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Authenticity and the 60s

June 23, 2011

(NOTE: This post is a follow up to my article in salon.com:http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/06/18/father_after_death_open2011)

“Teach your children well. Their father’s hell did slowly go by. And feed them on their dreams….” –Graham Nash

Frank Sinatra is haunting Mrs. Muse and me. Not our house. We don’t wake to the sound of a ghostly rat pack stumbling around in the attic, yukking it up, or the sight of Frank’s pale form float across the ceiling grinning ear to ear. No, Frank only visits when we eat out.
Wherever we go, from Chinese joints in Frisco to London Pubs, Paris Bistros to Roman Trattorias, even up the road in Shelburne Falls, somewhere between “May I take your order” and the Crème Brulee we hear his voice. We exchange looks and a sad laugh. “Frank again.” “Followed us all the way to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.” “Amazing persistence.” “I think that’s a ghost thing, persistence.” Aside from “My Way” and “New York, New York,” we don’t recognize any of his songs, cause we don’t like Frank, have never liked Frank.
When the Beatles came and girls screamed and tore at their hair on Ed Sullivan my mother said, “They did that for Frank Sinatra, too,” implying there was no difference between the two acts, or silly girls then and now. But I knew the Beatles and Frank were night and day. (The girls are a more complicated story.)

At first I just sensed the difference in sound -Frank measured and cool against legions of horns, my guys shouting their red hot exuberance against a jangle of electric guitars. But as I heard John Lennon sing “I’ll be back,” “In my life” and “It’s only love” I realized the chasm between them was deeper – as profound as that notorious Generation Gap. And related.
What I heard in Lennon’s voice and words was a brand new thing.
Authenticity.

In the light of it Frank sounded like he was putting on an act, always striking some pose, faking it, lying –about his feelings. This contrast between an act and the real thing struck a deep chord in me, and I’m not talking music.
Eventually I would understand: I was the product two highly intelligent people, yet they lived numb to bodily sensations, the contents of their hearts secret to each other and themselves . A guru once told me, “Your body is a temple.” My parents treated theirs like squalid slums, my mother smoking and drinking herself to a premature death, my father addled by prescription drugs and booze until he could no longer think straight, no longer even pretend to be civilized. They poured on the self-medication because they couldn’t tell each other or their children what they felt, didn’t even know what they felt, and couldn’t bear to feel it. The cauldron of rage, sorrow and disappointment remained hidden in their hearts, poisoning everyone in our family. They couldn’t feel the pain, and, to my continuing sorrow, consequently felt little joy.

But that knowledge all came to me decades after the 60s. At the time all I knew was that I was missing something essential. Freedom from what bound my body, mind and above all, my heart. I heard the promise of release in music: in Janis Joplin, who howled out her lust and torment like no one before in history. In Dylan, who croaked out new notions that we recognized as gospel truth the moment we heard them. And finally, in 1971, in Joni’s Blue. She found the courage to lay her heart bare. I felt my heart beat as one with her desires and sorrows. At the nadir of some romantic disaster I put on that record and it pulled from me the tears my father had expressly forbidden me, that his father had forbidden him before.
It wasn’t just music that showed the way to authenticity. I remember stumbling from the theatre in 1969 in a state of shock after seeing “Midnight Cowboy.” Not because I’d never heard of gay hustlers or quite seen that seamy side of New York, but because Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt hadn’t been acting like actors. They’d acted like real people. When Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo left on that bus, coughing his lungs out, I felt like a real person was about to die. In all the movies before that, even the best ones, there’d been this theatrical quality to the acting, this one step remove to the performance.
I heard the call to authenticity in music, and movies, and catch phrases – “Tell it like it is” and “Let it all hang out.” I did my damnedest to follow. I spoke my truth to my mother at Thanksgiving dinner, reducing her to rare tears. I shouted out Jefferson Airplane songs at anti-war demonstrations. Dope and acid temporarily cracked open the doors to my body and soul giving me glimpses of a promised land of freedom. But soon they shut tight again. Early sexual encounters delivered highs, but like drugs they only showed bits of what I hoped for in my deepest heart, what I was too much my parent’s child to even be able to put words to yet.
Intimacy – with another person. Intimacy with my own heart.
Those doors have been immensely difficult to open. I still struggle every day. My marriage began 30 years ago, with little promise. Yet by coincidence it began just as the full gruesomeness of my parent’s marriage came to light. That terrible sight fused with those 60s hopes for the real, for freedom from the tyranny of closed bodies and heart, and began my determination to do better.

It has taken decades of painful work to piece by piece cast off the armor my parents taught me to wear. To learn that that armor protects nothing really, only locks me away from my wife and children, and from my own feelings. To learn not to cower in hurt silence or explode in violent rage, but to open this rusted mouth, to tell it like it is: “What you said was hurtful.” “I’m afraid.” I’m….so sorry I hurt you.” “I love you.”

My older son called me this Father’s Day. Appropriate for someone in his 20s, he focuses on his present and future. So I was surprised to find him curious about the past, about the line of fathers proceeding me. He had read my Father’s Day piece and needed to know: how could men and women and their relations have changed so radically in just one generation? I’m not much for bragging. It was the plain truth that spilled out of me on the phone, I said, “We did it. We hippies. We changed it.”

Shawn studies engineering at MIT, his choice of lucrative careers awaiting him at graduation. Yet he has vowed not to be sucked up solely onto that path. His greater purpose is to live and love authentically.

My son Chris called me too on Father’s Day. We spoke, easily, about the real stuff in our lives. My father wished he could have that conversation with me, and I wished it too, but we could never make it happen.

I feel like Moses standing on that hill, glimpsing the promised land. But my sons are already traipsing down there to live, to raise their children in that place, where people are real, that we dreamed up in the 60s.

OK, I do get to sneak into the promised land from time to time and mess around. How do I know? Because Frank doesn’t bother me much any more. Though you won’t find me buying his records anytime soon.

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From → 60's Music, Memoir

7 Comments
  1. Great post. I think that this boils down to the subject I posted about recently – the death of A&R. Frank was doomed to interpret others’ words his whole career. The Beatles wrote their own lyrics – stuff that was important to them personally. Whilst it is not impossible to emote was others have written, and Frank did a reasonable job, it can never really come from the heart. What Dylan, the Fabs, Joni et al did was to lay bare their own soul rather than someone else’s and that is always more authentic.

    • Martin, Thanks for that perspective. Writing their own material was related to another 60s notion –
      “Doing your own thing.”

  2. Great essay man, truly great.

    As for Frank and his generation vs. Janis, Joni, John and ours, I’ll keep it simple; I’ll steal a simple and typically profound line from Sly Stone: “Different strokes, for different folks…”

    I know a lot of white kids in the Fifties worshiped Frank the way our we worshiped our music icons. And as for film, check out Marlon Brando in director Elia Kazan’s film of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and tell me that Brando’s style of method acting doesn’t look like the life of a real person ripped open for inspection.

    And another thought — you’ve inspired me: that spring night in 1968 when the news hit America that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, most of the U.S.’s major cities burned. Except for one, Boston. The reason Boston didn’t burn was because James Brown went ahead and did a scheduled show in Boston and they put it on local TV. Nobody else, none of the artists you mention, had that kind of power. And you already know where that power came from, and that James Brown had been making his music, his way since the 50s. And some of the kids that worshiped Frank in the 50s were sneaking in to all black James Brown shows in cities like Baltimore.

    Frank did it his way, and we do it ours. That’s cool by me. And the band played on…

    • Paco, thank you for your as always well thought out comment. I have attempted to present a social theory and in doing so did struggle with its inconsistencies – you are right on about James Brown; the Beats in the 50s did seed the Hippies, etc. The point I’ll stick with is the fundamental shift away from emotional repression.

  3. And the emotional repression of the 1950s in the U.S. warrants that attention. As you say, understanding that repression is fundamental to understanding the 60s and beyond. You did a great job, as always, getting the discussion rolling.

    Now that we are the alleged adults in the room, those 60s values are more important than ever. Minus the sexist behavior that even survived the 60s. But we “keep on rolling”, making progress, with the help of the current younger generation, on human rights issues right up to today.

  4. I disagree in part… Frank came from a generation of entertainers. He came from a generation where people went to see live acts to ESCAPE their emotions, not to be exposed to them. Sometimes people want to be exposed to their deeper, darker selves. They want to lay it all on the line and put themselves out there. That’s when the music of Joni, the Beatles, Dylan, and etc. really speaks to them.

    Other times you just want to escape from all that troubles you. You don’t want to face it, you want to forget it for awhile. You want to be entertained to get your mind off of it. That’s when guys like Frank, Dean, & Sammy came into play (and even Bobby Darin earlier in his career– although towards the tail end of his life he tried to re-define himself as more of a folkie and started putting more of himself out there. He ditched the wigs and presented himself as he really was… so he kind of straddled the line between the Beatles and Sinatra… that drove the suits at the record label nuts because they couldn’t pigeonhole him).

  5. Great chapter. Frank was a slick escapist crooner. An entertainer with a voice as smooth as the Velvet Fog-another slick escapist, crooning entertainer. My father, 88, loves Frank and has kept his Sirrrius radio that he got with his new car solely because it has the “Seriously Sinatra” station. He never moves the dial. Frank speaks to him in spades, but then again, he’s 88.
    The Beatles et al were ARTISTS baring their souls. Another entity altogether. Too bad they aren’t heard publicly as much these days as the slick, escapist crooner in nice restaurants. I guess eating goes better with Frank!
    The other day I was driving listening to WERS, from Emerson College, a very good station, and the young DJ played “Positively 4th Street” and I fell back in love for the millionth time with my main man-Bob Dylan. Talk about baring your soul. I guess I haven’t heard that one in quite a while and it was so freakin’ refreshing… It’s so real, and mean and full of passion. The in-your-face organ of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield’s great subtle guitar lines. And Dylan -laying it all out with no grey flannel dwarfs. Really refreshing. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

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