Baby Boomer Icon – Kurt Vonnegut

This article 1st appeared in my former blog The Prices Do DC)

Like so many of his generation, award-winning biographer Charles Shields became fascinated with the writings of Kurt Vonnegut as a college student in 1969. He says Vonnegut’s most known novel Slaughterhouse-Five “broke over our heads like a storm.”

“It captured the bewilderment and confusion that so many of us felt as we were trying to make the 1st moral decisions of our lives,” Shields told the crowd assembled tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore to hear him discuss his latest work And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

Searching for a subject after completing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields, a former English teacher, decided upon Vonnegut. After some initial reluctance, the author agreed.  “Kurt felt he was under appreciated,” Shields said. “He was a little miffed that no biography had even been written about him.”

On their first meeting, Shields said Vonnegut greeted him at the door of his New York residence and said, “‘Hey. You want to come up and see my room.’ It was like a thing one boy would say to another.” Vonnegut and Shields then left to have dinner at the author’s favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant. Shields was ready with a few questions to break the ice, but Vonnegut immediately launched into a “litany of grievances” against his family. “Even after all those years, it was like he was an aggrieved adolescent seeking vindication,” Shields said. “If the voice were higher, I would have thought I was talking to a 13-year-old.”

After years of studying Vonnegut, Shields believes this adolescent anger, spread throughout his writings, may be one of the chief reasons Vonnegut continues to be popular with college-aged readers who are coming to grips with the fact that authority figures are not always right.

Over time, Vonnegut warmed to the biography project. He would call Shields late at night and ask “Hey, how’s my biography coming?” Or he would introduce Shields as “This is my biographer.”

However, after 3 lengthy interview sessions, Vonnegut took sick. He died a few days later. But even without the author’s first-hand accounts, Shields was able to draw upon more than 1,500 lengthy letters the author had written. “I think he used letters as a warmup for his writing,” Shields said.

During his early years as a writer, Vonnegut struggled and his writing was consigned to science fiction pulp racks. In 1965, he was a last-minute choice to head the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, “It all  congealed for him there,” Shields said. “He realized that he didn’t have to be constrained.” In 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five became a success, bringing with it the fame and financial security Vonnegut had so long sought. “He moved to New York. He bought into the life he had always wanted. If a writer can achieve the American Dream, he did,” Shields said.

But personal happiness was to remain elusive. There were long bouts with depression. There was an attempted suicide. Shields said he found Vonnegut to be an extrovert who couldn’t maintain friendships. Near the end of his life, he would sit alone on a street bench. When someone would approach and ask “Hey, aren’t you Kurt Vonnegut?” Vonnegut would dismiss them with a gruff  “not now.”

The author constantly fretted about his place in literature cannon, steadfast in his belief that he deserved more serious acclaim than he was receiving. Finally, he rationalized that it was his simplistic writing style and his “and so it goes” fatalistic universal outlook that was the cuplrit. “Anything that seems simple can’t be worthy,” Vonnegut reasoned.

But Shields believes Vonnegut’s legacy will last. “He belongs in the cannon. He brought post-modernism into the mainstream. He made it popular,” Shields says. 

Dave Price to Tour To Promote His Classic Rock Book Come Together

If you consider 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones as the first two great classic rock singles and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul as the initial classic rock album (which most musicologists do), then that makes the genre 55 years old next year. 

But as 2019’s evidence shows, you can rightfully claim classic rock is barely showing its age for a type of music that, if it were a person, would be eligible for membership in AARP in 2020.

Times for older classic rock artists continue to be productive. For example, three of the top five grossing concert acts this year – Elton John, Metallica, and Fleetwood Mac – perform classic rock. Bruce Springsteen offered 236 solo shows over two years on Broadway, with ticket prices averaging $500 a seat from the box office and more than $1,000 from re-sale. Aerosmith, John Fogerty, Santana, Sting, Rod Stewart, Def Leopard, and Journey all played sold-out residency shows at Las Vegas’ top casinos. The Rolling Stones wrapped up their three-leg, three-year No Filter tour, a series of stadium concerts that attracted 2,290,871 fans and grossed $415.6 million for the band. And the Beatles’ re-release of Abbey Road climbed to #1 on the charts, exactly 50 years after the album first accomplished that feat 50 years ago.

These eye-opening facts evoke two big questions – how did the rock music now deemed classic, which evolved from 1950s rock & roll, become so popular with the Woodstock Generation and why does it continue to thrive despite the fact that most of its first listeners are now in their 50s, 60s, or 70s? 

In a three-book series he jokingly refers to as his Rock of Agers trilogy, Washington DC author and former journalist, educator, and classic rock keyboard player Dave Price explores the history of the music of the generation who came of age in the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s and attempts to explain the music’s popularity then and now.

The first book in the series, Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Young Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation was released in November. 

Come Together begins with the dropping of the first atomic bomb in 1945 and ends with the final notes Jimi Hendrix played on the last day of the historic Woodstock Festival in 1969. The saga is told in six chronological chapters. In the first, you’ll see how a connected series of innovations, influences, and influencers in the late 1940s and early 1950s paved the way for the rise of rock & roll. The second introduces you to some of the most important early performers of this new music. The third allows you to see how the Beatles reshaped rock & roll both on stage and in the studio. The fourth places you in San Francisco in the summer of 1967, where a new youth “hippie” counterculture was being formed around revolutionary ideas about the role of drugs, sex, and rock & roll in American society. The fifth demonstrates how two of the most significant artists of the late 60s – Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones – crafted some additional touches to the type of music that would be encountered at Woodstock. In the 6th chapter, we’ll end our musical journey and join a crowd of 400,000 to vicariously experience the most-noted music festival of all-time at the historic upper New York state farmland where rock & roll emerged as something which now would soon be known simply as rock.

The second volume in the series, What’s That Sound?  80+ Artists Who Defined the Music of the Woodstock Generation, will pick up with Hendrix’s fading final notes and conclude 50 years later at the 50th anniversary commemoration of that 1969 festival, held at the original site. It is scheduled to be published in late 2020.

The third and final “Rock of Agers” book is tentatively titled Long Live Rock: Why Do the Classic Sounds of the Woodstock Generation Continue to Resonate So Loudly Today. It will delineate two connected stories – the various ways the sounds of classic rock are being preserved and passed on to new listeners and how you can experience the entire history of classic rock by sailing on four Woodstock-like music themed cruises. Long Live Rock is planned for a late 2021 released.

Price will begin a four-month tour to promote his new book with an appearance in his former hometown of Bridgeton, New Jersey, where he lived for 59 years. On Saturday, Dec. 7th, he will stage a meet and greet and a book signing at the Bridgeton Free Public Library from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. He will be donating $1 from the sale of each book to the library.

“The Bridgeton Library is a very special place to me so it’s fitting that I begin there,” Price says. “Libraries in general, and the Bridgton Library in particular, have always served as my secular cathedrals. They truly are amazing places. You can learn just about anything you need to know if you take advantage of all the resources a local library offers”. 

“I’m sure I wouldn’t have been in position to write any book without the enjoyment, elucidation, and enlightenment that I found in all the libraries I have visited over the years,” Price added. “To me, my library card is just as important as my credit card or my driver’s license. I never leave home without it.”