On the radio last week, I heard Frank Sinatra sing “It Was a Very Good Year.” Sinatra made this Ervin Drake song his own and made it famous, winning with a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Male, back in 1966. As I listened—especially to the sad final verse about “the autumn of the year”—I began to think about previous times I had heard Sinatra sing this song and about the autumn of my own life. The version I would sing is a stark contrast to the romantic conquests and vintage wine of the original.
I first heard “It Was a Very Good Year” when I was just over twenty-one, when unlike the song, for me it was not a good year. And, in fact, neither were the years when I was seventeen or when I was thirty-five. It wasn’t that there were no small-town girls, no soft summer nights, no city girls with perfumed hair, no blue-blooded girls or limousines. Rather it was that the events in my life at these ages had much more to do with death than with love, with the kind of death that Dion DiMucci sang about, just two years after Sinatra did, in “Abraham, Martin and John”—a lament for the losses of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As an early baby boomer, my most memorable experiences were not of romantic relationships with young women, but of the deaths by assassination of American moral leaders whose lives helped shape my own: John F. Kennedy, when I was seventeen; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, when I was twenty-one; and John Lennon, when I was thirty-five.
In the first verse of “It Was a Very Good Year,” Sinatra sings that it was a very good year for “small-town girls / And soft summer nights,” hiding from “the lights / On the village green.”
My own first verse is a lament—at seventeen—for the loss of two influential men in 1963, both of whom were named John. One was Pope John XXIII who was instrumental in shaking up the Roman Catholic Church—my church—in ways that it had not been shaken for centuries. Nuns that taught me no longer wore medieval wimples, priests now faced worshippers, and mass was said in English. John XXIII died in June of 1963, but his work of renewal (aggiornamento) and his opening of the Ecumenical Council were to be continued by his successor and because he left behind two great encyclicals: Mater et magistra, expressing the church’s concern for the exploited and forgotten poor around the world, and Pacem in terris, addressed not just to Catholics but to “all men of good will.”
The death of John F. Kennedy was a complete shock that paralyzed Americans of all ages, not just seventeen-year-olds like me.
When he ran for President in 1960, no one believed a Catholic could get elected. Many thought no one could defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Like many others, I was charmed by the charisma of JFK and was convinced that he had handily won the presidential debates of 1960. I was thrilled when he went on to win the election. Even to this day I hear echoes from his inaugural address: remaining a part of the “new generation of Americans,” helping third world countries “because it is right,” continuing John XXIII’s “quest for peace” on earth. I still want America to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”
I ignored JFK’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, but cheered—after holding my breath—when through the Cuban Missile Crisis, he forced Nikita Khrushchev to blink, to agree to the dismantling of Russian missile sites in Cuba. And I cried for four days late in that November of 1963.
Because of the deaths of John XXIII and JFK, the first verse of my version of the Drake/Sinatra song goes like this:
When I was seventeen
It was not a good year
It was not a good year for Catholic boys
Who lost President and Pope
Both had given them hope
Now on their own they must cope
At only seventeen.
To some extent the work of John XXIII and JFK was continued by their successors, Pope Paul VI and President Lyndon Johnson. But only a little more than four years later—when I had become twenty-one—tragedy struck again, twice, first in April and then in June of 1968, with the assassinations first of Martin Luther King Jr. and then of Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, John’s younger brother who, in Dion’s song, “walks up over the hill” to join “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Even before John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India, had led a nonviolent protest in Birmingham, and had marched on Washington to deliver his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. His continuous campaigning for civil rights helped lead to President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making segregation in public places illegal and ending Jim Crow laws. In 1965 he had led twenty-five hundred marchers to the Selma Edmund Pettus Bridge, and when three were beaten and one died, six days later President Johnson proposed a Voting Rights Act which became law later that year, after King, on his third try, led three thousand marchers, backed by U.S. Army and National Guard troops, across that bridge to Montgomery. A year before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King had spoken out strongly against the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. Just days after his assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
One of the strongest advocates for civil rights in the 1960s was Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, younger brother of John and U.S. Attorney General during his administration. After his older brother’s death, Bobby won a U.S. Senate seat from New York and turned from fighting organized crime to fighting racial discrimination, American involvement in the Vietnam War, and the poverty he had seen firsthand on visits to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, to the Mississippi Delta, and to farm workers in Delano, California. His concerns for racial and economic injustice and the continuation of the Vietnam War under President Johnson led to his decision to run for President, challenging first George McGovern, then Vice President Hubert Humphrey. His rhetorical skills and Kennedy charisma greatly appealed to me at twenty-one; I believed in his message of needed change and had my hopes raised, especially after he won primaries in Indiana and Nebraska and was leading in my home state of California.
To cope with my earlier losses of Pope John XXIII and President John Kennedy, I had turned to music, not to the pop music of the early 1960s, but to thoughtful songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” taken to the top ten on the Billboardcharts by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963, answered by Sam Cooke with “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1965, and again taken to the top ten by Stevie Wonder in 1966. I had wondered with Barry McGuire if we might indeed be on “The Eve of Destruction” or if Simon & Garfunkel were right about the words of some “prophet” being “written on the subway walls.” The Beatles, led by John Lennon, tried to reassure me that “All You Need Is Love,” but Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield had already convinced me that the turmoil of these years “ain’t exactly clear” and that “a man with a gun over there” should make us all beware—be that man Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, or Sirhan Sirhan.
Dion DiMucci’s “Abraham, Martin and John” (1968) brought some consolation, but it was quickly undermined by the first cut on the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet album, released that December. Playing the role of Satan in “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mick Jagger shouts a challenging question: “Who killed the Kennedys?” then answers that “it was you and me!” His charge made me want to seek Sinatra’s “city girls with perfumed hair,” especially when I felt that my whole country was coming undone because the death of Bobby Kennedy paved the way for the election of Richard Nixon to the U.S. presidency.
In contrast to Sinatra, my own version of the second verse of “It was a Very Good Year” goes like this:
When I was twenty-one
It was not a good year
It was not a good year for 60s young men.
Martin and Bobby were leading the way
To a hopeful new day.
But both were killed by a gun
When I was twenty-one.
With the losses of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the inevitable election of Richard Nixon, I turned my attention after 1969 and well into the 1970s away from politics and to my career—the pursuit of first an M.A. and then a Ph.D. in English. I listened cursorily to the news, not surprised to hear that Nixon was reelected in 1972, but pleasantly surprised that the Vietnam War ended in 1973 and that to avoid impeachment and conviction Nixon resigned in 1974, replaced by Gerald Ford.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter brought a glimmer of hope, but that was snuffed out not by the election of Ronald Reagan four years later, but by the gun of Mark David Chapman who fired four bullets into the back of John Lennon on December 8, 1980. For years the Nixon administration had been trying to deport Lennon, and now Mark Chapman had put a permanent end to him. But no one could stop Lennon’s legacy.
I was now thirty-five and John Lennon, for over a decade after his leadership of The Beatles, had inspired me in ways that politicians after John and Robert Kennedy never could. He had been serious as one of The Beatles when he recognized his need for “Help” (1965) and when to all of us he sang “All You Need Is Love” (1967). With the Plastic Ono Band, he had reiterated John XXIII’s Pacem in terris message to “Give Peace a Chance.” In 1971 he created a song that will never be forgotten, a text that will stand with John XXIII’s encyclicals, JFK’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” He, too, had been a dreamer, and now he was inviting all of us to join him in imagining “all the people / Living life in peace.”
Beyond his dreams was his song “Woman,” the first single released from his Double Fantasyalbum after his death, a song not just for his wife, Yoko Ono, but for all women. It was the most powerful of antidotes to Drake and Sinatra’s small town, city, and blue-blooded girls. The love expressed here was clearly for one woman—not for many girls—and it was “now and forever.”
Only a few months later fellow Beatle George Harrison paid him tribute with a song, “All Those Years Ago” (1981). George remembers how John was the one to whom he “always looked up,” the one who pointed “the way to the truth” when he said, “All you need is love,” the “one who imagined it all.”
Because of the loss of John Lennon at the hands of Mark Chapman when I was thirty-five, my third verse goes like this:
When I was thirty-five
It became a bad year
It became a bad year for the very one
Who in his songs unfurled
Love and peace for the world.
He had kept my hopes alive
When I was thirty-five.
Unlike the singer of Sinatra’s song, despite the loss of another personal hero, my life did not lose its meaning after I turned thirty-five. Within a few years I found a woman to love, like John Lennon, “now and forever.” I have enjoyed teaching college students and interacting with family and friends, experiencing my share of Aristotle’s eudaimonia. I may now be in the autumn of my life, but I do not think of my days as being short.
Seventeen, and twenty-one, and thirty-five may not have been good years for me, but most of the other years have been good, especially considered together. Those who died in late 1963, mid 1968, and late 1980 left behind a legacy of dreams and hopes expressed in texts. They were all dreamers—of peace, of a brighter future, of equal opportunity, and of love. John Lennon hoped that they were not the only ones and that we would join them. When he was campaigning for president before his death in 1968, Bobby Kennedy liked to say: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
I have long shared the dreams of these heroes with my family, my friends, and my students. My own “It Was a Very Good Year” song remembers and honors those whose lives were cut short while I was growing up and who have given continued meaning to my own life. I want to sing this song my way—with its final verse below—because I want to pass on the legacy they left me, the good years they gave me, and the good years I hope they continue to give others:
Throughout my good, long life
I’ve looked forward, not back
And four great men have remained
Martin and Bobby and John and John
Have each helped me carry on
Their dreams still live on
For they were very good men.
They were very good men.
Richard Compean grew up when individual singer-songwriter poets like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen we’re replacing crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. It was also a time of great political activism, of the Anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and Women’s Movements. Richard earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. In English from the University of California at Davis, and he now teaches English at City College of San Francisco.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.