Monday, August 10, 2009

Memories of Woodstock Memories

Ambivalence. This is the third or fourth anniversary of Woodstock I remember. I was too young for the first one—not the first anniversary, the actual event. I have no memory of it, unlike say, watching TV when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I am well familiar with the music. The 3-lp movie soundtrack—and the 2-lp Woodstock 2, which I did own and had this song, “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” by Mountain, which I fondly recall—were everywhere when I was a kid, some of the first music I encountered and Woodstock 2 may have been one of the first records I ever owned—it was free with this record club membership. I don’t mean to imply that the records are lacking; they are actually quite good, even great, perhaps masterpieces of whatever genre you want to label them as. Hearing them brings back many pre-teen and early teen memories of hanging out in suburban bedrooms and basements, which is where we listened to whatever records were available as our thoughts and feelings went from childhood obsessions to girls, the outside world, our future, and girls. Woodstock was played all the time. In Boy Scouts, age 11, 12, I clearly recall doing the FISH cheer (what’s that Spell! Scoutmasters loved that one) and knowing all the words to the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die.” The draft and the war were long over by the time I was eighteen but like many things you memorize at an early age—the Pledge of Allegiance, the Hail Mary—I still know all the words.

In the 90s, the 70s were fetishized. I guess the then ascendant Gen X were playing around with childhood nostalgia—the Ice Storm era—and we saw the platform shoes, the curly permanents, the Saturday Night Fever/Steve Martin white suits glorified as iconic during the economic boom 90s. But most of the 70s, first part anyway, was spent pretending it was still the 60s, at least a suburban televised version of it. Everything was denim and long hair. The malls had head shops, where they sold the famed “Concert Kit,” a small, translucent plastic box containing a pack of rolling papers, a small pipe and screens. I always loved the screens. You would put them in your pipe so smoldering ashes wouldn’t get sucked into your mouth. In high school we found out that the screens were actually filters in sink spigots and ripping them out of the school bathrooms became a sport. You used a pen or some long, thin object.

But, we were too young to be hippies. The free-love, the communal vibes rapidly faded by the turn of the decade. In terms of pop culture, the disco, and for me, the punk rock, swept away lingering refuse. Everything was Star Wars. In 2001 A Space Odyssey, mankind found something on the moon and Dave was transformed into a giant embryo orbiting the earth. Star Child. What relevance was that? The rebellion against the empire, the construction and destruction of the death star, it was just a means for Luke to make sense of his life. Making sense of your existence, that was relevant. Who needed a Star Child? I didn’t have a Woodstock. Instead, it was CBGBs. Like Woodstock, the ideal of CBGBs was more important than the actual physical space. Literature and Rock & Roll were intertwined more tightly for a couple of years at least than they ever had been before or since. We were Luke and life was a Season in Hell. Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. The communal experience of music was not in some big, muddy field, it was in a dark smoky club. Cynicism was inevitable—the economy was terrible, no future—and the lure of nihilism real.

The punk movement may have been a reaction to the dominance of Woodstock, album, movie and myth. We didn’t get free love, just alienation. There was a resentment that for the first part of the 70s, we pretended that the 60s were still alive but in reality, everyone found out how to make a buck by marketing hippie rebellion. Who needs to be against the war when there was no war, but we get concert kits and the bell bottoms at the mall. “Three Days of Peace & Love” became embodied in a host of consumer products

But the reality was, the baby boomers didn’t make three days of peace and love. Shaky rock promoters failed to take proper precautions and a disaster was averted because civil authorities came to the rescue. The kids were well behaved—peace and music—and let’s face it, the music was awesome. But if food wasn’t flown in—if the authorities acted differently—I wonder if the Baby Boomer ideals would have sustained them, or would they have turned to the baby boomer darker side, which we saw in streets of Chicago in 68, or the 69 Days of Rage by the Weathermen Underground, or Altamont, only a few months after Woodstock.

The bulk of the baby boomers—the ones older than me, who were in high school or college when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon the month before Woodstock—well, they’ve been kind of running the country for the last two decades. Let’s see, the baby boomer vote was instrumental in electing Ronald Reagan and George w. Bush. Yes, they were part of the Clinton vote, some of them at least, but they helped Universal Healthcare fail, then were oh so shocked and appalled over the Lewinsky affair. Baby Boomers may have started the women’s movement and the environmental movement, and may have supported civil rights—but once the Vietnam War was over and the draft was no longer a threat, they abandoned in droves the other issues and historically, Baby Boomers have the highest percentage of people who do not vote than any other generation. Look at what happened to African American neighborhoods in the 70s and 80s, where were the ideals of Woodstock Nation then? All those kids, mostly of color, in jail for small amounts of pot. Woodstock Nation kept our divisions of class and race solidly in place. No national recycling, no limits on polluting cars—their support of the Iraq war, meant gasoline for the SUVs and other children were being sent. It’s their job, said one 60s draft dodger turned republican I know. Woodstock Nation has done what they accused their parents of doing, leaving the next generation a messed up world. At least the Greatest Generation removed fascism from Western Europe and Japan. From the baby boomers—every ten years we get to memorialize three days of peace and music (it was actually in Bethel, New York, not the town of Woodstock; Pete Townsend hit Abbie Hoffman with his guitar; Wavy Gravy stories. Ugh!).

Sadly, since Woodstock, the track record of Woodstock Nation has been a disappointment of historic proportions. They’ve never lived up to those ideals of three days of peace & music and frankly, the only ideals they’ve held up to are selfishness and hypocrisy. Maybe it has something to do with the reality being, those three days were only made possible because the establishment—unlike the baby boomers in charge during Katrina (or in planning the two Bush wars)—took appropriate action. And, the ambivalence—does that have to do with the shallowness and anti-intellectualism that was inherent in the most popular aspects of the 60s counter-counterculture, or that like all trappings of youth for every generation, Woodstock ideals, like any fad, were destined to be abandoned when their youth dissipated. Peace, Love, Freedom, Equality—can these things be attainable, albeit with the hard work of translating ideals into effective laws and policy and a willingness to sacrifice, or are they truly like Nehru jackets, paisley shirts and black light posters—stuff you grow out of. I honestly don’t know the answer. But this every decade glorified remembrance of Woodstock is emblematic of a trend I call, nostalgia for nostalgia. Woodstock Nation was always mythical. Unfortunately, for the few years afterwards, the myth was sold as a reality we all bought.

I know one guy who went to Woodstock. I work with him. I talked to him the other day. He was 19 at the time and went there with two buddies, one of whom is no longer with us, but he told me the other guy called him. They stay in touch but are no longer close. I liked that, feeling the need to call, to reconnect. I’m sure their Woodstock stories were told again and again throughout the early 70s, and I wonder if their nostalgia was more for the nostalgia than about how the Woodstock experience that continues to affect their lives? I work with the guy, I can’t engage him in my existential examinations.

I asked him once, did he remember any of the music. He said Joe Cocker. He was a big fan. He said Joe Cocker was really good. In a New York Times article on Woodstock last week, Jon Parles said that before Woodstock, Joe Cocker shared a bill at the Fillmore with Jefferson Airplane. After Woodstock, he was huge and remained a big star through the early 80s. Cocker, back in the 60s, would do versions of Beatles songs—i.e.,. “A Little Help From My Friends,” before the official Beatles release. That gave him cache. Cocker was the last of the singers wasn’t he, a singer outside of a known band and not writing his own songs. Sinatra, Elvis—he was in that thread—but the singer has gone. Nobody is just a singer anymore. Who the heck thinks about Joe Cocker these days?

Guy Hartman was my next door neighbor and boy hood chum and with whom I spent many afternoons of my adolescence listening to Woodstock. We had the announcements memorized, “don’t try the brown acid.” He loved Ten Years After. We listened to that weird extended jam of a Chuck Berry riff endlessly. Ironically, Guy never dug the Dead like I did. I guess when it comes to jams, some love “Going Home”, others Dark Star. I remember him being so excited when he bought a new Ten Years After record, this three record set, which include like an entire side of “Going Home”. The rest of the songs seemed, well, not so bad. I have no memory of them, can’t say I ever heard them on the radio either. He was older than I, and was able to see Ten Years After in concert at the Felt Forum way before I was allowed to attend a rock concert. A new band, ZZ Top, opened for them and they were great he said, and he became a ZZ Top fan. He’s been a registered republican for about 20 years now and lives in a Bergen County suburb, where we grew up.

The New York Thruway is Closed, Man!


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