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The Sixties

It would be erroneous to characterize the 1960s as an era of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Sexual taboos were frequently challenged, but it is more myth than reality that sexual permissiveness was introduced and flourished in the 1960s. Easy divorce, relatively easy access to contraceptives, and an openness toward promiscuity were common to the 1920s. What did make the sixties unique was the change in attitude. Even so, there was great ambivalence about "sexual perversion," and society seemed to be sending an ambiguous message. Free love might have been the mantra for some, but it was not widely practiced or accepted.

Enforcement of anti-fornication laws, albeit applied unevenly, was not unheard of; contraceptives were difficult to obtain, especially for single women; legal abortions were severely limited; and homosexuals were persecuted almost everywhere. Sex was more explicit.

In movie houses Barbarella, Blow-up, and I Am Curious Yellow did well at the box office. Theatrical work reflecting the new sexual openness included Hair, billed as "an American tribal love-rock musical" and featuring nudity and four-letter words. Oh! Calcutta was a popular nude review. Each production enjoyed more than 1,000 performances on and off-Broadway. The older generation wrung its hands in despair over a supposed collapse of morality, but perhaps unnecessarily. The displays of nudity and promiscuity in some films and plays had shock value because they did not speak for all.

In July 1967, Seventeen magazine published the results of its survey of female teenagers' attitudes about sexual activity. Contrary to popular thinking, 85 percent of the respondents said they were virgins, and fewer than 5 percent of them approved of premarital sex for couples with no intention of marrying.

Before the 1960s, drug use in America was unprecedented. In 1959 doctors prescribed over 579 tons of tranquilizers and were writing nearly $2 million worth of prescriptions for barbiturates, amphetamines, antidepressants, and other mood-altering drugs. A drug subculture did not suddenly and inexplicably emerge in the 1960s. Drugs have been part of American culture throughout American history. Prior to the 1960s, the "big three" - marijuana, heroin, and cocaine - were most commonly associated with marginally social groups. In the sixties, the use of illicit drugs, especially marijuana, had filtered up into the white middle class. When drug use was a means to demonstrate a rejection of mainstream values, marijuana was adopted as the unofficial drug of the counterculture. The establishment had its drugs, too - alcohol and tobacco - but they were legal and did not produce the same mind-enhancing effects as marijuana, almost always experienced in a communal setting.

In the sixties, the media focused predominantly on the counterculture associated with antisocial behavior as the typical drug users. In Vietnam, however, marijuana, hashish, and opium were widely available, and thousands of American soldiers became addicted to heroin that was 90 percent to 98 percent pure, as compared to 2 percent to 10 percent purity in the United States. American military commanders estimated that in 1970, 65,000 GIs were using narcotics. Drugs were easily accessible in Vietnam, a problem compounded when officials in the South Vietnamese government participated in the drug trade, often in collusion with the CIA. Although President Nixon pledged that "all our servicemen must be accorded the right to rehabilitation," the military discharged more than 1,000 addicted GIs a month who were "of negligible value to the United States Army." In 1973 a White House task force found that 34 percent of American soldiers had "commonly used" heroin.

An accurate accounting of the number of illicit drug users in the United States is nearly impossible, but Henry Brill, head of the American Medical Association's committee on drug dependency, estimated that the number rose from a few hundred thousand at the beginning of the decade to 8 million by 1970. That figure and even higher estimates, however, may be misleading, since a Playboy survey in the late 1960s reported that 47 percent of college students said they smoked marijuana, but only 13 percent acknowledged frequent use.

If "ordinary" psychoactive substances could not sufficiently alter one's conscience, a more powerful psychedelic drug, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), possessed hallucinogenic effects discovered accidentally in Switzerland in 1943. The substance had no apparent medical or therapeutic value, but in the cold war era, the CIA, in the interest of national security, used LSD in truth drug experiments with unwitting civilians in its controversial MK ULTRA project, a secret program carried out by CIA agents. By the late 1960s, LSD was used for experimentation in a different context.

Relatively obscure in 1962, by 1966 LSD, or "acid," was widely recognized. Although there were a number of LSD proponents prior to the 1960s, they attracted little attention until Timothy Leary, a faculty member in Harvard University's Center for Research in Human Personality, began promoting LSD as a means of achieving spiritual growth. In 1965, urging the younger generation to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," he founded the League for Spiritual Discovery, which advocated the mass production and distribution of LSD. A year later, the federal government criminalized the hallucinogenic substance, making the drug even more alluring to devotees of the counterculture interested in social protest.

In the 1960s, the music also made a dramatic transformation from "doo-wop" to lyrics with an edge. Some would say the music grew up in the 1960s. Probably those same people also would say the music died in the sixties. Whatever the view, rock ‘n' roll exploded on the national scene in 1954 when Bill Haley and the Comets sold 16 million copies of their hit song "Rock Around the Clock." As a cultural barometer, the evolution of music provides important clues about how American social and political attitudes were in flux.

Through the first half of the 1960s, the music topping the Billboard charts and played on American Bandstand still echoed the fifties in lyrics and sound: fluffy, sentimental, naive, occasionally subtly suggestive. It was also comprehensible; a listener to a 45rpm (still the principal medium for popular music) or radio could discern the words. Not being able to discern the lyrics caused suspicion and led people already leery of rock ‘n' roll to assume the worst. In 1963 the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" (written in 1956) generated widespread controversy because no one knew the words. Three years later, some radio stations would not play Tommy James and the Shondells' hit song "Hanky Panky" because it was too suggestive. Although Elvis Presley and other early rock 'n' rollers shook up an entire generation in the 1950s, the new genre had made its way into the mainstream of popular music. After the initial shock, many Americans realized that the music was pretty tame after all, more rhythm than revolution. More often than not, the popular rock 'n' roll reinforced, rather than deprecated, the virtues of traditional, wholesome relationships and extolled the virtues of love and fidelity, not sex or drugs.

In 1963, for example, three of the number-one hits were innocuous and simplistic. In "He's So Fine," the Chiffons longed for the security of "his embrace:" In "My Boyfriend's Back," advice to girls wanting to remain faithful to their steady guys, the Angels set straight a would-be suitor about his less than honorable intentions. "Hey, Paula," is an uncomplicated view of love and marriage when Paul and Paula delight in their anticipation of blissful togetherness.

By 1965, though, something was happening to popular music. The Top Forty hits still included sentimental boy-girl favorites like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and "Stop! In the Name of Love," and light-hearted sing-alongs such as, "I Got You Babe," "Wooly, Bully," and "Help Me, Rhonda," but a "British invasion," led by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and several other bands with peculiar names and a new sound revolutionized rock 'n' roll. In the United States, artists such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan influenced popular music when they introduced folk rock: provocative lyrics with radical implications that promoted an intellectual rebellion and hinted about an impending revolution. Peter, Paul, and Mary's recording of "Blowin' in the Wind" (written by Bob Dylan), which sold 300,000 copies and reached the number-one spot in 1963, became the adopted anthem of the antiwar movement. Two years later, the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" (also written by Dylan) was a number-one hit song, and Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," a protest song about racism, social injustice, and nuclear annihilation, reached the number-one spot, even though many radio stations banned it-this time because listeners did know the words.

The musical metamorphosis was only beginning, and no rock 'n' roll band had transformed itself more dramatically or more abruptly in the 1960s than the Beatles. In 1967 they moved beyond singing about male-female relationships and light-hearted lyrics to music that was more political and complex. The Beatles, now influenced by Eastern mysticism, drugs, and the "psychedelic" sound, confounded many of their listeners with the nonsensical and enigmatic lyrics about surreal people exhibiting bizarre behavior.

"Doo-wop" had become passe. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" ("LSD") did not make the Top Forty list, but the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album of the year. By the end of the decade, rock 'n' roll had undergone a profound change, stylistically and substantively. No longer was it about broken hearts and Saturday nights. The contrast was unmistakable, and for some, distressing.

Instead of reinforcing teenagers' concerns about decency and reputations listening to "Wake Up, Little Susie," adolescents heard the Rolling Stones suggesting "Let's Spend the Night Together." The music was "evolving" from "Candy Girl" to "Sister Morphine," from "Johnny Angel" to "Sympathy for the Devil," from "Blue Moon" to "Purple Haze," from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" In 1969 the music reflected the broader social conflict when two popular songs were "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard's affirmation of patriotism, and John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," a plea for policymakers to end the Vietnam War.

Many people seem inclined to recall the sixties music as either antiwar or drug related. Some of it was political; some of it did condone and promote drug use or was written to heighten drug euphoria. Most of the music, though, was politically benign. Billboard magazine's Top Five hits for each month from 1965 through 1970 did not include any antiwar or drug-related songs. Even in 1968, a critically eventful and pivotal year when many Americans had to be wondering if the nation was going to survive the decade, none of the top ten songs for that year reflected political or social issues. Because Billboard tracks only Top Forty hits - determined by the number of sales - acid rock album cuts that got airplay on FM radio stations were omitted. Antiwar and drug-related music had its following, but the songs did not show up in a mainstream publication, suggesting that a majority of record buyers might have listened to "Lucy in the Sky," but they were also buying "Help Me, Rhonda."

Surveying what the country was listening to in 1968 was not much different from analyzing what the mainstream population was watching. During one of the most turbulent years in American history, the three most popularly watched television programs were The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The only prime-time program that made frequent reference to political and social events shaping peoples' lives was Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, which did not debut until September that year.

Such a disparity between popular entertainment and political and social reality may not be especially noteworthy; what people do to amuse themselves seldom does reflect political and social reality. But the incongruity between what was affecting so many people's lives and their source of entertainment in 1968 was so uncommonly extreme that it seems to contradict how we remember the sixties. While a minority of Americans were actively involved in creating social and political upheaval, the "silent majority" likely welcomed the escapism of Mayberry and the antics of Lucy Ricardo.

Social rebellion is virtually synonymous with the 1960s, a confusing and challenging era when conflict delineated blacks and whites, young and old, liberals and conservatives, men and women, hawks and doves, demonstrators and hard hats, students and draftees. Public protests, assassinations, violence in the streets, and the war in Vietnam define the sixties as an era of swift and dramatic changes. The 1950s legacy of social complacency and personal conformity was altered forever as Americans in the 1960s questioned the quality of American life and values.

John C. McWilliams. Historical Overview. John C. McWilliams. The Counterculture. The 1960s Cultural Revolution Greenwood Press. 2000.

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