09/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wrong Turn at Paradise: Woodstock at 40

The culture is now abuzz with the latest next new thing: the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. My first reaction as one who passed a long-ago weekend at the festival and his college years at Berkeley before that is to change the channel. The fleeting attention must be yet another case of the endless media search for a man biting anything but a sandwich.

And yet let's give it a moment, if for no other reason than nostalgia. Can America, the quintessential buttoned-down society of routines and roles, and enough compliance and conformity to make Marine boot camp seem liberating, be interested in serious reflection on that earlier time of dazzling disarray? All that hippie-dom, after all, is what political leaders of both parties, liberal parents and conservative, have been warning us against ever since. "Never again," they have declared, "not my kids!," as they profess never to have inhaled, rocked, hooked up, or questioned society on their jagged path to the safety of objects.

The easy, and perhaps persuasive, answer is that Woodstock and the perils of pleasure, the hosannas of hedonism, are so distant a memory that, what the hell, let's smoke one for Jerry. That answer would only be part, and the less compelling part, of the story.

There is no easy way to say this, but for most of those still with operating brain cells to remember and those who came soon enough after to catch the reflected glory, this is not a celebration but a funeral. There is no joy in straights-ville, for we took the wrong turn at paradise, and have only ourselves to blame.

Joni Mitchell said it best in her Woodstock anthem, that we are "going to try an get [our] soul free" by going "back to the garden." America had long imagined itself, from the first eyes that set upon New England, as a new world garden, a land of plenty waiting to sprout and give rise to a life free of the petty constraints and paltry constrictions of traditional society, the self-denying and life-repressing demands to be other than we were or were meant to be. And in time, this became a land of post-industrial plenty, a profusion so vast that we might, just might, get back. That time was called the sixties.

The years after Woodstock have not been kind to the American soul. To have come that close, dreamt that intently, and then have traded down for the inflatable, exchangeable, replicable substitute on special at the mall, the placebo of spiritually deadening material excess, little boxes and electronic cottages of isolation and sterility, the false god of national power and false promise of freedom peddled by an ever more corporate society, only chills the heart.

Everywhere the lights appear to have gone out, everywhere mourners "gather" at their wide-screen, surround-sound home entertainment systems to offer condolences, to attend the wake, for themselves.

It didn't have to be this way. Let me talk to you directly from Woodstock and Berkeley: it doesn't have to be this way. The paradise they paved to put up parking lots can be disinterred, and the dormant seeds brought forth. All we have lost since the sixties is the belief in ourselves, and a life of liberation and joy is surely no more distant than our outstretched grasp.

No, don't look for the renewal on T.V. This commemoration will not be about that, because the media just want to sell anniversary DVDs. The garden even at its height was only as real as those who wanted to live there. The experience of the last forty years suggests how few were ready for that move. The lump in the collective throat on this anniversary is commentary on what we chose instead.