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Six Eulogies For The 1960s

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The 1960s are the youthful love affair our culture has never quite moved on from. "If you remember it, you weren't there", say tedious people, tediously. Yes, we wish we'd been there. Yes, we wish we could've heard Revolver when it first came out. Mostly, we wish you'd shut up about it.

This period is, in other words, the most overdone subject in Anglophone culture. To write a piece about '60s culture is like arriving at the orgy when the good lube has all run out, so instead I want to focus on a different but related cultural niche: the Bittersweet Sixties Retrospective. Common elements include disillusionment, the loss of innocence, the leaving behind of childish things and looking apprehensively to a scarier, more complex future. To illustrate what I mean, I have turned to the internet's favourite pastime for lazy writers. I've made a spurious list.

Joni Mitchell - "Blue" (1971)

An anthem to memory and survivor guilt, this spare and haunting ballad surveys the wreckage of Dionysian excess. "There're so many sinking now", Mitchell sings, sounding as fragile as she ever has, and as strong, before counting off some countercultural touchstones: "Acid, booze and ass/Needles, guns and grass.../Lots of laughs, lots of laughs". She doesn't sound like she's laughing, though. The song is pervaded by a deep and poignant ambivalence that will recur in this list. "Everybody's saying that Hell's the hippest way to go/Well I don't think so/But I'm gonna take a look around it though...", she continues. Such is the power of her songcraft, you can almost believe she already has.

Withnail and I (1987)

This delightful little film has been very nearly ruined by association with drunken students, who quote it endlessly in lieu of developing an imagination. That's a shame, but nothing could ever completely occlude its squalorous light from the world. Writer-director Bruce Anderson is obliging enough to summarise the crux in a single sentence, spoken by Danny, the dealer's dealer: "We are ninety-one days from the end of this decade and there's gonna be a lot of refugees." Our protagonists first appear to be among them, but after much aimless, dark and sodden traipsing, Paul McGann's "I" finally escapes. He moves on, like the rest of society. In his wake, Richard E. Grant furnishes us with one of the defining images of Sixties disenchantment: Withnail, alone, declaiming Hamlet to the elements. It remains the defining performance of both character and actor.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Ohio" (1970)

Richard M. Nixon has well-served the longhairs he hated so. He has become the embodiment of cold authority, the ultimate hangover, and this is far from his only cameo in popular song. The musical protest was a hallmark of the 1960s, but this, bristling as it does with anger and (justified) paranoia, comes from an altogether darker place. Mourning the past by harbinging a bleaker future, songwriter Neil Young uses the Kent State massacre as a starting point: "Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin'/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drummin'/Four dead in Ohio". Young's thrilling rage on this track seems fitting to the end of days, which is how it must have felt at the time. To some, at least.

Christopher Hitchens - Hitch-22 (2010)

The old campaigner's final opus is a requiem for many things: postwar Britain, the old Left, old friendships and, not least, his mother. If this sprawling memoir can be said to have a unified mission, it is to salvage whatever is salvageable from "the Sixties", separating out the worthwhile and true from the fatuous and frivolous. Of his years as a left-wing radical, he says:

We didn't grow our hair too long, because we wanted to mingle with the workers at the factory gate and on the housing estates. We didn't "do" drugs, which we regarded as a pathetic, weak-minded escapism almost as contemptible as religion (as well as a bad habit which could expose us to a "plant" from the police). Rock and roll and sex were OK.

By the time Hitch-22 was published, just 18 months before his death, Hitchens had decisively broken with most of his youthful associates and many of his youthful ideas. This did not stop him from remaining, in his words, a proud "soixante-huitard".

David Bowie - "Cygnet Committee" (1969)

Typically ahead of his time, David Bowie managed to bury the 1960s before they were even over. The emotional centrepiece of his self-titled breakthrough album (not to be confused with his other self-titled record of two years earlier, which... let's not go into it), "Cygnet Committee" lays into the singer's own hippy fanbase in an uncharacteristically direct fashion, though laced with the usual sixth-form-poetic flourishes. A quiet start gives way to a furious indictment - "I gave them life/I gave them all/They drained my very soul... dry" - then builds from there. With a hefty 9 minutes, 33 seconds to play with, the song may be rock music's most involved deconstruction of its roots.

Bill Clinton '92 (1992)

To his hyperventilating conservative opponents, William Jefferson Clinton represented every worst nightmare come to pass: a no-good, flag-burning peacenik with ultimate power within his grasp. To genuine no-good, flag-burning peaceniks, however, he was something far worse: a sellout. Clinton's emergence as the acceptable face of American liberalism, and his strenuous efforts to make himself so, represent not the triumph of "the Sixties" but their final death rattle. Here was the baby-boomer cliché writ large: a youthful brush with idealism followed by a long, weary recline into suburban respectability. I can't begin to compete with the fourth entry on my list on this subject (or any other), so here's the final word:

I happen to know, by having been at the same university at the same time, that Clinton was telling the truth when he said he never inhaled. (He had no aversion to the brownies and cookies that were then a favourite method of marijuana mainline ingestion.) There was a clue, in this tiny but insanely elaborate deception, to the later presidential style.

Postscript: Two lengthy Hitchens quotes in the same article? I know, I know. He tends to take people that way.