Like so many others who are not of the Baby Boom generation, I am sick to death of hearing about The Sixties. At first glance, a book titled I969: The Year Everything Changed looked to be yet another rehash of the well-worn war stories we have all heard ad infinitum. Upon closer inspection however, 1969 proved to be a far more interesting book than I had originally assumed it to be.
By looking back with the jaundiced eye 40 years provides, author Rob Kirkpatrick has managed to impart the events of the year in a very engaging way. His loosely chronological format (from January to December) is one of the simplest, yet most effective storytelling methods he could have chosen. So much cultural baggage about “the end of the sixties” has built up, that a simple step back to treat the year 1969 as a year in the life of the U.S.A. has seemed an impossible task for most.
For example, there seems to be some unwritten Strunk & White dictate that one cannot write about Woodstock without invoking Altamont in the same sentence. You know the story: Woodstock was the birth of hippie, Altamont represented their death. How lazy. Both were huge “free” concerts. Both had major problems that could be attributed to a lack of organization on the part of the promoters, and the authorities.
Where Kirkpatrick’s book differs from every Woodstock account I have ever read is his simple choice to discuss what else was going on in the nation that weekend. A couple of thousand miles away from a career-making performance by Sly And The Family Stone, there was a real disaster going on that affected millions of souls in the south. Nobody hears about Hurricane Camille anymore, but it threatened a great deal more people than the prospect of hearing Richie Havens in the mud on a farm did.
While the Woodstock chapter comes fairly late in the book, it is a great example of how the events of the year are treated. As Kirkpatrick states in the Epilogue: “The world did not end. The modern American society that we know today was just beginning.”
This is true. The “culture wars” which now define America began in earnest that year. Although I singled out the way the author handled the Woodstock event, there are many other notable facets of the book as well. For one thing, 1969 was the first year of Richard Nixon’s ill-fated presidency. Like all newly minted Presidents, even Nixon was afforded a bit of a “honeymoon” period by the press. That in itself is hard to believe, considering what happened later. But it makes sense.
Extraordinary things occurred month by month that year, but even the Manson murders were overshadowed by what was going on in Vietnam. This was the year of the My Lai massacre. To attempt to appease the protesters, Nixon brought thousands of soldiers home. So while on the one hand he was espousing a commitment to victory at any cost, he was handicapping the soldiers by thinning their ranks.
What a mess. I was too young to be aware of what was going on in the world in 1969. In reading Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year Everything Changed however, one gets the sense that a period of five years had been condensed into one. This is an excellent, and unsentimental look back at a year that truly did change America forever.