the changes in techno from 86-95.

    today, what’s considered the hip, new thing can seem passe in 6 months. the sweep of history, and the drag of the future is completely unforgiving at this point. i guarantee that, at some point in the future, warhol’s “15 minutes” won’t even last that long.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Punk was definitely a good thing, as was hip-hop, in that it offered a voice for artists to express themselves they may not have otherwise had…kind of like the underground of the sixties did. Unfortunately all three were eventually co-opted by corporate America, and the underground now exists in a vacuum. Everything is available to everyone which is great. Finding it on the other hand is another matter entirely. The next Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, could be putting out MP3 files heard by the five people who read the band’s blog. And that’s a fucking shame.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Lack of attention spans in the information age…that’s another thing…

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    “Unfortunately all three were eventually co-opted by corporate America, and the underground now exists in a vacuum.”

    fortunately, that vacuum is the internet. and if you search, you will find. and fuck the sex pistols (even though they’re pretty great, and public image was even better), go get you some MEKONS!

    i, for one, like the corporate interests sucking up the crap and letting the rest flow free. because distribution (the killer of such greats as big star and the zombies back in the day) is now negligible, there’s so much more out there. you don’t need a record contract, or even an agent. all you need is good songs and word of mouth. if you’re good, it’ll happen in some small way. and if you’re great, there’s no stopping it.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I was always a Wire guy myself. Those guys and the Stranglers, the Saints (Know Your Product) — brilliant…

    I’m also a fan of the whole D.I.Y. thing. Honest.

    But the only thing missing is exposure. And by that I don’t necessarily mean the record companies…just a way past the whole “needle in a haystack” distribution of the internet medium. Where if you are lucky you might actually find the next Radiohead or whoever on some obscure website read by five people, or on MySpace after weaving your way through even fifty, out of millions of bands. Even there, the sound quality is lucky to suck. Correct me if I’m wrong…

    And people wonder why attention spans these days are so short.

    My bitch isn’t so much the music, because I know it’s out there, so much as it is the medium. What the instant information revolution — which at the end of the day is controlled by bigger corporate whores than even the record companies ever were even at their coked-out seventies worst — needs is a social one to match it that is based on more than people sitting behind their keyboards at 1 AM like we are.

    -Glen

  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    nice tribute glen and interesting comments from everybody. so much better than what’s been coming from box-of-hammers politics pages.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Very cool article, just twittered it! I was born in the 60’s so I missed a lot of the Kennedy stories and music back then. But I am catching up! The Kennedys were a tribute to politics and humanity!

  • Clavos

    Excellent piece, Glen; one of the top articles I’ve seen on BC in all my years here. Props.

    I turned 20 a few months before JFK was shot, spent most of 1965 and 1966 in Vietnam; returned (thankfully with no holes in me, but carrying a couple of other legacies, courtesy of Agent Orange) and enrolled in college under the GI Bill, met the beautiful, kind and gracious young lady who has now been my wife of nearly forty years, and graduated with a BA — all in the sixties.

    That decade, the events, both personal and global, that occurred during it, and the music about which you write so eloquently, were and remain the defining experiences of my life.

    Thank you for the beautifully poignant return trip down those pathways.

  • KELLI2L

    Just my opinion but I’ll never understand why people idolize philanderers and people with such personality problems as the Kennedy’s. . .
    People do the same with Hollywood actors, sports stars, etc., and it just shows how many people lack the ability to see thru the haze of good looks and money, they seem to have no sense of how to judge people for their good deeds. No wonder humanity is in such trouble. . . .

  • zingzing

    “No wonder humanity is in such trouble. . . . ”

    indeed…

  • zingzing

    glen: “I was always a Wire guy myself.”

    pink flag?

    or chair’s missing?

    make your choice. (and don’t you dare say 154.)

  • Don Gibson

    KELLI2L, let me explain it to you, at least from the Kennedy perspective. Are they philanderers and people with personality problems? Yes they are. If you had endured even a fraction of the personal pain they have and worse yet, done so publicly, then perhaps you might have and seek forgiveness for a personality disorder or two. The idea that what people see in them is somehow formed in “the haze of good looks and money” is incredibly simplistic and niave. All of these people who admire them do so, not because they have “good looks and money”, but specifically because of “their good deeds”. They could have, with there wealth, choose to be vacuous, self absorbed and clueless like a Paris Hilton or many others of her ilk or generation. They chose public service instead, in a myraid of ways,and as a result, they have affected for the better countless millions of lives in obvious and untold ways. My suggestion to you would be to learn a little history and suitably appreciate based on ” their good deeds”.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “Because music today doesn’t quite carry the same resonance — at least not in the same way that it did in the ’60s . . .”

    Because of the momentous times. The idea of Camelot carried over to all facets of life – counter-culture, anti-war protests, free speech movement, sit-ins, SDS, civil rights, change of consciousness, you name it. And because the times were momentous, so was the music – lyrics and all. It all meant something.

    Great article, Glen.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Zing…I was mostly a Chairs Missing, though I also admit to liking 154 (sorry….).

    Thanks for all the comments everyone and a special hello to Don Gibson Sr…(who is not to be confused with his BC editing, Leonard Cohen loving, ever analytically writing son).

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    glen: “Zing…I was mostly a Chairs Missing, though I also admit to liking 154 (sorry….).”

    chair’s missing=bingo. best lp of 78 (tied, of course, with more songs about building and food).

    i like 154, but they just got too doomy and slow. there are beautiful songs littered throughout, like the 15th and map ref.

    but you should check out mekons, if you haven’t before. especially “the quality of mercy is not strenen” or whatever, and “fear and whiskey,” which is the best album of the 80s.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m semi-familiar with Mekons (with emphasis on the “semi”), but will definitely re-investigate them on your strong recommendation Zing. I’ve discovered a number of great bands (most notably Porcupine Tree) through my pals here on BC, and I’m sure this will be no exception. Thanks for letting me know.

    -Glen