The Players’ Field
We now move into the most explosive period of the radical sixties, between the years 1966 and 1969. Where only a few years before the social and political system had been solid (if a bit petrified) and largely unchallenged, by this time it had begun to come considerably undone; an unpopular, ill-defined war in Southeast Asia only served to fan the flames. Increasingly, the established American culture itself was being viewed as an enemy in need of transformation, and this generation responded by growing more and more revolutionary. And once again the music was mirroring these changes, as the Beatles—influenced by the emerging Counterculture and their own forays into eastern mysticism and drugs—began to significantly alter the shape of rock ‘n’ roll, much as Dylan had before them; they were, in fact, replacing Dylan as the voice of their generation.
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As the sixties revolution gathered momentum, the youth movement itself also gathered more players, as the more organized and pragmatic unity of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (largely represented by the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], and more or less symbolized by Bob Dylan in verse 3) began fragmenting into the Women’s Rights, Black Power, Antiwar and Counterculture movements; the Progressive Labor and Revolutionary Youth Movements; as well as their militant sub-factions: the Black Panthers, The Weathermen, Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (yes, that was their name)—all seeking, to one degree or another, to influence the course of American culture. But of all of these it is the Counterculture that looms largest in our memory. Though they did not achieve much politically, their style of dress and behavior were enormously influential, as were the drug, sexual and spiritual freedoms they espoused—all of which were in-your-face affronts to the more staid, traditional values of the status quo. And it was their philosophies of peace and brotherly love—vague and ill-formed as they were—that seemed to best characterize this generation at this time, at least in the eyes of the general public.
In light of the growing conflicts of this period a football field is an appropriate setting, a battlefield on which the radical youth culture players and the forces of the establishment clash. But once again we find the songwriter mixing his metaphors, using the “marching band” to symbolize both the Counterculture (the Beatles) and the armed civil militia.
• • •
Helter Skelter in the summer swelter
The Byrds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
These opening lines are full of portent: chaos in the summer heat; the birds (nature), sensing danger, retreat to safety from an impending explosion—the helter skelter, explosive “long hot summers” of protest and rioting during this period. In 1967, youth culture hippies from across the country made an exodus to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district to live out the Counterculture’s mantras of brotherly love and drug-induced transcendence—the benign eye of the storm that was that year’s self-proclaimed “Summer of Love.” But these calm waters were to be short-lived, as events in the coming months challenged the Counterculture’s euphoria: the violent Oakland anti-draft protests; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (and the ensuing riots by Blacks across the nation); the riots at Columbia University and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—just to name a few. “Helter Skelter” aptly describes the chaotic events of this period, and also refers to the Beatles’ song of the same name, released on their White Album of 1968. The Byrds’ 1966 release, Eight Miles High—used here to suggest a bomb falling—seems strangely prophetic now: “Eight miles high/And when you touch down/You’ll find that it’s stranger than known” —lines that spoke to the drug culture of the period, but can also in retrospect be foreseeing the rapidly escalating anarchy about to erupt in America; not coincidentally, both songs speak of falling fast.
It landed foul out on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
The ball is wild during these years, as the youth culture players begin to aggressively set themselves (the “forward pass”) against the government they are attempting to transform; the civil authorities in turn do not take kindly to these challenges (the ball “landing foul on the grass”), and soon come to meet them with a fury of their own. But something of a free-for-all is also ensuing among the many radical political players struggling for field position (the “forward pass”) in the American cultural dialogue. The more pragmatic agendas of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left had by this time begun losing their original cohesion, sprouting the Womens’ Rights, Black Power, Antiwar and Counterculture movements; and by decade’s end, the more militant groups: The Black Panthers, The Weathermen—all striving to influence this generation towards their own particular interpretation of how American society should be. But it is the Counterculture, with its wholesale rejection of mainstream values, that comes to hold center stage. The musical players—Bob Dylan (symbolically representing the New Left/Antiwar contingent); The Beatles (carrying the torch for the Counterculture); and many others (the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones), can all be viewed as competing on the playing field of rock ‘n’ roll, and symbolic of the contending liberal political forces at play during this period.
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Bob Dylan, sidelined by a nearly fatal motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, and further overwhelmed by the pressures of his own success, retreated to Woodstock, NY to recuperate from his wounds, both physical and psychological. His output following this period (with the exception of 1967’s John Wesley Harding) was not as critically well-received as his earlier work, as he retreated from the lyrical complexity and social commentary that had characterized his previous efforts, becoming less the spokesman for his generation. Increasingly sidelined too was the organizing arm of the New Left—the SDS—as other competing groups tended to dilute their political unity. Needless to say, like Dylan, they became less the dominant spokesmen for their generation—a role that, it can be argued, the Counterculture was now assuming (though the Counterculture really had no political agenda to speak of), and a role that musically the Beatles were filling as they began to take their music more seriously and embrace the drugged spirituality of the Counterculture.
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While Sergeants played a marching tune
Considered the high point of the sixties Counterculture movement, the brief Summer of Love, spanning the spring and summer of 1967, was viewed by many as the flowering of the movement—the “sweet perfume;” this year also more or less marks the midpoint (the “half-time air”) of the sixties cultural revolution that gained momentum around 1964 and started winding down around 1970 (at least from McLean’s perspective in 1971; strictly speaking, the radical sixties sputtered on into 1975). “Sweet perfume” would then obviously have another meaning too, as the “half-time air” was ripe with marijuana. Only a few months before, the Beatles had released arguably their best album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which became the defining musical statement for the Summer of Love, and figuratively the “marching tune” of the Counterculture. But the “marching band” also holds a double meaning, as the “Sergeants”—both civilian and military—can be viewed as figuratively waiting in the wings, playing their own “marching tune” in preparation for the rising tide of the youth culture’s rebellion.
We all got up to dance
But we never got the chance
During the brief moment of youth culture harmony that was the Summer of Love, it may well have appeared to the narrator that a different kind of innocence had come along to replace the sort he had grown up with; getting up to dance would then be symbolic of embracing the current euphoria as a kind of throwback to the happier world he once knew. But as events in the coming months were to turn violent, he would not get the chance to dance to this new music. Rock music itself had also by now moved beyond its original dance-based roots towards more experimental and drug related influences—and in stark contrast to the simpler rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
As the radical youth culture players began attempting to wrestle civil authority away from the civil authorities (taking the field), they moved away from the peaceful, symbolic tone of the Summer of Love towards the confrontational violence that began with the anti-draft protests in Oakland, California later that fall. The “marching band” now becomes more clearly symbolic of the civil authorities, as the militia—the police in particular—pushed back, and pushed hard: the marching band refusing to yield. But if we are to keep the music as the metaphor of change, what could then be said here too is that the Beatles—a formidable musical force to be reckoned with by now—have at this moment in time supplanted Dylan as spokesmen for their generation, and in so doing gain the field advantage—the marching band refusing to yield. And as the Counterculture is represented by The Beatles in the song, it too briefly gains the high ground, their influence on American culture growing significantly at this time. Which brings us to:
Do you recall what was revealed
—the song’s most ambiguous line. Some have suggested that it refers to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1968 release entitled Unfinished Music No. 1—Two Virgins—on the cover of which stands the two artists, naked as the sun; others have said that it refers to the widespread rumors a little later of Paul McCartney’s death; while most choose not to wrestle with this line at all. But in the context of the pivotal 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, this line is most likely speaking of the Chicago police department’s brutality there, revealing the dark underside of one of our most cherished institutions.
But another incident around this time also bears mentioning. In the fall of 1968, as the Miss America contest was holding its annual beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the first protest in the pageant’s history occurred. The fledgling Women’s Liberation Movement, critical of the pageant’s stereotyping of women as mere sex symbols and housewives, gathered outside of the Convention Center where the event was being held, carrying signs of “No More Beauty Standards” and “Welcome to the Cattle Auction,” and even crowning a live sheep “Miss America.” But the real focus of the demonstration centered on the “Freedom Trash Can” that the women protesters had set up, tossing into it false eyelashes, wigs, curlers, high heels, girdles and brassieres to symbolically free themselves from these sexual stereotypes. The discarded bras in particular garnered the most media attention, and given Mclean’s penchant for sexual innuendo in his lyrics during these early years of his career (see “Milkman’s Matinee,” “Narcississma” and “Birthday Song”), “do you recall what was revealed” could then be describing these (ostensibly) braless protesters, ending this verse on a humorously sly note and pointing to the Miss America protest as yet another rejection of the old mores and attitudes of 1950s America.
Blow number four—another day the music dies.
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So as the sixties revolution starts coming to a head during these chaotic years, the battle lines are drawn and the inevitable bloody conflicts come to pass. And the youth culture players themselves grow increasingly diverse, all vying for a voice in the American cultural dialogue; but of all of them, it is the Counterculture that speaks the loudest. And the Beatles, embodying in their music much of the Counterculture’s idealism and collective harmony, emerge as the dominant symbols of this period’s revolutionary euphoria: all you need is love.