“I felt everyone else wanted to be in our world. We were the last generation to be cooler than our kids.”
This is a quote from American author Tom McGuane in which he’s referring to the 1960s. It’s a quote that I agree with, and that makes me both happy and sad.
Recently I finished re-reading Tom Brokaw’s fantastic 2007 book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties. If you haven’t read it and are interested even in the slightest in the history of that time period, I highly recommend it. As someone who has been studying the 60s for the last fourteen years, I continue to be surprised over the amount of new information the book offers—and who doesn’t love the clear, knowing voice of Tom Brokaw? You can just trust that guy, huh?
The book is chopped into chapters which focus on various personalities from the 1960s: people like Garry Trudeau, Arlo Guthrie, Pat Buchanan, James Taylor, Joan Baez, etc. I love it because you get information from all angles—the entertainment world, the political world, and the world that’s just trying to broadcast everything. Besides reading about genuinely important events and opinions, you also get tasty little morsels of information, such as:
Berry Gordy was highly offended by Dreamgirls!
Tom himself partied with the 1970s Saturday Night Live kids!
Warren Beatty nearly played the part of Nixon in Frost/Nixon!
There are loads of never-before-published photographs that I ate up with a spoon, too: Joan Didion in a crowd of hippies in Golden Gate Park; a war snapshot of Colin Powell just moments after a helicopter has crashed; a wounded John McCain in a Vietnamese hospital in 1967, and Berry Gordy with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, all gathered at a piano. And there are so many more.
As I’m looking through my copy of Boom! for photos to go with this blog post, I see that it’s pretty much nothing but underlining and highlights. That’s because it’s jam-packed with content candy…
Tom Brokaw: “One memorable day, the phone rang at home, and on the other end I heard a voice that was familiar from television. It was Ray Moore, the news director at Atlanta’s WSB-TV. A Midwestern friend of his had heard that I was restless at KMTV Omaha, had checked me out and decided that I was ready for prime time in Atlanta. My starting pay would be around eleven thousand dollars a year. This was at a time when a well-known preppy clothing company ran ads for their suits and included the line: ‘For the young man who wants to make $10,000 a year before he’s 30.’ I was twenty-five.”
Tom Brokaw: “Authority lost its privileged place almost overnight. Authority figures—fathers, mothers, cops, judges, teachers, senators, and the President of the United States—were suddenly spending as much time defending their conduct as they were exercising their power.”
Tom Brokaw: “The 1960’s were a time when Elvis gave way to Dylan, when Richard Nixon arose from the political dead after two Kennedys were murdered, when Ozzie and Harriet were replaced by Archie and Edith Bunker.”
James Taylor: “I miss the immediacy and the energy of the 60s. There was a lot of folly of youth, but it allowed people to be creative. There were huge leaps of faith.”
Nora Ephron: “My classmates who got married straight out of college went into the world with one strike against them because they got married before they knew who they were. They all thought they were going to be 1950s housewives, but then they discovered the truth—that their husbands weren’t going to be successful enough to support them. A lot of them went to work in jobs that were far less challenging than they deserved. Our education was a dress rehearsal for a life we never led.”
The book also begs many relevant questions, one of which is: When did we know the 60s were over? While the book offers a joke—“You know the 60s are over when someone flashes the old two-fingered peace sign and now it means ‘two Coronas with limes, please’ ”—no one really has an answer to the question. The 60s ended at different times for different people, and they never even started for me.
I think that’s why Tom McGuane’s quote makes me so sad. I agree that their generation was so, so much cooler than mine, and there’s just no way I can ever feel what they felt. I remember being so upset when I was a kid because I could never be in that realm. I was simply stuck with silly neo-hippies with dreadlocks who listened to Sublime. Since then, I’ve grown up and I no longer fret over not being able to time-travel. But the 1960s are a decade that I know I’ll never get tired of learning about.
Fortunately, Tom Brokaw will probably just keep turning out books about them.