The year 1968 -- whose blood-splattered, baton-swinging 50th anniversary party is about to peak this Memorial Day weekend with the 4-hour 1968documentary on CNN -- was truly a season for the good, the bad and the ugly. I mean that literally -- Hugh Montenegro's version of the theme song to the hit spaghetti-Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was all over the AM radio that spring, with its unforgettable ocarina opening and its "rep rup rep rup" chorus. But figuratively, the Ugly walloped both the Good and the Bad in the wider world of 1968 by a big margin.
It's easy to forget that. Those round, tinted spectacles that the likes of John Lennon were wearing in 1968 were the ultimate rose-colored glasses, after all. And so the purple haze of nostalgia can cling to glib Time-Life-infomercial-style memories of the halcyon daze of the decade that changed America -- bright tie-dyed colors illuminated by a strobe light and pulsating to the fuzzy guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. "I think it's so groovy now," an act called Friend & Lover sang in the summer of 1968, "that people are finally getting together."
The song was pure wishful thinking. Ask anyone who lived through 1968 -- even those of us who were bright-eyed grade-schoolers then -- and we can tell you that the year was experienced in real time mostly as hell on earth. No, you really didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, not when these things were in the air: The Tet Offensive, with planeloads of American-flag-draped caskets flying home from Vietnam every week. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. -- the latter followed by days of urban rioting that claimed dozens of lives. And student and youthful uprisings that were put down with violent force -- from Columbia University and Chicago here at home to the streets of Mexico City and even Czechoslovakia, where Soviet troops crushed Prague's spring awakening.