I was ten years old in the “Summer of Love” of 1967 and mostly unaware—if not entirely blissfully—of the cultural and political turbulence rocking our nation far beyond the confines of my comfortable New England middle-class home, where the sounds of Buck
In his ambitious In Search of the Lost Chord, Goldberg delivers a well-written and wildly polychromatic snapshot of an epochal moment that is, alas, just about as tangential, unfocused and uneven as the year 1967 was. What Goldberg sets out to do is to describe with one single long rhythmic stroke of his pen all the concurrent aspects of the emerging counterculture that were manifested on both coasts: folk and blues morphing into a new brand of rock; antiwar activism ramping up to radical resistance; the civil rights struggle evolving into militant black power; the sexual revolution; pot and LSD and the drug scene; extreme variations in religion and spiritualism; a renaissance in art and literature; television and mass media; hippies and yippies standing against “the Man.” Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll. And much more. And a huge cast of characters. All in just over three hundred pages. Goldberg tries to do it all, to fit it all in, and of course falls short, but not for lack of effort. In the end, it reads like one long Rolling Stone article, which in style is certainly emblematic of the era he chronicles, a rough blend of memoir, history and anecdote.
Looking back, it seems as if America was never the same after John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963, but all of the forces that defined the rest of the decade were roiling beneath the nation’s superficial complacency long before Dallas. The Eisenhower years were famously dubbed by one historian as “the time of the great postponement,” because Ike’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked a plethora of dangerous cans down the road in the fractured landscape of civil rights, urban decay, poverty, and other looming crises. JFK’s death led to the accidental presidency of the less cool-headed Lyndon Johnson, whose cavalier decision to introduce large-scale ground troops into Vietnam proved to be the grand hypocenter for a legion of foreshocks of coalescing discontent. 1967 was the year the veneers cracked spectacularly, unleashing elements equal parts utopian and malign, although that was hardly clear at the time, near the dawn of the “hippie idea.” The real faults ruptured the following year, in 1968, with anarchy and assassination.
The problem with In Search of the Lost Chord is that it lacks historical context. Imagine a history of the Civil War that began with Fort Sumter, with no backdrop to the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, John Brown or the election of 1860. Like those first shots at Sumpter, the ideas and events of 1967 were not products of a virgin birth, but emerged from a long gestation that Goldberg fails to probe. Another complaint is that while the narrative explores the counter-culture, there is almost no sense of what is going on in the rest of the nation or the rest of the world in 1967, with all of those people who were not hanging out with George Harrison or Jerry Garcia or Allen Ginsberg or Abbie Hoffman—with the vast majority of the country who were listening to Nancy Sinatra on the radio instead of Janis Joplin. Conspicuous in its absence is the larger picture of what was going on in the jungles of Vietnam, in the Cold War standoff with the Soviets, or with LBJ’s Great Society experiment; yet each and every one of these are critically related to the social revolution gaining ground in San Francisco, L.A., New York City and beyond. The audience to Goldberg’s book comes upon these various movements and the people that made them much like Gulliver washing up on a distant shore to find strange cities and exotic inhabitants like none he has ever encountered before. I lived through the era, so I recognized most, if not all of it. A reader of another generation would simply be lost. To his credit, Goldberg does include a timeline of 1967 events as appendix, although it is too brief and disconnected to the narrative to be of much use. More helpful perhaps would have been a biographical index of the large number of individuals who people this chronicle, since so many names are dropped it is a great challenge for the reader to recall all of them and their various connections.
It is manifestly impossible to describe the LSD experience to someone who has never dropped acid. But you need not have lived through 1967 to study it as history. Goldberg is a fine writer, but he is no historian. Given the year and the topic, it may especially verge on cliché to describe Goldberg’s effort as kaleidoscopic, but nevertheless that is often what the narrative feels like, packed with so much material tossed at the reader from so many angles that in the end it is far stronger on content than on coherence. That may be more of the fault of the editor than of the author, but it remains a fault nonetheless. That is not to say I would advise against reading In Search of the Lost Chord, only that it cannot be your sole guide to 1967, because if it is, you will no doubt find yourself disoriented: it won’t be a bad trip, just a confusing one.
In 1973, sixteen years old and wearing shoulder length hair, six full summers after the “Summer of Love,” I was among 600,000 people at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen—according to the Guinness Book of World Records the “largest audience at a pop festival” ever—listening to the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers. The chord of that hippie era I was trying to embrace was already lost to us, but we did not know it then. Nixon, who had come to represent all that was wrong with America, would resign the following year, in the wake of Watergate. But not even seven years later, Reagan was President and America rewound to Eisenhower. Revolution and renaissance were indefinitely postponed.
A half-century later, we can perhaps remember 1967 best as a year that promised a great many possibilities, most of which went sadly unfulfilled. As this review goes to press, on the final day of 2017—perhaps the worst year in American history since 1968—the metaphorical “lost chord” of 1967 seems even further beyond our reach. Still, this has ever been a nation of reinvention, of reimagining ourselves, of stubborn and irrepressible optimism. Reading Goldberg’s book is a reminder that there was a time that optimism put on legs and took to the streets as well as the airwaves. We may never find that lost chord, but we may yet again strike a new one that carries longer and with more vigor, in the years to come.
[Note: I read an Advance Reading Copy edition of this book, as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]