Aaron Cometbus writes to say, “After coveting your copy of Woodstock Nation for two decades (!), I finally found my own at a sale a few weeks back. Also, at a different sale, an original copy of Guitar Army, which I’ve also always wanted.”
Really? Two decades? I remember him remarking on it – and yes, that would have been somewhere around 1989 – at my house up on Spy Rock, where I enjoyed the luxury of an entire room devoted to books, though it sounds a bit grandiose to call it a library (grandiosity was not, however, a quality I lacked in those days). And I remember him making mention of it occasionally – very occasionally – over the ensuing twenty years.
But I don’t recall ever getting the sense that he was truly covetous of it, because most likely there are several points at which I’m sure I would have just given it to him. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure, having disposed of large numbers of my personal possessions as I downsized from a six-room house in the mountains to a modest apartment in Brooklyn.
And to be even more honest, although I will, the first chance I get, rummage through my remaining books to see if the hardbound original printing of Abbie Hoffman’s acid-drenched (in more than one sense) memoir of the biggest countercultural event of modern times, I’m unlikely to read it again anytime soon. I’ll be more motivated by the awareness that if Aaron, an avid and devoted book collector, has had to search that long and hard for it, it’s probably worth a fair bit of money.
Oh, I know, that sounds terrible, especially on this 40th anniversary, where every doddering old hippie with half a functioning brain left (actually, I think the bar has been set considerably lower) is joining with youthful romantics who weren’t even born in 1969 to weigh in on What It All Means.
Not a heck of a lot, I’d venture to say, and before you accuse me of being one of those doddering old hippies myself (oh, what the heck; go ahead), allow me to point out that I at least have the advantage of having been there. Well, for a little while, anyway. Less than 24 hours, actually, since I’d apparently I’d already formed my lifelong habit of arriving late and leaving early when it comes to rock and roll shows, but enough, I think, to get in the proper spirit of things.
The San Francisco Chronicle (of course) hosted this charming discussion, hosted by The Worst Rock Critic in the History of Rock Criticism (that would be the ever-vapid and unctuous Joel Selvin) among three old-timers who had not just attended Woodstock, but performed there, and while much of it sounded like three cranky old men (it was actually just two cranky old men; the guy from Santana, still in his early 60s, sounded reasonably coherent) whiling away yet another afternoon in the arts and crafts lounge at the retirement home), it did bring up the interesting point that it’s very difficult to establish agreement on exactly what happened and when.
In the age of cell phones, blogging, Youtube and ubiquitous handheld videocams, that may sound like a strange notion, but for the Woodstock story we’re largely reliant on the pre-modern oral tradition. Oh, there’s the movie, of course, which I haven’t seen since the 70s and could probably not sit through ever again without the aid of powerful drugs, but that was constructed more as a commercial (“Come Visit Hippieland!”) than a documentary, and bears about as much resemblance to reality as the musicalHair.
And with both age and – in many though certainly not all cases – a lifetime of drug use diminishing and distorting the recollections of those Woodstock veterans who remain among us, it’s likely that the festival will eventually pass into the realm of pure legend. If it hasn’t already. Which it probably has.
I’ve caught myself being scornful of those who endowed the story of a few hundred thousand people standing in a muddy field with more significance than it merited, as well as those whose memories of it have gone slip sliding away into la-la-la-we-all-loved-each-other-land, only to discover that my own grasp on matters was by no means as firm as I would have liked to imagine.
In connection with this Guardian article by a lady who presumably wasn’t there and thus bemoans how modern rock festivals don’t have the same “spirit” (perhaps, but they certainly have better bands, better sound, better facilities, etc.), there’s a link to an alleged (hey, it’s on Wikipedia) schedule of the bands who played at Woodstock. The first shock was at how many crappy bands were allowed on the bill (Quill? Who the hell were they? Sha Na Fucking Na??), but the real bitchslap to yours truly’s grip on reality came in discovering that either I saw a bunch of bands that I don’t even remotely remember, or that my recollections of how and when I arrived at the festival are questionable at best.
For years now I believed that the first band I saw on arriving Saturday afternoon (more about that in a minute) was the Grateful Dead. According to the schedule, however, they didn’t play until 10 o’clock that night. There should have been four of five bands before that I did see, including a couple that I quite liked and a couple others that I don’t think I would have liked at all. Don’t remember any of it.
Bear in mind that I hadn’t had much if any sleep since the previous Wednesday; on Thursday my friend Jim and I had finished our shifts as University of Michigan janitors at 11 pm, loaded up the VW (naturally) van, and left Ann Arbor at about midnight. With us were Leslie, Jim’s long time girlfriend, and Mo, a girl I’d met a week earlier and in a moment of late-night amphetamine-fueled madness, invited to go with us. Jim’s van being incapable of more than 50 mph, and that on level surfaces only, we figured the trip would take about 14 hours, providing we didn’t waste any precious time sleeping or eating.
There may or may not have been stimulants involved in this cockamamie plan – this being the summer of Nixon’s Operation Intercept, marijuana had become almost completely unavailable, with various kinds of speed rushing in to fill the gap – but we did have a glove box full of LSD and what was allegedly mescaline, but could have been anything, including the aforementioned amphetamines. We also had a giant American flag, large enough to cover everything and everybody in the van twice over, which Jim and I had “liberated” from the University flagpole back in Ann Arbor.
I don’t recall having packed any other essentials, or perhaps nothing else seemed essential; at any rate, things went smoothly until somewhere in western New York we were pulled over by a state trooper who first threatened to shoot Jim’s obstreperous German Shepherd (in retrospect, it’s hard to blame him; that dogwas truly obnoxious), then accused us of stealing our flag from the University of Michigan (I was truly astounded at his detective skills, which seemed to border on the psychic, until, many years later, it occurred to me that in a university town, there weren’t many other places one would be likely to come up with a flag that size), and then announced that he was going to search our van for contraband.
Well, we were ready for that, just about. As designated shotgun-rider, and therefore the one with quickest access to the glove box, it had fallen to me to begin devouring our entire drug supply the minute the red lights had come on behind us. I still had a mouthful of gelatin caps when he knocked on our window, but through subtle but assiduous chewing I was able to get them all down before he asked me to say anything for myself.
How many pills? My guess is about 25, maybe 30. I wasn’t that bothered, figuring that I’d just be extra high when we arrived at Woodstock later that day. The cop, having found nothing to arrest us for, then advised us that all roads leading to the festival were backed up “at least 20 miles,” that no further traffic was being allowed into the area, and that we’d be best advised to turn around and go back to Michigan.
You can imagine how likely we were to take that advice, and in case you can’t, not very. We plowed on, the journey becoming increasingly colorful for me, probably less so for the others, as we hit the mountains and the van’s top speed fell precipitously, to the vicinity of 25 mph, which didn’t make us too popular on whatever expressway we were traversing. It was already dark, and I think we’d been on the road 19 or 20 hours (“But as near as I can tell, we’re no more than 50 or 100 miles away,” Jim cheerily declared), when the van’s engine gave up the ghost and we drifted over to the shoulder where we sat marooned for the night.
We tried sleeping on the side of the road, but unfortunately it was a little steep for that and I’d no sooner get relaxed than I’d start rolling downhill. Not that there was any way, considering the chemicals coursing through my system, that I was going to sleep anyway. Around midnight it started raining, which meant the four of us, five, counting the German Shepherd, who was nearly as big as I was, spent the rest of the night in the van.
Morning dawned bright and sunny, and we started hitchhiking. I reiterate: four full-grown hippies and an outsized dog. What were our chances? A VW bug pulled over, driven by two college boys. Despite the gravity of our predicament, we laughed. Yeah, sure, that was gonna happen. I recalled that once in high school we’d managed to cram sixteen (maybe it was 13, a lot, anyway) kids into my friend Mike’s VW for a stunt that wound up on the front page of the school paper, and the college boys said, “Well, then six people and a dog shouldn’t be any problem at all!”
I still have a hard time believing this actually happened, but I don’t have any other explanation for how it happened, and by that I’m referring not only to how we all crammed into the car, but also how we managed to thread our way through the epic traffic backups and highway closures that had many attendees abandoning their cars and walking the last 10 or 20 miles (performers had to be brought in by helicopter).
But here’s how it seems to have worked: arriving at a little crossroads village, we went into the general store to ask directions. Ever since I’ve pondered whether the proprietor, fed up with a seemingly unending procession of hippies all wanting the same thing, provided us a with a completely nonsensical route to follow in hopes that we’d drive off a cliff somewhere, or whether he for some reason took pity on us and clued us in on a genuine shortcut.
In any event, after a couple hours of attempting to follow his rather complex and confusing directions, we found ourselves on the side of a mountain, in a field, following two tire tracks that might have qualified as a cowpath but probably not as a road, unable to go any way but forward, since to attempt to turn around would have almost certainly sent us plunging to our doom several hundred feet below.
“Haven’t we already driven all the way around this stupid mountain?” someone said, just as we rounded one more bend and saw, splayed across the hills and valleys just below, the festival in all its sodden glory. The “road” widened and turned downhill, and ten minutes later we pulled into the main parking lot immediately adjacent to the stage.
So, we were there, we walked around being awestruck for a bit, discovered there was no food – I was able to buy an orange for what then seemed like the outrageous price of 25 cents; apparently that same fruit stand was later wrecked in a mini-riot provoked by what festival-goers saw as price-gouging – and settled down on a hillside to watch the show.
The ground was muddy from the previous night’s rain, but not unmanageably so, and the weather a bit chilly for August, especially once the sun went down. The falling temperature made sitting in mud a lot less pleasant, especially when our blankets began to disappear into it. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I had an unpleasant vision of myself and my erstwhile girlfriend as two pigs rolling in slop, a vision made more vivid by her having one of those unfortunate pug noses that do tend to make one look, well, a little porcine.
I jumped up, mumbled something about going for a walk, and disappeared into the night. I spent the rest of my Woodstock experience on my own, wandering through the crowds, stopping to marvel at the Who’s show-stopping hymn to dawn (that one about “Looking at you, I see the glory, etc.”), not to mention the rather picturesque sight of Abbie Hoffman getting knocked cold by Pete Townshend’s viciously swung guitar, which elicited wild cheering from the peace-and-love hippie crowd.
It was full daylight, maybe 8 or 9 on Sunday morning, by the time the Jefferson Airplane, then one of my favorite bands, took the stage, and after watching them for about 20 minutes, I realized I was completely exhausted, and, like the kid who’s just eaten an entire chocolate cake and a gallon of ice cream, just couldn’t take anymore. I started walking, in no particular direction at first, but gradually I realized I was wandering further and further away from the music, until I could barely hear it anymore, past dozens, then hundreds of hippie encampments, little and large. Many people slept, others sat glassy-eyed, like displaced persons after a great war, watching their fellow refugees stream past with great resolve but little visible purpose.
Eventually – it must have been midday – I found myself on the side of a four-lane highway and stuck out my thumb. That’s the last thing I have any clear memory of. I woke up in my bed back in Ann Arbor sometime Monday afternoon, with no recollection of how I’d got there, though by going through my pockets I was able to piece together some fragmentary idea. I had a receipt for a youth fare ticket from New York to Detroit, a New York City subway token, and a couple other bits of paper that made it pretty evident I’d managed to hitchhike into New York and find my way onto a plane back to Michigan. I even had a very vague, but fairly certain memory, of standing in front of the building on E. 2nd Street near Avenue B where I’d briefly lived the year before which had now been taken over by a new band of squatters.
My brother showed up at the end of the week; although I hadn’t even known he’d been there, he’d stuck around not only till the end of the festival, but for a few days more to help clean up. Like many others who’d stuck it out to the end, he was raving about Jimi Hendrix, who’d wound things up on Monday morning, and for a number of years I felt regretful, even resentful, that I’d missed out on the whole third day (not to mention the first day). But while I’d have liked to see Hendrix (as things would turn out, I never would), a quick look at the aforementioned schedule assures me that I didn’t miss much else. Okay, maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash would have been interesting, but I couldn’t stand their records, so I don’t know why I would have liked seeing them live. And a couple others, but oh, what the heck. I’m sure I also needed my sleep.
And what about now? What do I think, forty years on? Woodstock falls neatly under the heading of things that I’m glad I’ve done but would never want to do again, sort of like my trip through Poland shortly after the fall of Communism. I think there are much better bands around these days, I’m glad that I don’t have to take drugs to enjoy them (or to take drugs at all, which just by itself makes our present time greatly superior to the 1960s), and frankly, despite some moments of great excitement that I’ll always treasure (as much because they happened to me in my apocalyptic and hyperdramatic youth as because of it being “the 60s”), that whole period, both culturally and musically, strikes me as being a bit boring and overrated.
Every generation has festivals, social movements, wild and wacky fashions; the 60s generation seems to have got a disproportionate amount of attention because a) there were, thanks to the postwar baby boom, so many of us; and b) because its own self-important commentaries have so completely dominated the culture and media for so long that they seem to have taken on the aura of self-evident truth.
So yeah, it was interesting to be there, interesting to be part of, but hey, kids of today: don’t let the parents or grandparents fool you into thinking that your own lives can never possibly be imbued with such Importance and Meaning as theirs were. Ultimately it was half a million mostly middle class kids gathering together in a field to take drugs, have sex, and listen to music. Happens dozens of times every summer, all over the world, every year, and probably always will as long as there are kids, fields, drugs, sex and music.