Hayden and Vee, 2 Sixties Icons, Have Died

Catharsis, chaos, violent encounters, revolutionary changes. This is what we tend to think of when we think of the 1960s — or “The Sixties” — as if we leap-frogged from the now idealized but strangely quiet Eisenhower Fifties of America’s apex to total turbulence.

To people who actually lived through the 1960s — in their youth or otherwise — it was never that simple. The decade continues to reveal itself in its retrospective aspects, and it does so often in terms of polar opposites and ironies. The decade began with the hair-thin victory of Democrat John F. Kennedy over then Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, during a cold war that raised the spectre of nuclear destruction. It ended in 1970 with Richard Nixon in office, Watergate nowhere on the horizon, presiding over the ongoing and costly U.S. effort in the Vietnam War, from which a generation of radical leaders emerged.

In between, both JFK and his brother Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, as were Martin Luther King Jr. and his more revolutionary counterpart in the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X.

Culturally, the early ’60s saw the first round of rock and rollers such as Elvis Presley, who had gotten middle-class parents all shook up, replaced by an interlude of protest-spurred folk music and a parade of teen idols and crooners. These were themselves replaced in short order by the British invasion, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, accompanied by sex, drugs and rock and roll.

So think of Tom Hayden, and think, too, of Bobby Vee, both of whom passed away recently. Think of Hayden, the acerbic theorist of the radical left, the inspiration for and founder of the SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society. Think of Vee, a gentle soul in the Frankie Avalon-Bobby Vinton vein, who rose to brief prominence as a direct result of the plane crash that killed the gifted Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Richie Valens. Both embodied part of the 1960s — in the first case, its political thinking, and in the second, the pleasures taken in the well-written song and the slow dance at the prom.

Hayden — often brilliant and not a little diffident and difficult and chameleonic in his political passions — had the big first act, embraced the American need for a second act and continued on in other acts. He never stopped moving forward, like one of those people who wears several sets of clothes in anticipation of a change in the weather.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Hayden was a compelling, charismatic figure. He was part of the drama and helped create it, and there was no question that he had the vision and courage for that kind of leadership. He was among the white leaders who went South and marched and rode buses and suffered beatings and jailing for his pains, and he ended up a defendant in the famous or infamous Chicago Seven trial in the aftermath of the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention. Later, he married the film superstar of the time, Jane Fonda, and went with her to North Vietnam, cementing the legends of both but doing less for their politics, vehemently despised as they were by the military and the right.

Somehow, after the glamor of all that abated, he ran for the California senate and segued into the less spectacular life of a California state legislator. There, he seemed to thrive, embracing not radicalism but pragmatism while pushing environmental and community issues. He often strived for higher office, but, more often than not, lost.

He lived a life in the glaring spotlight of political celebrity, then quietly, and perhaps more effectively, as a less charismatic leader. But he will always be remembered as active, teaching, defending and promoting. Hayden died Oct. 23 of a heart ailment, having fallen ill at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Bobby Vee had no such impact, not politically, and not even musically, but his songs are remembered nevertheless. For the ’60s, he was something of an anomaly. He did little that would mark him as one of those rockers that made fathers want to lock up their daughters. He fell in love with a lovely woman named Karen Bergen, married her at the end of 1963, had four children with her and remained married to her until her death last year.

In 1959, he was a teenager and had a band in Fargo, North Dakota, when Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper died in that famous plane crush, dubbed “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The trio had been on their way to a dance, whose promoters called out for replacements. Vee was only 15, but he got the gig. This was show that also included Dion and the Belmonts of “Runaround Sue” fame.

Vee would emerge as a recording star — “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “Rubber Ball,” “Devil or Angel” — and he continued to have hits fairly regularly until the ride more or less faded and stopped.

There is a kind of footnote, too, given recent news. Back in 1959, Vee, his career starting, hired a pianist from Minnesota who went by the name of Elston Gunn, according to the Washington Post obituary. This was none other than Robert Zimmerman, who became Bob Dylan and won the Nobel Prize for Literature recently. According to the Post, Dylan, with Vee in the audience at one of his concerts, called Vee “the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with.”

Vee died Oct. 24. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.


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