When you think of 1968, you think of riots, assassinations, the Vietnam war, the youth revolt, the backlash—and the songs that reflected it all. It was the year of "Hey, Jude," "Revolution" and "Street Fighting Man"—the last two making it clear that wealthy rock stars didn't want to push this youth revolt thing too far. It was also the year James Brown, in "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," told his fellow Americans that blacks would "rather die on our feet than keep livin' on our knees." At least he had some grit—when he wasn't cozying up to Hubert Humphrey. Strange days.
And no refuge. You went to a movie, turned on the TV, and there it all was. The radio, most of all, was a cultural war zone, with Johnny Cash's gangsta-country "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die") followed by Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" followed by Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man." (Tammy's vote for George Wallace canceled Brown's vote for Humphrey; no wonder Nixon won.) The high-culture types couldn't get away from the chaos either. One of the few great works of fiction that year was Donald Barthelme's collection "Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts," whose first story, "The Indian Uprising," conflated the frontier west with Vietnam: "We killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we had killed were children." The white settlers' improvised barricades were made up of such contemporary bric-a-brac as "a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs," and intellectual bric-a-brac as well, including "thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors)." It was a verbal collage-much like the radio's aural collage-of American smugness under attack from the Other. And vice versa. From Vietnam to Haight Ashbury to Chicago's Democratic convention to the inner city, what else was 1968 about?
Another Barthelme story, "Game," about two technicians in a missile bunker, faced the dread that lay under it all: "Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies." So many of 1968's books, songs, movies and TV shows were haunted, however covertly, by all those birds on hair-trigger alert, and what they might or might not do. Both NBC's "Star Trek" and the exploitation film "Barbarella" posited a distant, better, future in which Earth had somehow gotten through an era of violent confrontation intact, and was now on a mission to set the rest of the universe straight. (You can take the characters out of America, but.) Like Jane Fonda's Barbarella, William Shatner's Captain Kirk was an enlightened earthling who didn't see why primitive spacelings couldn't all get along. But he was willing to use phaser or fisticuffs when he had to-that is, in nearly every episode.
But in other, stronger works, the birds had already flown. Philip K. Dick set his sci-fi novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (the model for the film "Blade Runner") in the year 2021, on an earth ruined and mostly depopulated by "World War Terminus." No one, Dick wrote, "remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won. The dust which had contaminated most of the planet's surface had originated in no country, and no one, even the wartime enemy, had planned on it." In post-apocalyptic "Planet of the Apes-with Charlton Heston, of all people, bearded and half-naked, railing against war like a Yippie outside Chicago's International Amphitheatre apes have learned to speak (and to kill for sport) while humans have devolved to mute feral creatures. The final scene, a darker analogue to the smooching-in-the-surf scene in "On the Beach," is the worst homecoming in movie history. In the crude and powerful horror flick "Night of the Living Dead," radiation turns an ever-increasing number of smalltown Americans into zombies-all speechless, like the humans in "Planet of the Apes." What was that about? Whatever you dreaded back then: robotic conformity, voracious capitalism, a violent, countercultural mob metastatizing to undo all civilization, the id let loose.
So it was understandable that an obsession with Evil was taking hold; Satan made a pop-culture comeback. He fathered Mia Farrow's child in the film "Rosemary's Baby," implicitly making just the sort of pro-choice case you'd expect from him. And Mick Jagger impersonated him in the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"-"I rode a tank, held a general's rank/When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank." The Stones embraced, as William Blake had, the notion of Old Scratch as an archrebel against the Celestial Stodge Himself-the year before, they'd released an anti-"Sgt. Pepper's" called "Their Satanic Majesties Request"-yet the evil in this song really was evil: the Holocaust was not a war of liberation. How did a song implicitly arguing we each had ultimate evil within us—"Everybody's Lucifer," Keith Richards said in an interview—become a pop hit? It wasn't just Richards's stabbing, soaring guitar solo.
By the way, that line "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?'" originally went "'Who killed John Kennedy?'" After June 5, it had to get an emergency update-a typical 1968 moment, in which reality kept breaking the frame. Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans and stylized Marilyn Monroe portraits had celebrated surface and celebrity-ironically or not; who could see beneath his relentless deadpan?-and rigorously excluded emotion: we were through with sentimentality. But in the same month RFK was assassinated, Warhol's controlled esthetic space was invaded by an over-the-edge radical feminist named Valerie Solanas, who shot and nearly killed him. Solanas was clearly deranged-though the president of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women (also clearly deranged) called her "the first outstanding champion of women's rights."
Tom Wolfe recorded an analogous moment in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," his 1968 chronicle of Ken Kesey, the acid-powered Merry Pranksters, and their bus driver, Neal Cassady-who'd once been Dean Moriarty in "On the Road." Kesey had turned the Hell's Angels on to LSD, hitherto a drug for seekers and aspiring mystics. During a summit meeting between Kesey and Augustus Stanley Owsley, the Henry Ford of high-quality acid, an Angel named Terry the Tramp humiliated and terrified a harmless kid from San Francisco State; the Pranksters had to plead with him not to kill the boy. The Angels, Wolfe wrote, "came to symbolize the side of the Kesey adventure that panicked the hip world. They were too freaking real . . . The majority of the hip world . . . were still playing the eternal charade of the middle-class intellectuals—Behold my wings! Freedom! Flight!—but you don't actually expect me to jump off that cliff, do you?" The destination card on Pranksters' 1939 International Harvester school bus read "Furthur"—yep, two u's but how far did Kesey's psychedelic anarchists really want to go? As the Beatles sang, "When you talk about destruction/Don't you know that you can count me out?"
Compared to Wolfe's reportage-written in a free-form style meant to fit his subject-much of 1968's literary fiction was stuck in the past. John Updike's "Couples," set during the Kennedy years, had become a quaint historical novel by the time it was published. Journalists wrote better, and closer to the moment: Wolfe, Norman Mailer in "The Armies of the Night," his Pulitzer Prize winning "non-fiction novel" of the previous year's march on the Pentagon, and Joan Didion in her collection of reported essays "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." The title piece, a group portrait of San Francisco hippies during 1967's supposed Summer of Love, will still curl your hair. These people did have their limits—a subject told Didion that shooting crystal meth "can lead to the hard stuff"-but one woman gave her five-year-old regular doses of acid and peyote: she and the child both called it High Kindergarten.
Predictably, the mainstream entertainment biz did its damnedest to cash in on the hippie craze. The musical "Hair" presented a Broadway vision of the counter-culture, with gruesomely clueless "rock" music and mass full-frontal nudity in the first-act finale. And the sketch-comedy series "Laugh-In" tried to hide its vaudeville roots with obsolescent jargon (sit-in, teach-in, be-in, love-in) a painfully "wacky" style and a "mod" fashion sense dating from back when people called the Beatles the Fab Four. Leaving aside the debuts of "60 Minutes" and Mister Rogers, the TV event of the year was Elvis Presley's "comeback" special. It varied Vegas-style production numbers with a sequence in which the rebel angel of the 1950s, clad in skin-tight black leather, sat-sat!-with some of his old bandmates and revisited the songs that had made him famous. A startlingly powerful performance, but it wasn't the sort of thing Elvis did anymore, and nobody in the counterculture would have been caught dead watching it. Who even knew it was on?
Despite all its potentially rich tensions and complications, 1968 didn't produce much fiction, film or art worth remembering. But popular music, in energetic transition from old to new-and new to old-left its mark. Soul music still clung to its gospel roots: Otis Redding's posthumous "Dock of the Bay" was still on the charts, and Aretha Franklin had such hits as "Chain of Fools"; she won a Grammy for the previous year's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." (Which provided "Laugh-In" with its catchphrase "Sock it to me!") Yet James Brown and Sly Stone ("Dance to the Music") were inventing funk, and the Dells ("Stay in My Corner"), the Delfonics ("La La Means I Love You") and Marvin Gaye ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine") were moving toward the urban R&B that would dominate the '70s. Country music veered between the traditionalism of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home"and Glen Campbell's modernist "Wichita Lineman."
The Beatles' untitled White Album raced off in all directions at once: the rustic sound of the faux-cowboy song "Rocky Raccoon," the Led Zeppelin-like "Helter Skelter," the bluesy shuffle beat of "Revolution," the art-noise endurance test that was "Revolution #9." (Roll over, Stockhausen.) This was also the year they visited the Maharishi in India and the cutesy-poo animated film based on "Yellow Submarine" put a smiley-face on psychedelia. And the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat," with its proto-punk rave-up "Sister Ray," pointed the way to one of rock and roll's many futures-though its title song was driven by a pounding piano straight outta Jerry Lee Lewis.
Inevitably, the musical and cultural explosions of the '60s led to retrenchment. Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1968 debut album was a return to meat-and-potatoes two-guitar rock, as if in response to the Beatles' arty productions. On "Beggars Banquet," the Stones-always traditionalists at heart-balanced "Sympathy for the Devil" with a purist cover version of "Prodigal Son," by the old Mississippi blues and gospel singer Robert Wilkins, and their own acoustic hillbilly lament "Dear Doctor." The Byrds, whose 1966 "Eight Miles High" had featured a trippy twelve-string guitar solo inspired by John Coltrane, released "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," a straight-up country album with steel guitar and fiddle. For psychedelic rockers to embrace the music of the hippie-bashers was revolutionary-or counter-revolutionary-and began bridging one of the era's great cultural divides. The album opened with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a hitherto unheard Bob Dylan song with the exhortation to "strap yourself to a tree with roots"-as opposed to being on your own with no direction home. By the end of 1968, hadn't we had enough of that?
Maybe it was a year like any other, with its tensions, dangers, horrors, griefs and a hit or two of joy. But it was also a year more like any other than any other: everything was raw, in-your-face, extreme. The best—"I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Sympathy for the Devil," "I Heard it Through the Grapevine—were full of passionate intensity and the worst-the 1910 Fruitgum Company's "1-2-3 Red Light," and the Ohio Express's "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" ("I got love in my tummy")—didn't just lack all conviction: it smelled. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," as Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, "But to be young was very heaven." Or something. So many of the creators are gone now: James Brown and Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and George Harrison, Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, Philip K. Dick and Donald Barthelme, Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers. But we still have the artifacts, safely digitized for all time.
Or until the birds fly.