Thursday, August 6, 2009

Woodstock: The Context of 1969

(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)

O.K., now it's August, and the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock is looming, and it's become impossible for me not to fall prey to the nostalgia being pushed at every turn. First that big, giant fortieth commemorative DVD box-set came out, which I finally watched this weekend. It has stunning sound, the movie is finally letterboxed properly and the extra performances are great to see.

Then I picked up the double disc CD release, box-set of Jefferson Airplane's whole Woodstock set, which is a mind-blower and maybe one of the best Airplane recordings ever, released with a brilliant remastering of the album Volunteers, which came out in November that year. They've also released the entire sets of Santana, Sly and The Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, each as a separate box set or together in one package.

1969 was an amazing year, following, as so happens, another year of amazing events, 1968, when I graduated high school and was turned loose on the world, amidst the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, the Viet Nam war draft and the soon-to-be election of the dooming and the doomed Richard Nixon.

By summer of '69, I was living at home on the south coast of Massachusetts, going to summer school in Boston, trying to get decent grades to augment my miserable academic record so I could transfer to Emerson College, move to Boston, and simultaneously study film while avoiding the draft.

Of course, by the time I was in Emerson College in September, the random draft had been replaced by the lottery draft, so student deferments meant nothing. Fortunately, my lottery number was in the 300's, and they never got close to that.

My friends and I got our tickets mail order through an ad in The New York Times, probably in June, and watched the list of bands get bigger and bigger each Sunday the ad appeared and he location of the event kept changing.

August 1969 was pretty hot and muggy in the northeast, as Americans, cheering Neil Armstrong's moon walk, were still reeling from the previous year's killings and riots and a war that was deeply dividing the country. On Saturday, August 9, a bunch of us went into Boston to see a couple of newly opened films that the critics were raving about (this was back when there were smart critics you could trust). We saw Lindsay Anderson's If... in the morning and Midnight Cowboy in the afternoon. Both films rearranged your brain and both were X rated, at the time. I was so proud to be 18 just as the X rating came into existence, as there were no restrictions before that, except your parents or theatre manager.

After the films we were in some boutique on Tremont Street when it came across the radio that Sharon Tate had been slaughtered along with a group of her friends in Beverly Hills the night before. That was one of those moments when you feel the blood drain right from your head. So that was what the world felt like that week.

Six days later, I got up at 3AM, got picked up by the one who was driving her mother's car at 4AM and we headed out to the highway, armed with the AAA maps provided by our parents. We were such good little suburban kids, we didn't even take any pot along with our tent, our concert tickets and the cooler with hamburger and soft drinks.
To say it was a ride into destiny would hardly be an overstatement. Even without taking any mind altering substances, in retrospect, I'm not sure I ever really came home from that trip. Though it took years, even decades, to realize that truth.

At the time, we all went home and resumed normal activities. I got accepted into Emerson, moved out of my parents house for the last time and got an apartment on Beacon Hill. That fall, Easy Rider opened to great acclaim and huge box office, really proving that movies were also fueling the counter culture movement, along with Broadway, where Hair was causing a sensation. It was everywhere.

Most surprising at the time was how the whole world kept talking about Woodstock, and the promised movie and coming record album and trying-to-recreate-it promises. Over time, as the legend grew, it would take an ever increasingly important place in my own personal history. Notwithstanding any of my other accomplishments in life, it became clear that my epitaph would remain: "He Who Went To Woodstock".

Next: Why I went, what happened, what happened next and what's happening now (and why it's happening).


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