Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock at 40

Unlike many of my friends (one of whom still has the tickets he bought and never had to use), I did not go to the Woodstock Music Festival, August 15-17, 1969. That was the summer I was 17 and I spent it in England, primarily London. I watched the televised moon landing in a local pub, where, as Neil Armstrong set down his famous foot for man and mankind, the bartender said to me, “Well, you Yanks have made it!” and gave me a free beer. I left England before the fairly-as-famous Isle of Wight festival (that Bob Dylan did participate in, unlike Woodstock), thereby missing the two key pop-culture events of my generation. But even if I’d been here (or there), I wouldn’t have attended, because I was a hippie in spirit only, not in the physical sleep-on-the-ground, frolic-in-the-rain-&-mud kind of way. I loved the creed and music of the 60s, but I saw no reason to give up my bed and air conditioner in their name.

I did, however, get to visit The Beatles’ Apple Records and meet Derek Taylor, their longtime publicist, to whom I’d been given entrĂ©e by a popular young folksinger who was a close friend at the time. The Beatles were in the process of breaking up like a bad marriage and the Apple offices looked like they were under siege, with lots of boxes being packed and young assistants literally running around in a dizzy panic. The tall, slim Derek sat serenely cross-legged in his tall, round-backed Panama chair and said calmly, “This is what the end looks like.” I never got to meet a Beatle, but Derek gave me a 45 of Give Peace a Chance autographed by John and Yoko, the first joint I’d smoked in weeks, and a pass to a recording session at Abbey Road Studios (it was either Johnny Mathis or a symphony, I don’t remember which).

When I think of Woodstock now – the festival, not the town – I think of it as the last gasp of 60s sensibility, which struggled to be seen and heard through the Disco 70s and truly died with John Lennon in 1980. The 60s were the original days of “yes we can,” audacious hope, and change we not only believed in, but genuinely made. We kinda changed the world, but not in the ongoing way we thought we would. My generation – now aging, preoccupied with its waning health and wealth and doting on its grandchildren – has come to be reviled for our youthful excess and envied for the fact that we got to have loose, crazy sex in the last era before AIDS. We had faith and we had fun and we took action, and we were cool and looked cool before what we were got mainstreamed and diluted.

Remembering Woodstock – the era, not the festival – makes me sad now, because it turns out we were more wrong than right. Love is not all we need, nobody is willing to give peace a chance, one’s body can’t handle LSD after the age of 40 (and who in their right mind wants to trip now?), and we can’t stop the current wars which, like the one we fought against, are bleeding us dry for no good reason. A lot of us died young and most of the rest of us are deeply, deeply tired.

From 1981-2001, my family owned a rustic little condo in West Hurley, New York, which is just a few miles from Woodstock – the town, not the phenomenon. In order to survive economically, Woodstock evolved from a quiet artists’ community into a tourist monument to an event that took its name, but was held 50 miles and light years away. I loved the town of Woodstock and I miss it. I’m sure things are hoppin’ up there this weekend – to their relief and dismay. It’s not easy being the keeper of a flame you never lit. For the rest of us, it’s business as usual – or whatever it’s become since the Crash of 2008. For me, today is a wistful memory of my youth, the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, and time to clean up the kitchen. Time marches on.

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