The day the music died

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Bob Dylan was perceptively in tune with the times. In 1964 he sang:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land.

And don’t criticise what you don’t understand.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.

Your old road is rapidly agein’.

Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand,

for the times they are a-changin’.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Times were changing. The 1960s saw great technological advancement and material prosperity. But there were dehumanising forces, as well. In 1959 Vance Packard wrote in The Status Seekers: “The forces of our times seem to be conspiring to squeeze individuality and spontaneity from us, we compete for the same symbols of bigness and success. We are careful to conform to the kinds of behaviour approved by our peers”.

The baby boom generation, born after the Second World War, were coming of age. These young adults protested against the meaninglessness of a materialistic society. The hippie generation complained: “We live in a plastic culture.” Plastic can be moulded and bent into any shape or form. This is how the youth viewed the values of society, without a moral backbone or inner strength. “The standard thing,” said one hippie, quoted in a 1967 Time article, “is to feel in the gut that middle-class values are all wrong—the way Americans say that Communism is all wrong.”

In 1968, a student protester was reported in Melbourne’s The Age as saying, “We don’t know what we are protesting against, but we are protesting against something. We don’t know what we are looking for, but we are looking for something. We know we cannot find it in our universities, in our newspapers, on the television, in our books. All we know is that there is something very wrong with the world, with our society, and that we have to build a new world and a new society.”

The old values were crumbling. There was a growing questioning of authority. All the traditional values, social conventions, political beliefs were challenged and rejected. The 60s birthed a permissive generation.

Their hope was to build a better world through free love (commitment-free sex), hippie communes, Eastern mysticism, psychedelic rock, flower power and LSD. Scott Mackenzie sang early in 1967: “If you’re going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” It was “a whole generation, with a new explanation”, a counter-culture or alternative society. Folk and rock music became the official language of their disaffection from the traditions of the older generation.

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The Beatles were the soundtrack for this entire generation. They were the most famous band ever. Their hit single, “All you need is love”, was possibly the ultimate in flower-power songs—first performed live before a television audience of millions the world over.

From 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ interest in drugs and Eastern mysticism became more explicit. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is as psychedelic as you can get and “Within You Without You”, written by George Harrison, expressed the new Eastern religious thinking:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself

then you may find, peace of mind, is waiting there

And the time will come when you see

we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

This is Eastern pantheism (god is an impersonal everything) and the endless cycle of reincarnation. Drugs became the sacraments of the new religion of the counter-culture.

The festivals

The late 60s were also the time of great rock festivals, seen as the evidence that the brave new vision was becoming reality—hundreds of thousands of youth together for one great revolutionary gathering of peace and love.

The three-day Monterey Festival, in June 1967, was the first large-scale rock festival of the 60s and has been described as the moment the rock generation became aware of itself. About 40,000 youth turned up. Jimi Hendrix sang, “I have only one burning desire / Let me stand next to your fire.” He sacrificed his guitar to the new religion. As he knelt on the stage, he set fire to his guitar. The motto of the festival was “music, love and flowers”. It was sort of perfect, seminal, Garden of Eden moment for the hippies.

Woodstock 1969 Swami opening. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Next came Woodstock, the most significant rock festival, held at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, in August 1969—50 years ago this month. It well symbolised the peak of the hippie dream; of a new world of freedom and love, fuelled by drugs. The organisers were expecting 50,000, but 400,000 youth turned up and many more never made it, as the roads became jammed with traffic.

Woodstock featured performances from the Incredible String Band, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Hardin and others. An Oscar-winning documentary, released in 1970, was made of the festival. The organiser claimed, “This is the beginning of a new era. It works!” They were creating a new society, based on drugs, free love and Eastern mysticism. This is despite the fact that most people couldn’t hear the music and the rain made life miserable.


Gone sour

By the 1970s the hope of a better world was shattered. The sweet dream had gone sour, in fact, it had become a nightmare.

Charles Manson formed what became known as the Manson Family, mostly composed of young women who were attracted to Manson. On August 9, 1969, film actress and expectant mother Sharon Tate and four others were brutally butchered. “Helter Skelter”, the title of a song by the Beatles, was scrawled on the walls in blood. Manson had adopted the term to describe his vision of an impending race war. Four others were killed at other locations.

At the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Speedway Free Festival, just four months after Woodstock, African-American concert-goer Meredith Hunter was stabbed and beaten to death by Hell’s Angels bikers who, some say, were hired as security. Mick Jagger, dressed as “His Satanic Majesty”, looked stunned. He had just sung “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Under My Thumb”. The aftermath of that festival was one person murdered, three others dead, a singer knocked unconscious on stage and mass beatings. The hippie movement had lost its innocence,

Then there were suicides, over-dosing and deaths of rock personalities. Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, lived out his gay bondage sexual fantasies and then trip out on drugs to cover up his desperation and feelings of guilt. With the Beatles drifting away from him and following the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in 1967, he took one or two pills too many and on August 27, 1967, escaped forever.

Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, drowned in a swimming pool after overdosing on July 3, 1969. He had burned himself out with drugs and hedonistic sex. It is reported that before he died, he was having 60 girls a month.

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Jimi Hendrix, was the highest paid rock singer of the 1960s. He could command $100,000 a night. In “All Along the Watchtower” he sang, “There must be some kinda way out o’ here said the Joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”

Hendrix found relief when he choked on his own vomit after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He was found dead in a flat in London on September 18, 1970.

Janis Joplin was the highest paid female rock sing of the 60s. She could earn $30,000 a night singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. “Freedom’s just another word, nothing left to lose”. She lost everything when she died from a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.

Jim Morrison of The Doors, at the age of 27, burned out with booze, drugs and sex, died of a heart attack on July 3, 1971. The details of his death remain cloaked in mystery. In his 1967 song “The End” he sings: “This is the end / My little friend / This is the end / My only friend—the end / It hurts to set you free.”

In a 1967 interview with CREEM magazine’s Lizze James, he pointed out the meaning of the song: “Sometimes the pain is too much to examine, or even tolerate. . . . But people fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend.”

The despair which some of these people experienced was horrific. To listen to some of their songs and not feel the pain is to lack compassion.

Then there was the breakup of the Beatles. Paul and John were having difficulty getting on with each other. On April 11, 1970, Paul announced that he had quit the Beatles.

Finally, In May, 1970 four students were killed by the National Guards, called out to assist police in quelling a student riot at Kent State University, Ohio. Newsweek featured a picture of a girl screaming, as she knelt next to the victims.

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Early in the 1970s, to the shock of many who expected the youth counter-culture to persist and grow as a permanent political force, the youth moved off stage. The protest generation fizzled in the early 70s.

Don MacLean’s song, “American Pie” (1972), is a fitting epitaph: “Oh, and, there we were, all in one place, / a generation lost in space, / with no time left to start again. . . . / I saw Satan laughing with delight, / The day the music died.”

John Lennon admitted in 1970, “The dream is over. I’m not just talking about the Beatles. I’m talking about the generation thing. It’s over and we’ve gotta—I’ve gotta—get down to so-called reality.”

“I really thought that love would save us all,” he declared. “We thought that we would save the world.”

God is dead

The 60s generation failed, not because they didn’t see the problems with Western society—the emptiness and meaninglessness of materialism—but because they had the wrong answers. Free love, hippie communes, Eastern mysticism, psychedelic rock, flower power and LSD, were no answers. The hedonistic catchcry of the 1960s was “anything goes, do your own thing.” But that naive, boundary-less philosophy ended in anarchy and chaos. No society can survive that.

Jim Morrison of “The Doors” understood where things were headed. In his song “The Wasp (Texas Radio & The Big Beat)”, released in April 1971, just before his death, Morrison sang:

Ah, listen to this—I’ll tell y’ about the heartache,

I’ll tell y’ about the heartache and the loss of God

He had read the works of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, as had Hitler. Nietzsche had said, “Man shall be trained for war, and woman for the recreation of the warrior: all else is folly.” Nietzsche, in 1882, reflecting on the decline of Christianity, coined the phrase, “God is dead.” He carried Darwin’s theory of evolution to its logical conclusion. Without God there are no values, except survival of the fittest. Might is right. He knew what that meant. “What is nihilism?” he pontificated. “The fact that the highest values lose all value. There is no aim, no answer to the question ‘Why?’ Man has lost all dignity in his own eyes.”

It was in the 1960s that the evolutionary theory that life happened by chance became the prevailing worldview. If there’s no God then then life is meaningless and all we’re left with is Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, as “the people bowed and prayed / To the neon god they made”.

The West was built on a Christian world-view from the Protestant Reformation. This is why we have democracy and the freedoms we enjoy, within the framework of the rule of law. Belief in God is the only thing that can give meaning and make sense of the enigma of life. The collapse of a Christian worldview left a spiritual vacuum in the West. The hippie generation tried to fill the vacuum with their alternative life-style. But it didn’t work.

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How are we doing, 50 years after Woodstock? Today, in the West, the use of both prescription and illegal drugs is out of control, as criminal gangs rake in billions; drug addiction and drug deaths have soared; rock festival drug-deaths are a regular occurrence.

Sexual liberation is now the norm. In North America, cohabiting has increased by 1500% (15 times) in the past 50 years, with cohabiting before marriage increasing by almost 900% (9 times). Cohabitation is replacing dating. Marriage has been redefined and gender is in the process of redefinition (I don’t know how women’s sports can survive). The suicide rates have skyrocketing; one in five experience some form of mental illness; domestic violence kills one to two women a week in Australia—in the US the number is 21. Statistics could be multiplied that describe the brave new world that we have created.

Eastern meditation and yoga have now become mainstream, as people seek ultimate reality—to fill the vacuum. Ultimate reality, Brahman for the Hindu and Nirvana for the Buddhist, in the words of Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, is “nothingness”. Some solution that is!

The power of One

Abandon Christianity and the only other alternatives are hedonism, nothingness or totalitarianism—authoritarian dictatorship, as many non-Western countries have. It can be by a single person, by a minority elite, or a dictatorship of 51 per cent majority. Either way, some people lose their freedom.

Christianity is the only system that can give order and freedom, because there is a God.

At the turn of the millennium, Time magazine acknowledged: “The single most powerful figure—not merely in these two millenniums, but in all human history—has been Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus still calls us today: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).

Life takes on a new meaning for those who do.


Errol Webster is a retired church pastor who grew up during the changes that have taken place since World War II. He is passionate about understanding society in the West—where it has come from, where it is going and how the changes affect us.

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