"I'm goin' down to Yasgur's farmGonna join in a rock 'n' roll band
Got to get back to the land
And set my soul free."
The Woodstock Festival did not take place in Woodstock, New York but in the town of Bethel which is sixty-seven miles due west. The second day of that mythic, three-day concert coincided with my eleventh birthday (I am going to be fifty-one on Sunday. Yikes! Where did the time go?). I remember quite clearly my friend Tom Finkle and I riding our bikes up to the bridge on South Street that overlooks Route 17 - a four lane highway which snakes its way into Sullivan County where the great event took place. It looked like a long and narrow parking lot. The New York State Thruway had been shut down. To the best of my knowledge, that had never happened before and has not happened since.
To say that it was an exciting time to be alive almost sounds redundant. Less than four weeks earlier, two human beings had walked on the surface of the moon, a technological feat that will probably outshine every other event of the twentieth century in the history books that will be written a thousand years from now. As future decades unwind, it is a certainty that the photographic image of half a million kids, partying and dancing in the mud, will not continue to sustain the cultural significance that it does for us today. The years will pass by, the people who were lucky enough to be there will one day be no more, and the Woodstock Festival will be erased from living memory; a mere footnote to a very crowded century. But what a freaking party, baby!
This weekend I'll be listening to my copy of the Woodstock Soundtrack LP - on vinyl, of course. The very thought of listening to it on a compact disc seems somehow sacrilegious. Although I could have done without Sha-Na-Na's version of At The Hop, all in all it's a pretty good collection of tunes. I have always envied my cousin, the noted falconer Tom Cullen, who was a witness to Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Can you imagine? Canned Heat's performance of Going Up The Country is one of the great moments in rock history; and for the last forty years, whenever I heard Joan Baez singing Joe Hill, I have had to pause whatever I was doing at the moment and concentrate on it - It is one of the most moving pieces ever recorded on tape.
From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where working men defend their rights
It's there you'll find Joe Hill
It's there you'll find Joe Hill....
Here is a little bit of historical trivia for you: Joe Hill was Edward R. Murrow's favorite song. Bless him, I'm not surprised by that!
"If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."
Emma Goldman 1869-1940
I often wonder what Lady Emma might have thought about the so-called "sixties revolution". There certainly was a lot to dance to, that's for sure. But in the final analysis, I imagine she might have been just a bit disappointed with the Woodstock Generation. To be honest with you, I have always been a bit cynical on the subject of the Baby Boomers. The dirty little secret that no one (as far as I know) has yet dared to write about is that the youth revolt of the 1960s was born of out of the fact that the sons-of-privilege believed that the Vietnam War should have been fought by everyone and anyone but themselves
Two years after Lyndon Johnson escalated the war with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the overwhelming majority of American college students were indifferent to what was going on in Vietnam - if they were aware of it at all. Credit belongs to visionaries like the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, who condemned American involvement in South East Asia as far back as the Eisenhower administration. In 1959 Merton was - as he would remain throughout his life - one of the small numbers of voices-of-reason in a military-obsessed wilderness. The only thing his abhorrence of war ever got him was an FBI file.
As today, there was a noticeable class division in the young men who were fighting and dying - and not fighting and dying - in Vietnam. President Johnson, to his credit, believed that the sons-of-bankers had the same obligation as the sons-of-butchers. It was only when he ended the college deferments that the country exploded and the anti-war movement began to flourish. Can you ponder what might have happened if this situation existed today? The war against Iraq would not have lasted a day.
There were a few ways to avoid fighting in Vietnam without going to prison as a draft evader. If you were lucky enough to be the half-witted son of a certain congressman from Texas named Bush, you got a much-sought-after placement in an elite National Guard unit - despite your utter lack of qualifications. If in the course of your "service" you decided to go AWOL - no problemo! Some people were a little more politically connected than others, you know what I mean?
Many of the upper class young men who partook in "the revolution" of the 1960s did so only because they believed in their hearts something that only a few of them have admitted to date: that fighting the war in Vietnam - or any war for that matter - was beneath them. Leave that nasty little chore to the minorities and the poor white guys.
When the nightmare that was Vietnam finally ended in the Spring of 1975; when the draft was abolished and they were out of danger - the scenario would be drastically altered as you can imagine. The peace sign would eventually give way to the dollar sign; marijuana was overtaken by the three-martini lunch. Uber radical Jerry Rubin would end his life working for Wall Street.
Many of the guys you can see in the film, Woodstock - smoking dope under the stars, dancing in a torrential downpour, and grooving to The Who - would end up as prostitutes for Corporate America - buying BMWs and voting for Ronald Reagan. The mantle of "Peace and Love" was, I believe, merely a convenient front. As balding, middle-aged men, most of them would gleefully support their nation's illegal invasion of Iraq a generation later. By that time, these assholes weren't the ones who would have to do the fighting and dying.
I'm not trying to say that they were wrong not to support American involvement in Vietnam. They were absolutely correct. If only they had shown a little more consistency. They - WE - are the phoniest, most hypocritical generation in the history of the world.
But, damn! Their music was good!
The last time I looked at my videocassette of Woodstock (which was well over a decade ago) I wondered about the fates of the half-a-million gathered on the fields of Max Yasgur's farm in Sullivan County on that distant weekend. The passage of four decades decrees that a third or more of them have passed on. The average age of the attendees was about twenty-two. Today would find them approaching their mid-sixties; the age many of their grandparents were in 1969!
To be sure, some of them were sincere in their desire to make the world a better place for all. There are many good people of that generation who have kept the spirit of the sixties alive - or have tried to anyway. America is not the same country it was forty years ago. 2009 finds us even more polarized than we were during the age of Richard Nixon.
It is no longer merely a "generation gap" that is tearing America apart. The gaps today are almost too numerous to catalog: the political gap; the health insurance gap; the employment gap; the racial gap; the education gap; the class and income gaps. The world is a lot more troubled and sadder than it was in that long ago, magical summer of 1969. Sometimes I feel like a hostage to time. The truth is, for all the technological wonders of the twenty-first century, I just don't like being here.
NOTE TO MY FRIENDS: No, I'm not going to kill myself. Chill.
Where I come from, Woodstock has a special meaning to people because it happened here - or close enough to count. From where I now sit, Bethel is a mere forty-two miles northwest. According to this morning's local paper, seventy-five media outlets from all over the world will be covering the events commemorating the anniversary this weekend. That's enough of a reason for me to stay the hell away. I'm not as crowd-friendly as I once was. Besides, I would have preferred to attend the real thing forty years ago. That would have been too cool for words!
Nostalgia is a permanent human condition. Each generation is nostalgic for the last. It absolutely boggles the mind to think that the year 2049 will find those of us who survive looking back on these hideous times with tender longing. Given our silly human quirks, that will probably be the case. Still, it's hard not to reflect on the hope that was prevalent in the summer of Woodstock. We want to believe that there is a magical future where, as John Lennon once imagined, there are no countries; nothing to kill or die for. Maybe we will one day arrive at that wondrous place.
We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden....
DANCE WITH ME, EMMA!!!
Suggested viewing or listening:
WOODSTOCK - the film or the album, man!