Camelot and West Side Story (a non-WASP Teen Dream)…Wall of Sound...The Cuban Missile Crisis inspires Bob Dylan.
1962: The Clear Light
“Where Were You in ‘62?” asked the ad copy for George Lucas’ essential celluloid exploration of teenagedom, American Graffiti (1973). The time frame of the film was not a random choice. 1962 will always be remembered as the last full, happy year of optimistic bliss and blind faith in Camelot and the New Frontier. Great problems lay ahead, but the public felt up to any challenge, with JFK at the helm. Millions of Americans read Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage… not the same old infallible history book full of demigods like Washington and Lincoln. Instead, the stories described real, flesh and blood men, many with checkered pasts, but who, in times of great moral conflict, somehow found the courage to stand up for their principles. Many of them lost careers and personal fortunes, but continued fighting until the end. JFK called their actions “grace under pressure,” and more and more Americans recognized that same quality in the author. Situations flared in Berlin,Cuba, Africa and Southeast Asia, but Jack always seemed to rise to the occasion.
Kennedy opened up his new home to the public, and for the first time millions of typical Americans felt like insiders. Jacqueline hosted a Tour of the White House, one of the most publicized and highly rated programs of the 1961-2 season. The beautiful, intelligent First Lady appeared just as charming as Jack and Jackie instantly became one of the most photographed women in the world. One couldn’t surf TV stations or flip through a magazine in 1962 without noticing the reassuring smile of Jack and/or Jackie.
The Kennedy’s symbolized what young Americans wanted to be and where they wanted to go…a young, strong, optimistic couple, looking forward to the future with great hope… rather than clinging desperately to a stagnant past. Eisenhower reminded Americans of a slow, tedious round of golf… the Kennedy’s, a vigorous game of touch football on the lawn. In superficial media reflections, Ike was The Edge of Darkness (1954) and the Flintstones… Jack was The Clear Light and The Jetsons (both 1962). Wimpy Gary Powers belonged to Eisenhower’s era, James Bond (Dr. No –1962) burst onto the scene during JFK’s reign.
Today, when watching Happy Days in reruns, Americans think fondly of the carefree ‘50s. How soon they forget. The 1950s were the Dark Ages in theUSA, a nervous time full of paranoia, fear, suspicion, suppression, censorship, scandals, false accusations, open discrimination, bomb shelters, McCarthyism, Rock & Roll hysteria, payola, and the vast wasteland of television. At the time, most Americans rejoiced at the passing of this dreadful era, and wanted to forget that it had ever happened.
ROCK & ROLL
The country felt in a festive mood in 1962 under Kennedy. “Running” had been the most popular word in titles on the pop charts in 1961, reflecting a nervous restlessness among young people. Now, radios urged the kids to use their energetic feet for a more positive, happier activity… like dancing. Chubby Checker revived The Twist in late 1961, and set off a national chain reaction. At least 25 variations of the song hit the charts in 1962, including Twist and Shout, Peppermint Twist, Twisting the Night Away and Slow Twisting. Instead of condemning the twist craze as “the work of the devil,” the Kennedy’s tried it out, and then demonstrated their skills for reporters. Other new dances, such as the “Mash Potato,” the “Wah Watusi” and “Pony Time” popped up on Bandstand every week.
Elvis picked up on the positive vibes and hit big with Follow That Dream, just as the oldest Baby Boomer turned Sweet Sixteen. Teens followed his advice to a WASP, suburban Teen Utopia, located on the beaches of Southern California, as the Beach boys hit the national charts for the first time. Westside Story, a non-WASP-only Teen Dream, opened on Broadway about the same time. Romeo and Juliet in aNew York City ghetto? The idea wouldn’t have flown in the Dark Ages of the ‘50s. Against a background of gang wars and racial hatred, Tony and Maria, a mixed and mixed-up couple found true love. Ah, “Only inAmerica, land of opportunity…” The concept of minority, ghetto kids with hopes and dreams shocked Middle Class America. The climate and expatiation’s of the inner city did brightened somewhat during the Kennedy administration. The drifters urged teens to “Climb right up to the top of the stairs…” because “Dreams come true if you just wish it’s so/ Up on the Roof.”
Teen Dreams became the hottest commodity in pop music in the early ‘60s, and one young man had his finger on the pulse of the market. In 1960, Phil Spector, a nineteen-year-old producer for Atlantic Records, knew exactly what fellow teens would buy. Ben E. King’s (There is a rose in) Spanish Harlem, put Phil two full years ahead of Westside Story in expressing the theme of “true beauty among the ruins” in the inner city. Spector also found the perfect mixture of Teen Dream and rebellion in songs like He’s a Rebel: “Just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does/ that’s no reason why we can’t share a love… He’s not a rebel to me.” By the time Phil reached voting age in 1962, he was a multi-millionaire and considered as one of the top geniuses in pop music.
Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” changed the recording industry (for better or worse is another question) forever. Instead of employing the usual three or four-piece Rock & Roll combo (in the Buddy Holly mold), Phil added extra guitarists, backup singers, strings, brass, reed, percussion and keyboard players, in fact, just as many musicians as could fit into the largest recording studio available. This gave the music dramatic new dimensions at first, but after a while, the songs became the “Wall of sounds-a-lot-like-Spector’s-last-record” music. Boomers liked it anyway because they had grown accustomed to mass production mediocrity. Real R & R intimidated them at the time… the kids just wanted a few Teen Dreams.
Dreams sold wholesale on TV in 1962 and many of them reflected the image of our young President: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (a young, idealistic politician), Going My Way (Catholic), Ensign O’Toole (Irish Naval Officer) and The Gallant Men (displaying grace under pressure). Other reflections were subtle; for instance, a conniving Capt. McHale (Navy) replaced a conniving Sgt. Bilko (Army) on the tube.
One popular new show mocked the old version of the American Dream. The Beverly Hillbillies were an extremely poor, backwoods clan who by dumb luck became instant multimillionaires. But the Clampets never did adjust to the rich city life, and longed to return to their poor, but happy life in aTennessee shack. For the first time TV admitted, “Perhaps money cannot buy happiness.”
The big screen revealed new problems like Lolita. This twelve-year-old Boomer bombshell drove old Humbert wild. Little girls grow up fast, and in 1962 there were twice as many high school freshmen femme fatales as in the previous year.
Many Boomers now had an extended bedtime curfew, and Americaneeded a late night sitter to keep millions of young night owls company. On October 1, 1962, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson filled the job.
President Kennedy scared the hell out of us on October 22nd, when the networks interrupted regular programming to report the President had just commanded Russia to turn back ships transporting missiles to Cuba and to remove the ones already in place on the island. America held its breath and waited for the flash. This meant all out nuclear war with the Ruskies…didn’t it? A little-known folk singer with a stage name of Bob Dylan quickly strung together several works-in-progress into one epic song in a desperate effort to spread the warning that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. The Cuban Missile Crisis was actually over before JFK carefully staged his little drama on the air, but the public was unaware of his charade at the time.America truly thought that the world was about to end. When we heard the crisis had passed, the nation let out a collective sigh of relief, then felt elated that our great leader had valiantly stood up to Khrushchev and Castro and beat them back.
Americans felt invincible, as individuals and as a nation. Primetime TV played on those patriotic vibes, and claimed that war was glorious (The Gallant Men and Combat), and fun (Ensign O’Toole and McHale’s Navy), as Kennedy quietly increased Ike’s commitment to Vietnam. On the pop charts, faint omens of the future floated about. The Shirelles released Soldier Boy, and the Tokens warned that (In the jungle, the quiet jungle) The Lion Sleeps Tonight. But how long would the beast remain dormant? In just a few years John Fogerty would sing, “You’d better run through the jungle, and don’t look back.”
The folk music movement continued to grow, but seldom moved beyond the War Baby audiences on college campuses and local coffeehouses. Dylan wrote and recorded the antiwar classic, Blowing in the Wind, but few bought the record or even heard the song in 1962. Folk wouldn’t hit the mass market until young Boomers matured enough to embrace and adapt the music as their own.
“Sick humor” also played the college circuit with comedians like Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl exploring touchy subjects such as discrimination, sex, religion, and even brought up questions about the US government and big corporations…all taboo topics during the Eisenhower years.
Ken Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest asked the most popular Boomer question of the ‘60s: “Who should be considered sane in an insane society?” The seeds of rebellion had been planted. Boomers would soon harvest the crop.
What subtle hints about the state of the nation did TV program schedulers give us in 1962? Saints and Sinners preceded The Price is Right, Monday on NBC, and that same night on CBS, I’ve Got a Secret followed To Tell the Truth.