Gerard J. DeGroot: His new book questions whether the era of the 60s was marvelous or misguided





... "Sixties sexual rebels seldom made love," Gerard J. DeGroot notes in The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade, released by Harvard University Press this spring. "They fucked. The word — vulgar, aggressive, rebellious, unfeeling — was the preferred term of the soldiers in the sexual revolution." If you winced at the use of the F-word, as I did, DeGroot's point is confirmed: There was something warlike about making love, 60s-style.

Still, I found myself resisting DeGroot, a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, at every turn. I know that the 60s had many harsh sides, and that the cultural and spiritual openings that so inspired me as a young man were closed in a short time. In a sense, I am the audience DeGroot aims at: those of a certain age who still revere this long-lost era and like to recall a time when innocence prevailed, when students marched in the streets to bring a costly and unjust war to closure, when freedom found a voice of sorts in the sexual revolution, and when the fight against injustice found a footing in the world.

DeGroot debunks this decade with bravura, relishing the ironies, as when he points out that "the political songs of the Sixties may be widely remembered, but they were seldom among the 'greatest hits.'" As evidence, he points out that the best-selling song of 1969 was "Sugar, Sugar," by the Archies, a band that "did not actually exist," being a group of studio musicians pulled together by a record company. (The lead singer in the band, Ron Dante, made his fortune with recordings like "You Deserve a Break Today," which he made for McDonald's.)

DeGroot whirls through the era with a kind of manic energy, as indicated by his subtitle. He offers glimpses of key moments: the protests of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley; the Bay of Pigs invasion; the founding of Students for a Democratic Society, with the famous Port Huron Statement that put forward the group's vision of peace and love; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington; the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Joan Baez; the activities of Malcolm X; the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; Selma; Woodstock; the Tet offensive; the gay revolt in Greenwich Village known as Stonewall; the shootings of students in Mexico City and Kent State; protest marches at home and abroad; the riots in Chicago; the moon landing; the violence of the Weathermen; and so forth. I felt a little dizzy at the end, as if I'd been spun on some crazy merry-go-round. I'm not sure you can write a book that way, or that — if you do — it adds up to much more than a big headache for the reader.

Yet there is much to admire about this book, which is scrupulously researched and provocative. I thought I knew this period well, having lived through it intensely, but I was often surprised by the details that DeGroot churns up. ...



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