I have a really bad attitude when it comes to the commercialization of those things which represent “my” generation, which is that of The Boomer. Most specifically, I gag at all this glorifying of the “Woodstock era” – the life and times leading up to, surrounding and coinciding with that momentous festival event – especially when it is further revered by those who didn’t even grow up in it. Especially annoying are the feeble attempts to recreate those times by those that missed that boat by a decade (or a generation). Sorry, you weren’t there back then and those times are gone.
The beautiful, mass-manufactured, expensive tie-dyes bought in the local college town tourist shop are not the same as the unique ones we so painstakingly attempted to create with rubber bands and rubber gloves in our backyards. The macrame bracelet made in China, bought from the vendor in the parking lot at the arena pales in meaning compared to the ones we braided by hand for our friends while we sat together, listening to The Incredible String Band or Joni Mitchell, or the latest Firesign Theater album. OK, there are some good concerts out there, but the volume of good, inexpensive music, and this phenomenon was a unique brew.
All the attempts to revive the 60’s and 70’s are never going to quite cut it. Contrary to wishful thinking, the 90’s were not the 60’s on its head and the 70’s remain the 70’s – period. It was a moment in time when many strata of consciousness and winds of change converged, creating a roiling chemical combination in which this concert Event, among other momentous events, occurred – which, if you actually want to look closely at it, could also mark the beginning of the commercial exploitation of who we were. We can make a buck off this. As soon as it became a fad, it was over.
And so, since the new music venue and museum on the original Woodstock site at White Lake opened, I suppose I have been boycotting it on principle. I had no interest in paying money to travel to some commercialized hippie Mecca in order to see the relics of my own generation enshrined in glass and day glow paint, nor any intention of wasting time and the gas to travel to some stylized venue in the middle of nowhere and pay very significant prices for ” lawn” seats, where I could then watch a band projected on a screen while I sit densely packed amid a bunch of Woodstock Wannabes, followed by having to sit in non-moving traffic for two hours waiting to get out of the arena parking lot afterwards. That is how I felt about it, and that is also how a number of my friends feel about it. We were not going to indulge this, it just wasn’t going to happen. A little cranky? Maybe. But honest.
So this summer, I surprised myself with an unexpected spark of curiosity, which probably was further ignited after a friend from out-of-state happened to make a pilgrimage – a Hippie Haj – to the Museum at Bethel Woods. Although I have a few friends who were at the original Woodstock concert, each with a unique story, I did not attend the festival at White Lake in 1969. I was just a little too young on that particular weekend, and there was no way my parents were going to let me out of the house to venture into that. So I didn’t have any sort of burning need for a return migration to the scene of the event.
The few revival festivals held after the fact were avoided. When the 40th anniversary of Woodstock occurred a couple of years ago, it meant nothing beyond the realization that time was sure flying by way quicker than we would like.
As it was, one of my daughters was going to be home for a few days taking care of other business anyway, and the weather was absolutely perfect, leading me to suggest – as a kick – that we take a day trip together into the Catskill mountains to enjoy the views and check out the Hippie Museum. She was game. We chose a day we thought was least likely to have any crowds around (no concerts happening, not a weekend, and first thing in the morning). Playing up the joke, I donned my ankle bells and a rather low-key tie-dye tank top, skipped the patchouli, grabbed three apropos CD’s for the car – Morrison Hotel, Electric Lady Land and Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits, and we took off on our journey.
Once you get beyond the foothills and into the serious mountains themselves, it is clear to see that, while of quite beautiful vistas (especially dazzling in autumn), the area is very economically depressed. There really is Nothing There. Amidst the hills and hollows and beneath skies of moody clouds, there is a damp heaviness. We ended up not playing the CD’s but talking for the entire ride. In its heyday as a summer resort and vacation refuge for city dwellers (as portrayed in “Dirty Dancing”), the Catskills appear to now consist of a series of sad towns of a repeat formula – a gas station, a post office, a bar, a luncheonette. A few garden nurseries. Small strip malls with a nail salon and pizzeria. Transmission and auto body shops in peeling stucco garages and corrugated quonset huts. Farmland. A correctional facility. Trailer parks. Faded paint and weathered siding. Pick up trucks. Abandoned summer bungalow colonies. Hasidic Jews walking along the road. A barbecue place, closed that day, with a big sign that says “We Welcome Bikers”. Stalled plans to revive the area with a casino. Despite the sun that day, a pervasive feeling of grayness infiltrating shadowed darkness of deepest greens was present. Mostly it is this, until you pass the racetrack and then come to a neat, modern sign for Bethel Woods.
The venue is landscaped and clean. The fields are mowed, the buildings are architecturally pleasing. There was a gorgeous breeze and wide open, lovely views. We bought our tickets from a bored girl sitting behind the window by herself, texting on her cell phone (fifteen bucks a pop if you are not going to a concert). We laughed and entered.
It starts with a timeline – photos in black and white, depicting the events in our country leading up to 1969 when Woodstock – An Aquarian Exposition – occurred. As we looked at each picture and caption, I found myself explaining to my daughter what life was like for her mother, our family, our reality at that time. A photo of the “ideal” family of the 1950’s and 60’s was the first thing to strike me. The “Father Knows Best” dad in his business clothes, the Mother in her dress suit, happy; their two Dick & Jane children, neat and crisp, holding hands. This was what we were supposed to be, but this was not quite us.
Why are those children crouched in the hallway? I told her about our duck and cover drills at school in anticipation of The Bomb during the Cold War years. And the perfect Kennedys (I wanted to be Caroline and have a pony just like her Macaroni). The Assassinations. Civil rights. Martin Luther King. Vietnam. Women’s liberation. Sexual freedom. Stonewall. Communal living. What we believed in and what we changed. This renaissance time, when everything was shifting and evolving and charged and we had Passion and we still had Hope. Back when we cared. I felt moved, and for a moment I would say almost teary. I don’t know what I had expected, but suddenly this started to feel like a little more than just tie-dye.
Every single 45 record or 33 LP album enshrined in those glass display cases was one I had owned. We laughed at some of the outfits; long, fringed leather vests and moccasins, white go-go boots and mini skirts. I laughed more seeing the pale green seed “love beads”, identical to ones I used to wear. We wound our way through and watched mini film clips of people giving different views of the concert event; farmers who could not get their milk out because the roads were closed; locals who were overwhelmed but wanted to help; medical personnel who were dealing with situations; trying to get enough food to feed what had become a city in three days. It was interesting, and of course, the music was something else. You had the option of lying on bean bag chairs while watching a multi-paneled video of various accounts, interspersed with the music. We sat on the benches and watched it through.
Eventually we wound our way through to the end, which emptied out into a gift shop of overpriced items which we did not buy. We then proceeded to the special exhibit downstairs, which happened to highlight the rock legends of that time who died at age 27 – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and a photographic display of The Band and Bob Dylan on tour in the 1970’s in the hallway. One of the first things we marvelled at is that the original clothing on display was so small. In our minds, these were Large People, and yet their clothing belied that. An outfit that Janis Joplin wore on for a television appearance seemed tiny compared to how I had always imagined her. Larger than life. Jimi Hendrix’ left handed guitar strung upside down was cool to see. Letters on display from Janis to her mother were poignant. I pointed to some photos on the wall and said to my daughter, “I was at this show… and this one, and this one”. I was there.
And so, I see more clearly how it is in that respect, not unlike old men sitting outside of the VFW lodge and telling war stories. Stories nobody else really cares about or wants to hear, except those who were there, verifying your collective youth – marking your place in time. I was there.
We opted not to eat at the venue – an assortment of wraps, brownies and juices – and continued outside so we could actually Stand On The Spot Where It All Happened. There is a plaque commemorating this, overlooking what was once Max Yasgur’s farm. There were a couple of young women photographing themselves in various poses around the plaque. They told us they had made a special trip, travelling from three states away, to visit the museum. Not only were they too young to have experienced any of this, but there is a good chance their parents were probably infants when Woodstock occurred. Given that, I found their driving interest to come to this landmark rather remarkable.
My daughter and I asked them to take a picture of us behind the plaque and we flashed our obligatory peace signs for the photo. Then we walked down the grassy slope to the place where the stage had once stood, so we could (laughingly) “feel the vibe”. My child also has an attitude, slightly tinged with sarcasm, which I believe is somewhat genetic. Given that, we made some goofy “I can feel the vibe, man” poses over the stage site, took some more mock photos of ourselves melting into vibe-induced, Bad Brown Acid puddles, and then it was time to head home.
My daughter said she enjoyed herself. Perhaps this added some dimension to the story of the times her parents grew up in, at least in the best sense that a museum can really portray what anything was exactly like at a given period. I will have to ask her more about her opinions.
For better or for worse, I think they don’t quite make music like that anymore. It was new, and raw, and exciting. Even with a little bit of attitude, I am glad I went. Overall, the best part of that day for me was really just being together. I think it is that, in essence, which reflects what it was about in 1969.
I loved the references to the Incredible String Band and Firesign Theater – a lot of contemporaries don’t remember them – they were kind of fringe. I still find myself singing “White Bird” and “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you and the pure light within you guide you all the way on….” and “you know all the words and you sing all the notes but you never quite learned the song”.
It is interesting to know that this museum is about more than just one concert – no, I wasn’t there either – but I heard many of those groups perform. It sounds like an interesting place to visit – and the way you toured it – with your daughter – makes it better. I wonder if you would have enjoyed it half as much had you gone alone, or with a contemporary?
To those too young or born after the 60’s who say “I wish I had been a 60’s child” or something similar, I am quick to point out that while we were turning on, tuning in and dropping out the young men were being drafted as cannon fodder for a war that should never have been. For every Woodstock moment, there was a Kent State. I am curious to know if they also had film clips of the news programs – I have such vivid memories of the black screens with the names of the soldiers who had died scrolling down silently.
I am encouraged by the fact that both my sons can still see the beauty of “our music” – I truly believe that, musically, our time was a true Renaissance. I recall my mother screaming at me to “turn down that noise” – but I have caught myself screaming the same thing to my kids. Am I wrong in thinking that our music was good – and their music really is noise? Will my sons someday scream the same thing to their kids?
“For every Woodstock moment, there was a Kent State”. Exactly and well said.
I forgot to mention it and probably should insert this – everything had closed caption. This was great for someone like me who can’t hear. I had to wonder if that was specifically done to accommodate all the Boomers whose hearing has diminished due to age…and loud rock music!
I am so glad they had the sensitivity to make it possible for you to enjoy it too. I hope that someday it will be like that everywhere.