About the Songwriter


Verse 4, continued

Helter Skelter in the summer swelter
The Byrds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

These opening lines are full of portent: chaos in the summer heat; the birds (nature), sensing danger, retreat to safety from an impending explosion—the helter skelter, explosive "long hot summers" of protest and rioting during this period. In 1967, youth culture hippies from across the country made an exodus to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district to live out the Counterculture's mantras of brotherly love and drug-induced transcendence—the benign eye of the storm that was that year's self-proclaimed "Summer of Love." But these calm waters were to be short-lived, as events in the coming months challenged the Counterculture's euphoria: the violent Oakland anti-draft protests; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (and the ensuing riots by Blacks across the nation); the riots at Columbia University and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—just to name a few. “Helter Skelter” aptly describes the chaotic events of this period, and also refers to the Beatles' song of the same name, released on their White Album of 1968. The Byrds' 1966 release, Eight Miles High—used here to suggest a bomb falling—seems strangely prophetic now: "Eight miles high/And when you touch down/You'll find that it's stranger than known" —lines that spoke to the drug culture of the period, but can also in retrospect be foreseeing the rapidly escalating anarchy about to erupt in America; not coincidentally, both songs speak of falling fast.

It landed foul out on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass

The ball is wild during these years, as the youth culture players begin to aggressively set themselves (the “forward pass”) against the government they are attempting to transform; the civil authorities in turn do not take kindly to these challenges (the ball "landing foul on the grass"), and soon come to meet them with a fury of their own. But something of a free-for-all is also ensuing among the many radical political players struggling for field position (the "forward pass") in the American cultural dialogue. The more pragmatic agendas of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left had by this time begun losing their original cohesion, sprouting the Womens' Rights, Black Power, Antiwar and Counterculture movements; and by decade's end, the more militant groups: The Black Panthers, The Weathermen—all striving to influence this generation towards their own particular interpretation of how American society should be. But it is the Counterculture, with its wholesale rejection of mainstream values, that comes to hold center stage. The musical players—Bob Dylan (symbolically representing the New Left/Antiwar contingent); The Beatles (carrying the torch for the Counterculture); and many others (the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones), can all be viewed as competing on the playing field of rock 'n' roll, and symbolic of the contending liberal political forces at play during this period.

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Bob Dylan, sidelined by a nearly fatal motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, and further overwhelmed by the pressures of his own success, retreated to Woodstock, NY to recuperate from his wounds, both physical and psychological. His output following this period (with the exception of 1967's John Wesley Harding) was not as critically well-received as his earlier work, as he retreated from the lyrical complexity and social commentary that had characterized his previous efforts, becoming less the spokesman for his generation. Increasingly sidelined too was the organizing arm of the New Left—the SDS—as other competing groups tended to dilute their political unity. Needless to say, like Dylan, they became less the dominant spokesmen for their generation—a role that, it can be argued, the Counterculture was now assuming (though the Counterculture really had no political agenda to speak of), and a role that musically the Beatles were filling as they began to take their music more seriously and embrace the drugged spirituality of the Counterculture.

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