Review: 1963 — The Year of the Revolution

1963: The Year of the Revolution by Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve

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In the course of human history, teenagers are a fairly recent invention. Of course, humanity’s always gone through adolescence, but as a social construct, young adulthood was really developed after World War II, when post-war prosperity meant that teenagers had money—and, therefore, agency—for the first time en masse. Add to that the baby boom, and you’ve got yourself prime conditions for changing the culture.

That’s why baby boomers remain so important in the American cultural narrative: there’s just so many of them. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing, in that the unique demographics for that generation had a lot of really interesting ramifications socially, politically, and culturally. And it’s a curse, in that… well, I’ll let Troy and Abed explain.

Being in the thick of the teens means that we are roughly fifty years away from the sixties. Yesterday, in fact, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. This is a grand opportunity for people like me, who have no grip on the sixties, to get acquainted with the highlights and for everyone to reappreciate and reevaluate that time period. It’s also a lazy opportunity to simply play the nostalgia card and endlessly compliment the people who lived through it to get them to buy things, just as Troy and Abed trick Pierce into joining glee club.

And, although it doesn’t end in Taran Killan murdering a bus full of glee clubbers, it doesn’t end well, especially for this book. I picked up 1963: The Year of the Revolution (is the subtitle incorporated? Is it such a generic title that I, in fact, am happy to add something that makes it more identifiable?) because I wanted to learn more about the early sixties. It always takes a decade a year or two to get its wings, so 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles and Bob Dylan first received national attention in Britain, makes a very logical starting point.

I have this tendency with nonfiction to simply pick it up based on the topic. I suppose I do that to a certain extent with fiction—princesses struggling against mighty odds, stories about storytelling, and queer representation will all get me to pick up a book. But that’s only to pick it up; I still have to determine whether or not the story itself interests me. Nonfiction poses a different challenge. Obviously, history and pop culture is endlessly fascinating to me, so I’m interested in the information. It’s the approach that nonfiction can muck up; the driest text on the most interesting subject would be a very tough sell. (I mean, I will read anything about The Legend of Zelda, dry or no, but that goes to show you the pull of nostalgia, especially if it’s for something that holds up.)

1963: The Year of the Revolution has chosen a fascinating year in human history to explore, but its exploration is sloppy and shallow. I feel like I have a little more room to throw shade, since this is an oral history and I’m terrifically fond of oral histories. A good oral history crafts a narrative out of the immense interviews and research done to give a feel for the topic at hand. I Want My MTV followed the rise and “fall” of MTV chronologically. Slimed! attempted to tell the story of Nickelodeon topically, but lacked context.

What this book does is follow 1963 through eight different but delightfully alliterating chapters, like Ambition and Alacrity. But these are just placeholders; the stories they tell don’t seem particularly connected to one another or the theme. Much is made about the Beatles—lyrics are quoted copiously—but Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve could, apparently, not get access to Ringo Starr or Paul McCartney for the book. (Louder Than Hell took the tact of quoting from previous interviews from different sources whenever it encountered someone inaccessible. It’s a nice way to supplement one’s own research.) To be fair, there are plenty of pertinent players interviewed here; Keith Richards is, as usual, a joy, and less public figures like Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon contribute their stories as well.

But all of these stories largely add up to an uncomfortable and untrue narrative—baby boomers were the first to rebel against the previous generation, they invented rock and roll, and the young people of today are all awful and couldn’t possibly pull off something that game-changing. Humans have been rebelling against the status quo since we invented the status quo; Impressionism, anyone, to pick just one example out of an endless selection? And, as Keith Richards protests (and 1963: The Year of the Revolution steamrolls over), rock and roll was derived from African-American rhythm and blues of the 1940s and 1950s. I almost expected the attitude towards the young people of today, honestly, but in combination with how much back-patting this book does instead of any historical or cultural analysis, it comes off pretty flippantly cruel.

Bottom line: 1963: The Year of the Revolution is the book version of “Baby Boomer Santa.” I recommend giving it a pass and going for some heartier history.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

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