First Friday: November 1968

Originally posted November 7, 2008

One of the television pundits in the past few days – I do not recall which one it was – told us that the revival of the presidential campaign of John McCain from its doldrums of the summer of 2007 was the most remarkable political resurrection in recent American history.

That depends on how you define “recent,” of course.

But to me, the most remarkable political resurrection in recent American history culminated with the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968. Eight years earlier, as a sitting vice-president, Nixon had been defeated for the presidency by Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy. Two years after that, he’d lost a bid for the governorship of California. As Wikipedia notes, “in an impromptu concession speech the morning after the [California] election, Nixon famously blamed the media for favoring his opponent, saying, ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.’”

Six years later, on November 5, 1968, Nixon was elected president of the United States in a three-way race. The election was not only the culmination of Nixon’s retreat, rehabilitation and resurrection (covered in detail by Wikipedia here), but the culmination of an arc of stunning and tragic events that have come to define the entire American year of 1968:

The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which showed Americans at home that the path to victory in that Southeast Asian nation was not as smoothly laid as politicians and military officials had told them.

The near-defeat of a sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, by Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, a result that spurred Johnson to withdraw from the Democratic presidential campaign, a decision that threw the race into chaos.

The assassinations – in April and June respectively – of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. The horror and sorrow of the two murders – coming two months and two days apart – increased the sense of a nation crumbling under the strain of blow after blow, grief after grief.

The upheaval during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. As millions watched on television, the Democrats wrangled inside the convention hall, unable to unite, while outside, police and demonstrators fought in what was later judged to be “a police riot.” The sight of counter-cultural demonstrators battling police was certainly one of the factors that doomed the chances of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in November’s election.

In that election, Humphrey and his running mate, Edmund Muskie of Maine, were facing Republicans Nixon and Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland. In addition, the campaign included one of the few viable third-party candidacies ever in United States’ history, with former Alabama Governor George Wallace and his running mate Gen. Curtis LeMay heading the American Independent Party, running on a generally anti-Washington platform, especially where it concerned civil rights and the federal government’s efforts toward desegregation.

According to Wikipedia (and this echoes what I recall hearing as a fifteen-year-old at the time), Wallace’s hope for the election was to win enough states and their electoral votes to deny both Nixon and Humphrey the presidency and move the presidential decision into the U.S. House of Representatives (where each state would cast one vote as determined by its delegation of representatives). Presumably, the delegations of the states Wallace had won in the election would follow his lead there and allow him the role of power broker as the House decided the election.

That was Wallace’s goal. The reality was that he won five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – with a total of forty-five electoral votes. But those weren’t enough to forestall Nixon’s victory, as the Republican ticket accumulated 301 electoral votes to 191 for the Humphrey-Muskie ticket. Richard Nixon, six years after proclaiming that he was done with politics, won the presidency.

Folks who play the sometimes fascinating game of Couldabeen have long noted that according to the polls of the time – not nearly as many as there are today – the race between Nixon and Humphrey had tightened in the week before the election. That has prompted some to conclude that had the campaign been one week longer, Humphrey would have overtaken Nixon and won the election. Perhaps. Maybe the movement would have been just enough to throw the election into the House of Represenatives (something that has happened only twice before, from what I can tell, in 1800 and 1824).

In any event, the presidential election in November 1968 was when Richard Nixon’s revival peaked (it would move on a downward arc – a seeming inevitability, seen historically – soon enough) and the sad story of 1968 in the United States reached its climax. There was still a good chunk of time left in the year come November 6, the day after the election, but for most of those eight weeks, the nation, I think, was simply exhaling in exhaustion. The list of November events at Wikipedia includes a couple of things happening in Vietnam; one of them is the start of Operation Commando Hunt, a less-than-successful attempt to block the movement by guerillas of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Mihn trail in the supposedly neutral national of Laos.

But looking at the list of November’s events, once past the election, the month seems tranquil, which is not a word that could be used often during 1968. There was one other important event, in retrospect: On November 14, Yale University announced it would admit women. And there was one not-so-important event that nevertheless has an impact today: On November 17, NBC cut away from the last 1:05 of a football game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders to begin its special broadcast of a movie version of the tale Heidi. The Raiders scored two late touchdowns to win 43-32. Thousands of outraged fans protested, and NBC and other networks that air sports programming have since then stayed with sporting events to the very end regardless of the dislocation of the following schedule.

So what was it we were listening to as the votes were being counted on Election Day? Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen for November 2, 1968:

“Hey Jude” by the Beatles
“Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin
“Little Green Apples” by O.C Smith
“Fire” by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
“Midnight Confessions” by the Grass Roots
“Elenore” by the Turtles
“Over You” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap
“Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash
“Love Child” by Diana Ross & the Supremes
“White Room” by Cream
“Suzie Q.” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf
“Piece of My Heart” by Big Brother and the Holding Company
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley
“Girl Watcher” by the O’Kaysions

That’s a pretty good mix. I have to admit I’m not familiar with the Johnny Nash single. Maybe it didn’t get airplay here. I dunno. I know the rest well and like most of them. The Gary Puckett single is a little slight. On the other hand, “Fire” is about as powerful a song as you can find in the Top Fifteen, and “Love Child,” “White Room,” “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Piece of My Heart” are top-line singles. I also have a fond spot for “Midnight Confessions.” So when others had the radio on, I was beginning my slow modulation into pop/rock fandom and enjoying much of what I heard.

(I am a bit bothered by never having heard the Johnny Nash track, as far as I know.)

Here’s what Billboard listed as the Top Ten albums on Election Day:

Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Time Peace/The Rascal’s Greatest Hits by the Rascals
The Time Has Come by the Chambers Brothers
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly
Crown of Creation by Jefferson Airplane
Wheels of Fire by Cream
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Gentle On My Mind by Glen Campbell
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

This was a pretty good week: It was the fourth week in a row that Big Brother and the Holding Company had held the top spot, buoyed by Janis Joplin’s vocals. The Chambers Brothers’ mix of funk and psychedelica had re-entered the album chart on the strength of a single edited from the album’s title track; the single had peaked at No. 11 in mid-October. And beyond those, there’s a little bit of something for everyone in this Top Ten: Some pop country, some Latin influence, some bluesy psychedelica, some blue-eyed soul, some folk-rock in the quieter moments of the Jefferson Airplane album, and a freakout or two.

The album I’m sharing today from 1968 is a fairly somber affair. David Ackles’ self-titled debut is one of those records that slowly insinuates itself. It’s subtle, and I’m not sure that consciously listening to it is the way to get into it. I’m probably wandering off into hippie stream of the universe territory here, but David Ackles is an album that – to the extent I know it (and I need to know it better) – I’ve begun to appreciate by having it play when I’m not aware of it.

The next time it plays, the increasing familiarity is pleasing, and even when only one track at a time pops up, a subtle learning of the album brings moments of unexpected recognition.

I dunno. Maybe that’s just the way I need to listen to it. Maybe focusing on 1968 for all these months has tipped me over the edge of perception. [That’s intended to be funny. You can chuckle.] I guess what I’m saying is that conscious listening – as in ‘Oh, what’s he doing with the guitar part and the parallel melody there?” – seems not to get me close to the center of whatever it is Ackles is aiming for. Osmosis seems to work better, and that may be because Ackles’ album is somber.

Here’s what All-Music Guide had to say about David Ackles:

“Ackles’ self-titled debut LP introduced a singer/songwriter quirky even by the standards of Elektra records, possibly the most adventurous independent label of the 1960s. Ackles was a pretty anomalous artist of his time, with a low, grumbling voice that was uncommercial but expressive, and similar to Randy Newman’s. As a composer, Ackles bore some similarities to Newman, as well in his downbeat eccentricity and mixture of elements from pop, folk, and theatrical music. All the same, this impressive maiden outing stands on its own, though comparisons to Brecht/Weill (in the songwriting and occasional circus-like tunes) and Tim Buckley (in the arrangements and phrasing) hold to some degree too. This is certainly his most rock-oriented record, courtesy of the typically tasteful, imaginative Elektra arrangements, particularly with Michael Fonfara’s celestial organ and the ethereal guitar riffs (which, again, recall those heard on Buckley’s early albums). As a songwriter, Ackles was among the darkest princes of his time, though the lyrics were delivered with a subdued resignation that kept them from crossing the line to hysterical gloom. ‘The Road to Cairo,’ covered by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger, and the Trinity is probably the most famous song here. But the others are quality efforts as well, whether the epics tell of religious trial, as in ‘His Name Is Andrew,’ or the mini-horror tale of revisiting an old home in ‘Sonny Come Home.’”

Beyond the tracks mentioned there, I’d also recommend “Blue Ribbon,” “Laissez-Faire” and “Be My Friend.” And keep an ear out for the organ/piano interplay. Without having the same sonic results, the pairing of those instruments seems to have drawn on similar approaches by Procol Harum and The Band.

Tracks:
The Road to Cairo
When Love Is Gone
Sonny Come Home
Blue Ribbons
What A Happy Day
Down River
Laissez-Faire
Lotus Man
His Name Is Andrew
Be My Friend

David Ackles – David Ackles [1968]

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