“How was your walk, Dad?”
“Good. I went along the river.”
“What did you listen to?”
“Is that good?”
“Some of the performances are great, others not so much. Mostly for me it’s just good memories.” I told my daughter my history with Woodstock and the hippie movement, how as a young boy I revered the self-proclaimed freaks; how wide the chasm was between them and the men I knew. I told her about my grandfather, the World War II veteran, and how he threatened to kick the ass of any goddamned hippie wearing a flag patch on his jeans. I told tales of humid Independence Day nights when I ran from house to driveway, splitting my time between fireworks and the annual showing of the Woodstock film.
“Why do you have so many stories? I don’t have any,” my daughter said.
“You’re twelve, kid. You will.”
“You’re living them right now. You just don’t know it.”
Everything about the hippies appealed to me when I was a kid. They were all about love and kindness, freedom and caring. Archie was a racist; Meathead was concerned about aerosol’s impact on the ozone layer. The hippies were anti-war, anti-class, intellectually curious. A drop of Owsley’s finest was meant to expand your mind, where the pills that mother gave you didn’t do anything at all. And their music was the business.
I must have watched Woodstock at least ten times between the ages of eight and eighteen, and with each viewing I walked away with a new favorite performance. Richie Havens’s “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom” opener is hard to beat, and even more so now that I know he was pretty much pushed out on stage and told to fill the dead air.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash turn in a stunning set, although they were only in their mid-twenties with exception to Crosby’s liver, which was nearing retirement age.
Alvin Lee and Ten Years After hit me hard one year, with his duck-lipped “Going Home” and his hollow-bodied Gibson. I really got into Santana’s set when I learned that drummer Michael Shrieve was only twenty. To this day Sly Stone’s performance remains boom-shaka-laka awesome.
The Who’s set cemented their place as my favorite band that wasn’t The Beatles. I dreamed of being the lucky bastard in the crowd who caught Pete’s broken SG, the same guitar with which he hit Abbie Hoffman that night before yelling “Get the fuck off of my stage.” (That would’ve been a satisfying coda to the Kanye/Taylor Swift incident.)
A few times over the last few months I’ve considered writing a detailed analysis of Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” because it’s just that good.
But when all is said and done Woodstock belongs to Jimi Hendrix, who was the baddest motherfucker on the planet in the summer of 1969. I don’t know that I can really offer anything new on the subject of Hendrix other than to say that after forty years of packaging, repackaging, re-repackaging, critique, analysis, grave robbing, myth making, myth breaking, rumor, fact, and innuendo, Jimi remains supernatural. His voice, his lyrics, how he carried himself — everything about Hendrix The Performer was divine and beautiful.
As a musician the man did everything wrong, yet he did it all so right. He didn’t play a left-handed guitar but a standard one flipped over. He wrapped his long thumb over the neck and fretted with it, a textbook no-no. Watch the hours of closeups of Jimi’s fretting hand. Rarely does his pinky come into play, which violates the fundamentals of lead guitar. And on top of all that he threw in all of the moves he learned on the Chitlin’ Circuit playing for Little Richard and The Isley Brothers among others: playing between his legs, behind his head, with his teeth, dry humping his amplifier.
All of this while working up a brew of rock, blues, and funk that no one ever heard before nor equaled since. That’s why Hendrix’s music still holds up forty years after his death. It’s no wonder that he demanded to close the show at Woodstock, a decision that due to delays left him playing Monday morning to a few thousand stragglers.
That last scene from Woodstock always bothered me. A handful of people drift around the polluted scar that just a week prior was Max Yasgur’s dairy pasture, picking up garbage and muddy, discarded blankets. What happened to all of that talk about Mother Earth and the beautiful new world they were creating? Over and over the Woodstock generation congratulated themselves for proving to the world that they could get together for three days of peace and music without any hassles. They were the New World Order, the New Society. This was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
I understood how after the horrors of Mauthausen my grandfather was fucked up, but the Baby Boomers I trusted. They were the big kids and the young adults of my childhood, and they were going to change the world. Well they did, but the result was less Age Of Aquarius and more Beyond Thunderdome. Every time I step out my front door I expect to see Tina Turner dancing on the hood of a burning car. Forty years later we’re still mired in bullshit wars, fighting for civil rights, dealing with environmental disaster. Penguins are bursting into flames and politicians, CEOs, and pundits deny global warming. A local newspaper recently left an acquaintance a voice mail stating that they “don’t really cover protests — there’s just too many of them.”
How the hell did the Woodstock Generation leave a four decade pile of muddy blankets and garbage for the rest of us to pick up? Rhino’s six CD Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm sheds some light on that. Not only does the expansive set fill in the musical gaps (Janice Joplin, The Grateful Dead, a can’t be missed “I Put A Spell On You” from Creedence Clearwater Revival), but the announcements really tell the tale. Chip Monck and John Morris repeatedly urge the crowd to clear the roads so food and supplies can get through and commend the Army for flying in with their “choppity chops” to help. They try to talk people off the towers, urge them not to fight, direct them to the hospitals, plead for them to stay away from the bad acid, pick up trash, or visit Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farmers for some grub.
In the movie and other documentaries we meet such people as the Port-A-John guy, who gets subtly mocked while he proudly scrubs the toilets because the kids deserve a nice place to relieve themselves. Townspeople make stacks of sandwiches for total strangers, defend their right to be freaks, and generally accommodate the invaders.
A half million people on a hillside congratulating themselves on their beautiful community, one thousand of whom actually invested any effort into it. And that is why forty years later the global landscape looks like Yasgur’s meadow. You Baby Boomers turned out to be pampered, greedy, self-absorbed, selfish children. Your myth is love, peace, and harmony, but for every Wavy Gravy from your generation who genuinely tries to make a difference there are a thousand Rush Limbaughs, Karl Roves, Hank Paulsens, and Sandy Weils. Even iMessiah Steve Jobs underpaid Chinese workers while marketing the mythology of the Woodstock dream.
My generation, Generation X, isn’t much better. We’re bitter, sarcastic, nihilistic. If Mad Max’s evil nemeses actually were to tear down my street in their homoerotic leather gear the most we could manage was a bored “oh, you are so cool.” It’s all gone to shit anyway, why bother? No feeling at all is better than falling for the same bullshit over and over, and when we do drop our guards for a moment nothing changes — just more drone strikes and gridlock, the further erosion of civil rights, and Gitmo remains open. So much for believing in change.
We had a moment there where Eddie Vedder was running around fighting for causes and it looked like my generation wouldn’t follow the Boomers into self-absorption and greed, but too much money was waiting to be made during the Dot Com and housing bubbles. The greatest mathematical minds of my generation dedicated themselves to developing complex financial derivatives rather than clean energy, and the rest of us focused on tweeting, blogging, and playing with our smart phones. (Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.)
Anyway, back to my kid. A few nights later I invited my daughter out for a walk. “I want to, but I have to get this done,” she said.
“What are you working on?”
“Cooperman and some other teachers got pink slips today. They’re also laying off the librarian, the custodians, and cutting band and sports.”
“Well that’s no good.”
“I’m going to put together a protest. It’s not fair that they’re getting laid off.”
“There just isn’t enough money, honey. It’s true everywhere.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want my middle school ruined.”
When I walked out the door she was stencilling the names of the laid off teachers and staff on the back of her shirt. “Save Sutter” already was stencilled on the front.
Her little acorn sprouted quickly. She wore her shirt to school the following day and was inundated with requests, so we had one hundred replicas printed up to sell at cost. Her friend took on the communications role and got busy calling media outlets. Together they made flyers and signs, navigated the world of adult rules. “I can’t give you permission to hang your posters here, but sometimes paper happens to stick wherever it lands.” “No, you can’t sell your shirts at school, but the school doesn’t own the sidewalk.” Parents got involved, or tried to. Where help was truly help she welcomed it; when it was invasive she rebuffed it.
“What if I fail?” she asked.
“You’ve already succeeded,” I said.
“No, I mean what if they still lose their jobs?”
“Then you will have done everything you could, and now you definitely have a story.”
In the days leading up to her protest the sidewalk tees sold well. The local Fox affiliate stopped by and interviewed her. The grown-ups decided that there would be two speeches at the protest: first Lily’s and then an adult’s. She didn’t like that. This was her show and she was going to be the closer. “And I want to lead the chants,” she added.
Protest day. I arrived at the park early, surprised to see Fox 40 already setting up. The last of the “Save Sutter” tees were displayed on a folding table staffed by parents. More parents were stationed to help the seventh and eighth graders safely cross the busy intersection separating park and school. I took up as a crossing guard but was soon shooed away by one of the middle school’s custodians.
“Thank you for coming,” I said.
“It’s my school, too,” he replied, and like an experienced shepherd he stopped traffic and moved the flock of kids safely past.
A well-dressed man crossed the street and introduced himself as Mr. Jones From District.
“Hi, I’m the father of the kid who started this.”
“Oh, you’re Lily Stafford’s dad? You must be very proud.”
“Yes, thank you for coming out.”
“Wouldn’t miss it. We really appreciate her efforts. It takes people like Lily to get others involved, and that’s what it takes to get the Board to listen.”
The local CBS affiliate showed up, and then Univision arrived, too. The grown-up gave her speech, but I missed it. Jimi was off to Electric Ladyland in my ear buds, the first rays of the new rising sun erupting from his fingertips. Besides, I was transfixed by the sight of my twelve year-old daughter surrounded by humans and cameras and copy after copy of the tee-shirt she hand stenciled just two weeks prior. She was the voodoo child, fully capable of chopping down a mountain with the edge of her hand. She was electric. She was magic.
For an hour Lily and her gathered throng chanted and marched and egged passersby to honk their solidarity. And then it was Monday morning at Woodstock, time to clean up the discarded signs, bottles, and Otter Pop wrappers. She left with her friend and remarkably effective seventh grade communications director, both of them vibrating with pride and adrenaline.
I climbed into the Mobile Music Laboratory, sparked life into its environmentally unfriendly V-8, and pulled away from the curb. Best Of The King Biscuit Flower Hour was blasting, specifically The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I cranked it as loud as my damaged ears could handle, felt the lump forming in the back of my throat. My tear ducts threatened to betray my jaded Gen X cynicism. Maybe we weren’t beyond Thunderdome after all. The Baby Boomers pissed away their chance to leave the world a better place than they found it. The Gen Xers piled on with our apathy and our own flavor of greed and selfishness. But this next generation? They are better than us.
I knew what an oncoming bawl felt like and I never lost touch with pride, at least as it applies to my children. But this other emotion stirring in my belly like some dormant beast waking from a long sleep? I’m not sure, but I think it’s called rekindled hope.