One of the projects I work on now and then, which started out as a biography, has gotten me thinking about history again. The recent hoopla over a million little half-truths and made up facts pushed me deeper into the same thoughts. Any of you who have known me for a long time will remember my going off on this subject a time or two. I won’t call it a pet peeve, because that phrase is a pet peeve of mine…but what is history, really?
I don’t remember how old I was when it first occurred to me that a thing being written in a history book did not make it so; that the news didn’t necessarily happen just as it was reported, and that baseball radio announcers might not even be calling games the way they actually saw them. That’s an eye-opening factoid for a young man, let me tell you, and formative in ways that other life-lessons can never be.
Maybe it was the year in high school I accidentally signed up for both Ancient History and Western Civilization. Ancient History was the college preparatory class, and Western Civilization, as it turned out, was for those with less aptitude and concentration to spare. They covered the same period in history, and they covered them differently. One class taught that Babylon was the first great civilization, while the other talked about ancient Sumer, the Zoroastrians, and drilled down into the deeper facts. Fool that I was, I pointed this out to the Western Civilization teacher, thinking that maybe he was just ill-educated, and didn’t know about ancient Sumer. Maybe he really thought the Babylonians were first, and it was my duty to set him straight.
I was removed from the class and enrolled in “Individual Research in Social Studies,” where I had to write a fifty page research paper, and history continued down its two separate roads without a hitch in its giddy-up over my concerns. In any case, that was the start of it. I don’t think I gave it much more thought back then because I had a week to catch up on researching my paper “The Opium Trade Between China and Great Britain in the 1840s,” and I didn’t have much time on my hands.
It hit me again standing in a news stand one day and reading headlines about what appeared to be the same events, but with entirely skewed “facts”. I started wondering which attitude was written into the history books, and where one could find a true accounting of anything if everything ever recorded was subject to bias. The annals of history crumbled in my mind, and I began to think more for myself. It was a good thing, I’m convinced, but one that had to be kept in check and watched constantly. If you worry over it too much you start to think that if enough people say it long enough the textbooks will report the second gunman on the grassy knoll as fact, and that H. G. Wells was the first reporter with a bird’s eye view of the Martian invasion. It’s funny, and it’s not, because repeated over and over enough times, words become history.
Words that are not repeated enough times slip through the cracks, as well, leaving people with the impression that some things never happened, when they did. It’s an impossible conundrum. You don’t know who or what to trust, so you become a historian, of sorts, in your own right, hoping to patch together a sequence of historical events that is comfortable to you, and that you can live with. It’s best if you can find a good, solid support group of like-minded pseudo-historians to back up your theories.
How does this apply to writing? In the case of the book I mentioned above, which is the story of a psychedelic band from the 1960s, it’s crucial. Running through the stories and memories of the band members, I find threads of things they all remember, and believe. I find stories only one of them remembers, or that some fan told them about, but that none of them remember. Dates are jumbled, names and places run together, then apart, and my determination, after long thought, is that it doesn’t matter. If I capture the spirit of the days when the band was working its way to fame, then I’ve done my job. If the events, dates, relationships, and hair-colors don’t match up to exact history, what difference does it make? If the four guys involved don’t’ remember the details, who does? Do they even exist, at this point in time? I’m not sure. I am sure that there is an amazing story waiting to be told, and that if I get mired in the detailed history of it, it will bog down and never get written, but if I go with the flow and apply myself to getting “in character,” I can produce something that will give the reader the “feel” of that time, and that band. The experience is what is important, and what remains of those now are the strongest parts – the parts that time couldn’t kill. Those are what matter most. What happened in the 60s – for all intents and purposes – appears to have stayed there in large degree, but we can visit it, recreate it, and find the magic that gave four college boys with dreams, an RCA recording contract and a chance to stand on stage with Iron Butterfly and Dick Clark. And we can experience what it was like to have that, and just walk away.
Years from now readers may study this book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Woodstock,” and spread it as gospel. It may become a definitive history of the band, or it may sink into oblivion as so many other books have done, unnoticed. If any of you run across such a reader, and they start babbling to you about the exact events of a night in 1967, or a concert in 1969, just smile and nod, and say, “Yeah, that Dave Wilson sure knew his stuff.” History is full of little secrets like that.
You can learn more about the band, Larry McCLurg, the scene and the music at their website: http://www.mindgarage.com