Monday, August 10, 2009

Imagining Woodstock

I got to Yasgur's Farm via the Record Department at the old Korvettes in Port Chester, New York. Three or four years late. We were already in the '70's, Watergate was looming and at seven or eight I was hardly feeling any hippy dippy hangover. I was only a kid, but thanks to TV, a cool pair of bright red bell bottoms splattered with white stars and my transistor radio always tuned to AM Top 40 on WABC with Cousin Brucie as my head teacher, I had a groovy vibe.

I loved roaming around the Korvettes' Record Department, pawing albums under the crackly fluorescent lights, inhaling the plastic, vaguely sticky, candy smell. Back then I picked albums based on the singles I had heard on WABC or purely out of youthful whimsy and cover art. Sometimes I'd just grab the nearest album when my mother announced, "Now or never," as she hustled my sister and me to the register. Don't knock random acts of record buying. I was introduced to Sly & the Family Stone, Billy Joel and America thanks to the grab-and-go method ( I'll lament the decline of record shops another time).

I got Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water because "Cecilia" was playing in my head about as many times as it had been spinning on WABC. I also loved the cover photo; thought the tall guy was cuter than the short one, but pretty sure they both had a lot to teach me. That same day my older sister got the Woodstock soundtrack.

Back at home we shared our finds. I was totally absorbed by Simon & Garfunkel's dramatic title track; learned about NYC and loneliness in " The Only Living Boy in New York" and discovered libel and slander in the catchy, "Keep the Customer Satisfied," concepts that would come in handy later. But my sister made the big grab, scoring a double album set replete with mysterious songs and beautiful, weird photographs. We were totally mesmerized by what we heard, saw, imagined. All these long-haired hippy grown-ups singing, dancing in peace and love in the mud. So many of the artists--then unknown to me--would become pivotal in my creative life. Arlo. Janis. Hendrix. CSN&Y. My sister and I danced around for hours transfixed in a pre-pubescent fugue state, a sort of gauzy musical reverie that can only be colored by a precocious child's view of the adult world.

And--as kids do--we played it over and over. And louder and louder, It was one loud-playing of the famous " Fish Cheer" that landed us in trouble. Our mom heard the counter-culture rally cry and quickly confiscated the album. And our passport to Woodstock Nation. The album was jailed in the dark recesses of Mom's back back closet where old clothes were stashed along with items deemed dangerous like Seduction a steamy parlor game Dad had bought Mom as a gag gift one anniversary; Mom didn't appreciate the gag and the game disappeared without ever being opened ( I know; I used to sneak in to check).

I was never privy to the negotiations, but months--maybe weeks later--my sister did wrangle Woodstock's return.But we never listened to the album together again. It would be another four or five years before I ever saw the film-- on Channel 13-- one New Year's Eve.By then--already immersed in adolescence--I had transitioned from AM Top 40 to FM AOR--primarily on WNEW. I was heavily exploring all sorts of grown-up artists from Dylan to Talking Heads. And thanks to a cadre of long-haired hippy high school teachers I had developed a keen interest in politics and the arts, and already started flirting with the idea of a career in radio or writing.

As fate would have it, I've had the chance to bump up against a few Woodstock legends, interviewing them on the radio or for magazine pieces. Richie Havens. Joan Baez. And Country Joe McDonald the man who so inspired and inadvertently shortened my first Woodstock experience. Woodstock even pops up in my fiction, usually in a passing way, with a secondary character recounting his/her memory. Frequently a romanticized, dreamy image of an era I never really lived through.

You know, Joni Mitchell, who penned the famed Festival's anthem never made it to Woodstock either. But It seems she was there. In a way, I guess I was, too.

Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.


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