John Clark talking about the effect one book had on me a couple weeks ago and why.
Looking back, perhaps one of the quotes that best describes the ’60s for me would be the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” I was impulsive, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it netted me some amazing experiences and the memories to go with them.
During the summer of 1969, I was home from Arizona State and part of a crew painting the old draw bridge in Bath that spanned the Kennebec River. Most of us working that summer were college students, liberal, no strangers to recreational drug use and into rock music. When one of the crew brought a flyer to work advertising a three day music festival in Woodstock, NY, a bunch of us bought tickets and when the time came, we cut work on a Friday morning and took off for New York around midnight on Thursday.
We got there relatively early and were able to park pretty close to where the entrance gate was located. After handing over our tickets, we grabbed programs, bought blotter acid and headed for the stage area. That afternoon, we were able to sit very close to the performers and I remember feeling extremely mellow about half an hour after letting the acid dissolve under my tongue. It was warm, sunny and the rapidly swelling crowd was in a terrific mood. At one point, someone announced that there was a batch of brown acid going around that was pretty bad and should be avoided. A couple moments later, some dude five rows behind me flipped out and cartwheeled through the crowd, landing with his head by my feet. I remember looking at him and saying something profound like, “Got one of the bad hits, eh?”
When the festival closed for the night, we headed back to the car and I ended up sleeping in the trunk with the lid down, but not closed because it was raining. When we headed back the next morning, the crowd had swollen to a point where it was almost impossible to stay together as a group. I lost contact with the rest of the bridge crew, but there was so much going on and the energy level was so high, I wasn’t concerned and, besides, I knew where the car was. Big mistake. By the time I went looking for the it that night, it had been moved and with the crowd now at half a million, there was no way to find anyone. Even then, it didn’t really matter because I was having the adventure of a lifetime. The music was live and nonstop, comprised of almost every group I could possibly want to see. Sweetwater was awesome (I saw them later that fall when they were the lead act for the Doors and they stole the show), Joan Baez was equally mesmerizing, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, the list went on and on. One of my most vivid memories was sitting on the hill above the stage, sharing a joint of homegrown with a guy from North Carolina who was AWOL from the army and watching the White Rabbit cavort around in the night sky while Jefferson Airplane played. That was followed very closely when Country Joe MacDonald stopped everyone in their tracks when he stepped up to the mike and hollered “Give Me an F.” The only other thing I’ve ever heard that sounded anywhere near as powerful as that crowd doing the Fish Cheer is the live start of a NASCAR race.
Since I had no way home and the music was going to continue, I went over to where the Hog Farm folks were and volunteered to help get food ready. The feeling of camaraderie, coupled with the sheer size of the crowd and the good vibrations everyone was sending out, made it almost impossible to worry about anything. I remember when the crew filming the festival ignored us as we were frantically working to make sure everyone got fed, we started our own, very loud ‘Bullshit’ chant. I also got to hang out by the Dayglow bus where Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead were. It put real meaning in the saying “You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.”
Late on Saturday, I was walking through the patch of woods that divided where the Hog Farm was and the field where the performers were. I heard someone call my name and looked up to see two guys I hung out with who were from Camden. They had hitched down to the festival. We made arrangements to meet at intervals by the Hog Farm area so we could return to Maine together.
I have never seen as sudden and wild a storm as the one that passed over us on Sunday. The clouds were roiling so fiercely that they seemed to have their own malevolent intelligence. When it started to rain, there was no possibility of staying dry. People began dancing around a giant mound of garbage in the field, getting soaked and muddy, but having a ball. I joined in and it didn’t take long to feel like I was part of something cosmic and far bigger than myself.
When the three of us decided to start back to Maine, the number of people who were trying to find a ride was so large, we ended up walking miles before any cars passed us that weren’t filled to the gills with tired and very odiferous people. We were fortunate in that we made it back home after only three different rides. I was toasted, but had the people who were heading to Camden drop me off at the bridge where I more or less dozed as I sat in the safety boat, waiting for someone to fall into the river.
That music festival made it extremely difficult to get excited about any concert for years and I remember parts of the weekend as if they happened yesterday. A few weeks ago, I read a review of a new young adult book, Three Day Summer by Sarvenaz Tash that was about two teens whose paths cross at Woodstock. I was particularly intrigued by one review that raved about how well the author re-created the atmosphere surrounding it, so I ordered the book. If anything, the reviewer understated how well that aspect of the book is. This is particularly impressive because she was born in the Middle East and is in her mid-twenties. I’ve included my review below so you can understand why I’m so impressed. In fact, I re-read it yesterday afternoon on the train from Vancouver to Kamloops and liked it more the second time. If you were a part of the Woodstock generation, treat yourself by reading it. If you weren’t and want to get an excellent feel for that piece of American culture, I suggest this as a great way to understand it.
I have to say right up front that this book was like my own personal time machine. As with Michael, the male protagonist, I had no clue what would happen when I heard about this awesome three day music festival in New York State.
Michael is piloting his mom’s purple Chrysler, his bossy girlfriend Amanda and a couple friends with him. He’s already ambivalent about his relationship, but hasn’t had a chance to get it together and break things off. He’s also conflicted about the war, his relationship with his parents and whether he wants to go to college. The closer they get to the festival, the more they begin realizing that this is way bigger than anyone ever imagined. The car overheats, so they abandon it in the middle of the road and hike the last five miles to Max Yazgur’s farm.
Meanwhile Cora, who lives right near the festival site, entertains dreams of becoming a doctor, but knows that there’s a big prejudice against female physicians, something even her father shares, She’s going to volunteer at the medical tent with a nurse she helps in her role as a candy striper. She’s got a lot on her mind. Ned, the boy she gave her heart to, broke up with her a while ago, but works on her dad’s farm, so he’s never far from her thoughts. Wes, her younger brother is involved in the anti-war movement, while her older brother is in the military in Vietnam and every letter he sends to his siblings sounds more desperate.
When Michael takes a hit of brown acid, he flips out and his friends bring him to the medical tent where Cora is assigned to monitor him while he comes down. Over the several hours it takes to get him close to clear-headed, something happens between them, partly sparked by his hallucinations, but also my the way each listens to the other in ways both crave, but seldom get from others.
Cora is so busy she doesn’t have time to ponder the effect Michael had on her at first. Michael, on the other hand, is feeling a surreal connection because of the way he saw her while tripping. Besides, he’s lost his friends and despite his best efforts, can’t find them in the huge crowd. He returns to the medical tent at seven, the time Cora gets off duty and invites her to stay and listen to some of the music with him. She’s about to say no when her ex-wanders up, asking if she’s ready to head home.
Cora’s no becomes a yes, signaling the beginning of behavior that’s completely out of character for her, as well as a relationship with a guy who already has a girlfriend and lives a couple hundred miles away. Add in her father’s going ballistic attitude toward the concertgoers, Michael’s incredible knowledge of most of the bands playing, completely ‘you are there’ vignettes from the event and you have a super story about two likable teens at the biggest concert ever.
I loved this book, not only because of the chemistry between the two main characters, but because on almost every page, something happened that took me back to the moment it was capturing. I heartily agree with the reviewer who said that the author brought the festival to life. She absolutely nailed it as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to see this book in as many public and school libraries as possible because it brings to life an event that most teens know nothing about as well as highlighting many of the tensions families faced during the Vietnam era. The amazing chemistry between Cora and Michael is another big plus for this book.