It’s finally here--the celebration we’ve all been waiting for: the 50th anniversary of 1964, perhaps the most important year in the 20th century. Any retrospective of a great year will require the omission of many events that may, to some, warrant mention, so while we’re getting ready to review the good stuff, let’s not forget some of the lower-order news items that happened during the first true year of Generation X--things like Barry Goldwater’s run at LBJ, Cassius Clay’s pummeling of Sonny Liston, the opening of Shea Stadium, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution (which seems to be under assault in warm-weather milieus), The New York World’s Fair, Pete Townshend destroying his first guitar on stage, My Fair Lady, and the first BASIC program written for computers.
Those events alone would constitute a momentous year, but they’re just the appetizer to an extraordinary turn of the calendar. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a pastiche of events that shaped and influenced my development long after we trudged through the rest of the 60s and on into the loathsome 70s. Here then, in no particular order, are the highlights of 1964--or, as we call it down at Pro Bono Publico, my favorite Latin watering hole, “MCMLXIV.”
The Beatles. Any discussion of 1964 must begin and end with the Fab Four. Mop Top mavens know that by the time John, Paul, George, and Ringo debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show they’d already conquered the east side of the Atlantic, but we all know how important the American market is to rock’n’roll music--we invented it. And I’m not going to drivel on about how The Beatles rescued us from our lugubrious post-Kennedy mourning. But because music is so important to Americans, and because The Beatles reinvented rock’n’roll while simultaneously creating pop music, their impact on 1964 can’t be overstated. Think of it this way: at the beginning of 1964, the number one record in American (according to Cash Box magazine) was Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again.” Let that detonate in your head for a moment, and try not be perplexed by the need for an exclamation mark after “there” but not after “again.” By the end of 1964, The Beatles had held the top spot for 22 weeks--almost half the year. Not only that, but they had the ninth highest grossing film that year, with the release of A Hard Day’s Night. It’s not an overstatement to say that The Beatles were an atomic bomb in American culture, shaping us still to this day.
The Ford Mustang. There is nothing that characterizes Americans better than their love of the automobile, and there is no more iconic or important automobile than the Ford Mustang. Not only is the Mustang the most recognizable car to sprout from Dearborn, it’s also the first pony car, a new class of automobile that would go on to influence car design up to today. Like The Beatles, the Ford Mustang influenced and shaped the language of our culture.
Smoking and Health. You probably know this report by it’s common name, The Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking. This was the report that codified what smart people know all along: smoking like a chimney was deadly. To a lesser extent, it cut the legs out from the notion that NOT smoking was somehow unpatriotic. Cigarettes (as mass-produced by tobacco companies) became locked with the image of our boys winning World War Two, so Americans felt it was their duty to smoke their brains out. This report revealed the real effects of smoking, and more importantly, it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of scientific study as a legitimate process for change. Almost half the U.S. population smoked in 1964 (the other half were children); that’s down to 18% today, which begs the question: Why?
Bourbon. Like the Ford Mustang, bourbon is an icon of our culture. This is the true American whiskey, spelled with an “e.” Nothing defines America like corn, and the only thing corn is good for (besides corn bread, corn flakes, and corn on the cobb slathered with butter) is making whiskey. It’s the ultimate expression of distilled spirits, full of character, produced by Kentuckians living in dry counties using charred American oak barrels, which are then sold to the French to make their wine taste better. Sweet justice.
Goldfinger. This is the best of the Sean Connery Bond films. Based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, the film straddles the dark nature of the first two Bond films and the goofiness of later incarnations, especially Roger Moore’s interpretation of James Bond. Here in Goldfinger is an outlandish plot (Auric Goldfinger plots to steal the gold from Ft. Knox, and where the U.S. Army fails, an Englishman saves the day--puh-lease!), strong women with misogynistic names (Pussy Galore actually works at Goldfinger’s stud farm--get it?), gadgets from Q (the Aston Martin DB-5 with an ejector seat and revolving license plates), ridiculous evil sidekicks (Oddjob as the deadly Korean with the boomerang killing hat), and Sean Connery’s hairy chest. The movie contains what I believe it the best scene in all of Bondom: 007 is strapped to a table in Goldfinger’s lair while a laser cuts a path to his double-oh meat and two veg. Bond, clearly concerned, says, “Do you expect me to talk?” To which Goldfinger says, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” Pure genius.
Finally, on September 23, Bruce Springsteen celebrated his 15th birthday. The Boss was having a tough time at home. Having seen The Beatles, he saw his future, and his future was rock’n’roll. We don’t know how Bruce celebrated his big day, but he probably paused for a moment when he felt another important event happen: my birth.
Happy 50th, 1964, and Happy 50th to all the cool kids born that year.