Sunday, August 16, 2009

40 Years of What?

If you're not a news junkie like me, you've probably missed the recent succession of 40th anniversaries: the first walk on the moon July 20, the taking of the Beatles' famous Abbey Road photo on Aug. 8, followed the next day by the Manson family's murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, and now, between the 15th and 18th of August, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, our culture's "defining moment." I know, I should turn off the TV and stop surfing the net, and these questions wouldn't arise. But why 40? I think Ed Ward gives the best answer in his remembrance of Woodstock, "Beginning? Or End?" in the Boston Phoenix:
Forty, after all, is the new 50: the people who were 20 at Woodstock will be 70 on its 50th anniversary, so let's take advantage of the marketing opportunities while those folks are still alive.
Of course, I'm already 70, and maybe that's why I'm so cynical, and I'm also too poor to take advantage of the commemorative memorabilia offered on any of the shopping channels (which aren't available anyway on Bangkok TV). What's left to celebrate? Hurricane Camille, the most powerful in history, killed 248 people on the Mississippi coast 40 years ago tomorrow. The first ATM was installed on September 2nd (the day Ho Chi Minh died), the My Lai massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam took place three days later, and in October during "Days of Rage" the National Guard was called to end demonstrations by the radical Weathermen protesting the trial of the Chicago Eight who had been blamed for riots the year before at the Democrat's convention. Nixon, who had taken over from Lyndon Johnson as president earlier in the year, went on TV in November 40 years ago to ask the "silent majority" to support his war policies while Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced the President's critics, who had held major antiwar demonstrations on October 15th, as "an effete corps of impudent snobs' and 'nattering nabobs of negativism." And last but not least in that memorable year of 1969 was the "Woodstock West" at Altamont on December 6th, the free concert in California by the Rolling Stones which ended the Sixties with violence and death. Will there be a 40th anniversary of THAT? Of course.

In 1969 I was a newspaper reporter in Pasadena, and publicist Sunny Schneer called one day to invite me to an outdoor concert in New York State. She had seen my column of record reviews (a shameless ploy to get free music) and promised a free ticket and backstage pass. But I had two young sons at home and was not free to fly away to a rock and roll picnic (which is what Woodstock sounded like). A few days after the event had made national headlines, I went to hear new super-group Crosby, Stills & Nash at a UCLA concert. David Crosby waxed ecstatic about how the hippie tribes had closed down the New York Thruway and had become a non-violent (if muddy) city of a half million. It seemed as if the hippie ethic of love and communal sharing had been resurrected by the large gathering. Two years before, after the "Summer of Love" when hundreds of thousands of hippies had converged on the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, a march was held down the street in October to mark "The Death of the Hippie." According to one participant, "We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, don't come out. Stay where you are! Bring the revolution to where you live. Don't come here because it's over and done with." Crowding, drugs, homelessness and violence had taken their toll, and tarnished the hippie dream.

At the end of 1969, I was hired as the west coast publicity director of Atlantic Records in Hollywood. One of my first tasks was to publicize the soundtrack of Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock movie since Atlantic would release the soundtrack album. I visited the editing rooms and got to see early cuts of the hours of footage. Because of the number of artists who performed, there were high-level negotiations over who would be included in the film and who would be cut. Decisions were made not based on art but on money; managers and agents and lawers held the key. Missing from the original version of the film were the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tim Hardin and The Band (this was partially rectified in the 40th anniversary edition released on Blu-Ray and DVD with two extra hours of performances). The Woodstock film and soundtrack recording were big business and still earn residuals, fueled by the 40th anniversary hullabaloo, which no doubt help to offset huge financial losses for organizers Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld incurred when the concert became "free." The couple that appeared on the soundtrack cover only stayed one night at Woodstock and were too far away to see the stage, but, according to a recent newspaper article, were later married and are still together. “I know some people say Woodstock changed their life," said the woman in the photo. "But I don't think it contributed to who I am or who my husband is. I think we became the people we would have become anyway.”

New York Times columnist Gale Collins also went to Woodstock and mostly missed the music. "It never occurred to me anybody was going to want to discuss it 40 years down the road," she writes in "To Be Old and in Woodtock." "In fact, the only time I envisioned the concert having any impact on my future was on the way home when I decided all of us were going to die in a massive traffic jam." She spent most of the time looking for food for herself and friends. "Fortunately, it turned out that eight people could live on peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for much longer than you might imagine." But looking backwards, Collins realizes the event's true impact. "The Woodstock-mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby-boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did."

I don't want to puncture the myth of Woodstock because I wasn't there. George Clinton was, and when Ed Ward talked with him 10 years later he had this to say:
Man, don't even talk to me about Woodstock! I was there! Everyone's always saying how Woodstock was the beginning. Hell, no! It was the end! Once was a time, you wanted some weed, you could ask your friend and he'd lay some on you, and you'd pay him back when you had some. But at Woodstock, there were signs: "Weed for sale!" Once, a musician was a cat like you, only he could sing and play better than you — you know, like Bob Dylan — not some god on a stage! Woodstock invented rock stars, man.
Woodstock was the beginning of huge outdoor concerts, high ticket prices, and musicians with egos blown all out of proportion. Few remember that the model for Woodstock was the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a concert held in June 0f 1967 at the Monterey Fairgrounds featuring performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Who. It was organized by record producer Lou Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. Artists performed free with profits going to charity, and a film was produced by famed director D.A. Pennebaker. Numerous live performances were released on records but it was all small potatoes compared to the whale of Woodstock two years later. Fatherhood also caused me to miss the seminal Monterey festival as well as the smaller version that took place at Esalen on the Big Sur coast in September 40 years ago. Artists at that concert the week after Woodstock included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash (joined here by Neil Young). "Celebration at Big Sur" was not as successful a film as Wadleigh's "Woodstock," and there were no live recordings from the event. But I talked to many people who attended and they praised the small scale which was rarely to be repeated. I did go to the third version of Monterey Pop a year or so later and recall Joan Baez bringing her infant son on stage, people strolling through the fairgrounds under leafy trees, and a laid-back atmosphere reminiscent of the Newport Folk Festival I attended in 1964. Forty years later, we have the vacuous music scene foretold by Don McLean in "American Pie," when he sang "that music used to make me smile...a long, long time ago." Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died FIFTY years ago last February 3rd. That was something worth remembering.

Here in Bangkok, I mourn the present rather than the past. Nan left a week ago to take care of her father in Phayao where he was in a hospital dying of alcoholism. But on Mother's Day, she was thrown from a motorbike that collided with a car and broke her right arm and injured her back. I had not heard from her for three days when she finally called on Friday afternoon to tell me the news. The accident put Nan in the same hospital with her father, but unable to look after him. She was released at the weekend to stay with her mother in a village 30 kilometers away, but she has to return for physical therapy every day. Because of the injury to her writing arm, she can send email only with difficulty. To phone from home or send an SMS, she has to climb on the roof of her house, not easy at present. We spoke yesterday but it was hard to hear because of background noise and to understand her English. She said it was not easy to walk. And she discouraged me from visiting because her village is remote and "so far." I have no idea when we can reunite or what the state of our relationship will be. Before and after therapy, she continues to look after her father who was given six weeks to live by his doctor a week ago. The only thing certain is change, and there seems little escaping the solitude. Several friends have urged me to restart a meditation practice but at the moment all I can do is read, watch TV and sleep (though I did venture out of isolation to see "The Hangover" and "Trail of the Panda").

On Friday Jerry invited me to join him for a party on the balcony of John Everingham's house with a spectacular view overlooking the Chao Phraya River. John (left, with Jerry, right, and Scott Murray) is a photographer and publisher from Australia who swam across the Mekong River in the 1970's to freedom in Thailand with his Laotian girlfriend. This exploit was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1982 called "Love is Forever" with Michael Landon as John. In Bangkok he built up a magazine publishing empire that was recently taken over by unscrupulous investors. So he's started a new enterprise on the internet, and the party was filled with colleagues and contacts. Jerry profiled John as "Hero/Entrepreneur" in Bangkok Babylon. In addition to collecting snakes (which might have been in the basement of the building I visited), John is the father of Ananda Everingham, a well-known actor and model in Thailand, who recently starred in the first official film from Laos, "Good Morning, Luang Prabang." Among the guests was Scott, a Canadian who is executive editor of Phuket Magazine, and who was wearing a hockey shirt which seemed a bit hot even for a Bangkok evening. He told me he's a member of the Flying Farangs, a hockey team of expats in Bangkok, who play games with teams from Abu Dabi, Mongolia, Dubai, Kazakhstan and China. Founded in 1994, the team practices at an ice rink on the outskirts of Bangkok and their shirt is hanging in the Hockey Fall of Fame in Toronto. The proceeds from tickets for their games go to Father Joe Maier's Human Development Center. Sipping a beer on the balcony as the sun went down, I listened to an American writer named Paul talk about the importance of white elephants in Southeast Asia, and explain that the expression "white elephant" came from the expense needed to raise and donate one of the rare animals to royalty who see them as legitimation of their rule. Thailand's king has 11 of them.

1 comment:

littlebang said...

Don't forget the most important 40th anniversary - the entry of (an unwilling) Pandit into the world.