Kurlansky begins his book with an admission. He is not going to be objective. When talking about the upheaval and changes that took place in 1968 all over the world, one cannot be objective. That said, he begins by talking about not Abbey Hoffman and Tom Hayden, but a quiet, unassuming Slovak named Alexander Dubcek. For the uninitiated, Dubcek was the president of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and he had a radical idea. The country was already socialist and had good relations with its superpower neighbor, the Soviet Union (Remember them?), why not lift restrictions on free press and free speech and travel to the west? The Soviets weren’t having that, and during the same week as the infamous 1968 Democratic Party convention, Leonid Brezhnev sent a few tank battalions to Prague to put an end to that nonsense.
And it goes on and on around the world. Students from Warsaw to Paris to New York took over universities and demanded changes be made. The civil rights movement turned violent on both sides as Martin Luther King died and the Black Panthers rose. Lyndon Johnson opted to go back to Texas with his tail between his legs, leaving the country to mourn yet another Kennedy before having to choose between the wishy-washy Hubert Humphrey and the unlovable Richard Nixon. In France, Charles DeGaulle discovered that the French did not see him as their version of Ike anymore. They saw him as their version of Mussolini, and this in a country that had already had enough of the Bourbons, the Bonapartes, and German occupation.
Kurlansky finds it amusing that the youth of the world, from a grassroots level and with no contact with each other between countries, stood up and said, “Enough!” The conflict over Vietnam, slow civil rights progress, the repression of Soviet-backed governments, and just a general rejection of tradition all combined in a perfect storm not seen, Kurlansky posits, since 1848, and not on such a worldwide scale. In 1968, the Republican Party became a haven for Dixiecrats outraged over what they saw as Johnson’s betrayal, DeGaulle began going not so quietly into the night, and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc began. Yes, the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Germans had long memories, and the Hungarians even longer. It was a world when it seemed civilization was coming apart at the seams. However, Kurlansky ends his book on an upbeat note, describing the Apollo 8 astronauts’ Christmas broadcast of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. For such a turbulent year, it was a much needed happy ending.
I was disappointed in this book, which I listened to on audio. Giuliano zips through Harrison’s life like he was just another guitar player from England in the 1960’s. There’s no sense of who Harrison is as a person. In describing the Beatle’s life in the 1970’s, he describes problems in the rocker’s marriage to Patti Boyd (leaving out her affair with Eric Clapton), then suddenly, without explanation, Harrison’s second wife Olivia appears, almost as if by magic.
It sounded more like a Rolling Stone article than a full-blown biography of George Harrison. I suppose, though, I should admit to being spoiled by Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Harrison, produced by Olivia and Dhani Harrison. That film really gets under Harrison’s skin and gives both the good and the bad about The Beatles. All I wanted to know was who this gardener from Liverpool, England, was and how he started out as part of the most important rock band in history.