Burying the Sixties: Leon, Melvin Laird, Mom Brady, and Fidel

It so happens that your intrepid researcher has decided to be lazy today and only talk about one subject: the death of three ’60s icons. There are many reasons for this departure, but the main one is that these three people stood for an era now long gone, when protests were informed and entertainment meant not to send messages but pleasure, and when superpower brinkmanship meant that my dad built a bomb shelter in the basement.

Russel’s musicography reads like a who’s who of 60’s American pop music.

It would seem unlikely that a kid from urban Oklahoma would be a pop music sensation, but Claude Russell Bridges (Leon’s birth name) began playing the piano at age four.  As a member of the Wrecking Crew (often called Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra) of first-call studio musicians in Los Angeles, Russel’s musicography reads like a who’s who of 60’s American pop music.  In an age when the Baby Boomers were increasingly turning to their radios and turntables for entertainment, Russell and his sound ranged from Sinatra to Ike and Tina to the Beatles and Jan and Dean,  But, somehow, he maintained his own style of music, epitomized by “A Song for You,” “Tightrope,” and “Delta Lady,” all of which were pop-rhythm paeans to his prairie roots, in their own way.  His death in Mount Juliet, Tennessee on 13 November, 2016 was observed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (where he was inducted in 2011), and around the world.

It was Laird who devised “Vietnamization,” the turning over of the main fighting in southeast Asia to the Saigon government whether the Saigon government wanted it or not.

Few remember Melvin Laird, Defense Secretary under Richard Nixon.  His demise on 16 November, 2016 in Ft. Meyers, FL at the age of 94 was noted politely by the print media, hardly at all by any others.  A steady conservative in the Wisconsin state legislature and Congress from 1952 until 1969, when he took over at the Department of Defense.  It was Laird who devised “Vietnamization,” the turning over of the main fighting in southeast Asia to the Saigon government whether the Saigon government wanted it or not. Maybe it was Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war, and maybe it wasn’t.  But Laird said he’d serve for no more than four years, and he left just after Nixon’s second inaugural in 1973, before the scandals splattered everyone.

For a hundred-odd episodes “The Brady Bunch “acted as something of a brake for the runaway social change that was tearing much of the country apart in the late ’60s and early ’70s, even as the shots of Kent State were still echoing across the political landscape.

There was something other-worldly about “The Brady Bunch” when it premiered in 1969. The streets were wild with protesters waving signs about civil rights, women’s liberation, and the war in Vietnam.  Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been killed the year before, and the explosions of popular protest that followed the Tet offensive in January 1968 were still resonating.  But here, six kids and three adults were reprising “Father Knows Best” and “Donna Reed” tropes at the same time, with a “My Three Sons” housekeeper thrown in on balance.  At the center of this comedy-light drama circus was Florence Agnes Henderson, a bit player on television who before 1969 was better known on the stage and as a minor singer than anywhere else.  Henderson’s Carol Brady was co-anchor with Robert Reed to the blended-family story theme. For a hundred-odd episodes “The Brady Bunch “acted as something of a brake for the runaway social change that was tearing much of the country apart in the late ’60s and early ’70s, even as the shots of Kent State were still echoing across the political landscape.  Only a few segments deviated from the sitcom formula of problem/complication/solution/moral that has been a staple in American entertainment since radio days, and few had anything to do with the growing TV tide of themes for “social justice,” whatever that may mean.  Carol Brady/Florence Henderson always seemed to be at the center of the solution, and the moral, and not the problem. Her deft handling of six hormonal teenagers was an inspiration for many.  Though I didn’t follow the program except when compelled by circumstances, it was diverting enough to not be off-puttingly smarmy.  Mom Brady’s death on 24 November, 2016 in Los Angeles was noted by many, including her on-air kids.

Over the course of five decades, from 1959 to 2011, Fidel held the offices of President, Premier, Prime Minister, and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.  

Finally, Fidel Castro Ruiz.  In the late 1950s, the name “Fidel” became as well-known in revolutionary circles as Mao, as the Cuban Revolution reached its climax in January 1959.  Castro considered himself the heir of Jose Marti. Taking over the Cuban government on 1 January 1959, Castro installed himself and his fellow revolutionaries in a new totalitarian government that was swift to nationalize the American businesses in Cuba, close the casinos and brothels, and dealt summarily–and fatally–with those who got in their way.  Screaming defiance and bleating socialist slogans for hours on end, Fidel reorganized much of Cuban society, invited a Soviet military presence that came close to starting WWIII, rescheduled Christmas because it interfered with the sugar harvest, and was singularly responsible for one of the few countries in the world that self-reported 100% literacy.  All in four years.  Over the course of five decades, from 1959 to 2011, Fidel held the offices of President, Premier, Prime Minister, and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.  He was also the driving force behind the Non-Aligned Movement.  His death on 25 November 2016, was observed by many, celebrated by some, and memorialized by others.

 Now, we have to bury some more of our icons of the Sixties, along with our lava lamps and our double-knit bell bottoms. Please.

While we listened to Leon and Fidel, watched Mom Brady for the simple moral and tried to understand Mel Laird’s concept of “drawing down,” the Sixties were driving themselves, whether we could do anything to change “everything” with our protests and speeches or not.  In October 1962, while JFK and Khrushchev were playing chicken in the Caribbean, my father built what we called a “fallout shelter” in the basement of our house in suburban Detroit. Fourteen miles northwest of the Detroit River and five miles due south of the GM truck plant in Pontiac, our chances of surviving the first Soviet missiles were somewhere between slim and non-existent. But Dad built it “just in case,” even though both he and Mom recognized that “surviving” that holocaust may not have been worthwhile if everything else was a cinder.  Still, it made some part of us feel better.  So did Mom Brady.  Now, we have to bury some more of our icons of the Sixties, along with our lava lamps and our double-knit bell bottoms. Please.

 

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