Thomm Quackenbush, author

Social Ikebana | 2009 | Poly Wants a Crack-Up

03.21.09 12:38 p.m.

Describing Woodstock as the "big bang," I think that's a great way to describe it, because the important thing about it wasn't how many people were there or that it was a lot of truly wonderful music that got played.  

-David Crosby

 


Woodstock 09

Perhaps the problem is that I would not be conceived for another ten years when it happened. While it is an event that has been shoved down our collective throats since a week before it actually happened, there is not longer any sense of presence to the actual grounds of Woodstock. After a pricy admission fee to enter the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center Museum, which essentially conveys nothing more than one could get from a website, one is left with a feeling that, ultimately, this was the lasting message of the festival. For three days in the summer of 1969 Something Happened. Then, despite the promise of briefly becoming the third largest city in New York composed largely of the groovy and enlightened, it stopped happening. It was the high water mark of the sixties - it almost had to be - and the best that remains is that it wasn't Altamont; Woodstock was not noted for obscene violence (that would have to wait for Woodstock '99). People more or less got along for this brief time, in this brief community. And even then, even if they were not aware of it, their festival of Peace, Love, and Music was going to be little more than a brand, if an emotional one. The rights to make a movie of the festival was sold to Warner Brothers for $100,000 before the festival even occurred. Before they could fully tune in, turn on, and drop out, the organizers had sold out. It co-opted the social movement until Hippies were just another corporate avatar, another mascot selling us sugary cereal instead of free love. The supposed intimacy brought on by the darkness of the first night of the concert was parceled out into sound bites and pre-sold.

Walking outside, looking at the actual grounds that held half a million people forty years ago, I expect to feel something other than this vagueness. The amount of energy and emotion that was expended should have felt a thin patina of meaning that no amount of mud frolicking could ever wash away. Instead, we sit on a picnic table just in front of the memorial plaque and ponder the irony that the field is fenced off from our discovering whether a long vertical object in the center of the field is a dead tree or a totem pole. Should we try to walk in the field, the omnipresent security guards will undoubtedly descend upon us and, at best, usher us from the grounds despite our having paid for the privilege of being here. But, as touching the tree/totem pole would be free, it is forbidden to visitors.

Hannah, though an atheist, brings up the idea that some places have a definite presence. She specifically references that Gettysburg, despite and because of the exhortations to the day-trippers that the battleground is frightfully haunted by the spirits of those brave soldiers, feels like nothing so much as a tourist trap. Whatever presence that area may have once held has long since been sucked away for a few dollars a pop. Conversely, she recently visited an abandon mental hospital (in willful ignorance of the trespassing laws) and found it so overfull of presence that it was all she could do to continue on, her sense of the tragic beauty of what was left behind quenching the mortal dread these places can stir in us, the suggestion that there is something much more profound that we are capable of knowing and it is looking at us from around the next corner. Yasgur's Farm, or what was once the farm, brings to might a bucolic scene just after the first thaw but that is absolutely the height of emotion we can draw.

While we ponder this out, we hear the bass pump of a vehicle full of people with more equipment than taste pull into the parking lot beyond the shrubs. Expecting (more) ignorant twenty-somethings, we are instead greeted by middle-aged tourists. They look old enough to have appreciated Woodstock in its original context and so I am interested to observe their habits when confronted with the field from which I draw no sensation. They ooh over the stone marker and, as we are preparing to leave them to their remembrances, one of the women asks Daniel to take their photo. The image of this silver-toothed, dark clad man playing photographer to soccer grandmoms and men with 401Ks more distended than their beer bellies makes for an odd tableau and James encourages me to take a picture of Daniel taking a picture, a recursion of meaning.

James brought us here, when Hannah very much thought our intended destination was the Woodstock we understood in Saugerties, NY, a place of dyed tapestries and - no really, officer, we swear - tobacco pipes. He has a keen interest about this time period, though I gather in a way that is divorced from the cultural contexts. He is fascinated with Woodstock as one might be fascinated with a butterfly's wing for the geometry of the patterns, but not the wherefore behind it. It would be odd to imagine him passionate about anything - and this certainly does not appear to rank as a subject of his passion, only vague interest. To really understand Woodstock is impossible if you weren't there. In the last forty years, our national culture has drifted so far, progress and regressed to suit the age. No matter how much one studies, no mix of words or music could touch what it was to be there, to paraphrase the words of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. And, of course, I was born much too late to have any first hand knowledge, but gather enough through empathy with those who were there to truly grok that this was a sacred experience that is forever locked away from me through the veil of time. James - and we - can no more know Woodstock through osmosis than he could absorb what it meant to be a knight errant by wandering around a castle. As the hippies were a reaction to that we came before, culture in America had reacted and re-reacted five or six time since, losing the initial thread because Woodstock was neither a beginning nor an end, just a shiny bead we all focus on as though to compactify thousands of disparate threads into one luminous moment.

Even if properly ingesting the media of that moment, the recollections of those who were there, could truly replicate - even for a second - the engulfing sensation, the Bethel Woods Museum would not be the proper place to do it. It is constructed almost specifically to disorient and distract, with flashing lights and murmurings of a dozen performances playing constantly, all the lights dimmed to mood lighting aside from projections of peace signs and flowers and bright flashes to correspond to thunderclaps on the soundtrack. It is almost cynically constructed to appeal to the mass media's latter day portrayal of the festival rather than addressing the festival itself. To wit, many of the testimonials playing on televisions come from attendees who turned into exactly the type the hippies were protesting against or those who burned out so badly that they never recovered and seem to exist now as only a graphic warning of what this culture was parodied as, perfectly serving into the agendas of the former. The center has had the time and, given the admission price, certainly the means to shape this center into exactly the presentation they want it to be and this is what aspects they chose to portray. Examined as text, it gives the appearance of an alien culture that descended on this otherwise lovely town, broke innumerable laws, engaged in festive folk dancing for a few days, and thankfully left, never to return to our planet. All the quotes from the residents at the time make quite clear that these hippies should be shot on sight or bilked for whatever money they foolishly carried, since they cannot possibly understand commerce. If you aren't outraged by the hippies, you were not paying attention (if you forget, most of this quote is available on a $30 t-shirt in the gift shop you must exit through).

Daniel intones that the internet takes the place of a need for any mass cultural explosion to rival Woodstock, though it would be a mistake to even try. We are so connected on a daily basis (even as it pushes us father from the kind of communion at the forefront of Woodstock) that there is almost no need. Were Woodstock to happen today, you would be invited on Facebook, it would be streaming on websites, being covered by bloggers from professionals to the Twitterers. Instead of lighters, we would hold up cell phones, so we could record the moment instead of inhabiting it. Woodstock would be meaningless, in effect. Just a concert we attended rather than an experience we had. Instead of the Merry Pranksters, we have Anonymous, to some, and that is almost as good.

I was a part of the zombified corpse of this culture. I had more tie dyes in my closet than was likely prudent. I endured people shouting "hippie!" at me from passing cars because I happened to like long hair. I am not especially militaristic or violent in a culture that considered males who did not fit these stereotypes to be potential homosexuals. I paid my dues, and I expect to be filled with something transcendental looking out at this empty field. I expect to care in some way, for there to be a glimmer that somehow delineates this field from any other vacant farmland. And perhaps that is part of the point of Woodstock, that it really could have happened anywhere at any time. That, if the squares didn't abide the vibes they were sending out, hundreds of thousands of the all-to-literally unwashed masses could flood in over every surface to devastate your town for a week. Only, that isn't what happened. The reasons we remotely remember Woodstock, the reason it could be co-opted into a brand, was that is was unrepeatable. Any attempts that were made ended in disaster, whether a cheapening of the original spirit (Woodstock 95) or outright rape, arson, and murder (Altamont/Woodstock 99), as if whatever pacific spirit that infested Yasgur's Farm was summoned to be the administrator of a mummy's curse. Only when we no longer need it, when we learn out lesson about stealing subcultures to shill our cars (which means I do not want to hear Iggy Pop's paean to heroine addiction, "Lust for Life", convincing me to go on a cruise ever again), will the spirit be able to rest. (Though, should we really feel the need to try yet another officially branded Woodstock event, it would certainly behoove us not to have a festival to peace at a cement army fort with no shade in the middle of the summer heat in hopes that will increase consumption of $7 bottles of tap water. This complete inversion of the hippies' original message - though fulfillment of the the organizers' apparent wish for Pepsi presents Woodstock - is just insulting.)

What irritates me most is how badly I want this all to mean something to me, because it can certainly never happen again; the closest my generation will ever come to the spirit of the original Woodstock is September 12th when, if just for a few weeks, we somehow believed that we were integral members of the brotherhood of Man. It didn't matter who our neighbors were (aside from a few isolated cases of the paranoia-induced beatings of Sihk children), you wanted to make sure they were holding up okay just so you could feel for a moment that they wanted to know the same about you. It's telling that we needed a national tragedy so far beyond our reckoning to shake us loose from mundane perception, a trip far more heinous than anything the infamous brown acid would give us. Woodstock seemed for people on the brink of really seeing what life meant. September 12th was simply in acknowledgement for how quickly and unexpectedly that life could end and the almost guilty thrill that we made it through. While people can share stories about both, the tenor is diametrically opposed, no matter how much both created their temporary communes against the harsh realities of the world.

Soon in Xenology: Things. Oh such things, you cannot believe!

last watched: Heroes
reading: The Embrace by Aphrodite Jones
listening: Joni Mitchell

Social Ikebana | 2009 | Poly Wants a Crack-Up

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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