The two biggest and best-known things that happened in the summer of 1969 (news- and history-wise) were the Apollo 11 moon landing in July and the three-day Woodstock music festival in August. The first thing I find interesting about that summer is the fact that these two iconic and historical events that happened within one month of each other are kind of linked by the simple fact that they were such polar opposites of each other. One was the technological highlight of the century up to that point, and the culmination of an incredibly challenging mission started by President Kennedy back at the beginning of the decade. The other was an amazing collection of musical acts that came together for a concert that would still be remembered and celebrated fifty years later. It was also kind of like the ultimate introduction to the hippie culture that had been developing for a few years. It was a counter-culture revolution occurring at the same time as a technological and scientific revolution. And the Birkenstocks (or dirty bare feet), headbands, sunglasses and flowing, rainbow-colored clothing of the hippies could hardly seem more different from the astronauts of Apollo 11 and technicians at NASA in their horn-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white dress shirts and pocket protectors.
One kind of important thing to mention about the summer of 1969 and my connection to it is that I hadn't actually been born yet. So why is this anniversary so important to me? Well, while I wasn't BORN yet, I was indeed finishing up my development inside of my mother's womb and would be born on September 20th, just as the summer was fading into fall. So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of all the events of the summer of 1969 I'm preparing to "celebrate" my own fiftieth anniversary (birthday) next month. While I'm very much a child of the 1970s and 80s (my early development, childhood, adolescence and the vast majority of the kinds of things I write about here at Monster Dad happened between the mid 70s and the early 80s), I've always been kind of proud to say that "I was born in the 60s!" Sure, there were only about three months left of the decade when I made my debut in the world, but it WAS still the 1960s regardless!
I think another important thing to note is the fact that 1969 was the last year of a pretty noteworthy and tumultuous decade. Every ten years we say goodbye to one decade and welcome a new one in. Rarely does that changeover amount to much more than having to get used to using a new number to note the year as we write checks (not that anyone still uses checks anymore, but you get my point). I remember celebrating New Year's Eve with friends in 1989. I had just recently gotten out of the Army and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. It seemed like we (myself and the world) were on the verge of major changes as we entered the brave new world of a new decade. Then...it was 1990. January first was just another day and life went on. My guess is that many, many decade changes have had a similar build-up and then let down as we realized that life just goes on. Ten years after my disappointment over the big reveal of the 1990s the world was about to witness the events of Y2K! Yes, 1999 was going to turn into the year 2000! These were two very iconic years in science fiction, and that kind of lent to the excitement of Y2K (at least for me anyway). 1999 was the year that the moon was supposed to be thrown out of orbit by a huge explosion (according to the 1970s show "Space:1999"). Of course, Prince had been singing about partying like it was 1999 since the early 80s. And 2000 was simply a year that always seemed SO far in the future (even in 1999!) that it was kind of hard to comprehend. And, while "2001: A Space Odyssey" (both the book and the movie) took place a year later, it was certainly using the future-power of the idea of the year 2000 in its title. But once we realized that nothing really bad happened after the clocks clicked over from 1999 to 2000 it ended up just being another number change between decades. The summer of 1969 really was one of the few times I can think of when a change of decades really meant something. All of the various memorable events of that summer can be seen as the heavens saying goodbye to the 60s and noting the changeover to the 1970s that would happen in just a few months. I could be overthinking this, but it really seems that 1969 changing to 1970 meant at least a little bit more than most decade ends.
If the moon landing and Woodstock were the only things that the summer of 1969 were remembered for it would be enough to make the 50th anniversary something worth noting. But there were other things that happened that summer to make it even more noteworthy and memorable. If Apollo 11 and Woodstock were the polar opposites of life in the 1960s, much of the news and entertainment of that summer kind of reflected that battle between culture and counter-culture that they represented. Vietnam was a long war that spanned the 1960s and 70s, so it wouldn't really be fair to say the summer of 1969 was remembered for the war more or less than any other time. But the counter-culture of the time (and pretty much the rest of the country as well) was really starting to get frustrated by what was happening in Vietnam by this time. The "homefront" had really changed from WWII (and even Korea). More and more people were becoming disenchanted (not sure if that's the right word to encapsulate the feelings of the time) with what was going on. And unfortunately the soldiers who were sent to fight in Vietnam really kind of took the brunt of that disenchantment. Instead of being thanked for their service and having their emotional scars treated with the same weight as their physical wounds, they were unfairly blamed for the war and not welcomed back home as they should have been. One specific event related to Vietnam that kind of encapsulates the growing anti-war movement of the time that did happen during the summer of 1969 was when Muhammad Ali was convicted of evading the draft, just four days after the euphoria of the moon landing.
While the war in Vietnam was raging on the other side of the world, wars over civil rights, equal rights and gay rights were raging in the United States. Less than two months before the "Three Days of Peace & Music" message of Woodstock the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village brought a lot of attention to the gay rights movement. Needless to say, not everything newsworthy that happened during that summer was positive or fun stuff. I think the reason we have been celebrating the moon landing and Woodstock so much this summer, while not really mentioning some of the other events, has to do as much with their positive messages as their historical significance. It's a lot more fun to listen to the music of Woodstock and watch footage of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon than it is to ruminate over riots and unrest. That's not to say that the other events were any less important to history, just that they are less fun and possibly more painful to reflect upon.
Speaking of less-than-fun, yet important newsworthy events, there's one more BIG event I want to mention from the summer of 1969. This one was probably as big of a story at the time as the moon landing and Woodstock. But it's not something we're really "celebrating" during this time of noting the 50th anniversary of that summer. It's something that (like everything else that summer) happened before I was born, but became a part of my life every bit as much as the other, more celebrated events. It actually happened between the moon landing and Woodstock (and for some reason that seems immensely appropriate and important for context). It was the Charles Manson murders. Over two nights Manson and his "family" (a very different take on the "hippie culture" from what would be represented at Woodstock) murdered actress Sharon Tate and seven other people. That story surely changed the tone of the summer of '69, and it would be one that would continue well into the 1970s and beyond. I wasn't really old enough to know about the story until Manson and other members of the family were already many years into their prison sentences. But those story lines were always reported on. I remember hearing about Manson's annual parole hearings (which ALWAYS seemed to get a lot of news coverage, even decades after the murders) and watching the film "Helter Skelter" (1976) on TV. Since I didn't have actual memories of the original time of the murders my feelings about Manson were colored by pop culture and the seemingly constant reporting on his "kookiness". When he finally passed away in 2017 I was a bit confused and possibly a bit disturbed to find myself feeling just a bit of sadness over the news. I had mourned the passing of celebrities whose works meant a lot to me, like David Bowie and Leonard Nimoy. They were famous people that I certainly didn't have any actual connection with, but they were nonetheless important people in my life. Why I felt a bit of that same feeling when Charles Manson passed probably had a lot to do with pop culture and maybe a little to do with the overwhelming amount of big stories that came out of the summer of 1969. And it really speaks for just how important that summer was and how appropriate it is to note the 50th anniversary of when it all happened.
And, now, let's finish up with something a little bit more fun than Charles Manson, and a bit less related to the summer of 1969. It's the song "The summer of '69" by Bryan Adams. This song is about that summer and the importance of it for a young Adams. It's less about all the worldwide news events I've mentioned here and more about the personal experiences of a kid growing up that summer. He got his first real guitar, he and his friends formed a band, he went to the drive-in and fell in love. The song came out in the 1980s and didn't even mention moon shots, important music festivals or anything else that happened in the summer of 1969 that we've already discussed. But it was ABOUT that summer, and it was obviously a very special and important time for him. And the song really meant a lot to me as a teenager. It could (and one day may) warrant its own blog post, but for now I'll just say that Bryan Adams' memories of the summer of '69 in that song coincided with and reflected my own experiences around the time the song came out. The connection I felt to the song was so strong that to this day I still love it, and secretly refer to it as "The Summer of '85". It's just one more celebration (even if on a much more personal level) of the summer of 1969, and it just seems like a nice way to wrap up this blog. True, finishing up with footage from the moon landing or an iconic performance by one of the acts at Woodstock (The Who? Jimi Hendrix? Jefferson Airplane? Crosby, Stills & Nash? The Grateful Dead? Creedence Clearwater Revival? The Band? Joan Baez? Janis Joplin?...) might make more sense, but here's "The Summer of '69" for you because, well, it makes sense to me: