I've been beating up on the legend of Woodstock pretty good lately. As much as I downplay the value of the festival itself, I’ve never doubted the accomplishments of that generation. It showed that mass action can stop a war, it launched the organic food and healthy living movement, and in its quest for global information sharing (as in The Whole Earth Catalog), set the tone for the creation of the Web.
Bruce Pollock has written 12 books on music, interviewed a couple of hundred musicians, written several hundred lyrics, turned out at least 100 columns for a newspaper in New York, produced nearly a hundred record compilations, founded and edited exactly 100 issues of a top music magazine, and published an annual reference book on songs for 17 years. He wrote the following in celebration of his book, “By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969.”
“It was a time of euphoria and devastation, freedom and assassination, revolution and retribution, moonwalks and sit-ins, love-ins and race riots, sex, drugs and guns. It was the 1960s. The Kennedy coronation in 1960 promised glamour, hope and change; the return of Richard Nixon in 1968 ended all that silliness. In state after state idyllic college campuses became terrorist cells, inner cities went up in flames, families were torn asunder, as the drumbeat of
“Popular music tried to drown out the drums of war. Graduating from high school in 1963 and ‘64 and ’65, the rock and roll of sock hops and malt shops, surfing and going steady gave way to an edgier, angrier sound, foretelling the end of innocence and the eve of destruction. For the first rock generation, the times were a-changing and we wanted the world…now! Starting late in 1966, FM radio carried this message from coast to coast, working its way up from underground, on the back of the expanding album market, with AM radio and the 45, the outmoded status quo, giving way in its wake. Through the visions and violence of 1968, the cracks in the dream turning to chasms, it held out the last remaining olive branches of hope—or was it refuge—to its burgeoning constituents, broadcasting the music of the future from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, the Doors, the Dead, the Airplane, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Mother Earth, Moby Grape, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Velvet Underground, the Mothers of Invention, the MC5, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Funkadelic and the Fugs.
“After sitting out the decade on the sidelines, Richard Nixon’s mission upon election was to restore order to the chaos, even if, as his crony in the governor’s mansion in California told a cheering throng, “It took a bloodbath.” And so, as the bloody year of 1969 unfolded, Aquarius fell on the counter culture. While the crucial musicians still issued albums like manifestos, as their draft eligible brothers tried to live the music in the streets, the government escalated its assault, here and overseas.
“Holding to the last to the music that was supposed to set them free, at one mad outdoor party after another, from Miami to Denver and from Woodstock to Altamont, at least it could be said, and nowhere better than in this blistering book, that a generation went down swinging.”
He’s wrong on that last point. That generation isn’t gone. Every time you vote in opposition to the Iraq War or munch an organic carrot while surfing the Web, you’re feeling its influence.
Earlier this week I was one of three reporters who covered the Woodstock Festival 40 years ago to sit down and audio roundtable “popcast” that the Times Recorded. I wrote in another post that it was going up. Well, it’s up. And here it is.
Woodstock was the senior prom of the sixties. It was the time to dress up, give your gal a corsage, get wacked and escort her to the place where the music was.
Well, more or less.
I just got home from my old haunt, Culture News at the New York Times. To mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the Times recorded a podcast featuring three of the team of reporters who covered it back in 1969, Mike Kaufman, Bernard Collier and me, moderated by chief rock critic Jon Pareles. The podcast will be
available on the Times site on Friday, August 14. The print coverage will be in the Sunday, August 9, paper.
I was the youngest of the three reporters on the panel, and ironically the one who didn’t think the event was majestic. I’ve said this before: the future did not open up, spilling forth wonderfulness onto the generation that will save the world. What opened up was the skies, pouring water onto acres and acres of sodden souls forced to spend three days sitting in mud.
Mike’s take on Woodstock featured the thought that drugs were the attraction, the possibility of sampling new and better ones. Bernard focused on the generally overlooked, very good point that the birth control pill had only begun to achieve widespread adoption at the time we all hitched and walked to the garden. I recalled those black and white photos of Civil War battlefields with bodies laying in the mud.
I did not spend my three days there with the folks doing the stuff that became folklore – bathing nude in that lake, having dramatic acid catastrophes, or hanging at the rock celebrity drug den. I spent the whole time with the huddled bodies in the fields, the 90% who would have left after a day had there existed the opportunity to do so.
And I also filed stories, three of them as I recall, commenting about the bands that appeared as well as noting the fact that barely anyone was close enough to the stage to hear them. This was not what went into the mythology created by an adoring press, members of whom spent most of their time on dry land with food and drugs. Not the Times guys of course. We worked.
New York deejay and splendid music scene observer Pete Fornatale, with whom I once shared WNEW-FM in New York (I did a brief stint as a DJ; I was awful), has just published “Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock” (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone). “Back to the Garden” is the best book ever written on Woodstock. From his base at New York’s WFUV-FM, Pete and his son Pete Junior assembled observation from just about all the performers and other participants, including me.
Quoth Pete Townshend, “Woodstock was horrible. Woodstock was only horrible because it went so wrong. It could have been extraordinary. I suppose with the carefully edited view that the people got through Michael Wadleigh’s film, it was a great event. But for those involved in it, it was a terrible shambles. Full of the most naïve, childlike people. We have a word for them in England. Twits.”
In an interview, Pete Fornatale offered this of Woodstock: "On the downside, the seeds for its destruction were planted even as the event unfolded: recognition by Corporate America that there was a lot of money to be made from these 'kids' ; the so-called "Woodstock Laws" that went into effect almost immediately making it almost impossible that anything remotely like it could ever happen again; and now, in a post-9/11 world, it can certainly never happen again. So there were a lot of unfulfilled promises in the 40 years since Woodstock."
But he added, "Apart from everything else you can say about it, Woodstock made us feel the rapture of being alive. It’s time to get back to the garden."
Well, okay. But keep this in mind while suffering through the onslaught of Woodstock mythology we will get in the next few weeks -- if Woodstock was a garden, realize that gardens also have a lot of downpours and a lot of mud.
I’m a magnet for crazy people. If I walked into a party and Courtney Love was there she’d be over in a flash. This is absolutely assured; it could be no other way.
This curse follows me everywhere. When my late mother was at the point where she needed home health aides around the clock, this Jamaican woman was recommended to me and I hired her. She was 40 or so and hot, something I didn’t quite know what to make of considering she was a Black Muslim. She was a certified health aide and wonderful. I’ll call her Olivia.
But she brought along her new roommate, who also was a home health aide. She was an Irish woman well into her 70s. I’ll call her Mary Kate. I got two for the price of one, except I had to feed both. They ate a LOT of takeout Chinese.
My mother’s house is in a patch of gardens and woods separated by a large brook from protected wetlands. It’s like having a cabin in the woods. Olivia, it turns out, is a city girl. One of her jobs was washing the sheets and bedclothes. She strung clothesline all over the inside of the porch because she was afraid there were bear in the woods and alligators in the brook. For her part, Mary Kate thought that Olivia was a voodoo practitioner who was trying to kill her. She put crucifixes all over the place to ward off the evil. Turns out that Mary Kate’s late husband WAS a Jamaican voodoo practitioner who gave her a charm that told her what to do. I guess it told her to flee, because she was soon on the lam.
One evening she went for a walk in the rain and didn’t come back before time came to lock up the fort. I assumed that she got the night train to get away from the voodoo. Or maybe the bear and the alligators made her into a late dinner. When morning came and I opened the curtains, I saw found her sitting in a chair in the back yard, her hands folded primly in her lap. She was afraid to come into the house. I guess this was partly out of fear of Olivia (Mary Kate was afraid of neither bear nor alligator, but a hot Jamaican Black Muslim voodoo practitioner scared the bejesus out of her). It could also be that as an elderly Irish woman she would never be so presumptuous as to ask a favor, even if refusing to do so meant sitting in a plastic chair in the back yard all night. Unable to see if the charm that swung from the silver chain was telling her where to go, I gave her $100 and put her on a train.
By the way, at no time did anyone mention that voodoo is associated with Haiti and New Orleans, not Jamaica. Jamaica is associated with weed. I could have used some.
Anyway, fear of wildlife aside, Olivia was an even better caretaker without Mary Kate, who before leaving hung a rosary on the side of my mother’s bed.
I have a suspicion that one reason my mother, a confirmed agnostic, died was to get away from the two of them.
Exactly 40 years ago Elvis returned to the concert stage after a long absence during which he solidified his reputation as a darling of the American masses by making horrible movies that everyone who did not live on a coast watched. Let the anniversary celebrations begin. You may as well pop a few Buds over this, middle America; the Woodstock anniversary is coming in a month, and the scent of smoldering weed will waft from senior citizen colonies everywhere.
Elvis anniversary commemorations doubtless will happen all over the planet, and will be but one of a hunka hunka of official and unofficial events planet-wide. The official events will revolve around Graceland, Elvis's Memphis estate-turned-theme park, and around Vegas, where the magic moment occurred amid a hot July. First, a confession about Elvis and me.
"Hound Dog" was the first rock and roll record I bought. It was a 45, which for those too young to recall was kind of a flat black donut with grooves on it.
I bought all the funky little rockers that Elvis made for Memphis's legendary Sun Records, and then tuned out when he switched to RCA and began mass-producing hits. Then he was drafted, his situation satirized in the Broadway show and movie "Bye Bye Birdie."
When your career becomes a joke for Dick Van Dyke, it's over.
Appropriately, when Elvis got out of the Army he retired from mass-producing hits and went into mass-producing generally awful Hollywood movies.
Fast forward ten or so years. It's 1969. Elvis is still churning out Hollywood stinkers, and he still gets hits. However, this music is slick pop crooning far removed from the glory days of Memphis Elvis. For those caught up in the golden age of rock, Elvis's best moments were a faint memory and his late-60s career an embarrassment. The King is a has-been. Rock has passed him by, and he knows it.
What to do? He decides to return to his roots, to performing live, something he had done only once since 1957 (a 1961 benefit for the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Hawaii). His comeback will take place in Las Vegas.
Generally speaking, comeback concerts staged in Vegas mean but one thing - you're no longer simply an embarrassment; you're a lounge act. You're dolled up and singing finger-snapping standards - "Mack the Knife," "One for My Baby," a couple of show tunes, "Moon River" and maybe a medley of your old rockers sweetened up with lush orchestrations.
That's what I expected when I got to Vegas to cover the comeback. Eight or nine months before, I had broken the story of his comeback and now I would get to watch him join the ranks of those who are old and in the way - the King of Rock and Roll singing "My Yiddishe Mama," "Volare," and taking requests.
I was so sure that a debacle loomed that I didn't bother to shake his hand when offered the opportunity. At a pre-concert party, a flunkie asked, "would you like to meet Elvis?"
Though he was standing close enough to smack with a peanut butter and banana sandwich, I said, "No, that's okay."
Who wanted to meet a has-been? I once tried to hold a conversation with Frankie Valli and that was enough, thank you. I wanted to remember Elvis as I imagined him when I bought that copy of "Hound Dog."
So when it came time for the concert I trudged to a VIP table smack up against the stage, sat down across from Henry Mancini, and waited for the has-been singer to flatter the composer with a rendition of "Moon River."
I guess I was wrong, right? After spending an hour watching Elvis rock out just above my head - and ducking flying panties tossed by fans (if memory serves, a bright pink one touched down on Mancini's chrome dome) - I admitted that I was wrong about the King. Here is some of what I went back to the hotel room and wrote 40 years ago:
" ... with the opening song on his first night, it was clear that Elvis Presley still knows how to sing rock 'n' roll. He seems, in fact, to have lost nothing in the past decade ... Elvis Presley came to this place and provided an unbelievable exercise in pure, exciting rock 'n' roll. Despite the flashiness, despite the fact that most of the male customers had awful James Bond fixations and most all the women seemed to dress out of the Fredericks of Hollywood catalogue ... Elvis Presley made Las Vegas an incredible experience."
The experience was incredible enough for me to also participate in conceiving a son there. At least I got THAT right.
For your own Elvis anniversary celebration, here's the recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches: Smear peanut butter on one slice of bread. Spread mashed bananas on another. Merge and fry (both sides, now) in bacon fat. Eat.
Sing "All Shook Up," which goes, "my hands are shaking and my knees are weak."
Six months after getting its first black president, America has its first black Princess Di. We slide into Independence Day with our heads held unusually high. In the land of limitless impossibilities, not even being an anti-Semitic child molester keeps you from attaining royal status.
You see it coming, of course. The piles of flowers on the wayside; the midnight candle vigils and crowds swaying to the old recordings; the conspiracy theories; the networks and their instant logos. Later on, the resolution in the House of Representatives naming whatever day that was in his honor. The stamp. The commemorative coin from the Franklin Mint. The books in his honor. The books about the conspiracy theories. The 10,000-word New Yorker profile. And the dozens and dozens of CD rereleases of every squawk he issued in the presence of a microphone.
CNN is always the first to put up a flashy logo … like the Superbowl logo or that adorning presidential elections. But with it came the clash of messages that newspaper layout men used to call “tombstoning” (stories so closely aligned on the page that their different headlines almost read one to the other). Before his death was even confirmed, CNN put up this:
“MICHAEL JACKSON HOSPITALIZED” “OBAMA PUSHES HEALTH CARE REFORM”
Now that I think of it, would you hurry that up a bit, Mr. President?
How else can you tell that we have created the first black Princess Di? Well, Jesse Jackson showed up. But he shows up at everything; this time we were blessed with m’man Al Sharpton, looking a bit gaunt now that he’s shed a few pounds. Martin Luther King Jr. was unable to attend, but his “I Have a Dream” speech made it into CNN as part of the Jackson coverage.
What other celebs came for the coronation? Well, everyone came, even poor old Mike Wallace. It’s now Day Three and the electronic media is still so hot for talking heads with Jackson expertise they’re probably put out a call for the guy who cleaned up after the giraffes at Neverland.
In fact, the only one missing is Elton John. I would like to think that his absence means he’s holed up revising “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for the current circumstance.
But even without an Elton presence, the black Princess Di will long be lauded with tributes, memorials, and annual public celebration/mourning. His cardiac arrest will be scrutinized with the ferocity accorded that doomed auto in the Paris tunnel. And, as usual, the pharmaceutical industry will be among the culprits. You will amuse us with such an accusation, won’t you, Rush?
Look, Michael Jackson was a superb entertainer, but he was an entertainer. He was no prophet or leader or visionary. (For that matter, apart from her laudable charity work, Diana Spencer was little more than inoffensive arm candy.) The compilation of her insights and sayings remains as elusive as “The Book of Irish Porn Stars.”
Jackson’s contribution was to adapt the superficial songs and glitzy conventions of Motown to a time frame, MTV and the early Reagan years, that had a newly created ability, music videos, to magnify them. One cultural emblem of the early days of trickle-down was “Miami Vice,” with its display of pop rock, fashion, ill-gotten gain, and cocaine. Another was Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Not quite original to “the King of Pop,” that celebrated move was previously known as “the backslide” and used extensively by Marcel Marceau in the 1950s, among others.
But Jackson was popular, and from therein sprouts a familiar tune. The talking heads cite his great popularity as evidence of his talent. I’ve heard this one before. Back in the day, there was a ghastly, critically lambasted rock group named Grand Funk Railroad. They were very popular, and their prickly manager cited their album sales as evidence of their greatness. I was prominent among the critical lambasters, and the Wall Street Journal called to get my reaction to his claim. I said, “Mussolini was popular too,” they printed it in a front page feature, and I heard about it for months thereafter.
Jackson was a master of non-ironic pop R&B. Had he not become an unpunished fondler of little boys, redefined nouveau riche, and developed an extravagant taste for embarrassingly public self-mutilation, he would today be moonwalking across tiny stages at second-rate Vegas casinos.
What does this say about fame in America? Nothing that you don’t already know. It just says it louder.
There I was, pondering the future of the republic while lying on the mossy bank of a stream, staring into still waters from which nearly all life had been extinguished by toxic pesticides half a century earlier.
Once there were millions of live things in there, ravenous little wretches running others down and eating them alive. They were everywhere, as inescapable as bad ideas on Sunset Boulevard. Then they were gone, obliterated, forgotten, squashed by the arrival of civilization in the form of a massive DDT spraying, and leaving nary a fossil. But now they’re back, I saw them yesterday afternoon, all teeth and mandibles and whatever other arrangements that aquatic critters use in dining on one another.
I live, off and on, in a small house in a patch of woods adjoining protected wetlands. On most days during the growing season you can’t see the neighbors. Or their stash of broken lawn chairs, unworking grills, milk crates, rusted out wheelbarrows, and piles of grass clippings that they are certain time will turn into fertilizer. Like neighbors everywhere they pile this stuff against the fence that separates my property from theirs. Sometimes whey put atop it a blue tarp, as if to suggest neatness but in practice creating just another eyesore that I must hide from my view by creating an eyesore of my own, this one hidden in green fervor beneath a sheath of whatever green thing will grow.
Nothing grew in the brook since trucks came round in the late 1950s spraying the new sensation, DDT, on the brook, to kill the mosquitoes. It did so, but only for a few years while killing everything else, seemingly forever. Schools of fish – common roach if you must know – went belly up and floated downstream. With them died the rest of the food chain, which included a maelstrom of aquatic bugs and the fish that ate them, several species, leaving only ducks and the snapping turtles that preyed on them.
Several times over the years – often when a publisher rejected my newest idiotic idea and I needed to do something therapeutic – I waded and took water samples. Nothing, not a damn thing but the pesticide-resistant plants that grew in great mats, choking the stream. Once in the early 1980s I took one of these samples to a colleague at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who ran it through a testing thing of the sort now found on CSI, and discovered a pesticide spike big enough to kill everything but weeds, ducks, and really mean turtles. It was left over from the initial event.
Goodbye, I thought, forever.
Then last year I noticed a Great Blue Heron. He was in the brook and occasionally ducked his beak into one of those weed mats, catching something. Great Blue Herons eat fish, not weeds or ducks and certainly not snapping turtles. I saw one of the latter recently and guessed it measured four feet from head to tail. He swam by languidly, with the confidence of a creature that knew that nothing in there would bother him.
Then I noticed something else, definitely a living something, making a fuss in the aforementioned weed mats around dusk. Then I noticed the presence of pickerel along my brook bank. They are predators; the bigger ones for fish, the smaller ones for aquatic worms and things of that nature. But I turned up no aquatic insects of any kind in my samples, the last one having been taken three or fours years ago.
And there were water striders, which prey on smaller things. What were they eating in the vast dead wasteland below the surface?
What the hell was down there? So the other day, lying on the brook bank pondering the fate of the republic, I saw them. There were dozens of underwater insects, dashing around eating one another and clearly, something smaller. They were the same sorts of insects the boy me used to put in aquariums and watch. I have not yet found one of the fish that eat them and which, in turn, the pickerel and herons eat, but obviously they are there. What I had I found was a lower rung of the food chain. I was thrilled and amazed. Life can come back half a century after man and his modern weapons had extinguished it.
I thought of making it a metaphor for the arrival of the Obama administration. They I realized that would make me look like an idiot, and didn’t do it.
There’s life! Against all odds, there’s life! You, go lay on the brook bank and you will find it.
Every newspaperman gets interesting letters. For example, the one dated April 26, 1971:
“Dear Mr. Jahn,
“I am writing a biography of the late singer, Janis Joplin. While talking with Jerry *****, a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, he mentioned that you had been with Janis Joplin on the night she died …”
No, I wasn't with Janis the night she died. We didn't get along nearly well enough for her to want me with her on her special night. (Besides, that night I was in England making a ham sandwich for Mama Cass.) Janis and I had a Southern Comfort and Coke one time, her cough syrup-like drink, and that was one thing I don't care to do again (ever try one?) And I did see what Janis looked like first thing in the morning one time, hung over, in desperate need of makeup, a comb, coffee and, um, well, Clearasil, clumping down a motel corridor wearing a scowl and a cotton housecoat with little pink flowers on it.
But hell, it was at Woodstock, or near Woodstock at any rate, and we all looked a little raggedy-assed. Apparently unaware that it's wrong to collar critics before their morning coffee to ask their opinions, she asked what I thought of her new band ... the first post-Big Brother and the Holding Company band. This was the band that she told me, during the Southern Comfort and Coke, that she wanted to name "Janis and the Jackoffs."
I was stupid enough to tell her that I thought they were a little so-so. Very un-Janis-like, she sniffed "Well, that goes to show how much some people know!" and huffed off, housecoat flying. I felt a bit let down. Janis's reputation for being a barroom bad girl should have endowed her with more substantial epithets.
Jeez, Louise, can you just imagine what Courtney Love would say?
Within months Janis agreed that "the Jackoffs" lived up to the name she wanted to call them. She dumped them and formed a new backup band. A year after Woodstock, Janis came to town backed by Full Tilt Boogie. I loved them and said so in the Times.
There is a greater lesson here. Janis was a prime example of not knowing what you’re good at. Janis was a great barroom blues shouter. But there were lots of those, slightly floozy babes who sang blues and rock. Just not in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. What made Janis unique was the band she became famous fronting, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
They were the ur-San Francisco psychedelic band. They were loud and messy, all fuzz tones and feedback and they were beyond loud, they were deafening. They were, let’s be honest about it, not very good. Lead guitarist James Gurley once inspired the line, in Rolling Stone I imagine, “Eric Clapton may be the best guitarist in the world and James Gurley may be the worst, but …” And the writer went on to tout the value of wild emotion and balls. Clapton was controlled. Gurley never heard the word. It would have done him no good. He was sleeping with Janis.
There were lots of psychedelic bands in San Francisco in 1967 and thereabouts. What Big Brother did to secure their place in history was hire a wild blues shouter, Janis Joplin, at a time when “chick singers” were in the Grace Slick mold. Cool and unemotional. What worked for Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin was the contrast. It was amazing, jaw dropping. The boys would play a bit of ear-shattering psychedelic rock and then Janis would come on, singing a chorus of barroom blues. She was hot and lured the audience in, and then the guitarists would come back and nail the audience against the back wall with fuzz and feedback. It was awesome.
So what did Janis do when she became famous enough to ditch Big Brother? She hired a mediocre blues rock backing band, the never- named Jackoffs. When that didn’t work, she hired a good blues backing band, Full Tilt Boogie. And what was she then, a barroom blues singer with a great band. She had no idea what she was good at it. For my money, she never rose to the level of her early San Francisco days.
Listen to “Ball and Chain,” the signature tune on Big Brother’s “Cheap Thrills.” Then listen to her later butchery of “Me and Bobby McGee,” clearly the worst version of that song ever recorded (the best was by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, aka Elliott Adnopoz, son of a Brooklyn doctor). Of course Janis’s is the one everyone remembers.
You have to know what you’re good at. If you can’t figure it out yourself, ask around. You’re probably unemployed now, so find what turns you on and do it. “Follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said when he wasn’t feeding George Lucas story lines.
I remember the day that Mr. Spock gave my son a Tribble.
It was 1975 or early 1976. I know because the magazine I was writing for folded soon after. Not with any help from me, I like to think.
The rag may have folded thanks to new owners, who came into town from one of the flyover states and wanted to make a dramatic entrance into the Big Apple.
-- They decided to symbolically “kill” the old magazine so as to replace it with the new. They produced a tiny coffin and had the staff – except those writers and editors who were horrified and refused to participate – drive nails into it, “burying” the copy of the old rag inside. Among them was the poor old owner, teary eyed, whose family had run it since the 1930s.
--Installed a time clock next to the reception desk. The entire editorial department refused to use it, and the new owner was forced to forget the thing.
--Brought in one of those Rotary Club motivational speakers, who got the editorial staff together and delivered a lecture on how to motivate those who reported to us. Not one of us had someone reporting to him or her. Not one.
So the new rag soon folded, perhaps landing in a coffin adjacent to the old. Right after that my ass was kicked down the stairs for asking if the rumor that you could buy your way onto the front cover for $5000 was true. So much for my career planning skills. And I was still disgusted with them for the coffin thing. The mag went under, but not before Mr. Spock gave my son a Tribble.
Here’s what happened. After I stopped covering rock for a living I spent a few years covering TV and interviewing its stars. I got to know Gene Roddenberry, and as I recall became about the only reporter who thought that this man had a prayer in the world of resurrecting his dead TV show. Also, we both sailed and he invited me to go out on his 35’ foot boat, a small offshore ocean racer.
Roddenberry was obsessed with boats. True Trekkers are advised to rent "The Enemy Below," the 1950s battle of wits between an American destroyer and a German submarine, and prepare to have their jaws dropped.
I got his home phone number and the offer to call anytime. I never did, so he may have given me the number of a phone booth, but I doubt it. I got some good Star Trek stories that I will get around to another day.
It occurred to me quite recently that I had gotten to be friends with the creator of Star Trek and never once said, “Gene, if you ever need a writer …”
Don’t ask me about career management.
Unconnected with Roddenberry, one day my five- or six-year-old son, a fanatic about the series, and I wandered into a store called the Federation Outpost. It was in Midtown, East 53rd maybe. There, wearing a deerstalker hat, smoking one of those pipes that bend like the plumbing beneath the sink, and a cloak was Leonard Nimoy.
He was in town preparing to take over the role of Sherlock Holmes in a touring company. Playing Holmes was a staple of his theatrical career going back before he became our favorite Vulcan. You see the resemblance, of course. Both Spock and Holmes were cold, logical, possessive of encyclopedic knowledge, analytical, and a tad smug.
The fact that Spock dressed up as Holmes and tried to look inconspicuous in a store dedicated to selling Star Trek merch is worthy of several doctoral dissertations. Nonetheless he pulled it off. No one recognized him. Except my son and me.
I introduced myself as a journalist and a friend of Gene’s. We talked for quite a while, mostly about his love of the stage and about Holmes. I didn’t like to ask obvious questions. What Trek question would I ask him, what was warp speed like? Did the ears give you a rash? Did you ever do Uhura? We liked one another, and he reached into a barrel of Tribbles that the owner swore were the real thing from the show, and bought my son one for $10. He still has it.
This yarn is apropos of nothing except that I will try to see the new Star Trek movie this weekend. Maybe my son, now four days shy of 39, will come with me. Maybe he will bring his Tribble and the three of us will munch popcorn and see how it all began.
Said comedian David Steinberg about the event that we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this summer, “if Woodstock was held 5,000 years ago it would today be celebrated as a Jewish holiday.”
Maybe he said 3,000 years. It doesn’t matter. His point is that half a million people sitting in the rain and mud listening to distant thunder certainly is worth eventual celebration with cold fish cakes and horseradish.
My sound bite for this milestone in cultural history was that “Woodstock was the senior prom of the sixties.” After that, cruel fate forced us all to grow up. I plan to offer my own thoughts and experiences in the handful of months to come. I will make you all sick of it. Be warned. I covered it for the Times. We can be insufferable.
One thing the "Woodstock Nation" propagandists left out of the travel brochures is that when you get half a million people braving a downpour to play in the mud of an immense cow pasture while the vaguely heard thump of a rhythm section pounds in the distance like thunder in the next county, what they are playing in ain't exactly "mud." The gee-whiz writers for Look, Time, Newsweek, and God-knows-how-many other mainstream media sources left out the contribution made by the cows. I guess they thought it was more acceptable to Mom and Pop to know that their half-naked children were playing mud pies and not something more lasting (it's damned hard to get pregnant or infected with a colorful disease when there's mud and ... well, think "moo" ... being shoved into your orifices).
Nothing much of an intelligent nature was being said at Woodstock, either. Bill Graham notably remarked that one way to keep the gatecrashers out was to surround the place with a moat filled with burning oil. Wavy Gravy was, oh my. I sat down under a soggy tent at the base of the hill where the helicopters were coming and going, carrying rock stars and reporters, and had a beer alongside Jerry Garcia. We had a typical sixties conversation:
And we finished our beers in silence watching someone play. I don't remember who it was, and like so many of the rockers I knew at that period in history, Jerry's not here to jog my memory.
What shall we make of Woodstock? I hated it at first. It was wet and cold and smelly and there was nothing to eat save for warm beer and stale donuts; the portable toilets were overflowing and there was nowhere to relieve yourself except the woods. Now, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the woods and by the stream, and am fearless about using nature as my toilet. However, it's not the sort of thing expected of New York Times writers, even werewolves like me. With the press badge came certain responsibilities. One is to avoid laying a loaf in front of half a million people.
At the time, I hated it, I said. So did the editorial page people at The Times. Then they reversed course and opined about how wonderful the whole thing was. For three days in a cow pasture in slightly upstate New York, there was the equivalent of the third largest city in New York State and there were no murders, was no crime ... well, okay, I hear you ... nothing but peace, love, music, and a mud amalgam being ground into your assorted holes.
No cops to speak of, but let’s not get picky.
But about three days after the three days of peace, love, whatever were over, I realized that I had attended a certified event. There was a lot of good music, for those who got close enough to hear it, of course. My personal favorite was a nighttime set by the otherwise despicable Sly Stone and his "Family." I'll get around to him one, other than to say that Sly and the Family Stone's performance of "I Want to Take You Higher," with audience members throwing sparklers into the air, was absolutely sensational. Nobody said you have to be a decent human being to make great music.
There were other moments, to be sure. Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Band. Jefferson Airplane, sure. Richie Havens, a friend from the East Village, his festival-opening marathon set is rightly famous. Sha Na Na, fellow fixtures on the Columbia campus who did some early harmonizing in my living room on 113th Street near the methadone clinic and drug building, were good. Independent film distributor and genial soul Richard Lorber lived in the apartment next door, and we flew into Woodstock alongside Joe Cocker in a National Guard helicopter.
Joan Baez, who I sat next to a year and a half before in the front row of the Yippie press conference at which Abbie Hoffman announced plans to demonstrate outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, sang. I didn't see Jimi, because as I recall I was off being huffed at by Janis while he was rewriting "The Star Spangled Banner." And there was the never-to-happen-again chance to have a conversation with Jerry.
Come to think of it, how did festival-goers get dry matches with which to light the sparklers? How did I lose anything resembling dry paper to write on and, thus, was forced to do some classic reportorial stunt writing? I ad libbed a "new top" --in that case, the first five paragraphs of an existing story. I wrote it in my head and dictated it over the phone line straight to the transcriber in Times Square, and it went into the paper without change. Said Dick Shepard, my editor and the paper's designated werewolf trainer, "that means you're a professional."
Thanks, I thought. Can the next gig be someplace dry?