Couldn’t help noticing that two deaths making headlines in the past week represented such seriously opposite ends of American society during the late 1960s and early ’70s, and how they were viewed through the eyes of some of us — me, at least — who were growing up at the time and getting a sense of the world in which we lived.
Charles Manson, cult leader and mass murderer whose followers’ killing rampage in early August 1969 not only shocked the nation but introduced us to the concept of sudden and seemingly random violence, took his last breath at 83 on Nov. 19 after more than four decades of imprisonment. Defiant and attracting disciples right to the end, Manson became the icon of a turbulent decade when people honestly wondered if a divided America could ever heal itself, and an everlasting symbol of evil. The murders of rising screen actress Sharon Tate, several of her friends and an innocent couple over two days seemed to be the last straw on a society then strained by changing mores, increased drug usage and protest against our military commitment to Vietnam.
Thinking back, it did seem to be a crazy time in which we were surrounded in my family’s rural section of upstate New York. I was 12 and beginning to pay attention to what was happening in that world. That particular summer was pretty significant in terms of events. The famous three-day concert on Max Yasgur’s farm in adjoining Sullivan County that came to be known as Woodstock happened in mid-August to the amazement or disgust of the locals, depending on who you talked to, while others coped with the idea that such a mass of people crowded into an isolated spot in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains just for music and the experience.
My good friend Tom Degan, who now comments on the national scene not far from where he grew up in Goshen, N.Y., once brilliantly painted in words how he and a cousin rode their bikes down to the bridge spanning Route 17 the week of Woodstock to see how choked the westbound lanes were with traffic headed to the event. You didn’t even see that on summer Fridays when New York City dwellers fled to the resorts like the one depicted in “Dirty Dancing” for a breath of fresh air.
Three weeks earlier, on July 20, we watched our televisions with awe as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descended from a landing unit onto the surface of the Moon, fulfilling the late President Kennedy’s pledge to put Americans on lunar topsoil by the end of the ’60s and ahead of the Soviets. I think our elation at achieving such a marvel in a short amount of time was then deflated by the brutality of the Manson murders, that back home we had not cured the social ills and failings that created a Charles Manson. We last went to the Moon in 1972, but are still dealing with those same problems that drive some individuals to take as many lives as possible.
As I recall within our group of junior high male types, Manson’s Svengali-like ability to influence and bend people to his will in the far-off (to us) universe of California commune living, drugs and the counterculture exerted a certain fascination, although we all knew what had been done by him and his merry band of fellow psychos was abhorrent. Twelve years later, listening to onetime prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi describe his trial experiences with Manson to an audience at then-Rio Grande College, such juvenile wonderings had been long replaced in my mind by the belief we were all better off with him being behind bars for the rest of his life.
Announcement of David Cassidy’s passing at 67 on Nov. 21 brought me back to the other side of the cultural coin at the time I and my friends transitioned into high school, older perhaps but certainly not much wiser. “The Partridge Family” debuted on ABC-TV on Sept. 25, 1970, and brought David, stepson of series star Shirley Jones, into prominence as vocalist for the band whose weekly adventures became the stuff of sitcom history for four seasons.
The show and its music were poles apart from the societal and cultural issues represented by Manson, then facing trial for his crimes, and leaned more to the kind of America to which some folks clung so desperately. Small wonder then that “The Partridge Family” followed “The Brady Bunch” on the network’s Friday schedule for most of its run. David Cassidy and the top 40 soft rock kind of sound, exemplified by his delivery, trendy but clean-cut look and striving for wholesomeness, was an alternative to the emergence of what was once called “acid” rock whose lyrics and instrumentals pointed to a more personal and chaotic vision from its creators.
For those of us pursuing our parochial school lives and seeking diversion at the time, that’s all acid rock (now called “classic” rock) was — a diversion, and in some cases with those individuals who formed bands, an avocation. There were guys who were really passionate about that scene, but much of it was as unreal and unattainable as the stuff fronted by “The Partridge Family.”
Differing tastes tended to obscure David’s talents as a musician and performer, and in later years his skills found an outlet on the stage and in touring. By the close of the ’70s, in a not-bad attempt to stretch himself as an actor, he starred in an NBC-TV series with the self-explantory title of “David Cassidy — Man Undercover.” Structurally a pretty standard police drama that was canceled by mid-season, the stories and a more mature David were compelling enough to make the show memorable, at least for myself when I caught it on a re-run in the summer of 1979. And the David Cassidy of that period was like a lot of us — older and trying to make our way in the world.
And so it goes with the iconic figures of our youth, good and bad. We may outgrow them, they may be no longer relevant, but we never forget what made them either famous or the scourge of our times.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.