Christmas 1963. My brother David and I received another swell present from our Great Uncle and Aunt, Randolph and Mary Lois Cochran. I was only nine, older than David by two years, but it was time, Randolph and Mary Lois decided, that our gift indicated they knew we were growing and curious about the world. The gift was a small electric radio that would sit atop a chest of drawers, one much like our parents had. So, yes, the gift made us feel grown-up.
What a time to turn on your radio. Hardly a month had passed since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That was America’s first presidential assassination in 62 years. People throughout the nation sat in front of their televisions for four days, trying to absorb what happened and why. The things that happened next also intrigued. We kept up with it all; our radio dial tuned to 590 (WPLO) and 790 (WQXI), the two Top 40 stations covering Metro Atlanta. Twice each hour the stations would deliver, often in staccato fashion, news that carried more significance now that we had buried a president. The events filling the news as ’63 gave way to ’64 sounded the alarm. The times, they were a-changin’– and the relatively peaceful decade that preceded the murder of JFK seemed long ago. Lyndon Baines Johnson, William Westmoreland, Ho Chi Minh, George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be most prominent among those impacting the times — times that were a-changin’ quickly. And with each passing day in those first few weeks of ’64, in between the twice-hourly newscasts, we would hear new sounds from a Liverpool quartet who also heralded times of change.
In Changin’ Times, November 22, 1963- March 1, 1964, 101 Days That Shaped A Generation, Al Sussman, the Executive Editor of Beatlefan magazine, takes a thorough and studied look at a short but evocative time in modern history. Were Sussman to teach a course at near-by Emory University on what he breezily but thoughtfully explains, then I’ll be sitting near the lectern. Given that those 101 days were so captivating, it’d be hard to cover it all in the classroom; thus Professor Sussman would be treated at a local tavern after class. His course would offer much to absorb, reflect upon, and in an area or two, compel disagreements. Getting through it all would take us way past closing time.
Yet Professor Sussman is fit for the task. Beginning with that tragic Friday in November ’63, Sussman provides a look at the American political landscape of the time, with the civil rights movement first and foremost in the minds of Americans of good conscience. President Kennedy, at first slow to respond to the moral crisis, made equality before the law a stated priority. Less than 6 months before his death, he spoke to the nation with empathy regarding the black citizen’s plight. In his June 11 speech, Kennedy asked, “Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
Of far less importance to America on that Friday was the war in Vietnam. For all most Americans knew, Vietnam might as well have been on the moon. Kennedy preferred that people continued to see it that way, and spoke privately the month before his death of withdrawing U.S. troops (just under 17,000 at the time) from Vietnam. In his book, JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Thurston Clarke reports on an emphatic conversation Kennedy had with journalist Larry Newman, an old friend, about what he considered a hopeless mess.
The first thing I do when I’m reelected, I’m going to get the Americans out of Vietnam,” he said. Exactly how I’m going to do it, right now, I don’t know, but that is my number one priority — get out of Southeast Asia…. We are not going to have men ground up in this fashion, this far away from home. I’m going to get these guys out because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war it’s impossible to win.”
But the tragedy on that Friday in November ’63 set all other concerns in the background for four days as America went about something it had not done since 1901: laying a martyred president to rest. Still, among the leaders gathered in Washington, D. C. from around the nation and the world, there were discussions and plans made on dealing with governance and keeping the earth in one piece. Life would go on after November 25, 1963.
And there was much life going on in America in those days. The country was growing, greening, bursting at the seams and ready to rock. Yet fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all” was far more difficult than saying it in classrooms every morning, and some reciting the words had to wonder if they’d be left out in a country moving at a speedy clip. In Changin’ Times, Sussman not only reports on what was happening in the accelerated America of the mid-60s — but what it was all leading to. Those just starting to — and those who would in the years to come — demand that the last five words of the “Pledge of Allegiance” be something more than what school kids mumble every morning were considered agitators, deviants, Communists and worse. People of color, people with disabilities, pacifist beliefs and same-sex orientation wanted equal footing in the accelerated America as well; long, rough ride and all. Sussman, working within the pop-cultural context, shines a light on what we of the New Frontier experienced and witnessed as the Beatles and the Great Society came to America.
A big story began taking shape on January 11, 1964 with an official report from U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry. The report made for the first of many bad days the tobacco industry would experience over the next half-century. Terry’s report left few doubts: cigarettes caused lung cancer and other diseases. It stated that deaths from lung cancer were found to be nearly 11 times as high among smokers than those who didn’t smoke. The tobacco companies were already losing too many customers via death and now the government was scaring those who had years of smoking ahead of them. The report also proposed that warnings of the harm caused by smoking be printed on cigarette packages and in cigarette ads. In a year’s time American smokers would receive messages warning of dangers to their health whenever they reached for a pack of cigarettes.
So began a change, although a slow one, in our culture. Think back to the way Sussman describes the American scene in ’64:
Smokers were everywhere. At home. In the office. In doctors’ offices. In school bathrooms. At the grocery store. In bars and restaurants. Everywhere.
Sussman noted that the Beatles, soon to be in the United States, were heavy smokers and weren’t as shy about in public as American entertainment figures of the time. Go through the old photos; it seemed that if the Fab Four were up and about, they were smoking. But as memory serves, smoking – at the time and for at least the next 25 years- was pervasive in nearly all surroundings, even more so than Sussman describes. Nine years after the Surgeon General’s report, Johnny Carson, on The Tonight Show, interviewed Tony Curtis while smoking away. Interestingly enough, Curtis, over the previous few years, had crusaded — quite zealously at the time — in media campaigns against smoking.
Some observers consider the government’s efforts to curtail smoking as a manifestation of a “nanny state.” Their fears had already been stoked with President Johnson’s appointing Esther Peterson as special adviser for consumer affairs, a newly created post of LBJ’s. With this appointment, more lay ahead than warnings on packs of smokes. Today, as Sussman points out, when one goes to the grocery store, shoppers see evidence of what Ms. Peterson started: labels on packages of perishable foods with sell-by dates and labels on food containers detailing ingredients, nutritional information and unit pricing. In this case, as with the campaign against cigarette smoking, it seemed to most that the government, even if intrusive, was on the side of the angels. That perception changed when the same government escalated its involvement in a long running civil war thousands of miles away.
Plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam were buried along with President Kennedy. Two days after the assassination, President Johnson informed a small group gathered with U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. of his seriousness about the war Kennedy thought unwinnable. He made it clear the United States would assist South Vietnam in its battle to “win their contest against the externally directed and and supported Communist conspiracy.” At a White House reception less than a month later, he assured the joint chiefs of staff with a simple request, “Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.” Never mind what he told American voters as he sought election the following November about not sending “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” He and his successor, Richard Nixon, did send American troops nine and ten thousand miles away. Over 536,000 of them were in Vietnam by ’68, with over 58,000 of them returning home in boxes by ’73, when American troops were finally withdrawn, nearly a decade later than JFK had planned.
But in late ’63 and early ’64, Vietnam was as far away in American minds as it was on the school maps attached above the blackboards. There was enough going on here anyway, even before that tragic day in Dallas, and reporting on those events, many significant, but now often overlooked, is a highlight of Changin’ Times. Sussman takes the reader to Cypress, Panama, Berlin, India and back to the U.S., where conflicts over integration went on in Columbia, South Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and even Pasadena, California. Change, as Martin Luther King, Jr. called for in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial less than 3 months before JFK’s death, carried great promise but too many, in all regions of our country, resisted it, sometimes violently. Yet there was always optimism, like that voiced by Sam Cooke in late January ’64 when he recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Cooke’s song, inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” was released in late December of that year, less than two weeks after his death. Cooke was right: a change would come but it wouldn’t be easy and it’d be a long time coming — and today, sadly enough, that change still isn’t fully embraced.
Changin’ Times also provides a studied look at the accomplishments and events in the world of arts and leisure as ’63 turned into ’64. The period’s books, plays and films, some cutting edge, some definitely not, are thoughtfully appraised. Perhaps the most interesting of the films covered — given that the subject matter still roils the political landscape — is the Steve McQueen-Natalie Wood “romantic dramedy,” Love With the Proper Stranger. The Wood and McQueen characters, very much strangers at the time, get acquainted quickly enough to enjoy each other and create a life. In short time, the decision is made to visit an abortionist (working illegally at the time, of course), but the process oozes of sleaze and Wood decides to carry out her pregnancy. There’s a happy ending, with banjos and balloons, and nothing but blue skies; in the way Hollywood has long favored. Having watched the film a year or so ago, I mused that if the film were made today, both pro-life and pro-choice groups would make a claim on the film’s message, whether or not one was intended. Other worthy films Sussman gives attention to are Lilies of the Field and Seven Days in May. The social and political overtones of both films are truly reflective of their times, making each well worth revisiting 50 years later. Sussman’s take on the American television shows of 63-64 indicates very little is worth a second look on DVD or You Tube (he thinks more of the British shows of the era), although some of the back-stories, like that of Judy Garland’s ill-fated variety show, intrigue.
The sporting scene of the time is also given fair review by Sussman. Professional sports also mirrored the changing times. Yes, the New York Yankees, representing Baseball’s American League, made it to the World Series in both ’63 and ’64, as they had in ten of the twelve previous seasons — but decline was imminent. After they lost the ’64 series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, twelve more years would pass before the Yankees made it back to the Fall Classic. And just as the General Motors of professional sports would fall into the American League cellar, the image and attitudes of the nation’s top athletes began veering from the Wheaties box persona. By the mid-60s, Muhammad Ali, Denny McLain and Joe Namath became dominant in their fields, and they were not shy about extolling their skills and then backing up their claims.The rock and roll mindset was pervading even the fields of play.
And then there’s the music: particularly Top 40 music in the days just before the Beatles hit the American airwaves. Sussman’s take on the pre-Beatles pop music scene echoes a statement Eric Carmen, whose musical styling was often Beatlesque, made in a Birmingham pizza joint late one night in ’75,”For people to think there wasn’t anything going on from ’60 to ’63 was nuts. There was lots of great pop music. It’s crazy to overlook Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Impressions, the early Motown hits….” Carmen then put his pizza down and walked over to a speaker which he nearly embraced so he could better hear a song on the juke box. It’s that kind of concerted approach that Sussman brings to his reporting of the Top 40 hit- makers Carmen spoke of, as well as others, particularly Lesley Gore, who last hit the Top 40 in ’66 with “California Nights,” a great song that should’ve signaled a rejuvenation of her career. Now Ms. Gore seems a footnote to most, as do others who Sussman wisely offers his appreciation.
Changin’ Times is a terrific work, mixing world history, (mostly the western world), with cultural and entertainment history. William Manchester would be proud. The only arguable aspect of the book is found in its last chapter, “The Beatles — It Wasn’t Just Kennedy.” There Sussman takes on an assessment by “the media and the amateur psychologists….. that the reason for The Beatles’ sudden popularity was that teenagers were so traumatized and saddened by the assassination of President Kennedy, who was a hero for young people, that the Beatles gave them something to laugh about again (as if The Beatles were a group of comedians and not musicians).” Sussman says this theory “had more holes than a well-worn pair of socks,” but “it took hold and many teenagers of that time would buy into this in later years, thus creating a myth that would grow with the passage of time.” His theory is shared by Beatles historian Bruce Spitzer, who writing for Beatlefan blog, Something New, declared:
…the American press had grown weary of reporting on the assassination and other depressing events.The Beatles provided a break from over two months of somber news. In the Feb. 11, 1964 New York Daily News. Anthony Burton observed, “It’s a relief from Cypress and Malaysia and Vietnam and racial demonstrations and Khrushchev. Beset by troubles all around the globe, America has turned to the four young men with the ridiculous haircuts for a bit of light entertainment.”
That said, one has to keep in mind the Beatles would’ve happened — and happened BIG — anyway. They made for a good story and they weren’t only good — they were great and got even better as the years progressed, proving quite worthy of the attention still given to them throughout the world on a daily basis, as in such debates like this one.
Sussman also writes of Marsha Albert of Silver Springs, Maryland, who after seeing a special segment on the Beatles on The CBS Evening News on December 10, 1963, wrote WWDC deejay Carroll James, requesting he play the Beatles’ music. James procured a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Making a nice gesture, James invited Ms. Albert to come on the air and introduce the record. Sussman concludes, that while the story is anecdotal, the case is “hardly the actions of a girl wrapped up in depression for the martyred young president.” True enough, but as Sussman says elsewhere in the book: life goes on. We grieve when tragedy strikes, even when it strikes close to home, but we pick ourselves up and look for joy in life, and sometimes what we find is quite joyful.
Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Anthony DeCurtis understands the Beatles’ greatness and the joy they created, but he does take issue with Sussman’s conclusion. He also regards it as a subject for a very long conversation. “I do believe that the JFK assassination fully provided the emotional backdrop for the arrival of the Beatles,” DeCurtis says. “In the most obvious way, people were looking for a lift, but it goes well beyond that. JFK and the Beatles shared a lot in common in cultural terms — youthfulness, optimism, wit — compare their performances at press conferences, for example.” DeCurtis even brings up the emphasis on hair, comparing “the hatless JFK ” to the “bald, older Eisenhower” while remembering so much ado about the Beatles’ dos. “Finally, ” DeCurtis says, “all the people who had been staring at their television screens to watch the footage of the Kennedy funeral — in many ways the first mass event of the television age — were again in front of the screen to watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It actually goes much deeper than all of this,” DeCurtis asserts, but that will have to be covered in that very long conversation, perhaps joined by Al Sussman whenever we gather to discuss the history he has covered so well.