Disclosing My Biases
Look. I’m a city girl. I have spent most of my life living in cities. I spent four years in an L. A. burb while going to college and it felt like I was marooned on a desert island. Except for a few days last year on the Canary Islands, all my vacations during my adult years have centered around big cities. I love the noise, the smells, the sounds, the people, the nightlife, the culture, the food, the crowding, the energy of the metropolis. I like opening my door in the morning and feeling I’m right there in the center of it all. If I get the rare urge to do nature, I’ll take a walk in a manicured city park, head for the baseball stadium (most have grass and dirt, you know) or make for the seashore (assuming they have the proper facilities and a bar).
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate nature. I fully understand how the destruction of the Amazon rain forests contribute to global warming. I want all the animals in Africa to receive full protection from selfish, greedy humans. I love my natural, cruelty-free cosmetics. I just want nature to stay over there, away from me, and leave me in civilized peace.
I did nature once. Once in my teens, my father had the gall to take me camping, an act for which I will never forgive him as long as I live.
We arrived at the campsite on a Friday night after a 6-hour, traffic-clogged drive across the Golden Gate and through the main roads and backroads of Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. All the while my father serenaded me with tales of lovely meadows brimming with wildflowers and butterflies, the sublime experience of sleeping under the stars and how much better food tasted when consumed in the great outdoors. “You mean like the hot dogs at Candlestick?” I asked, searching for a frame of reference. “Even better,” he assured me, finishing off his Disney-esque sales pitch.
We pulled into the state park, checked in with the rangers, drove a little bit further and found our reserved campsite just as it was getting dark. My father got out of the car and inhaled the fog-cooled air filled with scent of redwoods. “Ah, fresh air! Nothing like it to rejuvenate a man’s soul!”
“Whatever, dad,” I said, lighting a cigarette.
He grabbed a flashlight, surveyed the grounds, kicked some dirt around, then marched purposely over to the trunk and pulled out a couple of sleeping bags. “We’ll sleep over there. There’s a clearing in the trees and we can fall asleep watching the night sky. Look at all those stars!”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that we’re sleeping on the ground?”
“Well, yeah, sunshine, that’s what you do when you’re camping.”
“You want me to sleep on the dirt? On the filthy dirt? Where all the bugs and worms and snakes crawl around? Where all the animals piss and shit?”
“You’re not sleeping on the dirt. You’ll be in a sleeping bag and the sleeping bag will be on a tarp. There aren’t any snakes around here.”
“But what about the worms? I don’t want to wake up with worms crawling through my ears! And what about the bugs? Bugs can fly! Are you insane?”
“I brought some bug spray. Come on, it’ll be fun! You’ll sleep like a baby!”
“You’re a maniac! I’m sleeping in the car.”
I grabbed a sleeping bag, jumped into the back seat and locked all the doors to protect myself against ravenous carnivores. Then I lulled myself to sleep by fantasizing about turning my father over to the authorities on charges of child abuse. The next morning I awoke to a knocking sound and saw the soon-to-be convict outside, holding a steaming cup. I rolled down the window and the smell of fresh coffee tickled my nose.
“Is that real coffee?” I said, hopefully.
“Yep. Here you go.” I opened the window a bit more and let him hand me a cup of coffee in a plastic mug. I started to take a sip and there, floating on the surface was a fat, disgusting bug doing the backstroke. I screamed at the top of my lungs, threw the cup and its contents out the window, then rolled up the window as far as the crank would go to protect myself from any bug buddies who wanted to avenge the death of their comrade.
My dad tried to get me to eat some bacon and eggs he’d cooked up on a Coleman stove but I shook my head violently through the sealed windows. After a while, I was finally coaxed to munch on a granola bar and drink some bottled orange juice after diligently inspecting both packages for any signs of illicit insect entry.
Later in the morning he led me on a hike on one of the park trails. I spent the entire time in a state of near panic, my ears filled with the horrible buzzing of predatory insects, my hands and face sticky from the disgusting spider webs that crossed the path, my shoes caked with slightly moistened, shit-infested dirt. We eventually arrived at a clearing where my dad stopped to take some nature pictures. I looked around and a few yards away from me I saw some birds picking at something on the ground. I moved a little closer and found they were breakfasting on the fly-covered brains of a squirrel who had gone to meet his maker.
I screamed, ran like lightning back towards the campsite, tripped on a rock and wound up twisting my ankle. Dad carried me back to our campsite and calmed my hysterics by cracking open a bottle of Jack Daniels he’d stuffed in his backpack. I don’t usually care for whisky, but at that moment, Jack Daniels tasted like manna from heaven. After a few belts and a couple of cigarettes, I had nearly recovered my sanity. While I was recovering from the terrors of nature, dad loaded the trunk, and after wrapping my ankle in an Ace bandage and helping me into the car, he started the engine and soon we were speeding away from the heart of darkness and back towards civilization.
So . . . when I think about 300,000 people who willingly spent three days on a dairy farm, eating and sleeping in rain, mud and cowshit, swimming in scummy ponds and then fucking each other with microbes and bacteria all over their bodies . . . just to hear pathetic bands like Country Joe & The Fish, The Incredible String Band and Crosby, Stills & Nash . . . I think they had to be the dumbest fucking people who ever lived. I wouldn’t have gone to Woodstock if you had filled me with enough acid that I couldn’t tell my tits from my elbows and the bill had featured The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and a resurrected Buddy Holly.
Now that I have fully disclosed my biases, let’s explore the album that allegedly documented the “seminal event of the 1960’s.”
In preparation for this review, I watched the extended documentary, had my dad play the original vinyl version while gathering my parents’ impressions and listened to the latest CD version with “such good sound quality.” For balance, I also listened to the grand satire of the event, National Lampoon’s Lemmings. I scoured the Internet for articles, memoirs and press coverage. I also refreshed my memory on the historical events preceding and following Woodstock as well as various myths that were prominent in the era so I could put the album in its proper context.
I have to partially commend Gene Sculatti, the author of the liner notes for the CD release for admitting that what you hear on Woodstock is not pure documentary. The cricket-chirping and the rainstorm are fake. The audience on The Fuck Cheer was dubbed in. The live performance of “Sea of Madness” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was recorded at Fillmore East.
I can only partially commend Sculatti because when he starts writing about the music, he perceives everything through the nostalgic lens of an aging baby-boomer (who also happened to write for Rolling Stone). All the music was great. Pathetic performances are transformed into moments of legend and lore. He also fails to question the underlying ethos of the hippie movement, but that is hardly surprising. If you objectively attempt to answer the question, “What was the primary characteristic of the hippie movement?” the only possible answer is “the complete denial of reality.”
We’ll go into that topic in more detail throughout the review and in an interview with my parents at the end of this post, but for now . . . the music awaits.
John Sebastian, “I Had a Dream”: Woodstock is not a chronological record of the event; Sebastian didn’t appear until day two. It would have been better for the audience if he hadn’t shown up at all. The “dream theme” of the 1960’s is regurgitated here in a sappy piece of hippie tripe. Sculatti makes a lame attempt to link this silly song to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, calling it “poignantly anachronistic” in the classic style of a pompous ass from Rolling Stone. The most revealing aspect of the song is the mythological reference in the first verse:
I had a dream last night
What a lovely dream it was
I dreamed we all were alright
Happy in a land of Oz
The Wizard of Oz was the dominant myth for millions of Baby Boomer children, particularly in the United States. Unlike today where we can stream any movie any time we want, The Wizard of Oz appeared on television only once per year, and at least half the families in the USA tuned in for the fun. It was publicized as a special, a term that really meant something back then. And what did all these future denizens of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock learn from The Wizard of Oz? That all you needed to show people you were smart was a diploma. That all you needed to show people you that you cared was to carry a tchotchke that symbolized love. That all you needed to show people you had courage was a medal. It didn’t matter at all that you received these gifts from a wizard who proved to be a complete fraud. All that mattered was validation from a source that was generally accepted by the public as a credible source of recognition. And how did our heroine make it back to Kansas? Glenda the Good Witch told her that she had the power all along, so she clicked her red slippers three times and in seconds she had the thing she wanted most. If you believe hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If we all believe it, it must be true.
So while Dorothy made it back home to eventually fulfill her destiny as a farmer’s wife, the scarecrows went to college to get their diplomas, the lions went to Nam or joined the National Football League to earn their battle scars, and the tin men wore beads and peace symbols and became the flower children. And they all adopted the philosophy that if you believe hard enough, all your dreams will come true; if we all believe it, it must be true. And if things don’t work out, hey, life’s a dream!
Such a ludicrous philosophy is what made it possible for 300,000 people to believe that camping in the mud for three days and nights was like a trip to the magical land of Oz.
Canned Heat, “Going Up the Country”: After the fake crickets, Canned Heat takes the virtual stage. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s voice is completely shot, his falsetto cracking while the notes he tries to hit remain as elusive as world peace. Henry Vestine supports the effort with a lead solo that begins frightfully out of tune. I keep waiting for the gunshot from Lemmings to put these people out of their misery. The song fades into more fake crickets and the sounds of setting up the venue: trucks, hammering, men shouting, light crowd buzz. We get the first announcement, the famous “brown acid” warning: “It’s suggested that you do stay away from that—of course, it’s your own trip, so be my guest.” The gentleman who made that announcement probably holds a high position in the Food and Drug Administration today. A sound check guy shows that he’s making the scene by repeating “number nine, number nine, number nine” to test the mikes. Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Richie Havens, “Freedom”: “Let’s welcome Mr. Richie Havens,” intones the emcee. That’s another wrinkle in time, for Richie responds by playing the last song of his set.
Richie Havens must have been a really nice guy. The morons who “planned” the festival couldn’t get the next act to Yasgur’s Farm on time, so Richie had to play . . . and play . . . and play. He played so long he ran out of songs, so he ended this set with this improvisation based on the spiritual, “Motherless Child.” Given that context, his performance is one of the more remarkable efforts of the entire weekend. He begins tentatively, stops to tune his guitar (one of the few musicians who performed that act at Woodstock), finds a chord and rhythm he likes, patiently instructs the sound tech to adjust the guitar mike and then . . . away we go. He belts this sucker out with such absolute confidence that you’re convinced he’s played the song a thousand times before. Richie is so in touch with himself that he uses varied intonation on the word “freedom” to uncover multiple meanings: sometimes it’s a shout for freedom, other times a frustrated plea, and on one occasion it sounds like he’s pondering its deeper meaning. His only mistake was to urge the crowd to clap their hands, for what he gets in return is the acoustic equivalent of defective time-lapse photography. The film shows him exiting the stage still playing and mouthing some words, probably something like, “These dumb white motherfuckers couldn’t plan a birthday party for a five-year old with no friends.”
Country Joe & The Fish, “Rock and Soul Music”: Man, I need to clean up my karma or something. I thought I’d gotten rid of these bastards in my review of Electric Music for the Mind and Body. Well, here they are again, and they’re going to give us “a little taste of something we call rock-and-soul music,” covering two genres in which they are completely incompetent. The only virtue of this song is that lasts less than two minutes. It ends with a shout of “Marijuana!” This proves to be an allegedly clever way to introduce the next performer and his wretched offering.
Arlo Guthrie, “Coming into Los Angeles.”: I asked my dad once, “Is there any song in your vast collection that you never, ever want to hear again?” He answered immediately and without hesitation. “‘Coming into Los Angeles’ by Arlo Guthrie. That song came out and every asshole with an acoustic guitar learned it and played it over and over and over again. You couldn’t walk three blocks in any direction in San Francisco without hearing the damn thing.” The news that this song actually achieved some level of popularity was a disturbing piece of information indeed. Explicitly designed to exploit the stoner market, this has to be one of the worst songs ever conceived, and Arlo Guthrie proves conclusively that he is no chip off the old block with his exaggerated, crowd-pandering, chit-chat (lingo italicized):
“Hey, it’s far out, man. I don’t you know if you, uh—I don’t know like how many of you can dig how many people there are, man. Like I was rappin’ to the fuzz, right, can you dig it? Man, there’s supposed to be a million and a half people here by tomorrow night. Can you dig that? New York State Thruway’s closed, man! (Laughs.) Yeah . . . lotta freaks!
I asked my dad if people back then really talked like that and he said, “Only the phonies.”
Sha Na Na, “At the Hop”: An amateurishly despicable performance of a rock ‘n’ roll classic by a group of musical entrepreneurs looking for a market niche. The lead singer doesn’t even try to initiate Danny’s classically nasal Philly accent. Bunch of fucking clowns.
Country Joe McDonald, “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag”: Goddamn it all to hell! This guy is really starting to irk me, and I don’t like being irked! The track opens with The Fake Fuck Cheer, and then the last guy to leave the party still wants to sing us one more song on his fucking gee-tar. The song sounds weak in comparison to the studio version, but it’s probably Country Joe’s masterpiece, relatively speaking. The problem with it is that it’s a novelty song, and once you’ve heard all the punch lines, there really isn’t any reason to hear it again. The crowd at Woodstock apparently felt the same way, responding limply to Country Joe’s attempt to turn the experience into a singalong. This really irks Country Joe, and after three wimpy verses he chastises the children like an old foul-mouthed schoolmarm: “Listen, people, I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that. There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there! I want you to start singin’! Come on!” We’re in the land of Oz again, folks, where you can stop wars just by singing along with good ol’ Country Joe. Why, I’ll bet ol’ Tricky Dick heard those voices all the way down in Washington D. C. and called the whole thing off! Let me check the history books . . . nah.
Joan Baez and some New Left loser named Jeffrey Shurtleff, “Drugstore Truck Driving Man” and “Joe Hill”: Oh, man oh man oh man. Can you dig it? There’s actually someone in the world I find more irksome than Country Joe and that is the sanctimonious Joan Baez. Her voice communicates such ideological purity that I want to scream every time I hear it. The two-song set opens with the astonishing claim from Shurtleff hat the draft resistance movement was “different than other movements and revolutions in this country in that we have no enemies.” What? I was born over a decade after this and even I knew how all those people who voted for Nixon and Wallace felt about draft dodgers. And right now I just typed in “Carter draft amnesty” into Google and the first result was a link to the History Channel page titled “Carter Pardons Draft Dodgers.” Everything I’ve read about the New Left is that they were arrogant pricks who thought they had all the answers, but I didn’t think they were that naïve. We’re now treated to a duet between the two purists that I suppose is sort of a satiric protest song, but it’s pretty obvious that it was written with a sledgehammer. Then Saint Joan takes center stage and waxes lyrical about her New Left hubbie, David Harris, who had spent his recent stretch in the hoosegow organizing a hunger strike among the prisoners. She is so proud of her little man! Shit, any idiot could organize a hunger strike in a fucking prison—you think they serve those guys Chateaubriand every night? Saint Joan then drags out the hoary “Joe Hill,” a song about the legendary organizer of the early 20th century who was wiped out by the copper barons. The song asserts that Joe never dies, a phenomenon that fits right into the entire Oz mythology. The song also works in Oz because it completely ignores the cold reality that labor unions of the postwar era were noted more for their corrupt leaders than their efforts on behalf of the working stiff.
Saint Joan in bed with Jimmy Hoffa. Imagine that. Could have been another Jack Nicholson-Anjelica Huston matchup.
Crosby, Stills, Nash (and a little bit of Young, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Sea of Madness,” “Wooden Ships”: CSNY is where hippies went to die, especially those who still thought the dream was still alive after the political slaughter (both literal and at the polls) of 1968. My dad still has their records and he knows that if he ever plays one in my presence I will immediately pack my bags and leave. Here they open with that ludicrous ode to that lacy lilting lady losing love lamenting Judy Collins, and Stills’ guitar and voice are laughingly out of tune. Graham Nash hits his spots, but I’ve never known what the hell David Crosby does or why. Neil Young’s piece, “Sea of Madness,” lifted lazily from Fillmore East, is played like they had a flight to catch. The best line in “Wooden Ships” is “We are leaving: you don’t need us.” Amen to that, brother!
The Who, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: Apparently The Who performed all of Tommy at Woodstock, so I should be very thankful that only the last five minutes are included on this record. All I can say is that the performance is much better in the movie with Daltrey’s muscles flexing through the fringe of his costume as he raises his arms to the heavens. In still pictures, his costume looks fucking ridiculous, and as for the quality of the audio-only version . . . well, folks, let me give you a tip. When you’re going to sing something, it’s a really bad mistake to miss that first note by a mile and a half. The rest of the performance sounds like The Who are very, very tired, and they probably were.
After The Who leave the stage, we’re treated to a couple of stage announcements, the most important of which is the announcement that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair is now a free concert. The announcement reveals that the hippies were not as enlightened as they claimed to be:
This is one thing that . . . I was going to wait awhile before we talked about it, but maybe we’ll talk about it now so you can think about it, because you all—we all—have to make some kinds of plans for ourselves. It’s a free concert from now on. That doesn’t mean that anything goes—what that means is we’re going to put the music up here for free. Now, let’s face the situation: we’ve had thousands and thousands of people come here today. Many, many more than even knew or dreamt or thought would be possible. We’re gonna need each other to help each other to work this out because we’re taxing the systems that we have set up. We’re going to be bringing the food in. But the one major thing you have to remember tonight when you go back up into the woods to go to sleep or if you stay here—is that the man next to you is your brother and you damn well better treat each other that way because if we don’t, we blow the whole thing, but we’ve got it, right there.
I had no idea that Woodstock was a stag party. Well, at least it was in one asshole’s mind.
Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help from My Friends”: My dad confirmed my suspicions that John Belushi completely destroyed Joe Cocker as a credible performer. “Before Belushi did his thing, Cocker’s version of ‘Little Help from My Friends’ was considered one of the great masterpieces of the decade, right up there with ‘A Day in the Life.'” I tried to get my head around that while I listened to this piece three times, hoping to magically transport myself back into that era and really try to hear the magic that the listeners of the time heard in this cover. I do think the arrangement is very clever, dispensing with the jaunty beat in the verses of the original for a more majestic, dramatic feel. And in the first couple of verses, Cocker’s not bad at all. It’s only as he starts to feel it that he begins to sound like Frankenstein hit by a bolt of lightning. I watched the film and saw no evidence of foaming at the mouth, but I sure as shit can hear it. He sounds like a madman with a splintered stick up his ass.
At the end of this track is one of the more Oz-like moments: the rainstorm. “Hey, if we think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” If we close our eyes and click our heels, we’ll be back home in Kansas.
Because the LP ran out of room, the rainstorm sequence continues for three minutes into the next track. You’ll definitely want to skip those three minutes, where the lemmings are deeply engaged in a rain chant. Due to the mental limitations of the participants, the “melody” is only one-fourth of the pattern of “Land of 1000 Dances.” The drumming is classic beach-bongo quality, and some idiot has to pull out a kazoo towards the end. This kazoo player is quite a show-off, replicating the five-note melody in two different octaves. What a fucking genius.
Santana, “Soul Sacrifice”: Omigod. Is that a musician I hear? One who can really play? Omigod! It is! Carlos, I could suck your cock right now, buddy! Pull it out and show me what you’ve got! Okay, now that we’ve dispensed with your touch of erotica for the day, I will simply state that the difference between Santana and all the acts who preceded them is as wide as the evolutionary difference between the human and the paramecium. They’re tight, they’re tuned-up and they’re on fire. Santana’s appearance at Woodstock, occasioned by besting It’s a Beautiful Day in a coin flip, was timed to coincide with the release of their first album. While I can admire the perfect timing of a product release, what’s more impressive is how musically superior they are to the big names surrounding them on the bill. It’s not even close.
After Carlos and crew exit the stage, we have one of the most insightful announcements of them all: the reading of The New York Times. Counterculture my ass: these people cared a great deal about what The Establishment thought of them. You can’t get any more Establishment than The New York Times!
Okay, okay. Okay people, we got The Times! Okay. On the front page, you have on the left, a very big aerial photo of a huge mass of people, which are YOU and it says, “Music was the magic for throngs at Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Towers near the stage hold large figures. 300,000 at folk rock fair camp out in a sea of mud.” (Laughs, cheers.) Dig it, dig it . . . Despite massive traffic jams, drenching thunderstorms, shortages of food, water, medical facilities, about 300,000 young people swarmed over this rural area today for The Woodstock Music and Art Fair. At the prospect of drugs and the excitement of making the scene, the young people came in droves, camping in the woods, romping in the mud, talking, smoking and listening to (unintelligible) music. Quote: “Participants well-behaved!”
After all that talk of revolution against their pig parents, they were still desperate for their approval. See how well-behaved I am, daddy?
Ten Years After, “I’m Goin’ Home”: Here I have a bias in response to bias. Alvin Lee is a fucking homophobe, and as a half-homo I find him intensely offensive. The first verse of “I’d Love to Change the World” sends me into a near-violent tizzy:
Everywhere is freaks and hairies
Dykes and fairies
Tell me where is sanity?
And here he is at the center of history’s largest love-in. I guess “try to love one another right now” only applied to heterosexuals. Fuck him.
Even if he weren’t a queer-baiting asshole, I also loathe his guitar style, which is histrionic in the extreme. It was guys like Alvin Lee who set the stage for guitar queens like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Who gives a shit about who is the “fastest guitar player in the world?” Speed isn’t everything, people. If you’re a guy, do you really want to be known as the fastest fuck in the world?
Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers”: If there’s one performance at Woodstock that conclusively proves that the hippies couldn’t put two and two together, it’s this one. Abandoning the superb melodies and harmonies of Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane transformed themselves into the house band for The Weather Underground. The album Volunteers is full of Marxian, manifesto-like declarations about how “we” are going to take the fight to the streets and overthrow the pigs, as we hear in this not-very-stirring call to action:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet
got a revolution got to revolution
One generation got old
One generation got soul
Translation: our parents won’t let us stay up past bedtime, so we’re going to start a revolution! We’ll turn nouns into verbs! That will show them!
Putting aside the sheer childishness of the message, did anybody wonder why a big, capitalistic, establishment-oriented record company like RCA Victor would agree to release a record threatening an anarchist overthrow of The United States of America? Answer, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Despite its controversies, the album was a commercial success, becoming the band’s fourth top twenty hit record and went gold within two months of its release.” Revolution was the Florida Land Boom of the 60’s!
The one good thing about this sloppily-performed piece of radical bullshit is that it gave The National Lampoon the line that inspired a satiric masterpiece: “Come on now, we’re marching to the sea.” Go, lemmings, go!
Sly and the Family Stone, “Medley”: A melange of “Dance to the Music,” “Hey Music Lover” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” this is another high point of the weekend, no pun intended. My curious indifference to the album Stand! is easily explained by what you hear on Woodstock. Free from the boundaries of the studio where Sly can’t get his hands on the latest technological gimmick, The Family Stone lets it rip in the great outdoors with ten times the energy and intensity of their studio work. There’s no question that Sly’s decision to spur a crowd of 300,000 drug users to shout out “HIGHER!” at the top of their lungs was the ultimate no-brainer (pun intended), but it’s still a very exciting passage—almost too exciting, for when they begin to play the song proper, there is a noticeable decline in kilowatt output. Sly’s vocals on this track are clearly superior to anything he ever did in the studio: he’s got the feel and he’s got the chops.
John Sebastian, “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”: Why a guy who had shot his wad as far back as 1966 got two slots on the Woodstock album is anybody’s guess, but this performance does have the virtue of introducing a supporting hypothesis to the Oz theory: that Woodstock was an experience for children who refused to grow up. Prior to the annual showings of The Wizard of Oz, the Broadway version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin in the title role was broadcast as an NBC special in 1955 and 1956, attracting record numbers of viewers. Perhaps Sebastian was watching, because here he certainly sounds like he’s flying on something, or living in an alternative reality:
“Wow. Far around! Far DOWN! Far UP! You’re truly amazing, you’re a whole city. And it’s so GROOVY to come here and see all of you people living in tents. A cloth house is all you need if you’ve got love. [reviewer’s note: I gagged here.] I’ll tell you . . . could I get a little bit of water . . . Hey, uh, I don’t know, you know, I don’t know how I could come much harder right now, but I’d like to sing you one little song, I’d like to sing you a song, actually I’d like to dedicate it to—there’s a cat and I really don’t even know his name but I remember that the chick said that uh, that uh, his old lady just had a baby and that made me think, wow, it really is a city here. But this is, this is for you and your old lady, man and whew! That kid’s gonna be far out.”
“Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it,” wrote J. M. Barrie. Well, not in this case. There is no credible evidence that any babies were born at Woodstock. The Daily Mail reported that there were eight miscarriages. CBS reported that after forty years, no one has come forward with a credible story that he or she is the Woodstock Baby, despite the incalculable financial opportunity of such an association.
Butterfield Blues Band, “Love March”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Butterfield’s band also appears post-peak, and to rub their faces in the mud, the producers of this record allotted them this embarrassing attempt at crowd motivation.
Jimi Hendrix, “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Purple Haze,” “Instrumental Solo”: Another “legendary performance” ends our slog through the muck and mire of Woodstock. Jimi didn’t appear until Monday, after most of the crowd had either gone home, entered hospitals or gotten themselves busted. He tells the waning minions they can go home if they want, and that “we’re just jamming,” so the first couple of minutes are rather dull. Interest is piqued when he starts to play that horrible melody of Francis Scott Key, and various savants have speculated as to what was running through Jimi’s mind when he chose to play this particular number at the “seminal event.” The hippie obsession with connecting everything to some larger meaning or conspiracy is operating here, but Jimi denied any nefarious motive. When Dick Cavett asked Jimi if he thought his rendition was “blasphemous,” he replied in utter simplicity, “I thought it was beautiful.” That’s what it sounds like to me: a guitarist fascinated with the music he’s playing. As he plays the melody, he is also thinking of the lyrics as he goes, so he uses his mastery of guitar effects to create the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. I think it’s one of the most interesting interpretations of a fundamentally rotten song that I have ever heard. The rest of Jimi’s performance is pedestrian at best.
Looking Back with My Flower-Child Parents
ARC: So, I want to confirm for my readers that you were indeed Flower Children, that you went to love-ins and be-ins, hung out in the Haight, spent weekends at Fillmore West, did drugs, burned incense, all the usual stuff.
DAD: Guilty as charged.
MAMAN: You forgot the headband. I loved my headbands!
ARC: Excuse the oversight. So, when it begin to dawn on you that the whole thing was bullshit?
MAMAN: (Arching her eyes.) I take it that this is not to be an unbiased interview. (Daughter hangs head in shame.) I never took it that seriously in the first place, the change-the-world idea. It was more about personal liberation for me. I would say that some of what happened made me feel hopeful for a while, but I lost that feeling after the assassinations. It took your father much longer to give up the dream.
DAD: Yeah, that’s true. I was a little down after Nixon won, but there was still a war to end, and I was still a card-carrying member of the SDS. I think my disillusionment began with the ’69 convention and the split with The Weathermen, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would take them seriously. I mean, The Red Guard in the U. S. A? I still believed we could change the system, so I didn’t really get it until McGovern got creamed.
ARC: That’s one long period of denial. The evidence shows that your generation was one of the most ineffective in history; you guys really were “King Midas in Reverse.” Everything you touched produced the opposite of your intentions. Look at the timeline. 1964: LBJ, running on a clearly socialist platform, wins with 61% of the vote. 1966: only 42% of Americans supported the death penalty. 1967: enter the hippies with The Summer of Love and an anti-war movement that was starting to gain traction. 1968: All three of the presidential candidates supported the war. In the general election, the right-wing candidates collected 57% of the vote.
DAD: Don’t remind me. I remember waking up one morning and one of the polls—Harris or Gallup—showed Humphrey running behind Wallace. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I thought the world had gone insane.
ARC: The war didn’t end for years, Americans soon began supporting the death penalty in massive numbers and The War on Poverty was transformed into whites being victimized by welfare queens. And the crime rate went through the roof. Great job, guys!
DAD: Hey, we ended the draft!
ARC: No, you didn’t. Richard Nixon ended the draft to neutralize his political opponents. Look it up!
DAD: Well, I still think we made a difference.
MAMAN: Yes, I do, too, but you have to admit we had no understanding of politics. Where we had our greatest impact was in the environmental movement.
ARC: Certainly in First World countries, yes. I also give you credit for organic food. And free love—though The Pill had a lot to do with that. But the long-term view shows that the movement was a pimple on the ass of history. You wanted to transform America into a haven of peace and today it is a paranoid country where the military are worshipped and where gun ownership rates are skyrocketing. You wanted an America of equal opportunity, and today America has a dwindling middle class and income disparity that ranks with pre-revolution France—and most of the rich are the once anti-capitalist members of the Baby Boomer generation. As for love, well, people seem to fuck a lot, so I guess that’s something.
MAMAN: You grew up in a very cynical time, so you take a very cynical view. Our generation had one thing that your generation cannot understand: we had hope.
ARC: What do you mean we don’t understand hope? Clinton and Obama sold us on hope.
MAMAN: Yes, but we had real hope, not just a campaign slogan.
ARC: And all of your heroes wound up dead.
MAMAN: And your generation has no heroes except for a few successful capitalists. You don’t have an appreciation for real hope: the belief that things can better. It is the thing that makes human progress possible. I was very sad about the assassinations, and not just because we lost two leaders who had a vision of what we could become. I was sad because I felt hopeless for a time. Hope is very important to the health of the human soul.
ARC: I don’t disagree with that, but you have to combine hope with common sense. What was the point of alienating an entire generation—your parents? Instead of trying to build bridges to the war generation, you dismissed them as hopeless. You made enemies when you would have been better off making friends.
MAMAN (sighs): Yes, yes, yes, I agree that we lacked good strategy and tactics. But at least we were trying: your generation has done nothing.
ARC: I’ll give you that one. But I do think my generation has more common sense. We know that this system is never going to produce a society of love, peace and happiness. It would take a disaster of worldwide proportions to achieve that: the whole thing would have to go up in flames. Or the aliens would have to drop in for a visit. I’m not going to spend my life waiting for Armageddon or ET to show up. I’ll work with the cards I’ve been dealt, make the best of it and let history take care of itself. Call us “the patient generation.”
DAD: You’re probably right. I think the only thing you can do now is live life honestly and try not to hurt people. The only thing we can control is ourselves, and maybe someday enough people will get it and realize that we all have to live on the same planet.
ARC: Spoken like a true child of The Sixties. “Maybe someday” should have been the 60’s tagline. Let’s talk about the music. “Spotty” is a good adjective.
DAD: There were some misses, yeah, but I think it was a lot better than you portrayed in your posts.
ARC: That’s only because I’d already done Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Odessey and Oracle, Surrealistic Pillow and Hendrix’ first. When you add those into the mix, I think I was pretty balanced. There wasn’t much I could have done with the crap that was left. I loved the spirit of experimentation, but you have to admit that too often it was like a dysfunctional science club: experimenting for the hell of it. I was very impressed with Piper at the Gates of Dawn and S. F. Sorrow.
MAMAN: I thought you were very fair. You didn’t even touch some of the worst of that era, like Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge.
DAD: Hey, they weren’t that bad!
MAMAN: You are not qualified to respond. You like everything.
DAD: Maybe it’s because I’m more open-minded than some people.
MAMAN AND ARC: Bullshit!
ARC: One more thing—did you guys ever think of going to Woodstock?
DAD: Hell, no! Travel cross-country so I could see bands I’ve already seen and would see again at The Fillmore, The Avalon and Winterland? I don’t even think I realized it was going on until that weekend.
MAMAN: If it had happened in 1967, I probably would have gone. I was up for anything then.
DAD: That’s true. Hey, that thing about your headbands made me remember the time when we were at that cabin on the Russian River and you stripped right down to—
MAMAN: Assez! This is going public! Show the proper decorum!
ARC: (Laughs.) It’s good to know that being a temp-hippie didn’t contaminate into your French soul. Thanks, old-timers!
DAD: Peace (Flashes the sign.)
I’m happy to say that Jimi Hendrix hated the cover of this album as much as I do.
Apparently there was miscommunication over the word “Indian.” Hendrix wanted something to celebrate his Native American heritage. Instead, he wound up with images of him and his mates slapped on a mass-produced poster honoring Vishnu, and joined the long list of human beings victimized by the geographical and cultural incompetence of Christopher Columbus.
I’m delighted to report that the music inside the wretched package is completely sitar-free and generally of high quality. Axis: Bold as Love may lack some of the fire of Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland, but this is still Jimi Hendrix in his too-brief prime. His vocals are exceptional, his guitar work typically superior . . . but what I love most about Axis: Bold as Love is the continuing development and diversification of his songwriting talent. It’s the quality of the songwriting that allows us to forgive Hendrix for leaving the master tapes of side one in the back of a London taxicab, requiring an emergency re-mix session to get the album out within the time limits of the recording contract. Perfectionist that he was, he probably experienced more anguish over the rushed re-mix than the putrid cover art, but the songs are so strong that the album has withstood the buffeting winds of misfortune.
That is the funniest fucking phrase I’ve ever written! “The buffeting winds of misfortune” is so awful, it’s beautiful! Wish I could say the same for the cover!
“EXP” is a suitably trippy opener for a psychedelic rock album, with Hendrix showcasing the many peculiar possibilities of guitar feedback through energetic panning. The piece starts with an interview of alien Paul Caruso on the existence of UFO’s, so the trippiness has a purpose in establishing the context for the first song, “Up from the Skies,” where Jimi plays the role of alien anthropologist. After listening to so many groove-less psychedelic records in the last few weeks, the easy groove of “Up from the Skies” made my twiddle diddle and elicited a “Fuck, yeah!” from one very happy reviewer. The rhythmic combination of Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi on wah-wah is spot-on, and Jimi’s vocal is so street-smooth that it makes it hard to believe that he was so self-conscious about his vocals that he had the engineers build a privacy barrier in the studio so no one could see him singing. His Robert Johnson-esque approach to studio vocals may have seemed weird, but it allowed him to relax and let his natural expressive tendencies shine. His phrasing on “Up from the Skies” is a masterpiece of cool tongue-in cheek that works oh-so-well with the social and environmental criticism of the lyrics:
I just want to talk to you
I won’t do you no harm
I just want to know about your diff’rent lives
On this is here people farm
I heard some of you got your families
Living in cages tall and cold
And some just stay there and dust away
Past the age of old.
Is this true ?
Please let me talk to you.
I just wanna know about
The rooms behind your minds
Do I see a vacuum there
Or am I going blind ?
Or is it just remains of vibrations
And echoes long ago ?
Things like “Love the world” and
“Let your fancy flow”
Is this true ?
Please let me talk to you.
“Spanish Castle Magic” has nothing to do with Spain but with a dance hall in Des Moines, Washington, located a few miles down the I-5 freeway from Seattle where Jimi used to play in high school. Opening with a variation of the “Purple Haze” chord attack, the highlights in this song are Jimi’s energetic, free-flowing vocal and his heavily panned guitar solos that are as hot as flowing lava. Starved for groove, I am deeply thankful that they kept it going with “Wait Until Tomorrow.” Hendrix was the master of nifty little riffs and fills, and sometimes I’ll listen to this song and shift the balance to the right channel so I can marvel at his creativity and stunning dexterity. A definite ass-shaker, “Wait Until Tomorrow” is also a playfully gritty story of a midnight elopement complete with ladder-at-window-sill that ends with daddy shooting (and possibly killing) poor Romeo. Despite the downer ending, Jimi’s jive-peppered vocal keeps the song from becoming a drag. It’s followed by the off-beat rocker “Ain’t No Telling” featuring high-energy drumming from Mitch Mitchell and some slick rhythmic variation.
“Little Wing” features Hendrix at his most melodic and poetic. The song is a tribute to his muse; the aspect of personality that Jung called the anima, the male expression of the feminine inner personality that serves as a source of creativity:
When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
The ingenuity it took to produce this tiny piece of music was typical of the psychedelic era, one of the period’s most endearing (if sometimes regrettable) qualities. The guitar is channeled through the Leslie speaker that gave Lennon his Dalai Lama voice on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but the never-satisfied Hendrix also set his pickup selector to a non-standard setting to hollow out the sound and remove unwanted overtones. Stumbling across a glockenspiel in an adjacent studio, he instinctively threw it into the mix, adding a gentle touch of sweetness that reflects his perception of his muse. His vocal was also heavily processed to give it a more airy tone, but without diminishing the unique timbre of his voice. All these marvelous inspirations are melded together in such a way that you hardly notice the effort: “Little Wing” flows easily and naturally.
Hendrix becomes generational spokesperson in “If 6 Was 9,” clearly the most psychedelic track on the album. The loss of the master tape is most noticeable on this mix, as they were working from a recording Noel Redding had made of the original mix that had become wrinkled and had to be ironed. I find the song’s message a bit on the silly side, particularly the declaration of the generation’s alleged commitment to individuality: “Got my own world to live through/And I ain’t gonna copy you.” While that may have been more true for Hendrix than others of the tuned-in generation, there were too many aspects of the movement that seemed designed to repress individuality. I confronted my father on this issue and he had to agree that the hippies were just as conformist as their parents. “Yes, we all grew our hair long, and when The Beatles came out with mustaches, all the dudes had to grow mustaches. People wore John Lennon glasses even if they had 20-20 vision . . . and if you didn’t smoke dope, you were seen as uncool, an outcast, maybe even a narc. Everyone’s politics were left-wing or indifferent, and everyone read the same books. We were just conforming to anti-conformity.” I like the stop-time passages in the beginning, but the dogma of the lyrics wears thin real quick. Not my favorite Hendrix track.
After a brief round of panned feedback, the band kicks in with “You Got Me Floatin’,” a pretty straightforward rock number where the panning on the lead solo is excessive and becomes a major distraction. Records from this era often suffer from the “break all the rules” mindset when it came to recording, and some of the best producers and engineers were guilty of overspinning the panning knob. Fortunately, there’s little anyone could have done to weaken “Castles in the Sand,” one of Jimi’s finest compositions and almost certainly his best set of lyrics. The structure of the song consists of three stories of people whose assumptions about the future are shattered. What’s striking, though, are the stories Hendrix chooses to tell. The first is of a drunken husband who assumes his wife will always be there, and is shocked when she finally has had enough and slams the door on that future. The second is a tale of a young Indian boy who dreams of becoming a fearless warrior but whose life ends in a surprise attack. The last is a mute girl in a wheel chair who is ready to fling her unresponsive body into the ocean when she envisions a “golden-winged ship” that fails to stop for her; we’re not sure if the girl has had hope restored or if she proceeds with her suicidal plans. The line, “And so castles made of sand fall/melt/slip into the sea” closes each story. I’ve read that the song is partially autobiographical, but what’s more important is that Hendrix has transformed these diverse experiences into something accessible to all of us . . . for we all have our castles in the sand, and they can melt away at any time. We deny this because we become comfortable with “normal,” no matter what “normal” is, but eventually . . . all things come to an end. The arrangement mixes straight and backwards guitar, echoing the dream-reality dichotomy of the song. Definitely one of Jimi’s best.
Noel Redding gets a turn with “She’s So Fine,” a song that sounds more like a Move or early Hollies song than a Jimi Hendrix Experience production. Unfortunately for Noel, the best part is Jimi’s hoedown-style lead solo. The dream song, “One Rainy Wish” comes next, containing colorful and impressionistic imagery: “The sky was filled with a thousand stars/While the sun kissed the mountains blue.” The song has an unusual structure, pushing the boundaries of composition more than any other song on the album. In contrast to the daring experimentation on “One Rainy Wish,” “Little Miss Lover” seems positively pedestrian, and is further weakened by too much panning and an overuse of effects. Jimi even throws in a “sock it to me,” forever branding the song as dated. “Bold as Love” ends the album, its processional rhythms signifying that something important this way comes. While the music and the groove work, the lyrics suffer from Donovan-itis, as Jimi decides to choose a range of colors to describe various aspects of life and pretty much sticks to cliché connections: jealousy = green, war = red, yellow = cowardice. Although I rather like his show of vulnerability at the end (“And all these emotions of mine keep holding me from giving my life to a rainbow like you.”), and I love it when he tweaks Donovan (“My Yellow in this case is not so mellow”), this is hardly his best lyrical composition. I also think the complexity added to the basic structure at the end of the song was a game attempt to end the album on a high note but ends up sounding somewhat superfluous.
In considering Axis: Bold as Love in its totality, I think the album shines when Jimi plays to his strengths (groove, rhythm, guitar and his budding talent as a lyricist) and falls flat when he adopts some of the unconventional conventions of the period. The weaker songs are the hippie-tinged songs; the better songs are those where he either distances himself from society and takes the critical view, or where he is writing from deep personal experience. The flaws in the album hardly ruin it; if anything, they remind us that Hendrix was not some superbeing, but someone with incredible talent who was still in the process of discovering himself.
It’s too bad he never got to complete the full journey.