1976 — Phil Ochs dies

Born on December 19, 1940, Phil Ochs would become one of the best known protest singers in America (although he himself preferred the descriptor ‘topical singer’). He had his roots in the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the early Sixties. Although he never achieved the commercial success of some of his contemporaries, such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, he was an influential composer. His song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” was a popular rallying cry of anti-Vietnam War protests, and was even once broadcast on the news by Walter Cronkite.

Ochs’ life took a turn for the worse in the Seventies. His troubles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism grew worse, and his behaviour grew paranoid and erratic. Ochs hanged himself on April 9, 1976, bitter and disillusioned by the Nixon era and the assassinations of 1968.

Referenced in:
All My Heroes Are Dead — Dar Williams
The Parade’s Still Passing By — Harry Chapin

1968 – Martin Luther King is assassinated

Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, after years of non-violent struggle for civil rights. By 1967, he was moving on from that. While it remained an important part of his goals, he had also become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and in 1967 established the Poor People’s Campaign – both of which reflected an approach to social justice that was increasingly based on class rather than race.

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the balcony of his hotel. A single shot fired by James Earl Ray caused a remarkable amount of damage, and although King was raced to a nearby hospital by his friends, the doctors were unable to save him. His death led to riots in many American cities (other than Indianapolis, where Bobby Kennedy made one of the greatest speeches of his career, and found his plea for cooler heads heeded), and a national day of mourning was declared by the President.

Referenced in:
Pride – U2
They Don’t Care About Us – Michael Jackson

1965 – Gene Seski crashes a truckload of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania

Gene Seski was an experienced truck driver who, on the 18th of March, 1965, was driving a semi-trailer load of bananas from the piers in New Jersey to the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. His chosen route was Rt. 307, a long, slow descent that winds for two miles into Scranton. It features a section in which, over the course of a single mile, the road drops 500 feet in elevation.

For reasons unknown, Seski lost control of his vehicle. It was travelling at about 90 miles an hour when this happened, and the combination of the truck’s momentum and the downhill slope ensured that it travelled a considerable distance before it came to rest at the corner of Moosic St and S. Irving Ave. Seski did not survive the crash, and the thirty thousand pounds of bananas were scattered all about the vicinity, many of them smeared to a paste.

Referenced in:
30,000 Pounds of Bananas — Harry Chapin

1974 – Nixon resigns the Presidency in disgrace

After the long, slow death of a thousand cuts that was the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s decision to resign from the Presidency – even in disgrace – must have come as something of a relief to him. Starting with the Watergate break-in, on June 17, 1972, which led to the revelation of the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks squad – and getting worse and worse as the attempted cover-up ballooned and failed.

Nixon fought, though. He fought as hard as could, as long as he could – for more than two years. But in the end, his only remaining choice was to leave on his own terms before he was forced out. The pardon that his hand-picked successor gave him – which was for all crimes including those yet to be discovered – was no doubt also a consideration.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
Ego Is Not A Dirty Word – Skyhooks
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1912 – The RMS Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage

It is probably the best known maritime tragedy in history. The RMS Titanic, the largest passnger ship afloat and pride of the White Star Line, was three days out of Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York City when it collided with an iceberg and sank. Of the 2223 passengers and crew, fully 1517 of them were drowned, largely due to an insufficiency of lifeboats.

It’s a matter of historical record that the eight members of the ship’s band continued to play as the ship sank, in a feat of gallantry intended to keep spirits high. All eight of these men died in the sinking. Debate has raged over what their final song was. Some claimed that is was ‘Autumn’, others that it was ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. The debate is further complicated by the fact that ‘Autumn’ could have referred to either hymn tune known as “Autumn” or the tune of the then-popular waltz “Songe d’Automne” (although neither of these tunes were included in the White Star Line songbook). Similarly, there are two arrangements of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, one popular in Britain and the other in America (and the British one sounds not unlike ‘Autumn’) – and a third arrangement was found in the personal effects of band leader’s fiance.

Referenced in:

Dance Band on the Titanic — Harry Chapin
Rest In Pieces (15 April 1912) — Metal Church

1963 — Martin Luther King makes his “I Have A Dream” speech

For a speech that lasted only 10 minutes, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the speech. It’s remains one of the most-quoted speeches of the twentieth century. It crystallised the ideals of the American Civil Rights Movement into a single line; a single dream.

And yet oddly, the best known part of the speech – the “I Have A Dream” section itself – was actually an improvisation. Martin Luther King was a great writer and a great orator, but on this day, he departed from the text of his pre-written speech. He spoke with passion and vision. He spoke from the heart, articulating a vision of an America – a world – which we have still not achieved.

King would be Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963, would win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize…

…and be assassinated a little under eight months later.

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen — Harry Chapin

1963 — U.S. President John F Kennedy is assassinated

One of the defining events of its era, the assassination of President Kennedy remains a remarkably controversial one, even today. Conspiracy theories abound as to who shot Kennedy and why.

While the official story, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, with the rifle, in the book depository, is plausible, it is also notably incomplete – there are any number of holes and anomalies in it. The murder of Oswald only two days later, before he could stand trial, has done nothing to quell these uncertainties.

On a symbolic level, the death of Kennedy was the end of an era in many ways. Quite aside from the idealism that he brought to the nation, his death marked a change in the way America saw itself – no longer the lily-white paladin, but more the grim avenger willing do the dirty work no one else would – although in fairness, this change of self-image would take the rest of the decade to be complete.

Referenced in:

Civil War — Guns n’ Roses
Tabloid Junkie — Michael Jackson
Tomorrow, Wendy — Andy Prieboy
We Didn’t Start The Fire — Billy Joel
He Was A Friend of Mine — The Byrds
Tomorrow, Wendy — Concrete Blonde
Song for a Friend — The Kingston Trio
Purple Toupee — They Might Be Giants
She Is Always Seventeen — Harry Chapin

1968 – the Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago

In 1968, tensions were running high in America. The Vietnam War was dividing the population into pro and anti factions, and the Civil Rights struggle was doing the same. Both sides were becoming increasingly violent, and there were serious concerns that the nation might once again be riven by civil war.

With the assassination of Bobby Kennedy having removed the obvious front-runner from the competition, and the incumbent President refusing to stand for re-election, the Democratic Party was in chaos. But Robert J. Daley’s Chicago was a stronghold of the Democrats, and as Mayor, Daley promised that the convention would run smoothly.

Others disagreed. Thousands of protesters descended upon Chicago, intent on protesting against the war, for civil rights and against the forces of the Establishment. As the convention opened, violence simmered beneath the surface. It wouldn’t take much for it to erupt…

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1969 – Woodstock

Woodstock Music & Art Fair (informally, Woodstock or The Woodstock Festival) was a music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition”, held from August 15 to August 18, 1969, at a dairy farm belonging to a Max Yasgur in the rural town of Bethel, New York. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is actually 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock, after being turned down from its original venue.

Thirty-two acts – inlcuding Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead – performed during the sometimes rainy weekend in front of nearly half a million concertgoers – the organisers had expected only 50,000. Woodstock has come to be seen as one of the high water marks of the hippie movement, and it is sometimes regarded as marking the end of the Sixties.

One imagines that the various acts who were invited but did not attend (those still alive, at any rate) – including the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan – probably still regret it.

Referenced in:

Woodstock – Joni Mitchell
My Generation (Part II) – Todd Snider
We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin
Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

1965 – The Watts Riots begin

On August 11, 1965, a random traffic stop in Watts, a depressed area of Los Angeles with a largely negro population was the spark that set the racial tensions in the area on fire.

Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, whom Minikus believed was drunk. But then Minikus made a tragic error of judgement – he refused to let Frye’s sober brother drive the car home, instead radioing for it too be impounded.

As tempers frayed, and the crowd of onlookers grew, someone threw a rock at the police – and that was all it took to start the avalanche. When the riot was finally ended, 6 days later, 34 people had been killed, more than a thousand injured, and nearly four thousand arrested. It was the worst riot in LA history until the Rodney King trial verdict in 1992.

Referenced in:
One More Time – The Clash
Trouble Every Day – Frank Zappa
In The Heat Of The Summer – Phil Ochs
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1966 – Charles Whitman kills 14 people in a shooting spree before his own death

Charles Whitman was a few weeks past his 25th birthday when he finally snapped. Taking his rifle, he killed 16 people, 3 of them in the tower tower of the University of Texas and 11 more as a sniper in the tower’s observation deck, where he retreated in his final rage. He also wounded 32 other people before he was shot dead by members of the Austin police department.

In the months leading up to his death, Whitman had been court-martialled by the Marines (by whom he had been trained as a sniper), endured his parents’ divorce, and developed both an amphetamine addiction and a headache-inducing brain tumour (the last discovered only at his autopsy)… looking for a motive in his actions is pointless, so many things in his life serving to unabalance him.

His was one of the earliest sniper killing sprees, but sadly, it would not be the last.

Referenced in:
Sniper – Harry Chapin
Sniper in the Sky – Macabre
The Tower – Insane Clown Posse
Chest Explodes – Bottom Feeder
Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer) — Exodus
The Ballad of Charles Whitman – Kinky Friedman
Road To Ruin (Charles Whitman) – Church of Misery

1981 – Harry Chapin dies in a car accident

Somewhere in the afterlife, Harry Foster Chapin is playing a screamingly funny, posthumously written song regarding his own death. Which he co-wrote with James Joyce.

Maybe.

Harry Chapin was an American folk singer, probably best known for songs like Taxi, W*O*L*D and 30,000 Pounds of Bananas. He is also the writer and original performer of Cats in the Cradle – not, as is often claimed, Cat Stevens. Chapin was a poet of the everyday, chronicling the hopes and fears, the failures and the triumphs, of Anytown, USA. His nuanced work remains an excellent anodyne to the more saccharine visions of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. He also wrote possibly the funniest song ever to describe a real fatal road accident (the afore-mentioned 30,000 Pounds of Bananas).

He was also a fierce idealist, working on the boards of many charities, and donating an estimated third of all his concert earnings to various charitable causes. He was particularly active in supporting the arts, and in the fight against poverty and hunger.

Chapin died in a car accident that was most likely caused by him suffering a heart attack behind the wheel. He was only 38 years old.

The world is poorer for his passing.

Referenced in:

Ode to Harry – M.O.D.

This is my blog, so this is not an apology, just an explanation: I feel very strongly indeed about the work of Mr. Chapin. And in 28 years, this is the first chance I’ve found to eulogise him. Now for the love of whatever you hold holy, track down his music. I can’t say for sure that you won’t be sorry, but I’d be extremely surprised if you were.

1972 – The Watergate Burglary goes awry

On the morning of June 17, 1972, a young journalist named Bob Woodward was working the court beat in Washington DC. It was a pretty dull assignment for the most part, until that day, when five men – Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis – were arraigned for a burglary at the Watergate Complex, which housed the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The five men were operatives in the pay of the Nixon government, and the most notorious scandal in United States political history was only beginning. By the time it was over, Woodward and his co-writer Bernstein would be household names, as would their informant, known for more than two decades by no other name than the alias of Deep Throat. Moreover, Nixon would resign in disgrace, and numerous members of his government would wind up facing criminal charges for their participation in the burglary, the cover-up that followed, and any number of other such dirty tricks that the Nixon White House, which referred to these activities as “ratfucking”, was wont to engage in.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
Ego Is Not A Dirty Word – Skyhooks
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin