"They've all gone to look for America."

Today marks another anniversary of a life-changing event for me, though not a fun one. On a hot Tuesday evening in the spring of 1968, my folk-rock band, The Morning, was in New York to open the show for comedian David Steinberg at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. After the gig, in the early morning hours of June 5th, several of us drove up the Hudson River to spend the night at the West Nyack home of the Kastners, the accommodating parents of our guitarist, Mat.

Upon arrival I resumed my usual late-night ritual of ransacking the Kastner kitchen for anything edible. ("Starving artist" was more than a metaphor for me at the time.) I was busily engaged in a Heimlich maneuver on the refrigerator when the phone startled me around 3:30am. Within two minutes, Mat's dad, Joseph Kastner (who happened to be Life magazine's copy editor), appeared in the kitchen doorway in his pajamas to announce that Robert Kennedy had been shot in a Los Angeles hotel. Kennedy had just won the all-important California primary election, giving him favored status to win the Democratic presidential nomination that summer and setting up a likely campaign against Richard Nixon in the general election. But within a day, Bobby Kennedy would die of gunshot wounds to the head.

Following Martin Luther King's assassination two months earlier, this was a devastating blow to the idealism of the time. Something in America seemed irrevocably lost. Working in the city that week, I remember how distraught the folk music community in Greenwich Village was. Bleecker Street was in mourning for days.

To provide a some background… After the assassination in 1963 of his brother, President John Kennedy, Bobby had metamorphosed from a merciless end-justifies-the-means Attorney General to the chief advocate for America's dispossessed while New York Senator. (He was already ahead of his time, and political colleagues, in pushing for the Civil Rights Act as early as 1962.) By the spring of 1968 Kennedy was as popular as a rock star—a leader of conscience and iconic champion of the disaffected and disenfranchised, widely embraced by America's youth. He was one of the few American political leaders to express moral outrage at the horrific poverty he encountered in the rural backlands of the South and the urban ghettoes of the North—as well as the unnecessary squander of human life in Vietnam. In the final year of his life it seemed like he was searching for the heart of America, and was shocked at what he found along the way.

But Bobby Kennedy never accepted abject poverty as an inevitable concomitant of free markets. In fact he called business to task for abdicating its responsibility in the face of such transparent injustices. "The great corporations that are so large a part of American life play so small a role in the solution of its vital problems," he wrote in To Seek a Newer World—a not-widely-read polemic released just months before his assassination—which applies as well to the issues of today. He went on to say:

I would insist that business practices of all sorts need to be directed by a sound ethical theory grounded in a true and proper anthropology. Economic theory tends to see unconstrained business practices as self-correcting, mending their own flaws and healing the harms they create. The reality is that modern business practices are awesomely powerful tools that may not be toxic in themselves, but are easily corrupted if poorly directed.

I often wonder how America's storyline, which included five more years in an ill-begotten Southeast Asian war, might have been rewritten if Robert F. Kennedy had lived—and served as U.S. President.

Traveling in and out of New York City that week I was struck by the eerily prescient lyrics of a Simon & Garfunkel song I heard on WNEW-FM: "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all gone to look for America."

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  1. kennedy was no saint but i'd like to think his conversion was the real deal...he was after all joe mccarthy's lackey in the 50s and an attack dog attorney general in the early 60s...maybe he felt guilty for his previous life.

  2. Yes, there's been plenty of political and psychological analysis of RFK's change of heart over the years - including the usual cynical interpretations. But once you see him deliver that impromptu speech in Indianapolis (it's on YouTube somewhere) on Martin Luther's King's assassination, in front of a stunned black audience, you have to believe this guy knew AND felt what that community was going through - and had been going through for many years.

  3. John...after reading your post and listening to Robert Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis, I have no words save thank you. I am incredibly moved.

  4. I can relate to the starving artist. Anybody who tries to make a living playing rock 'n roll has to get used to that - unless you're in a cover band that works every night playing other people's songs.

  5. Judith, it's hard to be cynical or to second-guess motives after seeing RFK break the news on MLK's death. No speech writers. Total improv. He acted "in the moment," felt what the audience was feeling, and simply responded to it.

  6. Stephen, I used to DREAM about food in those days. I would go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. And, yeah, if you're in a band that's just starting out, and playing original music, you better make peace with that hunger. I remember even after getting a steady gig with a band on Sunset Strip in LA I had to live on $1 a day. I could buy a can of sardines, a few bananas, and salad material on that dollar, and even have some change left over. But I still relied on "fans" to take me out to dinner a few times a week. It's amazing that I miss those days.

  7. >It's amazing that I miss those days.

    Maybe not. With advancing age, some of us old farts miss our youth.


  8. Wonderful post John - very moving. Like g I loved those days but they are gone and we need to move on!! I also believe we look back with rose tinted glasses sometimes. When we look back in 40 years time - yes I do plan to be around than :-) - we will probably also have rose tinted glasses about 2008 – particularly if Mr Obama goes all the way. Sad to say I will not have the same affectionate memories of Bush that I do of RFK, MLK and JFK

  9. g and Trevor...I was a mere toddler in those day, so I do not remember them. But as there are 11siblings older than I, you cannot convince me that I was not there. I feel as if I was actually there in the moment.

    And speaking of being in the moment, John, there is no doubt that RFK could not have delivered such an impromptu heartfelt speech if it was not in him and if he was not in the moment.

    Many of us speak about what we think others want to hear, and not particularly out of a sense of what is needed. We also do not often understand what we need or where we are.

    There is no doubt that RFK knew himself and this crowd. This is evident in the confidence with which he addresses the crowd and the empathy he has for them. You even hear RFK asks before he speaks, "do they know about Martin Luther King?" The heartbreaking gasp from the crowd is memorable.

  10. g: that's assuming I was young in 1968.

    Trevor: they don't seem to make rock & roll OR politicians like they used to. Hopefully Barack will be an exception to that. Did I tell you I went to school with George? He created a scandal at the college by branding new fraternity members with a hot coathanger, which brought accusations of torture against him. (I'm not making this up.) You heard it here first.

    Judith: Here's hoping that RFK speech will one day get the kudos it deserves.

  11. >g: that's assuming I was young in 1968.

    Age? What's that?

    'Good and bad, I define these terms
    Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.'

    'May your hands always be busy,
    May your feet always be swift...
    May you stay forever old.'

    Today's tomorrow yesterday? Indeed. Rock on.


  12. g: "My Back Pages" is one of my favorites. "Fearing not that I'd become my enemy in the instant that I preach." You could write a book about that one line. I LOVED the Byrds' version of it especially. It was the thrill of a lifetime to jam with that band once. They had too short a flight. So are you a Brit? Did you see any of the great Brit bands of the 60s in their heyday? If I had a time machine, Liverpool circa 1962 would be my first stop.

  13. Rob, thanks for the tip. I just bought YES's version of "America" from iTunes. One of the great songs of all time IMHO. Perhaps Simon's finest.

    "With the events of the last few years" - along with the events of this election season - I thought the 40th anniversary of RFK's death especially deserved mention. America is definitely lost. I miss it.

  14. I see great optimism in the US now. I will be speaking to some senators in Washington in July and on the agenda is returning to those things that made America great. Not that there were not issues to be addressed then, but there was an optimism and pride that was beautiful. In fact, I still see optimism. We are eternal optimists. Just getting home from an extended bike ride, I saw many Amerian flags throughout four cities and was heartened. God bless America. God bless each of us. God bless the people of the world.

  15. Speaking of Washington, Judith, I'm headed there this afternoon to lead a workshop on Wednesday. (No senators expected tho.) Yes, there is optimism in some quarters at the moment. But the outcome of this election will have a lot to do with sustaining it.

  16. Those of us Gene McCarthy faithful saw Kennedy for the ruthless opportunist he was--he sat back and let McCarthy do all the dirty anti-Johnson work month after grinding month, then swooped in at the last minute to steal his thunder and his votes. Infuriating to say the least, but that's what Kennedys did. They took what they thought was rightfully theirs by birthright. They were takers, and in America, if you've got millions and power brokers behind you, you can pretty much take whatever you want. That said, I do agree that America would have been far better off with him than Nixon. He would have likely been the truly progressive and visionary President that Joe was supposed to be, and John never was.

  17. I don't think it was that simple. In January 1968 RFK announced he wouldn't challenge LBJ. But after the Tet Offensive in February and a meeting with Chavez a few weeks later he decided to run. He kept it private at first while he tried to convince McCarthy to step aside. (Bobby was convinced—accurately IMHO—that he had a better shot against LBJ.) But he couldn't convince McCarthy to drop out and then Mac had a good showing in the NH primary while finishing #2 to LBJ. RFK finally announced publicly after that. Then LBJ announced he wouldn't run for re-election and the race was on.

    Don't know much about Joe Kennedy Jr's vision. JFK certainly evolved in a progressive direction socially while in office. Arguably as much as Lincoln did, in a shorter time span. But Jack WAS a cold warrior in his day (who wasn't?)—as was RFK at the time.

  18. BTW, I distinctly remember your hating JFK when you were 12! :-) It's amazing I can recall that.

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