In 1963, Bob Dylan’s moody mug was gaining fame. So was another visage, the Smiley face.
It was that kind of year.
That we’re still listening to Dylan and still working :) into our texts testifies to the staying power of pop culture trends whose fuses were lit 50 years ago, then fanned by whatever was blowin’ in the wind.
“You could feel everything beginning to ramp up,” said Lary May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota who was in college at the time. The 1950s had their moments of cultural rebellion — Elvis, the Twist, birth control pills, “Catcher in the Rye” — but these new influences would prove more obstinate, more challenging.
“In the ’50s, you grew up being a juvenile delinquent in the rock ’n’ roll youth culture, and then you became an adult,” May said. “I mean, Elvis enlisted in the military. But with the Beatles phenomenon, we all grew into adulthood together with lyrics that were becoming more and more socially conscious. They changed adulthood.”
Boundaries were pushed in ways no one had foreseen.
Some of the first waves washed over the folk music scene. Stuart Klipper, a fine arts photographer in Minneapolis, was steeped in the flourishing folk community of Ann Arbor, Mich., likely strumming an autoharp, “when a young man from northern Minnesota making his way to New York stopped in and hung around for a week or two.”
Bob Dylan made an impression. “He was effectively cut from a different fabric than the rest of us.”
Singers such as Pete Seeger long had been the voices of social conscience, but gently so, as in the scripture-based “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Dylan, however, “blew everyone away,” he said. “But not everyone knew how much they were willing to be blown away.” Dylan refused to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when censors limited what he could sing. He pushed people’s buttons, sidestepping traditional folk music and performing his own songs, which rankled some. “There were hard lines around issues of authenticity and tradition,” Klipper said.
Some of those lines were drawn around Dylan’s songs that protested the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The lyrics of “Masters of War” were far more blistering than “We Shall Overcome.”
And I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon / I will follow your casket / In the pale afternoon.
The song shocked audiences in 1963, yet the lyrics have continued to resonate. In 2004, the owner of a Minneapolis record store found himself just as angry over rumored weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“I was very upset when ships started heading toward Iraq and they started bombing,” said Mark Trehus of Treehouse Records, who decided to make a benefit single to raise money for humanitarian efforts in Iraq. His song choice: “Masters of War.”
“That song is just as vital today as when it was written,” said Trehus, who collaborated with a local punk band, Dillinger Four. “It’s probably the angriest Dylan song of all, and I was really angry. And the world still has not changed enough.”
Tab, ZIP and Ringo
It’s reckless to connect too many dots about 1963, but a list of what began within popular culture is startling in its breadth. It’s almost impossible to resist intoning, after each item: “And the rest is history.”
• Julia Child’s show, “The French Chef,” premiered, becoming one of the first cooking shows on American TV.
• Andy Warhol founded his first Factory in New York City, an immediate mecca for artists, celebrities and partying.
• The first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” premiered in the United States.
• The Coca-Cola Co. introduced its first diet drink, Tab cola.
• The U.S. Postal Service instituted the Zone Improvement Plan, or ZIP code.
• “My Favorite Martian” debuted on CBS, reflecting the nation’s growing obsession with the space race.
• AT&T introduced the touch-tone keypad phone.
• McDonald’s aired its first TV commercial, with hamburgers selling for 15 cents.
• The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” had their U.S. release.
• Harvey Ball designed the “smiley face” to boost morale at a life insurance company.
It’s a rather remarkable confluence of events for one year, and more so by how they resonate today. Even Troll dolls, the toys with the freakishly colorful hair that became a huge fad in 1963, have inspired a new movie by DreamWorks, scheduled for 2016. (Although, given the vagaries of Hollywood, the rest may not be history.)
Authority gets questioned
In November of 1963, theaters were set to screen a new movie with an odd name: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Director Stanley Kubrick had set about making a comedy about nuclear war.
May, the American Studies professor, regards the movie as a seminal product of the time. “Dr. Strangelove” could never have happened without 1963,” he said. Cold War paranoia enabled Kubrick to draw scandalous parallels with sex (Communists infiltrating the nation through our precious bodily fluids) while skewering the military mind-set. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”)
The first test screening was scheduled for Nov. 22, but never happened as searing news emerged over the noon hour: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
The assassination — terrible in how it unfolded on TV in broad daylight — set in motion a distrustful shift in the nation’s mood. “The shock was that the attack seemed to be coming from within the United States,” May said. When the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, better known as the Warren Commission, issued its report 10 months later concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, the impact rippled far beyond the actual crime.
“Faith in government authority and institutions like doctors, lawyers and other professions already had begun to decline,” May said. “But when the Warren Report was released, faith in authority just plummeted.” The idea that a skinny ex-Marine who’d once defected to the Soviet Union pulled this off alone strained credibility.
It wasn’t that Americans were embracing all the conspiracy theories bubbling up, May said, but that they just didn’t believe their government.
Not until late January 1964 did Kubrick decide that the public was ready to entertain Strangelove’s dark satire. The decade whose fuse was lit in its third year continued its long, slow burn into history.