In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I was a hippie, and yes, I was at Woodstock.
I’ve spent most of the intervening half century pissing off the hippies and making fun of the grandiosely styled “Woodstock Nation,” but I can’t deny harboring a smallish soft spot for them somewhere in my too-often hardened heart.
My thoughts, however, are not so kind.
Yes, the music was good, the majority of it, anyway. It was wonderful that half a million of us could sit in a muddy field for three days without killing and eating each other (if we hadn’t had homes to go back to when it was over, all bets would have been off).
But it was not the dawning of a new age of harmony and understanding that people make it out to be. Either Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman – I always get those guys mixed up – opined that it was more like a funeral than a christening, and I wholeheartedly concur.
A funeral at which a lot of fun was had, granted, but that didn’t leave the corpse of the hippie dream any less deceased. I’m reminded of a biography of the Grateful Dead, which describes the band rolling down Broadway in a chauffeured limousine, smoking cigars, drinking champagne, and hoovering up prodigious amounts of cocaine.
“That’s when we realized the revolution was over,” someone supposedly said. “The revolution was over, and we had won.”
As nouveau-riche small-town boys from California, the Grateful Dead can be forgiven for not noticing that only their costumes and choice of background music distinguished them from a limo-load of young Wall Street bankers out for their own night on the town. Likewise, the Woodstock Generation went forth into the world convinced, as the Doors had sung: “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers, gonna win, yeah, we’re taking over!”
Anybody notice how that’s been working out?
The baby boomers were a generation of superlatives: the biggest, richest, most drug-addled, and, perhaps, the most delusional in history. Yet they were also meant to be the most idealistic, most political, most committed to human rights and preservation of the environment.
Half a century later, the lights are going out around the world. The United States, ground zero for the hippie love and peace movement, is controlled by a coalition of far-right extremists and theocratic cultists that would have been unimaginable in 1969 (the then much-reviled Richard Nixon would be a left-of-center Democrat by today’s standards).
Kind of fitting, isn’t it, that Peter Fonda, who died on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, uttered the pivotal line of Easy Rider: “We blew it.”
Yes, baby boomer bashing is a bit overdone these days, thanks in no small part to a right-wing/libertarian campaign to make Gen Xers and millennials so mad at the old people that they’ll punish them by voting their own Social Security and Medicare out of existence.
And it’s not as if my generation hasn’t been a party anything worthwhile. Women, African-Americans, and homosexuals are now considered almost full-fledged people, definitely not the case at the beginning of the 1960s. Until Republican baby boomers seized control of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court, democracy was starting to make inroads into parts of America where it had seldom if ever been seen before.
But considering what we were promising compared to what’s actually been delivered, I wouldn’t blame anyone for reporting the entire Woodstock Nation to the Better Business Bureau and/or the district attorney for wholesale, systematic fraud.
You could start a good, long-winded argument – though maybe not so much as in the past, as quite a few of us suffer from shortness of breath, or lack it altogether – among my fellow old-timers by posing the question, “Where did it all go wrong?”
Disregarding the starry-eyed zealots who will insist that the revolution is still in progress or will arrive shortly, you might get some consensus around the idea that the dream expired when the bands started breaking up and their members launched solo careers. Not that music was the sole benchmark of the movement, but for what it typified: the abandonment of collective action in favor of what became known as the Me Decade.
The wretched excess of the 1970s also embodied the (similarly self-centered) woo-woo spirituality misrepresenting itself as the “New Age.” There was nothing remotely new about it; imputing mystical powers to rocks, feathers, face paints, or chanted nonsense dated back to the dawn of time. Hand in hand with this flight into magical “thinking” came the steady disparagement if not the gleeful abandonment of anything resembling logic or reason.
There were other factors – the energy crisis and subsequent recession of the 1970s, new technology that changed the nature of work and undercut the power of the unions and the labor movement, for example – but what tripped up the baby boomers more than anything else, at least in my opinion, was this replacement of rational analysis, planning, and organization with emotions and symbology.
Today’s identity politics, the lumping together of people into groups based on gender, ethnicity, or social inclinations, the insistence that one is either “for us or against us,” “racist” or “anti-racist,” “progressive” or “reactionary,” with nary a scintilla of ambiguity of or nuance, almost certainly had its origins in the drug-drenched 60s protest movement, in which feelings inevitably wound up trumping facts.
I wouldn’t be so quick to make that charge if I hadn’t seen and experienced it myself. Though not old enough to join sit-ins against Jim Crow laws or journey south to register black voters in the early 60s, I knew exactly how vital this dangerous, sometimes life-threatening work was. But by the late 60s, my efforts, and those of my peers, revolved around getting high with the local SDS chapter (Student Dope Smokers, as more than one wag dubbed us) and hatching grandiose plots to overthrow the government.
Most of us couldn’t organize our way out of our living rooms, while a few went so far off the deep end as to blow themselves or others to smithereens with homemade bombs. We lived in a post- (or pre-?) intellectual fantasy world, where results counted for nothing as long as the “vibes” were right, where imagining something was as good as, if not better than making it actually happen.
“War is over if you want it,” proclaimed that fatuous multimillionaire hippie duo, the same ones who wanted you to “imagine no possessions” despite needing two massively expensive apartments to hold just some of theirs. “I wanted it, and it’s still not over,” retorted some Facebook smartass 50 years later.
Speaking of fatuous, I spent a half hour – ok, more than that, honestly – carefully perusing Woodstock crowd photos hoping I might be in one of them. It’s not that I need to prove to myself or anyone else that I was there, but owing to the chaotic state of my life at the time, I don’t have a single photo of myself from around 1967 to 1971, and wouldn’t mind seeing what I looked like during that era.
No luck, however, though I did spot someone resembling my younger brother, who was also there that weekend. But the crowd scenes evoked memories of watching the Who play the finale to Tommy as dawn brought the houselights up on the masses splayed across the mountain.
“Right behind you, I see the millions, on you, I see the glory,” they sang, and even without the drugs, it wasn’t hard to understand what they were talking about. Half a million bedraggled hippies – though you didn’t have to squint too hard to turn them into millions more – lay amid their wreckage like Washington’s army at Valley Forge or the last refugees from the apocalypse. Everything would be different from now on, that much seemed blindingly obvious on that translucent pastel morning.
It would be, too, though in few of the ways we imagined. Today a third, maybe closer to half the young people in that crowd are dead or soon will be. Many more checked out long ago, mentally if not physically, while others have gone over to the dark side of full-throated Trumpism or worse.
Those of us who remain with mind and body relatively intact owe it to ourselves and even more to posterity to avoid wallowing in cheap sentiment and false nostalgia, but also not to succumb to cynicism or despair. We’ve been given our chances and spurned far too many of them, but the right choice, the right action can, in an instant, transform a lifetime of mediocrity and futility into something scarcely short of miraculous.
Even if going out in a not necessarily pleasant blaze of glory is not our particular cup of tea, we can at least refrain from doing any further harm. The final report card for our generation is not yet in, but for this interim, getting-near-the-end marking period, the verdict remains crystal clear: “Must do better.”