(Originally published Aug. 10, 2009)
(This is not the piece I wrote for Woodstock Revisited, which is selling fantastically well, I understand. With this piece, I think I’ve gotten Woodstock out of my blood, at least for now. It’s a little long by blog standards, but I hope you enjoy it.)
Forty years ago this June, I moved into a rundown, second-floor railroad apartment in Oak Park, Ill., with two guys I barely knew. I had been attending a small Lutheran college in the Chicago area for two years, but this was my first summer living away from St. Louis.
The apartment was a hovel, complete with peeling wallpaper and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. El trains screeched outside the window both day and night. But for a 19-year-old packing boxes on the graveyard shift at the Mars candy bar factory, it felt as prestigious as living on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. More important, it provided all the freedom I needed to stretch and grow away from the eye of a loving but sometimes overbearing, matriarchal family headed by my mother and aunt.
One evening before work, while heating up a Banquet chicken pot pie, I received a call from my best friend back home, John Northlake. As my social and cultural guru, John had phoned to tell me about a big music festival taking place in August in New York. We had to go, he said, and that’s how I ended up at Woodstock.
John came to Chicago, and we flew student standby to La Guardia. At the time, it was the farthest I had been away from home. At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, we boarded a charter that took us to the Weekend of Love and Music ahead of the massive traffic jam Arlo Guthrie would tell us about later.
There were amazing acts at Woodstock, and I still show up at many of their concerts – Crosby, Stills & Nash, Richie Havens, The Who, Joan Baez and others too numerous to name. Looking back on the weekend, however, the song that sticks with me most came from Paul Simon, who never took the stage.
Simon and Garfunkel had released their Bookends album more than a year before Woodstock. In the days before cassette players, Walkmans and iPods, the only way to take recorded music with you easily was with a portable radio. You had no say, of course, in what would play or when it would play. If you wanted to hear a specific song, you stayed near your stereo, or you listened to whatever played in your head. Sometimes you selected the song; sometimes it selected you. Traveling to Woodstock that Friday, the song that kept haunting me was Simon’s America from Bookends.
Sitting on a bus had a lot to do with it. The song tells of a young couple traveling by Greyhound from Pittsburgh eastward to who knows where. Along the way, they play the games young people sometimes play. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy … I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera. Then, while Cathy, the female of the duo, is sleeping, the singer says, “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, he says we’ve all come to look for America.
The trip John and I took that weekend was the real beginning of my own search for America, and it has a lot to do with how I see our nation today. Despite drawing a half million people, Woodstock was a small event, really. Those of us who went weren’t heroes; in fact, most of us erred in not recognizing the heroism and sacrifice of our fellow baby boomers fighting in Vietnam. Woodstock certainly didn’t change the course of the world. It merely showcased my generation’s music, and it captured our exuberance and idealism as well as our excesses and naïveté.
That’s not meant to be critical. Exuberance and idealism are at the core of our nation, from generation to generation. They’ve provided the engine that has taken us so far, so fast. Likewise, excesses are part of America’s core, and we pay a price for them, from generation to generation. Naïveté cuts both ways; it makes us believe we can do anything even as it blinds us to the subtleties of living in a complex world.
Forty years later, I believe the idealism and openness of Woodstock, although trampled, found a way to survive, to some extent in us but more in our children. We saw it most recently in the election of our first African-American president. We baby boomers narrowly supported President Obama; our children rallied behind him in droves.
Sadly, neither we nor America shed our excesses. We vowed to follow our pursuit of happiness in less material ways. That didn’t happen. We spent and consumed like never before, and many of us did so far beyond our means. In the process, we inflicted harm on our environment and our economy. We’re learning again what generations before us already knew: Your possessions can end up owning you more than you own them.
I have little or no idea what happened to my fellow Woodstock attendees, except for one. This year, as we turn 60, John and I are celebrating our 50th year of friendship. He lives in Florida, I in Arizona. We both found much of what America has to offer: opportunity, good careers, a place to call home, and wonderful wives and children. Here’s hoping that, on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, all the counterparts of the young singer in Paul Simon’s America can say the same.
Grammar tip: Don’t say, “He’s taller than me.” Say, “He’s taller than I.”