Growing up in the 60’s, my older brother, Wayne, made certain that I was properly schooled in the fine art of psychedelic rock. He was generous with his sophisticated collection of vinyl and kindly tolerated my tagging along to live concerts by The Who, Blues Magoos, and Fever Tree. We even saw Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs once.
My friends and I followed musicians like baseball card athletes as they migrated between The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, and Blind Faith. I came to understand that Frank Zappa was equal parts profound & bananas and that the best version of Summertime Blues was recorded by Blue Cheer. In that explosively creative era, popular music evolved rapidly in the wake of the innovative leadership of the Beatles.
But as the decade was wrapping up, the Vietnam War was escalating. I remember how depressing CBS News sounded every evening, a nightly drumbeat of American casualty numbers accompanied by unsettling images from the front lines. The closest that my friends and I approached an understanding of the war was that it was morose, no end in sight, and that we were approaching draft age.
Even our favorite bands felt the impact. A local group known as The Moving Sidewalks lost their keyboard and bass players to the U.S. Army. The two remaining members added another talent and reorganized the band as ZZ Top.
In time, musicians began to unify the nation’s growing discontent with Washington by producing a list of “protest songs” initiated by Stephen Stills’ very civil For What It’s Worth. The cleverness of pop lyrics increasingly focused on poking Congress and President Nixon in the eye, leading up to the Woodstock music festival in August of 1969. The most undisguised slight came from Country Joe & The Fish singing their original rag with a chorus ending in, “Whoopee! We’re all going to die.”
Counterculture suddenly became serious business in 1970 when members of the Ohio National Guard overreacted to a student protest on the Kent State University campus. Skittish guardsmen fired 67 rounds into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young immediately released a responsive song with the lyrics, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming,Four dead in Ohio.”
America matured immensely in the decade that followed. The war was brought to a terrifically awkward end, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and the United States military transitioned into a respected volunteer profession. While much was gained in the transformation, the musical voice of antiestablishment was somehow lost.