Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Remembering where you were when JFK was killed – or even, in Christopher Hitchens’ borrowed but patented version, remembering where you were when JFK tried to kill you – is now more cliché than strict rite of passage. It isn’t one that has, like the First World War, passed out of living memory, but the winnowing goes. I’ve always thought there was a more interesting question: how did you feel after Kennedy was gone? I had a certain, odd perspective on the assassination. Growing up in a small Scottish village next door to what had been for the previous few years effectively an American garrison town, housing Polaris missiles and the mutant whales that patrolled them under the Arctic ice, I saw the news from Dallas on television one evening and went to school the next day – memory treacherously insists that it was summer, or at very least mild – to find that all the American kids, who represented a plurality in this two-teacher school, were taking the day off in mourning.

Some didn’t return for several days. One tall girl, already so physically developed she seemed weirdly out of place in a Scottish primary, where average stature and dentistry were a tribute to soft water, low sunlight and post-war austerity, spent the next week sniffing quietly and emitting tiny sobs. Another boy was sent home again for announcing that his father believed Kennedy had got what was coming to him, the n-loving, commie bastard. (His offence was uttering “bastard,” needless to say.) Gradually, it became clear that a whole sub-community had received an almost physical shock. One father took to drink and was eventually lifted by the Shore Patrol for picking fights with locals. Another began to neglect himself in other ways, losing the crispness and politeness that had won over local shopkeepers. Another prowled manically, as if looking to take revenge on the perpetrators and talked obsessively about who really might have been responsible. He was my first real-life conspiracy theorist – and if there was one thing that part of the world was well stocked with, it was grassy knolls.

American culture as a whole seemed to suffer a major attack of jitters after Dallas. Like the sinking of the Titanic it feels like a genuine cusp rather than a historian’s arbitrary convenience. In our branch of American culture, there was a marked, though not easily quantifiable, falling away in recording activity. It’s pointless to itemize absences and worth watching out for happenstance like union bans or quota systems that can distort the picture. It’s simply that the discographies feel thinner than usual for the first part of that year. The question is whether there was a genuine slippage of creative morale as a result of the assassination, or whether other forces were at work, or whether the moment simply happened to coincide – as it does with Miles Davis, who doesn’t seem to have done much between Monterey in the early autumn of 1963 and the Philharmonic Hall recordings from just before Valentine’s 1964, or with Coltrane, who was pretty quiet between his own Phil appearance on the chastened last day of the year and the Crescent sessions in April and June – with personal crises or changes in artistic direction. But of course, it’s always difficult to judge what is pure autobiography (if such a thing exists) and what is over-determining Zeitgeist (if such a thing exists).

Paul Winter told me once that the assassination had pretty much led to the disbanding of his first innovative group. Winter had been the first jazz musician invited, by Jackie Kennedy, to play at the White House, so maybe he had a more personal stake in what came to be known, mystifyingly to most of us over here, as “Camelot.” (Later, we realized that the parallels were much stronger than they’d appeared, and unflattering.) Winter told me, “It just didn’t seem worth it for a while.” Writers might be expected to show a more coherent or articulate response to events, but there were signs, too, that they were equally tongue-tied by the events of November 1963 and experienced if not a block then certainly a restriction of flow in the months that followed. Norman Mailer, who had heralded Kennedy’s arrival as one of existential promise, quite naturally attributed the post-Dallas atmosphere to one of existential dread.

There were, of course, a good many explicit tributes to Kennedy, some of them doubtless added at titling stage to work that was already finished before the shots were fired, some of them as weirdly opportunistic as the choice of a Samuel Barber love song to soundtrack the funeral, and some clearly genuine. Again, there’s not much point listing them, as if some sense of national grief can be read off the high incidence of minor keys or “mourning” signatures. Something similar happened after 9/11, though that was an event conducted on a vastly different scale right in the middle of the American jazz community, and my sense is that the response to it was consequently brisker and more focused.

If Kennedy’s death replaced a promise of widespread social change with a fresh re-gearing of war economics, if it replaced a charismatic young leader of uncertain political instinct with a man of brilliant tactical instincts and the personality of a ferret, if it reprimanded America for thinking that politics and aesthetics were always uneasily allied, it also delivered a whole basket of cultural tropes that have been working through ever since. The Parsifal/Klingsor side of the Kennedy/Johnson pairing didn’t go unnoticed. Nor did the more general sense that the eyes and the media deceived and that the threat to ordinary Americans was general and indiscriminate. Much has been made of Governor Connally’s panicked cry in the presidential car, to the effect that “they” were trying to kill “us all.” Theorists were quick to suggest that the wounded governor intuited in a single moment that he was in multiple cross-hairs, though no one who has ever been fired at will know that this is a simple enough acoustic phenomenon and not enough to build a conspiracy around.

If Dealey Plaza was an echo chamber, the returning sound of the assassination ought to be detectable in the music of the time. I strongly sense that two of the major musical statements of 1964, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Albert Ayler’s first fully mature recordings, were not necessarily influenced or inspired by a specific personal response to the assassination – the reaction of African-American musicians, as opposed to eastern establishment white liberals was inevitably more complex and nuanced – but that they were taken to heart in a way they would not have been without the atmosphere of surrounded dread and uncertainty that many report from the time. They seem consoling, or consolingly straightforward and heartfelt.

Charles Mingus began the year with a big-hall appearance of his own and then left for Europe, taking Eric Dolphy with him. 1964 was the year that Henry James’s “international theme” returned to play, a sense of American energy, “innocence,” optative viewpoint colliding in complex ways with the Old World’s congeries of supposedly opposite values. Dolphy, of course, remained behind, and succumbed, another symbolic loss in the unfolding story whose significance is still being picked over. The sense of cognitive confusion and multiple time-strands brilliantly conjured up on the cover of Out to Lunch! (And only partially communicated by its contents) was very much of the Zeitgeist, but so too was the disappointment and sense of not-quite-fulfilled potential that came with it.

There was another factor at play around the spring of 1964, a new twist to the Jamesian theme. It was the so-called “British invasion” of pop bands, a phalanx of young men who made their American counterparts seem grumpy and hidebound, socially conservative, articulate only in conventional idioms. It’s widely known that Walter Cronkite had to shelf a news feature on incipient “Beatlemania” on the night of the Kennedy assassination, only airing it in mid-December. The new year brought a rising tide of items on the Fabs, via DJs and Jack Paar (who interviewed both JFK and Fidel Castro in 1959, dividing his audience yet again by sardonically playing scenes of girls screaming to/at the Beatles), and then the epochal Ed Sullivan appearance. For a moment, American music seemed to have lost its urgency, reversing a cultural polarity that had been unquestioned since 1945, and possibly long before.

There’s probably no final answer to the question of what effect Dallas had on American musical culture (and this is intended more to frame the question for personal ends than to offer a finished response to it) but it seems that some definite cycle of innovation, creative confidence and self-awareness had been completed by the end of 1963, leaving industry and public with a partial vacuum into which the new British pop flowed unstaunchably. British jazz didn’t export with anything like the same ease or confidence, but the same period marks the beginning of an astonishing outgrowth of new forms of improvised music, some of them quite explicitly linked to American models, some of them already quite alien to the structuring principles of 12-bar blues and the 32-bar Broadway song. Millicent Martin sang Herb Kretzmer’s and David Lee’s “In The Summer of His Years” on the British satirical show That Was The Week That Was and reinforced the show’s uniquely (iconoclastic is clearly the wrong word) irreverent approach to current affairs. But the song, probably the best known musical tribute to Kennedy, had only an uncertain subsequent history. The consensus conclusion was not that there was any failure in taste broadcasting pop/jazz items that “capitalized” on national grief, but that the song itself lacked any kind of convincing objective correlative. It simply wasn’t good enough to meet its occasion. A puzzling time, then, but perhaps just one of those moments when the urgencies simply happened to be dictated elsewhere.

Brian Morton©2014

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