Pumped with anticipation, yet stalked by heavy dread, neither of which will back off, I finally decide. It's been 40 years since Woodstock and I must return for the anniversary concert. That's it, I'm going!
It is not easy to go back in time. The further you go back, the more you realize the less time you have to go forward. And over the years, the past tends to become sacred. Like in, "you can't mess with me." Good memories swamp the bad and this leaves key events enshrined as "historical" and "life changing" and "they'll never be another." That makes your present feel darn dull. So looking back, especially back 40 years, is uncomfortable.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Upstate New York has a large concert pavilion with plastic seats in uniform rows under a heavy roof to protect show-goers from the elements. There are well marked paths lined with concession stands for food and beer and souvenirs. There are manicured lawns and healthy looking trees. There is no camping, no fires, no lots of things -- but there is a museum dedicated to the roaring 60s festival. And there is the consecrated ground of the Woodstock 1969 concert.
If the short history of one's life is boiled down to a half-dozen life-defining biggie events -- dropping that passed football in the end zone, dropping out of college, dropped by several great women, dropped from promotion lists from numerous jobs -- for many of the 78 million Boomers the Woodstock Festival is one of those biggie half-dozen events. And a rare good one! As our failures and disappointments in life have piled up over the years, the Woodstock Festival has been consuming steroids in our mind's remembrance so today it beams pure sacredness.
Like 40 years ago, the road approaching the event is congested, vehicles crawl, stop, inch forward. I pass where I camped 40 years ago, where today there is a no camping sign. I turn into the Bethel Woods site and I'm engulfed in what looks like an upscale country club, but with security on every green. What is this? "Remember, it's the music!" says the voice of a friend back in Manhattan. "Never forget that, or you'll be in serious trouble."
When creeping along the highway leading to Woodstock replanted as country club, a roadside vendor selling tie-dye shirts planted his own sign: "Forty years later, but the message is the same." Will the message be the same for me? Walking toward the entrance gate -- which four decades ago was a flatten fence trampled into the ground by stoned hippies -- walking on a brightly painted black asphalt path hemmed in by wooden brown fences surrounded by crisp-green patches of trimmed trees, it becomes clear what I must see first. Like thousands of other returnees, first stop must be the sacred ground.
"See right down there," a gray haired man tells a woman, "where that patch is? That's where the stage was." His mind is racing back 40 years. She is less than overwhelmed. The sacred must be experienced to be overwhelming.
But experience at Bethel Woods would be heavily curtailed. One is chained to the path of profit. Freedom and diversity and sacredness are not big money makers. On the ridge overlooking the grassy bowl of the sacred, thick-neck security guards in bright yellow T-shirts with tough black letters that scream SECURITY are poised to pounce on any wayward old hippie seeking to touch the holy ground.
Woodstock cannot be recreated, because it was not planned. It was chaos. It was the unhinged at the wheel of chaos. Organization evaporated and the kiddies had a grand time. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, however, is all planned. The adults here an army of security ready to bash the unhinged. Bethel's message is: stay on the path! The path lined with concession stands selling the past that leads to the musical pavilion of today's past music. And I remember, "It's the music!"
The Stars Spangle Banner, instead of at the end of the concert, is played at the beginning. Instead of Jimi Hendrix wailing chaotic chords of raw splendor a young musician wails his chaotic cords of raw splendor. Death is replaced by youth -- now that's the real American Dream!
Next are rattled off the names of promoters and investors and organizers and financiers with the announcer implying we should be grateful to them. That's also an American Dream. We should be grateful to those who gouge us. That's the American Dream for gougers.
Country Joe McDonald, the event's MC, screams "Give me a F" -- then darts to another song. Being teased is what Americans like, it stimulates them. Making them feel alive. In a sense the American Dream is one big teaser -- I got to get back to the music. Country Joe's singing voice is strong, his articulation is sharp, and his hands slide and pick nicely on the acoustic guitar. And he looks darn good. He probably has a few more years to live before -- scratch that!
Slowly I'm being pulled into Joe's folkie music and my gathering foul mood recedes. Then comes the Fish Cheer -- "Give me an F!" And at "Give me a U," and my arm instinctively jerks up, hand diving into my breast pocket.
Let me explain, the prescription drug culture thrives in America. This is because capitalism thrives in America. Look around. The sick and dying are being fleeced. Our military is slowly becoming a mercenary military. College is so expensive only the rich can go without also going into lifetime debt. In the last four decades nothing has succeeded in America more than American capitalism. So today's drug syndicate is now is the American Medical Association, the drug dealers are our doctors, and my dope is called medicine. This is the capitalist spirit working for the benefit of consumers, supply and demand in action, the money economy in high gear. And I dip into my shirt pocket and retrieve some perfectly legal medicine.
Next is Big Brother and Holding Company, of course without Janis. "Down on me" shoots off the stage and into my brain mixing with several perfectly legal chemical compounds. The roar of Janis rips out a tiny Asian mouth housed in a tiny Asian face attached to a tiny Asian body. This is incredible! Janis Joplin now Asian! Who would have guessed? Thomas Wolf didn't know what he was talking about. When you go back, just expect some updates. No problem.
Soon I realize, however, Asian Janis does not have marbles in her throat. No vocal gargling. No gritty woman. Probably no alcoholic, dope fiend also. Still, this Janis has an intense voice. One that rocks and jolts. One that is shooting ripples up and down my spine.
Struggling to leave my seat, stepping on several feet, twisting around numerous wiggling bodies, I walk on a path that takes me pass the world's most perfect stream with rocks placed perfectly for the perfect stream. I pass the upper reserved seats, and then I pass row after row of rented green lawn chairs with tie-dye shirts topped with white hair. Nice to see some of our grandparents are here. "Freedom is just another word," blasts past. It's Janis -- the half-Janis.
As the bright yellow sun drops and music floats up from the stage, many on the fringe of the concert area nurse beers cut with quiet discussions. Nothing intense here. This is where I spent my time at Woodstock, on the outer rim of the crowd, soaking in talk as much as the music, spreading out in relaxation and contemplation. Floating past, a musician for Big Brother says, "Instead of acid flashback, I get acid reflux."
There is the twanging of Canned Heat -- "When the water tastes like wine...." I spot the "First Aid" tent, which at Woodstock was called the Freak Out tent. It has two empty cots, several closed ice chests, and two attendants standing in the doorway soaking in the Canned. A middle-age man asks, "Can I help you?"
"Yeah, any bad brown acid here?"
"No, no we don't allow illegal drugs at Bethel."
"That's good," I say. "One should always listen to their doctor."
I return to my seat for Ten Years After. We're told this is the largest gathering of the original Woodstock performers, like at Woodstock we were told over and over that the whole world was watching and we were the largest gathering of peaceful music lovers. But I'm thinking not size but content.
One Ten Years After member is dead, and Alvin Lee refuses to rejoin the group, so who is the group really? Canned Heat has only one original member, the drummer. Big Holding has two newbies. Authenticity was a key concept in the 60s. We hated the phony. I need to tack -- "Remember, it's the music."
The dark, primal pounding of Ten Years After fires the furnace of 15,000 wiggling bodies. When the soul burns, the mind melts, the body goes berserk leaving only the music. The crowd explodes ... hysterical, delirious primates vibrate and I shoot up and scream, "It's real! It's real!"
And then Country Joe returns to the stage to mellow out the animals, many of whom are rushing off for beer and bathroom and hamburgers. His job is to calm us with tranquil music before the gathering explosion of the Jefferson Starship. Gently he pulls us down, us on the emotional yo-yo.
"One would have to be insane to sell drugs here," says Big Walt, "security would nail them in an instant." Walt is a big man, viciously addicted to music. He spent more than three decades managing bands which have given him a huge depository of great stories. Now he's telling me Grace Slick threw a beer bottle at Paul Kantner, which was off the mark, and nearly hit Walt. But I am barely listening. I'm in serious need of answers. Answers to the rumors I've been hearing when walking around. Is Bob Dylan going to make a surprise appearance at Bethel? Is the brown acid really bad? Am I really seeing Army helicopters swooping down and landing here?
"Nope," Big Walt says calmly, chewing on a potato chip, "you're at the wrong festival. Dylan was at Woodstock, he won't be coming to Bethel. There is no such thing as bad acid, unless you take bad acid. And helicopters don't come to music festivals."
Yes, Big Walt makes sense. I grab a few potato chips and rush back to my seat in time to hear the Starship muddle through two songs strongly reinforcing the popular notion that old men cannot play rock and roll. But let's remember Grace Slick is a hole that can not be filled. Her raw power and dynamite sexuality make her irreplaceable. There is no star on this ship, there can never be. That is the truth.
But truth is slippery when under the care of modern American medicine. That great American corporation, DuPont, had the right epistemological spirit with its motto: "Better Living Through Chemistry." In fact, my doctor owns a ton of DuPont stock.
And out of the dark recesses of the past roars a locomotive: "You got to find someone to love!" It's Grace! Her booming voice echoing through the Catskill dark. The clouds begin to drip 40 year old water. Old men find young life. A blond Grace Slick stomps and struts her explosion across the walkway ... shoots her arm upward ... hand grasping the delicate balls of history and gives it one vicious twist! Rockets shoot out of their seats! I scream, "It's real! It's real! I feel it!!"
Half-Janis, now full-Grace, who's next? Actually, who is next, turns out to be Paul Kantner flopping his exhausted old carcass into a soft lounge chair. Right there on stage! When are the beds coming? The nurses? Blond Grace has disappeared. Two Grateful Dead musicians, who would probably be grateful if they were dead, now join the Starship and the music returns to 40 years into the present.
Back on the manicured pathway, I pass the perfect stream, pass the rows of rented lawn chairs, pass the army of laid-back sprawled on the fringe of the grass. And I'm slugged by a White Rabbit! But A Little Help From Your Friends picks me up. I glance down the slopping lawn, over the plastic seats, and see a miniature Joe Cocker strutting across the stage in a flowery short dress with high black boots and a blond wig. Interesting.
Time at Bethel, like Woodstock, is a hula-hoop. It was, I believe, an hour ago? Maybe two hours ago? Four decades ago? One minute ago? Two seconds ago? That Country Joe was on the stage, face strained, mouth twisted, eyes hot as he read the names of the war dead. The war dead from Sullivan County who died in Vietnam, and the war dead from Sullivan County who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. At Woodstock in 1969, I had been back from Vietnam less than two years. I still wasn't sure if I was dead -- "Remember, it's the music!"
So at the Bethel Center for the Arts, with its heavily guarded sacred ground of the Woodstock Music Festival, the past became the present and the present the past and then things turned weird and finally I began inching toward the ugly but was saved by: "Remember, it's the music."
Mountain is pounding it's beat, Leslie West is brutalizing the past by insisting it can be the present. The crowd flips into serious insanity. I run off and find Big Walt, who's still working over the potato chips, telling him Mountain is the purest group ever. He says he never heard those two words in one sentence, purest and Mountain. I grab a handful of chips and fly back to my seat. Levon Helm appears from the wings, but I'm back on the hill riding the White Rabbit with my Friends.
Bethel is the 21st Century corporate version of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Yet, it's probably not that different from the original. Once you get past all the obvious surface differences, it can look rather similar. Some of the bands back in 1969 had threatened to not play unless they were first paid. When it appeared food would be scarce, private vendors upped their price 10 times -- $10 for a hamburger -- that's 1969 prices! But back then a few stands got burnt down and then the prices came down. No one is going to burn down Bethel Center for the Arts. Although, they shouldn't push Country Joe.
Levon Helm is cranking up the music. A woman screams in my ear, "Dylan is going to appear anytime now!" The Band looks different; in fact it's not the Band. It's a band that sounds like the Band. No problem. Illusion has become reality, reality is now -- "Remember, it's the music." And remember, its a little help from your doctor.