Nostalgia isn’t a disease. It’s a symptom.
In unpleasant or merely uncertain times, it’s only natural that people will seek solace in a rose-tinted past. It can be mythic, like in the case of stuffy (and overstuffed) Victorians seeking a lost sense of visceral virility in Arthurian and other heroic legends. Or it can be personal, like an underemployed thirty-something burdened with a massive student loan debt and thus gravitates to the diversions of his or her childhood as a coping mechanism.
In either case, nostalgic indugence is a totemic retreat to a time when things were “simpler” and the field of potential outcomes hadn’t suffered attrition from the killjoy known as “reality.” While the phenomenon is (at least) as old as human civilization, it developed into its present incarnation only within the past fifty years with the maturation of the Baby Boomer generation.
Marketed and pandered to from birth, raised as the entitled beneficiaries of an American Century that barely lasted three decades, the (white, middle-class) Boomers’ retreat into retrograde escapism transformed nostalgia into a full on industry. (And like a rising tide that floods all basements, it also helped engender reactionary yearing among members of the older generations who wished for the Good Old Days before womenfolk, minorities, and the kids in general got all uppity.)
It’s no coincidence that the dawn of the 1970s saw a surge of backwards-gazing, Boomer-centric material into the intrinsically linked popcult and commercial realms. The Grease musical. Happy Days. Sha Na Na’s rise to mainstream prominence. Holly Hobby, Little House on the Prairie, and pioneer chic. Even the tail end of the 1960s Jazz Age nostalgia carried over with a decadent, terminal phase twist, exchanging the cute quaintness of Thoroughly Modern Millie for the pre-fascist cataclysm of Cabaret.
As transformative as the 1960s countercultural forces may have been, they fell short of achieving the envisioned revolution. What was intended to slay the old order only mananged to deliver a severe wound to it, one which turned septic in the face of a contracting economy and a further fractioning of anything resembling a consensus.
The problem with youth rebellions is that youth doesn’t last forever, and the idealistic Children of Aquarian Age found themselves left as surplus labor in a world where diminishing returns became justification for a rollback of the social contract. Burned out, shut out, and worn out — yet still retaining their sense of entitled self-importance — they diverted themselves with the hedonism of the now and the remembered glories of the then.
“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline of American Graffiti. The assumed answer, of course, was “free from the mess of adult responsibilities and uncertainty I’m currently mired in.” The 1973 George Lucas project — the best of his cinematic efforts, and I thought so even before the prequels cast shade on the Star Wars franchise — envisioned a magical era of cool cars, groovy tunes, and sweet romance among a group of suburban California teens in the early 1960s. It chronicles one glorious night before everything went to shit, hammered home by the then-novel “where are they now” snapshots for the (male) cast members — missing in Vietnam, killed by a drunk driver, selling insurance, in (presumably) self-imposed draft exile in Canada.
The film was a huge domestic success, hitting the perfect demographic at the perfect moment, and even pulled in decent numbers when it got a cinematic release half a decade later during the throes of Grease-mania. The various volumes and mutations of its soundtrack also did very well, and inspired countless other “oldies” compilations.
Given those returns and Hollywood’s growing infatuation with sequels, it’s hardly surprise that the powers that be greenlit a follow-up feature, More American Graffiti. Lucas didn’t write or direct the project, but instead took the role of overseer and creative consultant. Where the original project presented an idyll before the storm, the sequel waded straight into the heart of the (white) socio-cultural tempest of the mid-to-late 1960s with tales of hippie/drug culture, Vietnam, and political/feminist protests.
It was a logical step, but not really one the target audience felt like tackling at that particular moment. That sub-strain of nostalgia would have to wait for the mid-1980s tag team of The Big Chill and Platoon to be folded into Boomers’ generational narrative. (As my dad put it: “When guys my age stopped lying about being at Woodstock and started lying about serving in Vietnam.”)
It also didn’t help that the movie wasn’t very good.
The official double-LP soundtrack for More American Graffiti, however, was pretty damn exceptional as far as period soundtracks go, despite its oddly ananchronistic prog-ified sleeve art. It was the third and final selection my mom handed off to me with my first turntable, and the one which got the most spins.
My interest in 1960s pop music preceded my mother’s gifts, but had followed a direct path from the Blues Brothers to Sam & Dave to Atlantic/Stax soul with a side of The Flamingo Kid soundtrack (another film I need to get around to discussing someday).
The More American Graffiti soundtrack was a mostly killer, some filler sampler of bands, songs, and genres that provided a roadmap for future exploration and appreciation. The inclusion of The Chantays’ “Pipeline” alone spurred a love of surf instrumentals which took me everywhere from Dick Dale to Link Wray and endures to this day.
The Byrds (again), The Zombies, ? and The Mysterians, Cream — I’d heard the songs on the radio, but it was this soundtrack that hepped me to the artists guided my music fandom right up until I embraced thrash metal in the wake of my mom’s death.
It was also my introduction to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” a perennial spooky season favorite which more than makes up for the sonic treacle of “Mellow Yellow” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
And while I find most 1960s rock protest songs to be more ridiculous than empowering, I do have a certain amount of affection for the morbid, on-the-nose absurdity of “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe & The Fish. It was a favorite of my mother’s, who insisted that it be the first track I played on my gift turntable. It struck me as a little odd, considering she married a soldier who thought Vietnam was a just war prosecuted poorly.
Not that I’m complaining, because I wouldn’t be here if she didn’t.
Fun Fact: For most of my junior high and high school years, I was “the geek who only listened to 1960s music” as opposed to “the geek who only listened to Rush” or “the geek who only listened to Weird Al.”
That rep was apparently alluring to one of my female classmates, who got into the same type of music and would try to make small talk with me between classes. We finally (awkwardly) managed to ask each other out the spring after my mother died, by which point I’d already forsaken Wilson Pickett for Celtic Frost.
It didn’t go well, which was probably for the best. I was an obnoxious little prick in those days, and for reasons outside of my musical tastes.