1969: Does Music Capture the Heart of an Era?

In 1969, I was a sixteen year old and like all teenagers, listened to a lot of music. For me, it was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel as well as Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Rolling Stones.

Music vinyl covers from the sixties

Music vinyl covers from the sixties (Photo credit: Falcon Writing)

My current WIP, Under The Bed, is set in 1969 in NYC, a year that began with the inauguration of Nixon as President. 1969 fell in the shadow of the previous year, which saw the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr.and Robert Kennedy.The ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago was another scene of protest and riots.

Writing the Sounds of Silence, and Changing Times

Writers try to include most of the senses in any piece of work , but sound is one that can be overlooked. We do the same in normal life, often accepting background noise until it becomes annoying and then we’re surprised by how good it feels when it stops.

Music is something altogether different. Within a few bars of the song it has the power to carry you back in time, and evoke an emotion. Dependant on the music and the year, it can convey the popular culture of the day. In the case of the 1960’s it was often making a political statement.

 Woodstock -August 18th 1969

English: This photo was taken near the Woodsto...

English: This photo was taken near the Woodstock music festival on August 18, 1969. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The biggest music event of 1969 in the USA, was Woodstock. One of the the first big music concerts, it defined an era in its anti-establishment ambience and brought together an incredible collection of musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.The backdrop of anti -Vietnam War sentiment was prevalent, epitomised by Hendrix own iconic version of the Star Spangled Banner.(FYI Hendrix himself had served in Vietnam in the 101st Airborne). Here’s a 1 minute excerpt from an interview with Hendrix talking about his rendition.


 Isle of Wight – August 30th 1969

The UK equivalent of Woodstock in 1969 was the first Isle of Wight Music Festival.Personally it was a turning point, where I changed from being a halfhearted teenybopper to a definitely wannabe hippie. Bear in mind, at sixteen, I was still living at home and going to school, so I was hardly turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. But the experience of the Isle of Wight was truly amazing, not only from the perspective of having music 24/7 – big names like The Who and Bob Dylan – but I’d never been exposed to such an “anything goes” atmosphere.This is a great 2 minute home movie which captures the feeling.


I came back from the festival saying things like “it was really too much,man” (i.e. really great) and started hanging out with a completely different crowd. I felt I’d found myself, and other kindred spirits. We developed into a close circle of friends who hung out and shared all kinds of new experiences in the following five years.

Music. It all came down to the music, which in that era at least, was a political statement. I suspect teenagers of all generations feel the same when they take a stand, and feel different.


Simon and Garfunkel Mrs Robinson UK EP

Simon and Garfunkel Mrs Robinson UK EP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The way we listen to music has changed dramatically since 1969, when it was a much more social event, and music far less readily available. Who remembers going to their local record store and using the headphones in a sound booth to check out whether or not to buy an album?  OK, I’m dating myself, but you get the point. We take music and all kinds of sounds, and the way we receive them today, for granted. However we listen, the right music at the right time strikes a chord, and captures the emotions we have as individuals. As writers, in using music in our work, we can evoke an era and/or capture the heart of our characters.

Over to you. What part does music play in your work? What were you listening to in 1969? If you weren’t old enough to remember, then what were your key teenage years, and what part did music play? Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media.

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The Next Big Thing week 15: Interview with an Author

The Next Big Thing is an author’s Work In Progress project  from SheWrites. When I read Jeri Walker-Bickett’s  blog last week,  I immediately thought what fantastic questions for any author to ask themselves. So I was thrilled that afternoon, when Jeri emailed, and invited me to participate. A Big Thank You to Jeri.

What is the working title of your book?

Under The Bed’. It comes from the phrase ‘Red’s Under the Bed’, used in 1950’s America.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was set to write the sequel to my first book Radio Echo, catching up with the characters a few years after the end of WWII, but I decided to spread my wings as a writer, switched countries and found a completely different voice. The 50’s anti-Communist era in America struck a chord with me as part of the backdrop. In doing my research and seeing how widespread the effect of McCarthyism was, I didn’t want to focus on the more publicized Hollywood Blacklist, so decided to move cross country and settle my characters in New York.


Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is Th...

Cover to the propaganda comic book “Is This Tomorrow”‘ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction. Specifically mid-Century historical literary fiction. Set in both the early 50’s and late 60’s, makes it a tricky time frame, as some camps argue historical fiction has to be 50 years in the past. Other’s say it can be considered historical fiction if the time period – and its depiction – is at the core of the story. I think if the work involves major political or social events of the time and the character’s role in those events are interlinked, it’s historical.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ll let the two main characters in the novel comment on this.

Midge: “I know Izzie said I was a pissy mess the other week, but I’m trying darling, I really am. Putting on a few pounds wasn’t a crime the last time I looked, but pudgy is such an ugly word. And these Chanel suits don’t buy themselves. I was a very successful business woman before the shit hit the fan. Life Magazine was always doing some article on Boswell Designs. Seems a lifetime ago now… like someone else’s life…. Er,… where was I?  Oh yes… The actress would  have to play a younger me as well wouldn’t she?  To do both roles justice,  I think Sharon Stone  would be marvelous. She’s got the same coloring too, don’t you think?”

Izzie: “Do you think I give a shit who plays me in the film? How hard can it be to write some crap poetry, and take a few lousy photo’s in the East Village?  [Takes a hit on a joint]. OK, fine. So I do care. I bet that skinny-assed  Girl With a Dragon Tattoo actress would could make a stab at being meYeahRooney Mara. She’d be good.”

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Two women, a generation apart, each burdened by guilt regarding the death of a sibling, find their own lives in danger during the Vietnam era, when the older woman’s brush with McCarthyism emerges during their collaboration on her autobiography.


"A female demonstrator offers a flower to...

“A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Arlington, Virginia, USA” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will definitely look for an agent to represent me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

 11 months.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I obviously wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to these authors, but I have certainly been inspired by them. These came to mind, each for different aspects of their content.

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This is one of my favorite novels and spans the narrators lifetime, who is in her 80’s as she is writing.The novel pays particular attention to the pre & post WWII years, but goes far beyond that in  encapsulating a number of different story lines as well as time lines.

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. Well know for her incredible “Regeneration Trilogy” ,  this is a sequence to Life Class,  though it’s also a stand alone novel. Set during WWI, the novel is as much about the interpersonal relationships as it is about the era. However, the two are interchangeable and it is the societal times of the era on the life of the individual that, for me is the real correlation between this and Under the Bed.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This is mid 20th century fiction, set during WWII. But Waters deals with the time frame in a very interesting way as she goes from finish to start.



Who or What inspired you to write this book?

After a friend told me about growing up with parents who were in the Communist Party in the UK, and what it was like as a teenager in the sixties to have your phone bugged, it made me think about the invasion of people’s privacy and what effect it has on them. Since 9/11 the invasion of privacy has became almost an accepted ‘right’ by Western governments in the quest to protect our freedom. CCTV tracks us constantly and emails are tagged continuously in the fight against terrorism. I questioned the end justifying the means. Eventually I decided to follow how anti-communist fervour has moulded certain key elements of American history, and chose to juxtapose the eras of the Vietnam War and McCarthyism, with 1969 being ‘present day’.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The novel blends the struggle of the individual with that of the bigger picture of the political events of the time. Can we as both individuals or as nations, learn from our past? I believe we can, and yet, as we know, history repeats itself. ‘Under the Bed’ explores how an individual’s lack of control over their fate can be in the hands of the government, even a generation apart. But ultimately the fight for survival and coming to terms with past mistakes is up to the individual.

Washington Square arch peace sign

Washington Square arch peace sign (Photo credit: holycalamity)


Here are the authors I’ve tagged for the project. Check out their websites and you’ll be able see their interviews posted there next week.

Claire Cappetta

Doreen Pendgracs

Hemmie Martin

Susan Cooper

Bridget Whelan

Sally O’Reilly


I’d love  your feedback on the interview, so do leave a comment below. Or post this blog to your favourite social media.

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And it’s 1, 2, 3, What Are We Writing For? (orig. post Jan 20th)

And it’s 1, 2, 3, What Are We Writing For?

 I’ve been taking a poetry class with Catherine Smith (see Links page), called Pushing the Boundaries. I wanted to get to know one of the characters better in my new novel Under the Bed – she’s a 25 year-old poet in the East Village in 1969. A not very good poet, so I figured she wouldn’t be too hard for me to emulate. I’ve also been a bit poetry phobic so I thought it would kill two birds with one stone. I’ve loved learning the value of brevity, which can only be a good thing for a prose writer.

This week we did a Ghazal, which comes from a musical tradition of Urdu poetry, going back to the 14th century. A ghazal is made up of several couplets, which traditionally would have been set to music, sung and performed. When sung, the music provides an interlude for the audience between each couplet allowing them to resonate. An important aspect of the couplet is that each should stand on its own as an aphorism. The couplets have been compared to a ‘stone from a necklace’, each with a value of its own. Once put together it’s part of a whole. I’ve included here the ghazal I wrote as “Izzie”.


Ghazal:  When is a War not a War?

By “Izzie” 1969


No poem or painting is finished without our eyes to see.

We decide what it means. Dare to say what we see.


Are the mix of hues and colors still on the canvas

when they’re left in a darkened room, too dark to see?


Have all the colors in the world disappeared when

the sun is blazing white, so bright we cannot see?


Where have the other colors run to, in a land where sun burns

crimson, earth and rivers reflect blood red for all to see?


What is more real? What we think we see, what we’re told

to think, or what is shot in front of the whole world to see?


TV images of the War up Close – visual bombardment more real

than any reality in the commonplace we live and see.


Izzie’s paintings are finished by the viewer’s eyes. Can we

finish the War by what we dare to think and say and see?



The ghazal I’ve written asks more questions than I answer, which is symptomatic of the times (1969) and how a 25 yr. might have viewed them. By coincidence, after I’d written the ghazal, I came across a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin on twitter this week, which I thought was apropos:

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live … “


In the critique part of Catherine’s poetry class, I talked about the fact that the Vietnam War was really the first war recorded live on television. We also referenced the iconic satirical protest song ‘Fixing To Die’ by Country Joe McDonald *

The refrain says it all: –


And it’s 1,2,3, what are we fighting for,

Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn

The next stop is Vietnam,

And it 5,6,7 open up the pearly gates,

There ain’t no time to wonder why

Whoopee we’re all gonna die


To most people in the UK ‘during the war’ refers to WWII. When I first went to live in San Francisco in the early 80s, when people talked about ‘the war’ everyone was referring to Vietnam. I think it’s hard for people in the UK to fully understand the enormity of the effect the Vietnam War had on an entire generation of Americans.


So in the spirit of my ghazal, mixed with Country Joe’s humor,  I’m going to leave you with the question:


What are we writing for?


Click on Comments at the bottom of this post and let me know.


* Here’s a link to Country Joe’s performance of ‘Fixing to Die’ at Woodstock, August 1969.

Country Joe @ Woodstock




Sun, 22 Jan 2012 02:34:23

what are we writing for? To stay alive, to be alive, to be able to say all the things we can’t speak aloud ourselves and to see how all these things look through other people’s eyes.


Sun, 22 Jan 2012 03:02:07

Thanks for getting the ball rolling Jess. I have to agree with you, especially the part about seeing how things look through other people’s eyes. To actually get inside their minds is pretty amazing. I think it helps us understand other peoples motivation too.

Catherine Smith

Sun, 22 Jan 2012 04:48:54

I agree with both of you – and writing reminds me I want to keep asking questions.I want to find out what I belive, what is important to me. I don’t always find the answers, but asking the questions still feels essential. Love your blog, Kathy! 😉


Sun, 22 Jan 2012 08:05:10

Thanks Catherine. And you’re right The questions always take the lead.



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