First Friday, August 1968

Originally posted August 1, 2008

For years, just to confound people, when bull session turned to politics and to the public upheaval that frequently accompanied politics in the 1960s and 1970s, I’d nod and say quietly, “I was in Chicago in ’68.”

They’d get quiet, look at me – I’ve always looked younger than I am, a genetic trait that I now cherish in my mid-fifties – and wonder. Some asked me if things had been as bad as they saw on TV, and I could honestly say they were worse. Some might ask if I had been in danger.

And I’d laugh and then ’fess up: I was fourteen and was actually in the suburb of Mortons Grove that week in August 1968, spending one night in the Chicago area with my parents as we headed east on vacation. Nevertheless, as my parents and I watched the events inside and outside the International Amphitheatre on the north end of Chicago that evening, we were less than fifteen miles from the absurd, troubling, heartbreaking and utterly unnecessary confusion and violence that surrounded the Democratic National Convention during its four-day run in the Windy City.

The confusion of the Democrats inside the amphitheatre and the continued confrontations between police and protestors outside made the convention another one of those touchpoints of 1968, a year that continued to lay trouble upon trouble, grief upon grief. By the time the convention ended on Friday, August 30, the angry confrontations between the authorities and the protestors – the Youth International Party (Yippies), the Black Panthers and numerous other protest groups, some serious and some less so – had degenerated into what an investigating commission later termed a “police riot.”

(Along that line, in one of the few moments of levity to come from the Chicago convention, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, frequently conversationally challenged, defined the role of law enforcement in his city thusly: “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all – the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”)

Watching the televised chaos that evening in a motel room so very close to the scenes we were seeing was – as was so much that year – confusing and dismaying. I stared at the scenes of bitter argument and confrontation inside the amphitheatre and I stared at the scenes we saw of confrontation and violence outside the amphitheatre. We saw on television, I am sure, less than what went on, but the news anchors and reporters for whatever network we were watching made frequent reference to the violence taking place in the streets of Chicago. And I do recall wondering, as I sat in our hotel room: Is this how grown-ups solve things?

But I also saw on television something that gave me hope. One of the heroes of the convention – and there were few of those in retrospect – was Georgia’s Julian Bond, who had led a civil-rights based challenge to the regular delegation sent by the Georgia Democratic Party. The challenge succeeded. As a token of respect (and I believe this took place during the evening my parents and I were in Mortons Grove, fifteen miles away), Bond’s name was placed in nomination for the office of vice-president of the United States. He was forced to withdraw as he was only twenty-eight, seven years shy of the constitutional age requirement of thirty-five, but that evening, forty years ago, Julian Bond became the first African American man to be nominated for a national office by a major party.

The Democratic National Convention in Chicago might have been the largest news event of the month, and, as it came at the end of the month, it tended to wash over those events that had come before. But there were at least two other events worth nothing:

The Republican National Convention took place in Miami, Florida, during the first week of August. The Republicans nominated former vice-president Richard Nixon for president and Spiro Agnew, governor of Maryland, for vice-president. Nixon’s nomination was one more step in one of the most remarkable political resurrections in American history, and Agnew’s nomination was an utter surprise and puzzle. “Spiro who?” was the reaction of many news producers and news consumers. (Both were elected twice, of course, and both resigned in disgrace, Agnew in October 1973 and Nixon in August 1974.)

The other event worth noting was the crushing of what was known as the Prague Spring in the now dismantled nation of Czechoslovakia. In his book In Europe, Geert Mak writes:

“In January, orthodox Communist Party leader Antonín Novotný was replaced by the amiable Alexander Dubček, who immediately loosened reins: press, radio and television were allowed to criticise the regime freely, persecuted writers and intellectuals were granted amnesty, and plans were made to reform the economy along Western lines. The impending thaw became visible in the streets of Prague, in the length of men’s hair, the cautious miniskirts, the screening of Western movies . . .” An opposition newspaper published an essay about true democracy by playwright Václav Havel: “Democracy is not a matter of faith but of guarantees” that allow “a public and legal competition for power.” Mak notes that all 250,000 copies of the magazine sold out in a few hours.

But the changes were short-lived. On the night of August 21, a half-million soldiers from the Soviet Union and four other members of the military Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and ended the experiments. New leader Gustáv Husák reversed almost all of Dubček’s reforms.

(Dubček managed to survive, not a minor accomplishment, and after communist rule over the country ended, served in Czechoslovakia’s Federal Assembly as a member of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia before dying in 1992 from injuries sustained in an auto accident. Havel, the writer quoted above, was imprisoned during the late 1970s for his work for human rights; after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Havel was elected the last president of Czechoslovakia and – in 1992 – the first president of the Czech Republic.)

On a personal level, August 1968 brought one major first: I earned a substantial sum of money for the first time by working at the first of three annual state trapshoots at a nearby gun club. As I wrote some time back, I earned $40 that first summer and learned that the tarry powder from the trap targets did nasty things to my skin. My face turned brown and its skin turned leathery for a few days before peeling off in large hunks. But the $40 seemed worth it, and the drudgery of spending nine to ten hours a day in a little blockhouse halfway underground was tempered by the songs on the radio I brought with me. Looking at the songs in the Billboard Top 15 from August 3, 1968, I can remember hearing every one of them many times during the trapshoot:

“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“Classical Gas” by Mason Williams
“Stoned Soul Picnic” by the 5th Dimension
“Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela
“Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones
“Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap
“The Horse” by Cliff Nobles
“Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues
“Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream
“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Pictures of Matchstick Men” by the Status Quo
“People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals
“Sky Pilot (Part 1)” by Eric Burdon & the Animals
“This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert

Generally, when I cite lists or portions of lists here, I have a quibble or two. But not this time. I imagine that some might find the Vogues’ entry a little slight, but for me it’s a cherished song, and that’s a great Top Fifteen.

So let’s take a look at the album chart from that week and see if we stay as lucky.

The Beat of the Brass by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
Wheels of Fire by Cream
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel
The Graduate soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel/Dave Grusin
Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin
Time Peace/The Rascal’s Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
A Tramp Shining by Richard Harris
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Honey by Andy Williams

Well, I could live without the Andy Williams, but other than that, it’s pretty good. I do have two caveats: I think that the Jimmy Webb/ Richard Harris opus “MacArthur Park” is one of those records people either love or hate, so that would determine the fate of A Tramp Shining. For my part, I like the single and the album. And maybe the Herb Alpert/TJB album is a little soft once you get past the hit single. But in general, a good bunch of albums.

The album I’m sharing today actually came out in October 1968 and quickly became a classic of its type. Jackie DeShannon’s Laurel Canyon didn’t sell well enough to make the Top 40 albums chart, but as a snapshot of 1968 life in southern California, the record loomed larger than its sales, an assessment that All-Music Guide agreed with:

Laurel Canyon wonderfully captures the natural, idyllic vibe of its titular setting, the creative nexus of the late-’60s Los Angeles music scene. Swapping the polished pop approach of Jackie DeShannon’s past hits for an appealingly rough-edged country-soul sensibility, the record celebrates a place and time that transcended the physical world to signify a virtual Garden of Eden for the flower-power generation. Featuring extensive contributions from pianist Mac ‘Dr. John’ Rebennack and guitarist Russ Titleman, Laurel Canyon boasts a swampy, lived-in charm that perfectly complements DeShannon’s sexily gritty vocals. Her soulful reading of the Band’s ‘The Weight’ anticipates Aretha Franklin’s like-minded cover, but most impressive are originals like ‘Holly Would’ and the title cut, which eloquently articulate the rustic beauty of their creator’s environs.”

Beyond those three tracks mentioned there, which are stand-outs, I’d also recommend “She’s My Best Friend” (written by Don MacAllister), “Bitter Honey” (written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols) and the album’s closer, DeShannon’s own “L.A.”

Musicians on Laurel Canyon were: Mack Rebbenack on piano, Harold R. Batiste Jr. on electric piano, Russ Titleman on acoustic guitar, Craig Tarwater on electric guitar, Ray Trainer on bass and Paul Humphrey and Abe Mills on drums. Background vocals were by Barry White (yes, that Barry White), Brendetta Davis and Don MacAllister. The album was arranged by Battiste; Charles Greene & Brian Stone were the producers.

(In the years I’ve been collecting vinyl, I’ve only seen one copy of this album, the one in poor condition that I bought in September of 1999. The only available CD of the album is a British import [though these days, I’m not certain that’s a major distinction as far as availability is concerned]. This rip is from that CD; I found it online about two years ago. If you like the album, go find the CD if you can. Another note: The artist’s name is spelled both “De Shannon” and “DeShannon” on the record itself. I’ve gone with the latter spelling.)

Tracks and writers:
Laurel Canyon (Jackie DeShannon)
Sunshine of Your Love (Jack Bruce-Peter Brown-Eric Clapton)
Crystal Clear (Ray Trainer)
She’s My Best Friend (Don MacAllister)
I Got My Reason (Barry White)
Holly Would (Jackie DeShannon)
You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me (William Robinson)
The Weight (Jamie Robertson)
Bitter Honey (Paul Williams & Roger Nichols)
Come and Stay With Me (Jackie DeShannon)
L.A. (Jackie DeShannon)
Too Close (Jackie DeShannon, Charles Greene & Brian Stone)

Jackie DeShannon – Laurel Canyon [1968]

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