BOOM! VOICES FROM THE SIXTIES
By: Tom Brokaw
Random House, 622 pp.
I am what one might call a “second-half” boomer, someone who just made it to the tail end of the “baby boomer” generation, which encompasses those born between 1946 and 1964. I remember seeing some images of Vietnam on TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but don’t ask me where I was on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was only 10 days old at the time.
On the other hand, by way of the music from the ‘60s, as well as movies and documentaries from and about the era, I came to know about President Lyndon Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley college campus and Vietnam. I can even find parallels between the present and the ‘60s. Was that “tumultuous fault line” in American history the touchstone for what we’ve evolved into as a nation in the four decades that followed?
The answers could well lie in the pages of “Boom!” by veteran NBC newsman and journalist Tom Brokaw. Using an exhaustive compilation of reflections from those who lived through that time, Brokaw looks at the sixties’ successes and failures through an unfiltered lens. Good, bad, right, wrong, no punches are pulled.
Liberalism was idealistic at best, radical and narcissistic at worst. Traditional Goldwater conservatism gave rise to a newer faction that would soon be co-opted by fundamental Christianity. Drugs, war, race, politics, feminism, pop culture, music … at few times in our nation’s history have social, political and individual changes been more profound, he points out.
But the title isn’t really descriptive of the “boomers” so much as it is about the speed and impact of those changes. “Everyone agrees that the Sixties blindsided us with mind-bending swiftness, challenging and changing almost everything that had gone before. Boom! One minute it was Ike [Eisenhower] and the man in the gray flannel suit and the lonely crowd … and the next minute it was time to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” time for “we shall overcome” and “burn, baby, burn.”
And in capturing those “booms,” Brokaw, who evokes coming of age here as eloquently as he did in his landmark “The Greatest Generation,” leaves no meaningful voice unheard.
He may be a self-professed liberal, but his selections are diverse and open-minded, not letting his politics overtake his professional sense of fairness. And the choices are surprising.
Juxtaposed against Senators Gary Hart and George McGovern are Karl Rove and Dick Cheney! You’ll hear from Senator Bob Kerrey and General Colin Powell, Pat Buchanan and then-Senator Hilary Clinton, and you’ll be shocked at the similarities drawn between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton.
Presented in three sections (the last an interesting catchall of various “Reflections”), Part One, “Something’s Happening Here,” looks at the origins of the various general topics. For example, “He Had A Dream,” which establishes Dr. King and the roots of Civil Rights activism. Part Two: “Aftershocks: Consequences, Intended and Otherwise” picks up and carries on where the earlier parts leave off.
Certain topics aren’t given as many pages as others. The time of Camelot and President Kennedy are only briefly touched on. But it makes sense as presented here. In all reality, the Kennedy administration covered a very short period, but its echo has lasted infinitely longer. Far more pages are devoted to Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, the latter perhaps overly so. Then again it’s arguable that no topics are more significant or relevant to the sixties than those two.
The sections on feminism are particularly fascinating, detailing the evolutionary role of women from the “a woman’s place is in the home” of the early ‘60s to the “bra-burning/equal pay for equal work” of the later ‘60s.
Pop culture plays its part, from the protest-fueled folk music of Bob Dylan to the heavier acid-influenced rock of The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, the debut of Rolling Stone magazine and Garry Trudeau’s political cartoons, “Laugh In” and even stand up comedy (the section on Dick Gregory is riveting and hilarious at the same time).
Even the space program’s impact is explored via astronaut Jim Lovell and the now famous Apollo 8 Christmas 1968 voyage around the moon. That mission led to one of the most famous photographs of all time: the Earth as seen from the spaceship’s window, which Stewart Brand pasted on the cover of his Whole Earth catalog, along with the inscription: “We can’t put it together. It is together.”
Thought-provoking summaries abound as the book comes to a close, but one that sticks out for me is Brand’s take on what that inscription means 40 years later. “I suppose it is seeing what connects rather than what divides.” It’s a lesson we’re still learning, but all the necessary parts to getting it, and much more, are all here, if you’re willing to listen, and I mean really listen — to the voices.
For many of us, especially younger readers, the sixties are very misunderstood. The decade is as wrongly characterized as a time of hippie peace and the Summer of Love.
Brokaw lets the words of the time travelers that made it through the sixties set you straight on all the triumphs, tragedies, uplifts and unrest that really took place during the decade. It’s a trip (no acid required) through a period that may have set the stage for life as we know it today.
They say if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there. Either way, thanks to Brokaw, if you weren’t there then, you are now.
Pick up a copy of “Boom” at The Booky Joint in Mammoth Lakes and Spellbinder Books in Bishop.