Through the past, darkly: The ’60s at 50, blurred

BETHEL, N.Y. (AP) — His overalls are weathered. His white beard is grown out to aging-hippie perfection. The tattoos on his arms tell the story of a moment from the summer of 1969 that has passed into legend — three days of peace and music that became a doorway to defining an era.

Around him sits the patch of upstate New York farmland that gave birth to a piece of modern mythology — Woodstock. At 68, Duke Devlin reflects on the definitive concert of his youth by spinning tales of community and anti-authoritarianism that end, invariably, with the word “man.” As in, “Sometimes I’m amazed that we’re still talking about this, man.”

Of course we’re still talking about it. And, as a historical interpreter at the festival’s site, it’s Devlin’s job to talk about it, to tell the story of the ’60s.

Woodstock was a flashpoint, a culmination, one easy way to distill a complicated decade into something digestible. That it happened as the 1960s ended made it all the more convenient: Here was an empty vessel, complete with soundtrack and instantly mythic imagery, that provided the perfect raw material to build a narrative around an era.

A half century after the 1960s began, that is precisely what we have done with the decade — and with the 10-year periods that came before and after it. We’ve wrestled them into grand stories with convenient contours and reliable patchworks of imagery. And when it comes to the ’60s, what a confusing, disjointed patchwork it is.

For every textured civil-rights documentary, there is a $15.95 inflatable beehive hairdo. For every meticulously researched history of the protest movement, there is a Walmart peace-sign spiral notebook. For every Duke Devlin, there is an Austin Powers.

The 1960s have been idealized and vilified, romanticized and boiled down into a cultural demiglace with an intense taste but very little of the subtlety that the real decade offered.

“It’s no longer self-expression. It’s a fashion,” says Wade Lawrence, director of the Museum at Bethel Woods, which oversees the site where Woodstock happened. “We like simple things. We like sound bites. We like a simple, one-sentence explanation of an era.”

And so it is with the country’s view of its recent history. In America, the past is raw material. History gets compressed, packaged, marketed. Into the grinder goes complexity; out comes cliche. And we help it along, deciding arbitrarily that a decade — the time between two years that end in zeros and little more — is a useful way to measure history.

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The notion of a decade as a distinct unit of time has existed through much of American history, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that life sped up enough for one 10-year period to be considered an era with its own unique identity.

It didn’t hurt that the first decades after World War I aligned themselves with historical currents. You can view the ’20s pretty reasonably from 1918 to 1929 (the end of World War I through the market crash), and the ’30s as 1929 to 1941 (the Depression to World War II).

Then it gets more complicated. What were the ’40s — as narrow as the war years of 1941-1945 or as broad as 1939-1951? What were the ’50s? Some make the case that they began in 1946.

And the ’60s? Even thornier.

One person will assert they began with Kennedy’s inauguration (1961) and ended with the shootings at Kent State (1970). Another might count from Kennedy’s assassination (1963) until Nixon’s resignation (1974) or even until Saigon fell (1975).

Once you divide the century into distinct periods, each becomes far easier to package and sell. The 1920s were flappers and spats and gangsters and speakeasies. The 1930s were bread lines and dust-bowl shacks and fireside chats and the silver screen. The 1940s were GIs and big bands and Rosie the Riveter and Levittown. The 1950s were sock hops and Ward Cleaver and Elvis and Tupperware.

Skip to the 1970s — pet rocks and mood rings and Farrah and disco and maybe, if you’re serious-minded, Watergate and the energy crisis. Whereas the ’80s were thin ties and mousse and legwarmers, wine coolers and Rubik’s Cubes and “Miami Vice” pastels. Not to mention the fall of communism.

Each compressed version of a decade contains kernels of truth and a heavy dose of myth. All overlap. Many are in conflict. It’s complicated, but you wouldn’t know that by how we consume the ’60s today — neatly, coherently, in an orderly fashion.

Everything the real decade wasn’t.

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In a remix culture, decade-driven history can bewilder. How many Americans learned about the ’70s through “That ’70s Show” (1998-2006) or the ’50s through “Happy Days” (1974-84)? Now the ’80s are getting just as jumbled.

If you came of age in the Reagan era, you remember the cliques. The New Wavers who listened to Devo. The girls who drooled over Rick Springfield. The burnouts who smoked outside metal shop and jammed to hair bands. The brooding alt crowd that wore black eyeliner and worshipped the Cure.

Now it’s all melted into a single nostalgic celebration, evoked with phrases like “Gag me with a spoon” and glorified by retro cover bands like the evocatively named Ferris Bueller’s Revenge.

“Once we got older, it just merged together,” says Shawn Maudhuit, 40, one of the suburban Pittsburgh band’s members. “It’s not alternative, not hair. It’s ’80s.”

The 1980s are in vogue for two key reasons: First, they are just distant enough for a new generation of teenagers to view them as “vintage.” Second, those who came of age in the ’80s are now in their late 30s and early 40s, many with the disposable income to relive glory days.

Trafficking in decade imagery is a balancing act. You cultivate authenticity — but only to a point. When you’re an ’80s party band charging a cover for people who want a fun night out, you don’t mention AIDS or Iran-Contra or the Challenger blowing up.

But so what? Why not summon history through the rearview window of popular culture? After all, this stuff became iconic for a reason: At some point, it really meant something. It was a soundtrack to coming of age. And many people — now simply aging — don’t want that to go away.

Packaging history is a natural instinct, particularly today when so much that comes at us is fragmentary and disjointed. Humans have to wrangle time, to organize it into containers that make sense of life.

But packaging some things means leaving important others behind. We can, in effect, choose our 1960s from a buffet of cultural fragments. And each depends upon what the package is trying to sell.

If you’re Nostalgiaville USA, the 20th-century trinket emporium along I-70 in Kingdom City, Mo., PEZ dispensers and “Laugh-In” photos and other pop iconography are your bread and butter. You’re not really focusing on the poor Appalachians that LBJ and RFK tried to help.

If you’re the chain store Party City, you traffic in costumes that evoke the “fun” 1960s, not James Meredith desegregating Ole Miss. If you’re producing “The Wonder Years,” you gin up grainy home movies for your opening credits and overlay a snippet of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock.

But as time goes by, these anecdotal stand-ins shift to the front row. Instead of just evoking a decade, they become how we think about it. Then we start misremembering the past.

Worse, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

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On one episode of “Family Guy,” the Griffin family is eating at a theme diner called “Nifty Fifties.”

A Marilyn Monroe waitress and a James Dean waiter walk by. Then another server hobbles up with metal devices attached to his legs. “I have polio,” he says. Finally, the Griffins’ black friend Cleveland enters. He is immediately confronted by attack dogs and five policemen who hose him out the door.

“Oh, that takes me back,” Cleveland says, smiling.

When we consume packaged versions of our past, we’re often seeking entertainment. But history is not always fun. It’s dirty, confusing, complicated and sometimes downright unpleasant.

Occasionally, pop culture tries to get it right. “Mad Men” meticulously slices the 1960s into detailed segments, painstakingly avoiding cliche as it examines the lives Americans lived as change swirled around them. HBO’s new “Boardwalk Empire” is doing the same thing with the 1920s.

The ’60s as a historical period are in danger of becoming more misunderstood than ever — precisely because of their endless redistillation by people with stories to tell and products to sell.

For most Americans today, Woodstock has become a data point for cultural marketing, remixed and repurposed as much as the peace sign itself. In an era when half of Americans were born after Kent State, the 1960s are raw material for evoking emotions, moments, desires.

Ask the ascendant generation: What comes to mind when someone says, “the 1960s”? Here’s a Facebook response from Julie Hoffman, 17, a Pennsylvania high school student: “I think of old VW buggys. beautiful muscle cars. protests against government. black rights movement. barefoot hippys. bands like the beatles. oh and the big mustaches.”

She’s not wrong. But there was so much more. Learning from history — teaching our children well, particularly when it comes to a decade that changed us so much — requires more than cliches and contextless fragments.

We see the world, the saying goes, through a glass, darkly. And when the complexity of a decade is illuminated with cheap flashlights, things can cloud up even more. The past fades. The same perils present themselves. And if we’re not careful, history repeats itself.

“An era can be said to end,” the playwright Arthur Miller wrote, “when its basic illusions are exhausted.”

He meant ideals, and whether they endure remains a topic of fierce debate when it comes to the 1960s. But in one sense Miller was right: If you judge his words literally, the decade is thriving. Its illusions remain, and remain potent.

What we wish to have happened is one thing; what really happened is starkly different. Could it be that, instead of processing and understanding complex historical periods, we have simply domesticated them so they no longer can bite?

Imagine a 2000s theme party in, say, 2035. Your guests will snack on Mario Batali frozen hors d’oeuvres, dance to “Single Ladies” and wear Snooki outfits. The guy in the corner might be dressed as Tony Soprano or Simon Cowell. Some people, gathered in the kitchen, will be playing the interactive retro drinking game called “Status Update.”

You probably won’t see much 9/11 imagery. The inevitable nostalgic conversations won’t extend to discussions about the Afghanistan or Iraq wars. Most of the decade’s other defining themes — the fading of the American middle class, the collapse of the financial industry, the erosion of privacy and the runaway political polarization — have no place here, either.

It’s a party, after all. There is fun to be had, imagery to be consumed, a past to be packaged. And in the only country where “the pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in the founding document, the tension between history and “history” is a sure thing every time.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. He can be reached at tanthony(at)ap.org.

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