I might be nostalgic for the things I loved growing up, but I am no longer the person that loved those things back then. If the current me could travel back in time to the 1960s, would I love the same things I did as a teenager the first time around, or would I be attracted to the pop culture suited for a 61-year-old guy? Buffalo Springfield or Frank Sinatra? Or is nostalgia really about becoming our younger selves again?
I am plagued by nostalgic urges like a teenage boy is plagued with horniness. I assume nostalgia is universal as people get older, but I don’t know that for a fact. As I write this my wife is watching old episodes of Gidget, Bachelor Father, The Flying Nun, and other shows from her childhood on Antenna TV.
Each year of the twenty teens is the 50th anniversary of the same year back in the 1960s. Here, look at 1963, at Wikipedia. Ironman debuted at Marvel, The Beatles started releasing albums, Coca Cola produced Tab, Dr. No, the first James Bond film appeared, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP was released, Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest in Vietnam, Project Mercury came to an end, zip codes began, and “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes hit the airways. And of course, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Expect a lot of documentaries and books about that towards the end of the year.
I spent my formative teenage days growing up in the 1960s, so I have a lot of nostalgia for pop culture from back then. But while I’m shopping for old bits of my past to relive, I’m also discovering pop culture I missed the first time around, or even avoided. For example, yesterday I bought two LPs of Mantovani and his Orchestra, a type of music I would have sneered at as a teen – the kind my grandparents would have loved. Mantovani usually covered popular songs with a light classical orchestra, and also recorded classical music that he made more accessible with his sugary arrangements. Here’s a typical example:
Last night while Susan was at her trivia contest, I turned down the lights, kicked back in my La-Z-Boy, cover my old chilled legs with an Afghan, let the cat curl up on my lap, and played Mantovani loud. And man I dug it. I listened to Mantovani Magic and Mr. Music, two LPs from 1966 I had gotten at the friends of the library bookstore for 50 cents each. I also played Boogaloo Beat by Sandy Nelson from 1967, and These Are My Songs by Pet Clarke from 1968.
I was very annoyed at Boogaloo Beat because the great kitschy music was marred by many pops and skips. That’s the thing about 1960s technology, an odd piece of dust, or a stray eyelash, makes a tremendous crash when the stylus hits it at 33 rpms. But this LP looked perfectly clean and unscratched. Of course, this reminded me of all those times I came home with a new album that had an imperfection and I had to take it back to the store. There was a reason why most music fans embraced CDs so quickly in the 1980s.
I might be nostalgic for 1960s pop culture but I’d never want to return to live through those years again. Oh, I suppose if I had a time machine I might spend a weekend and attend The Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, and even that might be a huge cultural shock. The other night Susan and I watched a Blu-ray copy of The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine from 1960. It only illustrated what a horrible time it was for women, and even though life was better for men, being a corporate man looked no fun. By the way, The Apartment is wonderful, and the black and white cinematography was stunning on the Blu-ray disc. I first saw this film back in the 1960s and loved it then, but it means something very different to me half a century later political correctness-wise. My mom and dad and taken me and my sister to New York City in 1959, so it also represents another layer of nostalgia. So watching The Apartment in 2013, brought back memories of that trip.
The sixties must have tremendous retro appeal to many people because my local PBS station drags out many 1960s related shows when they are begging for money. A couple weeks ago they had a show with clips from Hullabaloo (mid-decade rock and soul), a show with clips of Hootenanny (folk music popular in the early 60s), a do-wop show, and another focusing on folk rock era. Us old people with our fond memories of pop culture forget the racism of the 1960s, the sexism, the anti-gay mentality, the generation gap, the Vietnam War and all the other social turmoil’s and isms. The polarized animosity was like the 2012 Presidential elections but all the time. And all those social revolutions of free love, drugs and rock and roll crashed and burned. You can always read The White Album by Joan Didion to de-nostalgia-ize the sixties.
I keep reading books from the past looking for one that would epitomize the 60s era, but I can’t find one. In the science fiction genre, some readers would claim Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein is the counter culture novel of the 1960s. But it’s too strange and weird, but there were plenty of know-it-alls like Jubal Harshaw back then. I might nominate The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, but it’s really just shows a very tiny subculture. The book that reminds me the most of my sixties is a book from 1959, Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It’s about a marriage coming apart, and some very odd people.
Most of life back in the 1960s was extremely ordinary, closer to Leave it To Beaver than The Beatles. So why do us old farts keep returning to those times in music, books, art, television shows and movies?
After I played my old LPs, I switched on Rdio, and played some contemporary music. The sound recording, sophistication of composition, performance and production quality, all blew away those old songs I had been listening to earlier. Our lives, both personal and social, are evolving fast. In 1965, the most technologically sophisticated form of social networking was the rotary dial phone. I think the people of the sixties really would suffer Future Shock if they had to live our lives now.
I don’t know if nostalgia is some harmless urge to bring back long forgotten times, or is it psychological need to preserve our identities as we get old and loose our memories. I’m quite happy with modern pop culture. I think modern music, TV, movies, books, photography, art, plays, etc. are all better than what we experienced fifty years ago. I might be nostalgic for Project Gemini and Apollo, but the robots on Mars, satellites Kepler and Planck, and the Hubble telescope are far more exciting. And even though we consider our government totally dysfunctional right now, things are better for more people than ever before.
Sometimes I like to think of my current record collecting habit of buying music from the 1950s and 1960s not as nostalgia, but an interest in history. That I’m buying antiques, antique pop culture. And me liking Mantovani is really no different from me liking Airborne Toxic Event or Alabama Shakes – it’s just another style of music. 50 years ago is no more real than 500 years ago. That old music actually exists in the present.
Reality is kind of weird in this regard. Above my monitor is a window three feet high and twelve feet wide that looks out to my back yard. I see lots of trees, shrubs and plants. My neighbors are hidden by all the foliage. I do see my wife’s Camry and some patio furniture, but it’s mostly a naturalistic view. Things are turning green with Spring. I don’t see any pop culture. I don’t even see any calendar dates. The past is an illusion in our heads. If I put a Mantovani LP on the turntable, it’s not 1966 again. Even 2013 is an illusion. It’s just now.
JWH – 3/24/13