1964

From Simon Reynolds’s interview with Greil Marcus in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

SR: I wanted to ask you about an experience that seems to have been utterly formative and enduringly inspirational: the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That is a real touchstone moment for you, right?

GM: That was a cauldron. It was a tremendously complex experience, struggle, event. A series of events. In a lot of ways, it’s been misconstrued: there are many versions of it. Each person had their own version of it. The affair began when there’d been a lot of protests in the Bay Area in the spring of 1964 against racist hiring practices. At the Bank of America, at car dealerships, at the Oakland Tribune —black people were not hired at all for any visible job. So there were no black sales people, no black tellers or clerks. A lot of the organizing for these protests, which involved mass arrests and huge picket lines and publicity, was done on the Berkeley campus. Different political groups would set up a table and distribute leaflets and collect donations and announce picket lines and sit-ins. The business community put a lot of pressure on the University of California to stop this, and the university instituted a policy that no political advocacy could take place on the campus. No distribution of literature, no information about events where the law might be broken. So people set up their tables anyway. And the university had them arrested. And out of that came the Free Speech Movement, saying, “We demand the right to speak freely on campus like anywhere else. We’ve read the Constitution.” …

This Free Speech Movement was an extraordinary series of events where people stepped out of the anonymity of their own lives and either spoke in public or argued with everybody they knew all the time. It was three or four solid months of arguing in public: in dorm rooms, on walks, on picket lines. “What’s this place for? Why are we here? What’s this country about? Is this country a lie, or can we keep its promises even if it won’t?” All these questions had come to life, and it was just the most dynamic and marvelous experience. And there were moments of tremendous drama and fear and courage. I used to walk around the campus thinking how lucky I was to be here at that moment. You really had a sense not that history was being made in some real sense for the world, but that you were making your own history — you along with other people. You were taking part in events, you were shaping events. You weren’t just witnessing events that would change your life. That, as I understood it, would leave you unsatisfied, because you couldn’t reenact what Thomas Jefferson called the “public happiness” of acting in public with other people. He was referring to his own moments as a revolutionary, drafting the Declaration of Independence. In that meeting, people pledged their lives and their sacred honor. And they knew that if they lost, they’d all be shot. Because they were acting together in public, they were taken out of themselves. They were acting on a stage that they themselves had built. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In that moment I didn’t have to wonder how it would feel to be that free. I was that free. And so were countless other people.

SR: And while all this was going on, you also had the tremendous excitement of the Beatles, the Stones, and then, a little later, Bob Dylan. Must have been a pretty exciting time to be young.

GM: The Free Speech thing was the fall of 1964. And the Beatles dominated the spring of ’64. One thing I will never forget about being a student here was reading in the San Francisco Chronicle that this British rock ‘n’ roll group was going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. And I thought that sounded funny: I didn’t know they had rock ‘n’ roll in England. So I went down to the commons room of my dorm to watch it and I figured there’d be an argument over what to watch. But instead there were 200 people there, and everybody had turned up to see The Ed Sullivan Show. “Where did all these people come from?” I didn’t know people cared about rock ‘n’ roll. I thought it was quite odd. …

I go back to my dorm room and all you’re hearing is the Beatles, either on record or coming out of the radio. I sit down with this guy who’s older than me — he’s a senior, I’m a sophomore — and he was this very pompous kind of guy, but I’ll never forget his words. It was late at night and he said, “Could be that just as our generation was brought together by Elvis Presley, it may be that we will be brought together again by the Beatles.” What a bizarre thing to say! But of course he was right. Later that week I went down to Palo Alto — I had grown up there and in Menlo Park, on the Peninsula — and there was this one outpost of bohemianism, a coffee house called Saint Michael’s Alley, where they only played folk music. But that night they were only playing Meet the Beatles. And it just sounded like the spookiest stuff I’d ever heard. Particularly “Don’t Bother Me,” the George Harrison song. So the spring of ’64 was all Beatles. But the fall was something else.

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