It is always the anniversary of something, and for me this has been the anniversary year for the whole decade of the '60s.
Two decades are no more than a flick of time and yet the 1960s already seem irretrievably distant and dreamlike (when they are not nightmarish to recall).
Rock music was the anthem of the '60s, a loud, boisterous, assertive and initially optimistic sound of freedom and pleasure that embraced a young generation not only here but halfway around the globe at least.
In a reminiscence of the '60s a few weeks ago in the BBC magazine The Listener, Michael Kustow, a London art curator who was 28 in 1968, wrote that "what we now label 'Sixty-Eight' was at bottom a product of the postwar baby boom, of the first crest of affluence after 15 years of austerity and of a student generation flexing its mind and body, scarcely able to believe that it no longer had to ask permission of its parents."
The austerity was obviously more a British than an American phenomenon, but that youthful feeling of liberation was universal--even, for a time, in Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries.
Part of the atmosphere of the American '60s came rolling back to me not long ago when I read "Crying Out Loud: Life in a Sixties Rock Band" by Sean Hutchinson (published by John Daniel, Box 21922, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93121, $9.95 softcover).
Hutchinson had begun playing at a prep school, St. George's, and then at Tufts, where he answered a bulletin board notice that said "Musicians Wanted" and gave an address at Harvard. In June, 1968, he left school to travel and live communally with the band formed at Harvard. It called itself Far Cry, and he played Fender bass.
After a low-income start, Far Cry stayed together and solvent for two years, although its one album for Vanguard did not sell well and its reputation was confined, such as it was, to New England. "Discos, nightclubs, college mixers, debutante parties, festivals and free concerts--we did the lot," Hutchinson wrote. "Touring from Maine to New Jersey in a surplus mail van, Far Cry was a jolly aggregate of lunatics on the move."
There were also "vans that broke down in snowstorms, unsound sound systems, groupies, roadies, townies, bikers and stray animals."
The band "sought to live together as a collective family, rebellious young Americans sharing and presumably getting to know each other better in an alternative mode to our alienated society. . . . The reader may recall the fragmented nature of perception on an evening out--the jumble of lurid lights and oblique shadows amid the forced merriment and loneliness of revelers in a loud, overcrowded bar.
"Such surroundings were our chosen habitat, as fast-moving and elusive as the colored patterns in a kaleidoscope." Far Cry, Hutchinson wrote, "was in the right place at the right time to make our mad flight together."
The group outplayed Velvet Underground at a premature Woodstock called the Hilltop Pop Festival, Hutchinson said. It was an afternoon when Hutchinson's growing disenchantment began to show up.
The other group was "framed by a spectacular countryside that went on unspoiled for miles. I couldn't believe how little they enjoyed themselves, and my fingers itched for a rotten tomato as they howled on about heroin and hellishness, looking for all the world like the sort of translucent creatures one finds beneath a pasture stone."
Far Cry's high point was an appearance as the opening act at Fillmore East in New York. But it proved to be a low point as well; the crowd did not respond, although Far Cry apparently warmed it up for the groups that followed.
The Far Cry style was very loud and improvisational. The band, wrote Hutchinson, "had mastery over clangor and the strident mood, but very little ability with a ballad or a catchy melody." Then again, he says, in those days you wouldn't dream of playing "Tea for Two"--"unless perhaps you gave it a contemporary heavy rendering with feedback, far above the threshold of pain."
Hutchinson was finding that he'd had enough of the din, the road, the druggy environment and the unavoidable truth that the group did not seem to be heading anywhere big. In 1970, the group dissolved by mutual agreement, without regret for the experience, or for the fact that it was over.
Hutchinson took up landscape gardening in Montecito and later came into a sufficient inheritance so he can now garden just for himself and play a little music as it pleases him. Currently, he occasionally performs on bass and mandocello for a Balkan folk dance group.
But there was, for those brief and incandescent months, the music and the life, which Hutchinson writes about in a style that is itself incandescent and wryly idiosyncratic.
Hutchinson offers his own epitaph for the sounds of the '60s. "With the Vietnam War and modern society as topics, the music often contained a message that was highly eloquent. Yet the substance was soon to be eclipsed by artifice, for rock was most effective as spectacle and mass entertainment, with content becoming more and more incidental to the drama of the event itself."
I talked to Hutchinson not long ago and he said, "I emerged with my gray matter intact and I still have my hearing. The nice thing about the music I play these days is that volume isn't a prerequisite. When I go to see rock now, and I do once in a while, I take earplugs. It still sounds like a re-enactment of Iwo Jima, and it doesn't have to."
The '60s Remembered is a theme that is likely to be heard often these next several months, in all its paradoxical variations: flower power and the dead at Kent State, the hip romanticism of the Beatles and the cynicism of the Rolling Stones as successive voicings of optimism and dismay.
Hutchinson's remembrance is a small piece of the whole, but it took me back to all of it, the frenzies, the follies, the hopes unrealized.