Pat Thomas: The Odd Man Out of the Sixties

Call Pat Thomas the “Odd Man Out of the Sixties.” Born in 1964 and only six when calendars read January 1970, he was not physically present for much of the decade, but he has absorbed the essential spirit of the era. Indeed, he inhabited it to write his two books, Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power, 1965-1975 and From Do It to Did It: The Jerry Rubin Story. He even talks as though he lived through the era, and learned first hand much of its lingo and jingo.

Perhaps because he didn’t actually join protesters and try to Levitate the Pentagon, riot in the streets of Chicago in 1968, or attend any of the legendary events of the era, such as Woodstock, he knows that the Sixties is a state of mind as much as a decade that unfolded chronologically, and that it didn’t screech to an apocalyptic ending in December 1969, but rather rolled over and kept going into the 1970s.

Thomas also knows that the Sixties belongs to women and African Americans as well as to white guys, like Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, and that the era had its roots in the Fifties, when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats carved out a counterculture of their own.

Thomas has a unique perspective that might be illuminating not only to Sixties people but to members of his own generation.

Q: You were six in 1970 and probably escaped the worst of the machismo of the Sixties. Do you think feminism or feminist thinking influenced you?

A: Oh yeah, definitely. I imbibed feminism in part from my mother who was and still is fairly conservative, and yet she joined the National Organization of Women in 1975. She’s a card-carrying member to this day. With just a high school degree, she went on to be a successful businesswoman and make more money than my Dad with his master’s degree. I’m still eager to get a woman in the White House.

Q: Is it possible to say what Sixties people have in common with one another? If so what might that be?

A: Well, the convergence of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll coupled with the political climate and the war in Vietnam – lots of commonalities there.

Q: How does that generation different from 1980s people?

A: The 1980s people were less inspired, more coddled, less interesting.

Q: Robin Williams famously said if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there. A lot of people seem to have false memories, or fictional memories of the era. Did you encounter that in your research?

A: No two people can agree on even the simplest events of the 1960s. “It was raining.” “It was hot and sunny.” “It happened in the Fall.” “It was definitely the summer.” “So and so wasn’t there.” “I remember clearly that so and so was there.” And so on!

Q: If you could have dinner with six Sixties people who would they be?

A: I wouldn’t mind a dinner with the entire Chicago 8: lots of diverse personalities and ideologies there.

Q: The Sixties was an era of great African American orators: MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rap Brown. All of them were either murdered, destroyed or imprisoned. The Black community lost its voices. If you think back to that time, what Black voices resonate with you now?

A: I’ve always been blown away by watching footage of Chicago Black Panther, Fred Hampton. My god, what a dynamic and moving public speaker. Had he lived, imagine what he may have accomplished? In my book, Did It! Jerry Rubin: An American Revolutionary, I dig into the relationship Fred had with the Yippies and his participation in the Chicago 8 Trial.

Q: What are you favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands from that era?

A: Some of the usual suspects, because they were amazing: The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles & The Stones, and perhaps my all time favorite: The Velvet Underground.

Q: I remember the way the Motown sound swept over much of my generation and the generation that came after mine. Why was that? Was it marketing? Sheer talent?

A: I’d say Motown was not just a combination of good marketing and wonderful talent. It was also the songs with a soulful beat. Pure genius. Earlier R & B and the blues were more primal, less melodic, and equally cool, but not destined for mass appeal.

Q: What do you think is the single biggest misconception of the Sixties by people alive today?

A: That it was all fun and games. It wasn’t. Many died, many got their heads smashed in. There was lots of turmoil and unrest coupled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Q: Do you blame Sixties people for having illusions, including the illusion that they could change the world?

A: Are you kidding?? I love them for that! Jerry & Abbie and countless others, including the Panthers, felt they could change the world. In my book, I write about how Rubin & Hoffman spent quite a bit of time together in the 1980, reminiscing. They both looked back on the 1960’s fondly. Jerry’s wife, Mimi, told me the same thing: that Jerry always referred to his Yippie years fondly, despite the fact that he wanted to be known for “something else” later in life.

Q: Did the country change? Was there a cultural revolution and where might you see it?

A: We saw it at Woodstock and how Madison Avenue embraced the hippie culture soon afterward. I saw my parents let their hair grow a tad longer during the early 1970s. We saw the birth and explosion of Punk Rock in the late 1970s. All good shit! However, in 2017, all I see is a Trump inspired wasteland.

Q: What event in the Sixties are you sorry you missed and why?

A: Weirdly, perhaps, Altamont (out of a sense of perversity), and certainly Chicago 1968 and ideally Paris in 1968 as well.

Q: Some say the Sixties didn’t really happen until the 1970s when youth culture and the drug culture spread almost everywhere. What’s your take on that?

A: To me, the Sixties ended around 1972-73, with the birth of glam-rock, David Bowie, Marc Bolan & T-Rex, and as the Vietnam War started to wind down and as Nixon was pushed out.

Q: What’s the best 1960s movie and why?

A: My personal favorite is The Graduate; innocence turns sexual with ennui, frustration and a touch of humor mixed in. Genius.

Q: Did you interview any people you didn’t include in your book?

A: I think everyone I spoke with (about 75 people) actually made it in the book. But I got angry emails asking “Why am I not in the book more?” Some from people who didn’t have much to say!

Q: If you were Jerry Rubin’s psychiatrist what would you say about his personality and his neuroses?

A: Ha, ha, ha, ha. ….. Hmmmm. An annoying yet loveable egocentric with an ability to share if it’s something (or someone) he really cared about.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.