Let’s begin with Barry Macguire, whose single popular song with which I am acquainted seemed to me, and looking back yet seems to me, to typify strongly one impressive aspect of life for most people during the nineteen sixties and seventies. This aspect was called The Cold War.
There were at least two occasions during this period at which Barry Macguire’s song ‘Eve of Destruction’ seemed to be imminently and eminently prophetic; times in which the end of the world – for humankind at least, was quite a near reality.
These occasions were a) Dallas, Texas, 1963; and b) Cuba; Bay of Pigs some year or so beforehand. The Bay of Pigs was longer drawn out as an affair and the crisis was less intensive than that of the Assassination; but USSR and USA took us all right up to the line before a mighty sigh was heaved when Khrushchev ‘saved the world’ by his lost-face and climb-down. A Christian message indeed: through One Man’s humiliation He was able to save the world. Khrushchev as a type of Christ!!!
The Assassination; I was in my home in the living room with my mother watching TV as the News Flash (as disturbing breaks in programmes for news items of importance were called) came and set us all on fire with dread and expectation. My mother, who had been born in 1908 and so was a junior during the First War and an adult during the Second, so she had lived a tough life already – was visibly shaken and frightened and said with a low trembling guttural voice that she expected a Third War to break out right now.
Speculation was high. Was he dead? Was it the Reds (The Russians) behind it? Revenge for the humiliation? There was even in our little living room a palpable sense of turmoil; and this turmoil was being played out in every living room in the UK and the USA; and of course what was it like in DC? The foundations of The White House trembled probably. Men and women running around having lost their heads. Confusion. Fear. Adrenaline at 180 miles an hour.
I’d imagine those first few minutes after the news broke at The Pentagon were the crucial ones; when Johnson heard and the missiles went up and ready. Someone with an itchy finger or a nervous twitch in charge and kerbang! – as Alan Rickman says to Bruce Willis – ‘Yippy-kai-yeh – m*****!’
It didn’t happen. The worst. Someone in charge held their nerve. Someone in charge didn’t jump to a conclusion; or reflex action like Joe 90 or GI Joe. The peace was saved – for another arch-enemy of Gotham to arise in the huge vacuum left and to cause us all such grief after the wall came down.
‘Eve of Destruction’ thus found a resonance and a sympathetic ear across the Western World (maybe, who knows, it was big in Russia too?) as what was in those days loosely called a Protest Song; although the song not so much protests as prophesies mutual doom. It’s quality, which makes it such a mesmerising listen is in its driving and so seemingly uncompromising rhythms. Add to his Macguire’s hoarse dry and abrasive baritone which belts out his penetrating words like a primitive soothsayer might have called in a street one raw, cold, night in Ancient Achaia as Agamemnon stepped of the ship to greet his long-awaiting wife-murderess?
I myself remember being captivated by the song and the singing; I remember too the vent of expression it seemed to allow me and others of my friends to let go of some of that daily angst which was piled up and added to each time a news bulletin spoke up about South East Asia and the ‘domino effect’ justification for the wars there to keep the Reds at bay. How Moscow had said this and rattled that sabre and cursed with this threat. Indeed it was a circus, a media circus, which had us all in it grip of icy fearful tense awaiting for who knows what next?
Surely the phenomenon of the Cold War has bearing on Samuel Beckett’s and Harold Pinter’s dramas and their themes of those days; which bore a character in general of menace and tension and threat and waiting, waiting, waiting, for an encroaching end, an invisible but brooding presence of a sense of closeness to doom.
The Biblical imagery in Macguire’s song lyrics was a powerful impact upon me; at the time not Christian yet, now looking back, I was affectively touched by Christian ideas and themes nonetheless. The British Left in politics at this time seemed to have so much to say to me about those same Christian ethics and teachings, although I was yet too uneducated to make the outright conscious connections.
I trace my progress, like many I expect, of my time, through Socialism into the liberal arts and to familiarity with the works of people like William Blake and Robert Burns, William Godwin, and George Orwell, and of a handful of less lustrous humanitarian poets and writers; to Christ Himself; the first and the last, the alpha and the omega; beyond Whom nothing nor anyone is possible to be preferred.
“This old world
It is exploding
You don’t believe in war
But what’s that gun you’re toting
And even the Jordan River has
And you tell me
Over and over and over again my friend
That you don’t believe
We’re on the Eve
That impact, that the river in which the Lord Jesus was baptised, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him there; that this was a scene, as it was in 1966 and thereafter and yet today, of war and death and fighting; was like a body blow to the trunk which fells a Goliath; it told me acidly, indelibly, how far we were as a race from the dreams of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ or from Burns’ ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’
“So let us pray, that come it may
As come it will, for a’ that;
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for a’ that!’
Macguire’s voice and the song’s driving resistless, relentless, motion ever forwards filled ones head and heart with a Great Wish; to see peace. Despite the surface message of (MAD) Mutually Assured Destruction in the song; the song for me was uplifting; because I knew in my instinct that it was a force for good and in some odd and paradoxical way it was doing good in the world. It’s earnestness and its power seemed to me to be saying its to listeners; “This is what might happen; take heed and use me as a warning; as means to a sober up about one’s ingrained inculcated hatreds of ‘foreign aggressors’; and know that only by goodwill and reconciliation on a personal human level, will all our futures be assured, and this threat be overpassed”
There is a moment in the song, I believe it’s the final chorus of the song, when Macguire adds another, an extra ‘ over again’ to the refrain, so as to have it as ‘And you tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend…..” so that the musical notes sung to the words ‘my friend’ at this point become so strongly emphasised in the rhythmic onslaught of the piece that the effect is to say; “I’m talking to YOU! And are you MY FRIEND INDEED?”. In other words – get off your arse and do something to stop this madness.
As the song stops; abruptly I believe; no fade outs as was common in song endings then; there is a sudden silence; like a gap in time; and which leaves one with a great questionmark to consider; as if one has just been invigorated by Macguire’s power and drive; but yet the emptiness of that sudden end and silence is a perpetual question; one has come down from the ride and is left with oneself and the world.
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward winds his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me”
I originally intended to write about a handful of such songs which are memorable to me in this piece; but Eve of Destruction has taken up space I did not foresee. It is a song which traces very well one important social aspect of its time; the sense of impotence in the ordinary person in the street in the face of their political masters was beginning to be challenged. Sufficient persons were being motivated and mobilised so as to offer en mass a real challenge to the seats of power for them to be accountable to their citizens in what they did in their names. The agendas of the people en mass were taking shape and being heard and pressed hard. For me it was a time of fine ideals and a beautiful idealism; when persons did feel part of one another and of things; they began to feel they did have influence and power to change things; and for the better.
The song ‘Eve of Destruction’ to younger listeners might sound a little ‘embarrassing’ because it is mum’s and dad’s generation or granddad’s and grandma’s; a little blunt, maybe naive; maybe silly even; today when so much is much more sophisticated and has to carry a deep shine of hype and cool.
However,should you want to try to ‘connect’ with history; or even with current ‘world affairs’ intimately and earnestly; then you might do worse than to give Macguire a serious listen-to. More songs to come.
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