Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

When they call the roll of famous pop-culture events of the 1960s, there’s one that never makes the list, despite the fact that it’s extremely well-remembered by those who were there.

Just after 5:00 in the afternoon on November 9, 1965, lights dimmed all over New York City and then went out. The cause of the problem was apparently human error, although conspiracy theorists love the idea that there were several UFO sightings in Pennsylvania and New York just as the lights went out. The blackout eventually spread to all of New England and into Canada, as well as affecting upstate New York and New Jersey. About 30 million people were affected, although some parts of the region, including some neighborhoods in the New York City area itself, did not lose power.

The blackout knocked New York’s television stations off the air for the night. It was left to the city’s radio stations to report on the event. Most stations were able to get their transmitters back on the air using backup power within half-an-hour. (Thanks to its backup generator, WCBS was off the air for only about 15 seconds.) Backup electricity was used mostly to power transmitters, however—the stations themselves were lit by candles and flashlights so the work could go on. An enormous full moon also helped light the scene.

The Rolling Stones were in New York that night, one week into their fourth American tour, enjoying some downtime between a two-show day in Newark on the 7th and a show in Raleigh, North Carolina, scheduled for the 10th. During their stay in the city, Brian Jones had spent some time in a recording studio with Bob Dylan and Wilson Pickett. (Jones was the only member of the Stones to hit it off with Dylan, and was allegedly offered a spot in Dylan’s band, which he turned down.) On the night of the 9th, undaunted by the blackout, Jones threw a party in a suite at the Lincoln Square Motor Inn. Dylan is said to have remarked as he arrived, “It’s an invasion from Mars! Let’s turn on. What better time? The little green men have landed.” Also on hand that night were Dylan’s friend and collaborator Bobby Neuwirth and Robbie Robertson of the Band. Before the night was over, the four musicians jammed by candlelight. Fellow Stone Bill Wyman later nicknamed it “the lost jam.”

(Many rock history websites claim that the Stones were appearing on the TV show Shindig! that night, but that’s incorrect. The Shindig! appearance, on tape, had been broadcast three days earlier.)

Normal power was restored to the blacked-out areas by early morning on November 10, but it wouldn’t be the last time the Northeast was blacked out. On July 13 and 14, 1977, New York City was crippled by a localized blackout, resulting in looting and arson across the city. The blackout is critical to the storyline of the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam. (The 1965 blackout also inspired a movie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, released in 1968 and starrring Doris Day and Robert Morse, now playing Bert Cooper on Mad Men.) On August 14, 2003, the Northeast was hit by yet another blackout. An estimated 55 million people in the United States and Canada were affected. But neither of those later blackouts captured the imagination of Americans quite like the blackout of 1965.

(From my WNEW.com archives.)

4 responses

  1. But neither of those later blackouts captured the imagination of Americans quite like the blackout of 1965.

    Are you sure? It seems to me that which imaginations were captured depends on which generation that you belong to. And — I’m going to say this mildly, truly I am — if you think that the imaginations of Americans were captured more by the blackout of 1965, that’s a Boomer memory talking. Me, I remember the 2003 vividly (I lived in Brooklyn), and everybody (if affected) has a story associated with the blackout. I know the 1965 blackout, of course, but mostly, in my generation and after, it’s the 2003 blackout that has captured the imaginations now. (Especially because it was bigger: from New York to Detroit!) And, of course, sometime in the future there will be another blackout, and probably it will be, say forty years hence, a generation marker.

    1. I suspect that you may be right regarding my generational prejudice, although every generation—every person—has something similar going on. No matter what happens, it seems more important because it happened to us.

      Another difference might be involve the way we experience news now—even though the ’03 blackout affected millions, the firehose of information we live with today (which was nothing in ’03 compared to what it is now, even though it was far greater in ’03 than it was in ’65 or ’77), causes events to resonate less with people who don’t experience them directly. People who watch from afar experience so much stuff from afar today that even the most transcendent events eventually get swamped by other stuff. Those of us watching from afar in ’65 or ’77 (I was 17 in 1977) experienced those events differently then than we would have done in ’03, or as we would now.

      Of course that’s just my opinion. I could be entirely wrong.

      1. Wow, I misspelled my name. Sheesh.

        Very thoughtful. I hope I didn’t sound … well, anything bad.

  2. We were absolutely blitzed with the radio ads for ‘Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?’ here in the Twin Cities, which might explain why the ’65 outage still adheres to more of my brain cells.

    In terms of being such a memorable event, the ’65 outage was the first of its kind. The subsequent blackouts may have been more widespread and affected more people, but they didn’t set the precedent. Every subsequent large-scale blackout is destined to be compared with the first big one in ’65. Here’s how that “capturing the imagination” thing worked:

    First outage: “Wow! Who could have imagined such a thing?”
    Second and third outages: “Again? Whose fault is it this time?”

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