Upon Finishing Nixonland

by tristero

The by now hoary cliche goes that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there, the non-too-hidden implication being we were all taking far too many herbal and chemical enhancers to recall too much.

That may be true, but Rick Perlstein's brilliant Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America provides two other reasons those of us who were there don't remember it very well.

First of all, there was way too much going on in too short a time - the pace of life, at least for Americans plugged into the news and culture, was much faster than it is today. In the space of one month in 1967, say, one would have to absorb news of mulitple riots, an assassination or firebombing, a steaming pile of lies about Vietnam, protests of those lies, and the release of a half dozen or more songs many of which are as beloved now as they were then. And the next month brought more of the same.

Secondly, contrary to much popular opinion amongst liberals and lefties, the sixties were a terrible time. If the regular reports of bombs and riots didn't scare you, then the hopelessly out of touch politicians and newspapers certainly would. Perlstein, by the way is particularly good at exposing how truly awful much of the press coverage was back then. Nixon's ascendancy - and the simultanous upheavals in the culture - was deeply traumatic. It's too dreadful to remember that there once was a president so psychotically paranoid and petty that he punished a tennis-loving underling who dared to contradict him by bulldozing over the White House tennis court. The real crimes of this deeply disturbed Queeq-like ruler take a strong stomach, even now, to confront. No wonder so many of us were stoned so much; better to forget, even when it was happening.

But why read me when you can be reading Nixonland? It is a great, great, read and it's an essential read. It's the best book I know that gets you close to what the Sixties were like to live through. His description of the Newark riots is as shocking to read now as they were to hear about back then, when I was a teenager in what Perlstein describes as "leafy Short Hills," New Jersey. And for better or worse, he's found cultural artifacts that all too perfectly epitomize the great fracturing Nixon exploited. Why, oh why, Rick, did you have to remind me of "Letter To My Teenage Son?" I had completely suppressed it, and happily so!

In order to complete your introduction, or reacquaintance, with the Sixties, I would suggest a cultural artifact that slightly predates the focus of Perstein's book. When you order Nixonland, pick up a copy of The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows featuring the Beatles. These dvd's contains every moment of four typical Ed Sullivan shows - every cheesy circuit act, bad comedian, and commercials so stupefyingly awful they take your breath way. And then there are The Beatles.

Watch one show a night (any more will be exceedingly dangerous to your mental health) and watch them from beginning to end, no pauses, no rewinds, so that the Beatles come through in the full context. Don't skip or mute the commercials. Consider that this show was one of the top outlets for American pop culture. This is what America looked like, sounded like, acted like. This is how we used to relax. With Frank Gorshin doing Kirk Douglas impersonations.

And there are The Beatles. But notice how they're treated. Their sound is much worse than other musical acts. In one show, Paul's microphone stand collapses (deliberate sabotage by the crew? I think so). In another, Lennon is barely on camera. One other act follows the Beatles by saying something like "Here's what real music sounds like."  But throughout it all, the Beatles look, sound, and act radically different.

Books have been written, and rightly so, on the historical moment of Dylan's Basement Tapes, but as far as I know, no one has troubled to analyze the content of these four shows, which is odd. Because it is clear that the world is dramatically changing, and fast. Mainstream pop culture, and culture in general, became something quite different in the US, and here is fossil evidence of exactly when it happened.

Rick Persltein's compelling book shows us, among other things, the gritty reality of the convulsive cultural changes that took place back then. The appearances of The Beatles on the Sullivan show shows us that struggling out of the cultural spasms (the first Beatle appearance was less than three months after Kennedys assassination ) was a new kind of art, both sophisticated and direct, elegant and blunt, that was capable of deep expression.

But, just like the arrogant do-gooder liberals in Perlstein's book, we misjudged the real impact of the cultural changes of The Beatles. And that, too contributed enormously to the geography of Nixonland. There's a very interesting book to be written about music and art in the time of Nixon, I think, that isn't rocknroll centric - just don't ask me to write it!