Saturday, June 08, 2013

30 Day Song Challenge (The Sequel), Day 8: A Song You Love From the 60's

Perhaps the only thing more difficult than picking out a single "favorite" song from an entire decade of music is trying to broadly summarize that decade for these accompanying posts.  The tumultuous 60s, sometimes reactionary and sometimes revolutionary, marked one of the most dramatic periods in American culture, not only musically but socially and politically, too.  It's also the last decade that's still pre-me, so I have to concede that the images and tropes I associate with it are  products of the collective imagination, not my own memories.  The historian's craft, which is to fashion exactly these sorts of collective recollections, is a curious thing.  It's as much about forgetting, eliding, marginalizing and, sometimes, outright omitting as it is about canonizing.  Those of us who weren't there when the things that happened happened have no instrument of resistance to the historians' constructed stories.  And even those who do, those who manage to hold on to the memories of their own singular experiences of history's unfolding, find that that power fades steadily over the years.

What is the story we all know of the 60s?  It's largely a string of epic moments.  The Kennedy/Nixon debate.  The erection of the Berlin Wall.  The Cuban Missile Crisis. The March on Washington.  A number of assassinations (Kennedy, Kennedy, King, Jr.) that crushed the soul of a nation.  Some of the most historic, and bloodiest, chapters of the Civil Rights Movement.   Bra-burning women's-libbers.  Vietnam and the Tet Offensive.  The Miracle on Ice.  Free love and easy-access drugs and hippies.  But in almost every account of the 60s, at least every chronologically-ordered one, the story ends (just six months before the decade draws to a close) with one of the most awe-inspiring accomplishments of human history.  A quarter of a million miles away from earth, where millions of people huddled around their televisions or radios to watch or listen with baited breath, Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.  

There are, of course, too many great songs to choose from in the 60s.  I won't even list my runners-up, because no matter how long I make the list, the most telling element of it would be the ellipses at the end.  Today, I just tried to think of a song that represented, for me, the "sound" of the 60s best.  And, for all the worthy contenders, this is the first that came to mind.  It's Procol Harum's 1967 "Whiter Shade of Pale":


I'm not sure, precisely, why the "Whiter Shade of Pale" sound is so representative of the 60s for me.  It's definitely the sound and not the lyrical content, though.  (To be honest, I'm not really sure what this song is "about," though we skipped the light fandango is definitely one of the best lyrics of all time.)   Procol Harum's song has a sort of sad, sort of longing, definitely world-weary, resonance to it.  But it's also got a kind of resilience deeply embedded in its character, as if it means to reassure us that it can still find beauty in the world, something to love about it, something to keep trying for.  It's intoxicating, inviting even, though it seduces in the same way that dangerous vices do.  If this were a country song, we'd describe it as a "rode hard and hung up wet" sound.  It's probably just that B3 Hammond, in the end, an instrument invented for no other purpose than to entice, entrap and destroy human hearts.

This is the sound that I imagine I would've needed to hear had I lived through all the events I listed above as our collective "story of the 60s."  Part wistful, part pining, part trippy, part reverent, part regretful and part resigned, with a healthy dose of there's-something-going-on-here-but-you-don't-know-what-it-is thrown in for authenticity.  There was too much going on in the 60s, really.  Too much to see, too much to experience, too much to register and comprehend.  And when Keith Reid sings although my eyes were open, they might just as well have been closed, well, that seems just as true an account of America in the 60s as any other.

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Nostalgic?  Check out my Day 8 entry for the 2011 version of the 30 Day Song Challenge.

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