Looking back at icon of peace, love and music'
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Plain Dealer Reporter
Next month, the baby born at Woodstock turns 40.
For those of us old enough to remember Woodstock, this is slightly
depressing news, if not exactly unexpected. Time does march on.
Middle age comes to us all, if we live long enough -- even those
whose birth happened to be celebrated by half a million people on a
muddy field in upstate New York, most of them young enough to be
horrified by the possibility of turning 30, let alone 40.
They were stardust. Now they are golden-agers.
Milestone birthdays and anniversaries must be celebrated, and plenty
of both will be going on in the coming weeks, as the 40th anniversary
of Aug. 15-17, 1969, approaches. If you use any kind of media at all,
you may have no choice but to go on down to Yasgur's farm and get
yourself back to the garden.
Before we set off, though, one more thing about the Woodstock Baby --
if he or she actually does exist. Have you noticed anything unusual
about this 40-year-old?
Woodstock Baby has not written a memoir.
Woodstock Baby has not signed a deal for a reality TV show, either.
Woodstock Baby has not hired a publicist, or appeared at the MTV
Movie Awards, or confided in Oprah about his or her happy/sad childhood.
In short, Woodstock Baby has not cashed in or sold out. John
Sebastian, whose mind was boggled by a lot more than awe for the
miracle of life that day 40 years ago, had it right when he announced
the birth from the stage at Woodstock.
"That kid's gonna be far out, man," he said, and it's true: So far,
Woodstock Baby has remained far out. Of the public eye.
That anonymity makes W.B. a true member of the 21st-century
counterculture, countering a culture in which the notion of privacy
is as anachronistic as the Big Three automakers.
It also makes W.B. a rarity this milestone year, when Woodstock
nostalgia, translated into commerce, is everywhere. By the latest
count, 13 books are coming out. Woodstock Ventures, the business
entity that produced Woodstock in 1969, launched a Web site,
woodstock.com, where you can download music, and, of course, buy
Ang Lee's film "Taking Woodstock" opens in Cleveland on Friday, Aug.
28. A new two-hour documentary, "Woodstock: Now & Then," premieres at
9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14, on VH1 and at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17, on the
Rhino Records has released two Woodstock CDs, and Warner Bros. has
released several DVD versions of the original 1970 documentary,
"Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music," including two "Ultimate
Collector's Editions" available only at Amazon.com and Target.
And speaking of Target, its Woodstock collection includes a 20-can
insulated cooler tote ($17.99), kids' T-shirts ($8.99) and a truly
alarming item they call the "Adults' John Q. Woodstock costume" ($26.99).
"I saw [the Target merchandise] and I said, Wow, who did this?' "
said Richie Havens, whose improvised performance of
"Freedom/Motherless Child" at Woodstock in 1969 made him a folk hero
and a star.
Now 68 years old and still touring and recording, Havens should have
seen and heard it all regarding Woodstock. But no: "I couldn't
believe it," he said, in a phone conversation. "It's something else."
Havens is not doing a formalized Woodstock reunion tour this summer,
but his show Friday at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, with fellow
1969 performer Arlo Guthrie, is being billed as a celebration of the
40th anniversary of Woodstock. And that's all right with him.
"It was wonderful then, and it's wonderful here and now," he said.
Like many others who were there, Havens believes a profound spiritual
connection was forged at Woodstock, and that it now falls to the
Woodstock elders to pass it on to younger generations.
Pilgrims converged in a sacred place'
Pete Fornatale, who has worked as a radio DJ in New York for 40
years, detected a spiritual element to Woodstock, too.
Fornatale did not make it to Woodstock: He had just started working
at WNEW-FM. But on his first show for the station, on July 27, 1969,
he did a live commercial: "The Woodstock Music and Art fair is a
three-day Aquarian exposition at White Lake in the town of Bethel,
Sullivan County, New York . . ."
Fornatale's new book, "Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock,"
is both an oral history, using interviews with Woodstock
participants, and an attempt to explain the mythology of Woodstock.
"I wanted to make at least a case that Woodstock was a spiritual
experience," he said. "I mean, you can make the obvious connections
that drugs were the shared communion and the stage was the altar, but
you can see a lot more."
For instance, after finding no room at the inn of two towns, the
festival was held in the town of Bethel. "In Hebrew, bethel' means
sacred place,' " he said. Or House of God.
The hundreds of thousands of people who went to that sacred place
were on a pilgrimage of sorts, most of them walking miles to reach
the site after abandoning their cars by the gridlocked road. When
they got there, they heard hymns all weekend: Joan Baez did "Swing
Low, Sweet Chariot," Arlo Guthrie did "Amazing Grace," Janis Joplin
did "Help Me, Lord," and so on.
To top it off, an Indian guru appeared out of nowhere to give a
benediction to the crowd. "His words were all about the spirituality
of the gathering," Fornatale said.
Now, some people will consider this kind of thinking silly at best
and blasphemous at worst. But many of those who were at Woodstock
contend that something special happened there, if only because
500,000 or more people were crowded together under extreme
circumstances -- and no violence occurred. Not even a fistfight.
Only three deaths were reported: two from drug overdoses, the third a
young man who was sleeping under a tractor and was crushed by it.
Cleveland defense and civil rights lawyer Terry Gilbert, who was 21
that summer, saw the same thing.
"There was a spiritual and political connection with everyone there,"
he said. "It was communal and tribal, and everyone took care of each other."
As did Bill Scheele, who was also 21 and went to the festival as the
newly hired stage manager for The Band.
"There were definitely feelings of magic in the air," said Scheele,
who grew up in the Cleveland area and now owns the art gallery
Kokoon, on the West Side. "It was a magical mystery tour, all about
experimenting with life and where your mind could go."
Peace, love and then reality
Many have said that the magic of Woodstock was evanescent, that it
died four months later, at the Altamont music festival in California,
when a Hell's Angel hired by the Rolling Stones for security killed a
member of the audience. Or it vanished when Janis Joplin and Jimi
Hendrix died of drug-related causes within a month of each other in
1970, exposing the dark side of the drug culture that Woodstock
Others contend that Woodstock was not a beginning of a new age of
peace and love, but the end of it -- the end of the '60s, an era that
was never as blissful as Baby Boomers under the influence of
nostalgia tend to paint it.
As Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
University writes in his book, "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of
Rage," age can make memories turn rosy -- "never more than when the
recollected past is a moment of one's one and only youth as well as a
searing and incandescent time."
In any case, trying to assess Woodstock and its lasting impact on
American culture is next to impossible, though many have tried --
including those 13 authors this summer. It doesn't help that
Woodstock, and by extension the entire decade of the '60s, remains a
key stage prop in the long-running political theater of right-left
antagonism on TV and the Internet.
Let's not wade into that quagmire.
Instead, let's listen to those who were there, not all of whom came
away touched by the magic.
Bob Toner of Lakewood was 18 and just out of St. Edward High School
when he and three friends set off for Woodstock. They all bought
tickets, but by the time they arrived, the fences were down and the
festival had been declared free.
Toner remembers the rain and mud, and that he did not eat or sleep
for two days. "I was young; I figured I could stand anything for 48
hours," he said. For him. it was not a spiritual experience; it was a
just a big concert. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, after all.
"We all had a good time, but I didn't consider it life-changing," he
said. When it was over, the four friends came home, Toner went to
Cleveland State University and he took a job with Cuyahoga County,
from which he is now retired.
Gilbert, inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven the following
year and especially by their lawyer, William Kunstler, graduated from
Miami University and went on to law school. Later, he worked with
Kunstler, who became his mentor and close friend.
"I thought being a lawyer for the people, and using the law to
promote social change, was a noble calling," he said. "That was part
of the Woodstock legacy.
"It wasn't just partying, it wasn't just getting high, it wasn't just
music. We really did think that we were going to change the world. I
went to law school partly because of that idealism. Woodstock was
about compelling you to think about how you want to fit into the world."
Scheele said almost the same thing a day earlier. "One of the things
Woodstock means to me is that you can create your own life," he said.
"It means asking yourself, What do you want to do? What do you want
to be in this life?' "
As for the Woodstock Baby, apparently what he or she wants to be in
this life is anonymous and private. In America in 2009, that is truly
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