BOOK REVIEW: '1969' Brings Back Memories to a Reporter Who Lived Through It

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: '1969' Brings Back Memories to a Reporter Who Lived Through It
Reading  Rob Kirkpatrick's "1969: The Year Everything Changed" (Skyhorse Publishing, 320 pages, $14.95) brought back a wave of memories to this reviewer, who at the time was a reporter/editor at The Milwaukee Sentinel, eight years out of college.

There have been books about such years as 1919 and 1968, touting their significance, but Kirkpatrick's 2009 hardcover book, now in a quality paperback edition,  makes a sound case for the special significance of 1969, 365 days crammed with so many events it's difficult to imagine how so many could happen in one year.

In several senses, Kirkpatrick's very readable book reminded me of Frederick Lewis Allen's 1931 classic about the Roaring Twenties, "Only Yesterday." Allen's work is a model for all books like this.

Oil spills like the BP/Deepwater Horizon one in 2010? How about the Union Oil spill in Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969?  You want hurricanes like Katrina in 2005? How about 1969's Camille, which made a landfall a few miles east of New Orleans in Mississippi (which was also hard hit by Katrina)?

Political scandals? Sen. Ted Kennedy's car accident in Chappaquiddick Island in the summer of '69, that killed Robert Kennedy's staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, was as powerful as anything involving Gov. Eliot Spitzer or Sen.  John Edwards or any number of misbehaving pols of recent years. Speaking of misbehaving, I just learned of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child, a story that was revealed by my newspaper home from 1976 to 1990, the Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, May 16, 2011 we had the final launch of the Space ShuttleEndeavour. Granted,  shuttle launches continue to be technology and exploration marvels, but how can they compare to  Apollo 11 and the July 20, 1969 moon landing? The Internet? It dates back to its parent, Arparnet, which linked universities starting in September 1969. The first artificial heart transplant was in 1969. "And so it goes" (with apologies to the late, great Kurt Vonnegut).

When was the last time a group of angry students took over a university? I can't think of anything in recent years that compared with the takeover of Ivy League universities mostly by angry black students in 1969. The modern American Indian movement began with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1969. The modern gay rights movement began with the Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in the same momentous year.

Kirkpatrick brings up a couple of names of young radicals that resonated in the Obama presidential campaign of 2008, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, Chicago friends or at least acquaintances of Barack Obama

I was covering the suburbs of Milwaukee in '69 and Bernardine Dohrn was  in the news as a local girl who made bad with the Weather Underground; born in Milwaukee in 1942, she was a former cheerleader for Whitefish Bay High School (some of us called the prosperous suburb north of Milwaukee and fronting Lake Michigan  "Whitefolks Bay"). Dohrn and Ayers are still together and the former cheerleader is now a respected member of the community who will mark her 70th birthday next year.

Music festivals? 1969's Woodstock, actually held on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, Sullivan County, NY,  will go down in history as THE event of the music scene. (With all the rain and mud at the Yasgur farm, the three-day event in August could have been called "Mudstock"). Northern California's concert at Altamont Speedway, featuring the Rolling Stones in December 1969, will also go down in history for its violence and the brilliant use of Hells Angels as security guards.

Speaking of Northern California, the Zodiac Killer, starting in the Bay Area community of Vallejo in the summer of 1969, terrorized the San Francisco-Oakland region. This horrific serial killing event was replicated in the Los Angeles area by the Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate -- Mrs. Roman Polanski -- and her friends in posh Benedict Canyon and the Los Feliz murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca by the same cult-like commune.

Kirkpatrick covers sports, especially the "Miracle Mets" and the New York Jets,  and culture, including the release of significant movies like "Easy Rider," "Midnight Cowboy," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." 

Boundaries on the Broadway and Off-Broadway stages were pushed to the limits and beyond with musicals like "Oh! Calcutta"  (a pun on the French phrase O quel  cul t'as!("What an ass you have!"). I took two years of college French and didn't know that!  "Oh! Calcutta," with male and female frontal nudity, was preceded in 1967 and 1968 by "Hair," which became an international phenomena in 1969.

In literature, 1969 was the year of John Cheever's "Bullet Park," Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counter Culture" and Penelope Ashe's "Naked Came the Stranger," written by reporters and editors at Long Island's Newsday newspaper. 

There was no Penelope Ashe, another play on words: the quasi-pornographic novel was written by a group of ink-stained, typewriter pounding wretches in the ultimate suburban paper at a time when suburban  "swinging" (a la "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) was in vogue. They wanted to prove that sex sells and proved their point with a surprise bestseller. I have a copy of "Naked Came the Stranger" and it's not bad!

If you lived through it and remember anything (this was also an era of mind-altering drugs), "1969" will jog what's left of your memory. If you're young and think everything began with your puberty, "1969" will remind you that  1969 really "was a year that was."  The book is indexed and has copious notes and an excellent bibliography.

ROB KIRKPATRICK  is a senior editor at Thomas Dunne Books. He is the author of The Words and Music of Bruce SpringsteenThe Quotable Sixties, and Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators. He lives in Rye, New York. Publisher's website: