Saturday, September 29, 2007

Woodstock

Woodstock, was the great event that defined the late sixties. Yet while at once showing how young people in America had changed from their co-horts in the fifties, the seeds of destruction were laid at the same time. Instead of the counterculture being a relatively small group of like minded souls, after Woodstock everybody got hip. College campus became filled to the brim with "freaks". "Far out","bummed out", "down on..." became expressions that everybody used. No longer an exclusive club, everybody went to Woodstock that summer or at least pretended to.

The girl next door started wearing granny dresses. The kids in high school majoring in auto mechanics grew their hair long and started smoking pot. The pharmacist at the drug store started riding a motorcycle. Anthony Cavalo took up the guitar.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

High school underground newspapers


Being a high school intellectual, at least in the 60’s, made one wiser, smarter, hipper, and more worldly than our elders, especially our teachers, principals, political leaders, parents and ministers. A high school intellectual, with one witty comment, could show an awareness of the intricacies of life and the world that older people could not grasp.


Between classes, we had the wisdom of the ages and were not afraid to share our knowledge of life. One of my personal favorite axioms of that time was that the major difference between high school and college was that at college you could get chocolate milk. In this axiom my own personal acumen and knowledge was shown to understand the entire misguided American educational system.


We were wise sages masquerading as high school kids. And high school underground newspapers were one of the principal manifestations of the superiority, morally as well as intellectually we had over our teachers and our straighter classmates.

By weaseling my way into the high school hip intellectual crowd, I was invited to attend a meeting of Smuff, the soon to be high school underground newspaper of Hackensack. Working for Smuff was a great honor, albeit one that did not appear on my college applications. Prudence, as they say, is the better part of valor.


Why the paper was not burned and all the distributors expelled I do not know. The high school administration allowed it to go on. Maybe they realized that the Smuff thing was just a fad that the writers would appreciate later when we were getting our graduate degrees. At any rate, it was tolerated.


Some times I get nostalgic over a few beers and get out my old Smuffs. They are enjoyable reads.


editor's note: the long out of print "Our Time is Now" edited by John Birmingham (the first editor of Smuff) contains excerpts from a number of high school underground newspapers (including Smuff) as well as an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut. It is available quite cheaply in paperback on the Internet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

the new Democratic coalition

The New Democratic Coalition of Bergen County supported Eugene McCarthy for President and sat on their hands during the 1968 Presidential election that ultimately elected Richard Nixon.



That spring some of the members decided to join the Hackensack Democratic Club. My father, at that time was the club president, and as a kid I got to listen to some of the phone calls the old man made. I remember he called people like Tony Andorra and said, "Well we've decided to let some of these young people join the Democratic Club but I thought it would be nice of some of the 'old timers' came to the meeting too."



A kid with big ears learns a lot from his parents.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Vatican II


When I was a kid growing up, the mass was said in Latin, the priest faced away from the public, and kids were afraid of the nuns, who were allowed to use corporeal punishment. Not going to a Catholic school, I only got a small dosage of Catholic learning in Cathechism on Sunday mornings. There we learned that Hell was a place where devils put hot spears in the sinners' livers and spleens.


Missing Church on Sunday was enough to plunge one into the depths of Hell. There was also a middle place, called Purgatory, where people with venial sins sat around and waited (sometimes for centuries) for entrance into Heaven. Life had its rules and all Catholics were happy and content with their faiths.


Then came Vatican II. Now the mass was said in English. They introduced that business where people shook hands during service. The missiles were thrown out with their translations. We were told that from now on, the Church was about love, " I mean Luv l-u-v"
At grade seven, Sunday school ended and was replaced with the Confraternity of Christian doctrine. This took place on Monday nights and accounts for the fact that I never watched the Monkees as a kid. Post confirmation, most young families felt that no more Catholic education was required, so the classes were always small. The students all smoked before class.


Being taught by laymen (or laywomen) the topic of these classes was often muddled. My favorite one occurred when a young lady brought in her record player and we played and analysed Simon and Garfunkel records. I wonder if she knew if they were Jewish.


Today a revolutionary idea has been brought to the Catholic church. Latin masses have been reintroduced with the priests facing the front of the church. What goes around comes around.


Monday, September 3, 2007

WBAI


The Pacifica foundation was founded in California in the 1950's and was famous for the left-of center radio station in Berkeley, KPFA. A few years later, WBAI radio was started in New York. A good account of the early days of this station can be found in the book by Steve Post, "Living in the FM Band".



At some point in my high school career I was introduced to WBAI by my father's hospital bunk mate. My father was recovering from hand surgery and his bunk mate suggested I listen to WBAI. I don't know how it came up in the conversation but it did.



The following September my mother started out for her new position as a school nurse in a local nursing school. She had to leave early so I had the run of the house for half an hour every morning before I had to go to high school.



I was elated and happy. I could have adventures all over the house and no one would be the wiser. One thing I would have control of the was the fm radio in the house, attached to the family stereo. I switched around the dial and put it square at 99.5, WBAI. Funny, no station. I ran into the kitchen to have some orange juice and when I came back a grouchy man was talking about the cheesy coffee shop he had just been in. Then he played a weird band I had never heard of called "The Incredible String Band". I had discovered a new radio station.



The next morning the radio was tuned again to WBAI. Again silence. At roughly twenty minutes past seven, a testy man started complaining about a sour container of yogurt he had just bought. The man was Larry Josephson. After this repartee, he played a record by Phil Ochs or perhaps it was Tom Paxton.



I always felt that the concept of starting a radio station not at a set hour but when the guy got there was one of the unheralded revolutionary ideas in media. Like an artsy shop in New Hope, it opened when the owner got there, not when the clock said it did. Not surprisingly this trend never made it into the main stream.




That year I listened to the station for the humor and knowledge of people like Larry Josephson, Steve Post, and when I was allowed to stay up late, Bob Fass. I also learned to feel guilty about the way we Americans oppressed women, people of color, the environment, the Vietnamese and countless other things about the terrible state of modern American post-industrial society.




Over the years I, like most baby boomers, have left WBAI for more comfortable pastures. I now listen to NPR, WXPN in Philadelphia for music, and mouse around with the Internet. The baby boomer's radicalism descends into a comfortable, whiny, liberalism.


editor's note: Judging from their website, the Incredible String Band are still performing! I wonder how Licorice is doing. I had a thing for Licorice in high school.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Siddhartha

High school in the sixties had the one interesting quality of being unpredictable. Good or bad, Fanny Hillers and the Junior High School had the day to day sameness that a child learned to expect from school. You knew when the assemblies would be. You weren't surprised by unexpected breaks in routine. Yes there was the occasional fire drill but that was about it.

High school turned out to be, at least for me, full of surprises. One unexpected turn of events came in eleventh grade English class. We were trodding through 17th century literature with Mrs. Bernwick. We were finished, thankfully, with Francis Bacon and were just reluctantly dipping our feet into Ben Johnson when, one morning, we had a substitute teacher. The next day, another substitute. Then, Friday morning, the sky turned from blue to white to yellow and back to blue. Trumpets sounded through the halls. Into the classroom came beautiful, sweet, young Beth Rogers.

Beth Rogers never looked at the lesson plans. Instead, she handed us all paperbacks of Siddhartha. Siddhartha was the signature work of the then fashionable German 20th century writer, Hermann Hesse. So much for the literature of jolly old England.

Ostensibly about the life of the Buddha, the book was in reality a thinly disguised bildungsroman. With her blue eyes glimmering and her beautiful long blonde hair flopping all over the classroom, we discussed Siddhartha, growing up, our parents, and other topics.

One day, a month later, Mrs. Bernwick came back. Assuming that now we would at least be up to the Cavalier poets. "So what did you do while I was away?"

I raised my hand. "We read Siddartha by Hermann Hesse," I volunteered.

"What the heck is that?". Mrs. Bernwick was not amused. The sky went from blue to gray and none of us ever saw Beth Rogers again. The next year I snuck to the Village when my parents were away and bought Demian.