The Times, They Were a’Changin’
By Russell J. Sanders
A suburb of Fort Worth, Texas…1969…this isn’t just the setting of my new novel All You Need Is Love, it is where and when I spent my teen years. I was Dewey Snodgress, the lead character of the novel, in so many ways. I listened to the music Dewey listens to; I was a singer and actor at my high school, just like Dewey; and I led a sheltered life. Like Dewey, I had no idea of what “gay” was, nor did I know I was gay. Unlike Dewey, my personal revelation didn’t come until years later. But that being oblivious extended, in a more far-reaching way, to Dewey, and to me. I was growing up in one of the most turbulent eras in our history, a time I’ve since come to feel was one of the most influential decades America has ever experienced: The 1960s.
The Sixties were a time of hope and progress, a time of loss and sadness, a time of social upheaval. Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States and ending with an incident that has come to be known as the Kent State Massacre, we saw the rise of the Hippie Culture, the Civil Rights Movement, the joy of three days of peace and love called Woodstock, the death of the iconic actress Judy Garland, and the beginnings of the gay rights movement, thanks to a courageous group of drag queens who finally decided “we’re not gonna take it anymore” and fought back at police brutality and discrimination. And there I was, roaming the halls of a big city high school, singing my heart out in choir, spending countless hours at play rehearsals, reading voraciously and joining the ranks of National Honor Society and the Magna Cum Laude graduates while all the while totally blind to what was going on in the “outside” world.
My love for music turned me on to the sounds of the Sixties culture: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, and the rest of the British Invasion. And I was hip to the folk sounds of Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; and the poet of the sixties Bob Dylan. But while I sang along, I didn’t truly listen to the lyrics. I didn’t know the British rockers were bringing about a whole new rock n’ roll art form, nor did I know that the folkies were telling us to stand up, fight back.
And I didn’t know all that much about the undeclared war raging all the way across the world in an Asian country called Vietnam. I knew men not very much older than I were dying, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But I was clueless as to the impact that war, that music, those Hippies with their message of “make love, not war” were having on America.
And so, when I got older—and I hope, wiser—I started reading about that era I’d been blind to. And I saw its significance, and I knew that one day, I would be able to spread the word—years later, but at least I could maybe make those who didn’t live then understand what happened.
And so--All You Need Is Love. A dear friend I’d lost touch with, one of those free-spirited Hippies—the only one I ever met—died, far too young. I heard the news and realized how much I loved him. When we became friends, I didn’t know I was gay, and all these years later, I know he was not gay. But as a writer, the imagination starts churning, and the magic question surfaces: what if? And Dewey Snodgress was born; Jeep Brickthorn, the irrepressible Hippie was born; and just to round things out and prove this novel was truly set in the Sixties, LuLu Belton, the black teen actress, was born. After all, neither Dewey nor I ever met a black person when we were in high school. It was high time Dewey did, at least. And what’s a novel about the Sixties without a black character? LuLu is just that. She is a character, in the sense that she is wild and whacky and funny and, I hope, unforgettable.
So All You Need Is Love is my paean to the 1960s. That’s a good word, paean: it means a tribute, sort of a love song. The Sixties were full of great music. I suggest putting together a play list to propel you through the saga of Dewey, Jeep, and LuLu. Start with Tommy James and the Shondells’s “Crimson and Clover” and Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.” When you’ve absorbed the lighter side, head on to Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, the best at singing the message of Bob Dylan (except Bob himself, of course.) Listen to some “Blowin’ in the Wind,” some “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” some “The Times, They Are a’ Changin’.” Get adventurous with Vanilla Fudge’s psychedelic rendering of “People Get Ready.” And for dessert, you can’t go wrong with The Beatles: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “We Can Work It Out,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be.” And don’t forget “All You Need Is Love.”
To truly enjoy my novel, sit back and let the Sixties overtake you. Journey back to a time when high schools still had school-sponsored prayer; the girls had flipped hairdos plastered together with Aqua Net hair spray; the guys wore button-down-collared oxford cloth shirts with their pressed jeans; a group of societal dropouts, the Hippies, started preaching against war and for love; boys were getting drafted to fight against their will in a war that was incomprehensible; and Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a movement that changed the way we think about race.
And know that the gay rights movement was not far behind. In a time when being gay was considered a sickness, people were finding the courage to burst out of their closets and live more openly. I applaud those pioneers. It would be many years before I found that courage, but thank God I finally did, and now I write novels to tell teens and others that it’s okay to be gay, it’s normal to be gay, it’s a good thing to be proud of being gay. It’s a great thing to love a gay person, whether you yourself are gay, straight, bi, or not sexual at all. Love is love is love is love, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. After all—all you need is love.