15 August 2009


Today is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. I watched the movie A Walk on the Moon this afternoon to help commemorate the event (but then I watched a bunch of videos of The Clash on Youtube because I cannot tolerate hippies all damn day). Loads of ink, pro and con, are being devoted to the subject of Woodstock, which has been the case since August 1969. At times, the commentary of the happening only seems to be from a bunch of increasingly older people fighting through their arthritis to still manage to pat themselves on the back for being part of a huge rock concert. So I'm throwing in my perspective.

I wasn't around for the original event but I did witness the 20th anniversary. My dad had been telling me for years that I needed to listen to more than rap. "You need to know where this rap music is coming from," he'd tell a single-digit-aged me right before subjecting me to another round of James Brown's music. So in August 1989, my dad said to me," Hey, come and watch this movie with me," and we sat down for three-plus hours to view the documentary. He explained that he first saw the performances in the theatre when the film came out in 1970 as he was stationed in Korea with the US Air Force during the original event. I was blown away by the music and also by how young everyone looked! Carlos Santana looked like a teenager and he had all his hair. And at one point, I asked Dad who that skinny, dark-haired, muttonchopped fellow was who was singing the shit out of "With a Little Help From My Friends" while he spastically writhed onstage.

"That's Joe Cocker."

"Dad, no way! That is not Joe Cocker!" The Joe Cocker I knew was paunchy and bearded with a greyish-light brown cloud of hair and sang sappy ballads. But, as it turns out, that was really him.

But probably the biggest shock was listening to the kids from back then talk on camera. Those hippies spoke with the word "like" interspersing their sentences just like me and my middle school friends were at that time. Was this what our parents were like when they were young? Stoned, naive, and saying stupid shit like if everyone could just drop acid and love their brother, the world would be a really groovy place and that would be sooooo faaaaar ooouuuut?


After being forced to listen to the news about "the war on drugs" in America and being subjected to years of the D.A.R.E. program ("Just Say No to Drugs!") in school, I found it laughable and hypocritical to listen to these young folks in the Woodstock film and in other footage from the era espouse the virtues of psychedelic substances. Yes, drugs have changed the world, but not in the way those damn hippies were hoping.

But, I have to admit, the music was brilliant.

I was so entranced by Jimi Hendrix's performance of the American national anthem, I was almost breathless. I made my dad play for me all the Hendrix that he owned (which was quite a lot; my father had more than 2000 records and he was ecstatic that I was finally interested in more of them), as well as Sly and the Family Stone and Santana. Dad also threw in a bunch of Janis Joplin for good measure (she had perfomed at Woodstock but her set did not appear in the original cut of the documentary). Joplin's most famous song "Me and Bobby McGee" was in heavy rotation on Armed Forces Radio when he was working the flight line in Vietnam and he told me that the tune's mentions of cities in his home state of Louisiana made him less homesick. Then he told me that Hendrix was originally from Seattle, not too far from my birthplace at Fort Lewis. So I spent the rest of my summer vacation tuning in.

Actually, I never stopped. That next school year, I had to write a book report on a biography and while my classmates chose such tomes as The Diary of Anne Frank, I instead picked 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky by David Henderson. (I got an A, by the way.) I started listening to classic rock and oldies stations on a regular basis for my own edification while still remaining devoted to my beloved Black Sheep and De La Soul. But when the music game changed in the early '90s and gangsta rap moved to the fore, I abandoned rap altogether and turned my energy toward all those 60s and 70s sounds I had already been hearing, as well as the newly popular genre called grunge. Having grown up on and around military bases and spending the first nearly five years of my life near Seattle, I found that rappers that spouted hardcore lyrics about the 'hood, selling crack, police brutality, and "bitches and ho's", sprang from a culture to which I could not relate while fellow Puget Sound natives like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain spoke a language that I could understand. I could hear the rain and the heaviness of the consistently grey clouds of my hometown in their music and I realized that even after years of living in the sunny climes of Virginia Beach, I was still homesick for my birthplace. And, I have to admit, that I was secretly pleased that after nearly a decade of trying to explain to people in VA that I was in fact from Washington State and not Washington D.C., that folks in the Tidewater area could finally hear the names Seattle and Tacoma and not automatically furrow their brows in confusion.

So that was Woodstock for me: bonding with my father, expanding my music vocabulary, and reclaiming my pride in my birthplace. And even those damn hippies could not destroy the experience for me.

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