One challenge I always run into when researching historical works like Electric Ladyland has to do with the plethora of music critics, philosophers, sociologists and musicologists who attempt to connect the music to larger socio-cultural trends. Some seem to be searching for a Grand Unified Theory linking music and culture while others want to inflate the significance of the music that mattered to them when they were growing up. The more academic types (or at least those who like to present themselves as academics) carefully compile page after page of footnotes, knowing that most readers will take their word for it that the citations are both valid and relevant.
Fortunately or not, I’m one of those people equipped with a bullshit detector, and when I smell bullshit, I dig deeper to find out where the bullshit is coming from.
The gauge on my bullshit detector nearly exploded when I read the Jimi Hendrix segment in NPR music critic Ann Powers’ well-footnoted effort Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (one of the most sexless books I’ve ever read, BTW, but what do you expect from NPR?):
Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster. Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution—a very science-fiction scenario, reflecting Hendrix’s immersion in that genre—he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios, where he could, as the historian Steve Waksman has observed, “enact his wildest fantasies of sound, and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.”
I decided to check this out with my dad, a lifelong Hendrix fan who saw his famous performance at Monterey Pop and (lucky bastard) a gig at the old Fillmore Auditorium where he shared the bill with John Mayall. I asked him to pop over for breakfast one morning to talk Hendrix and here’s how the conversation went (more or less):
ME: Dad, towards the end of Jimi Hendrix’s career, did you have any trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution?
DAD: What? Hey, take it easy, Sunshine—I haven’t finished my coffee! (slurp, slurp) Say that again?
ME: (repeated the question)
DAD: Hold on . . . late 60’s, lust, spirituality . . . the answer is no. We all thought sex was a spiritual experience.
Bolstered by dad’s first-hand knowledge, I scoured Hendrix bios, online sources and common sense to confirm the scent of bovine manure in Ms. Powers’ contentions:
- “Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster.” That is such a dumb fucking statement that I can hardly get my head around it. Let me offer an analogous replacement: “Toward the end of their final U. S. tour, The Beatles’ performances became strangely lackluster.” The Beatles stopped touring because a.) they were tired of playing to audiences who couldn’t hear them and b.) they had expanded their musical palette and were unable to reproduce their new material in concert (the Candlestick concert setlist features a grand total of zero songs from Revolver, released just a few weeks before). There was nothing “strange” about The Beatles deciding that touring was a drag, especially when they were highly motivated to redefine the limits of rock ‘n’ roll in the confines of Abbey Road Studios. The same was true with Hendrix, who had taken a more active role in production with Electric Ladyland and was very upset he wasn’t given the time to perfect the final mix. “Pressured by Reprise for a finished product, he was forced to mix the record while out on tour with the Experience. ‘It’s very hard to concentrate on both,’ he lamented to Hullabaloo magazine, shortly after the album’s release. ‘So some of the mix came out muddy — not exactly muddy but with too much bass. We mixed it and produced it and all that mess, but when it came time for them to press it, quite naturally they screwed it up, because they didn’t know what we wanted.'” Both The Beatles and Hendrix wanted to spend more time in the studio than on the road because that’s where they felt they could manifest their creativity to the max; touring was a distraction, a break in the creative flow. Though Powers is guilty of misusing a quote to justify her ludicrous argument, Waksman was right: Hendrix wanted to “enact his wildest fantasies of sound and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.” Isn’t that what every musical artist wants to do?
- “Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision . . .” What audience was that? The audience that made Electric Ladyland Jimi’s first #1 album? Or the audience that made “All Along the Watchtower” the Experience’s sole top ten hit? Or the audience that pushed Band of Gypsys into the Top 10? Or the half-million who saw him at the Atlanta International Pop Festival a few months before his death?
- ” . . . he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios . . .” I guess it depends on your definition of “more and more.” Hendrix first tried out his new playroom on June 15, 1970 and flew to the UK on August 25, 1970 to play at the Isle of Wight Festival, never to return to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, USA. Ten lousy weeks interrupted by two performances at pop festivals is a long way from Miss Havisham.
Ms. Powers concludes the paragraph by linking Jimi’s accidental overdose to a specific cause: “The man who had so nimbly moved through sexual stereotypes in hopes of rendering them obsolete had found the counterculture’s unceasing craving for them too much overcome.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Jimi Hendrix died because he had problems with drugs and alcohol and did a dumb thing. I don’t think he was thinking about the obsolescence of sexual stereotypes when he popped those sleeping pills.
Most critics consider Electric Ladyland Jimi’s masterpiece. Given his disappointment in the mix, I don’t think he would have agreed. He died before he could transform the musical vision constantly spinning in his head into what he would have considered perfection. Electric Ladyland is far from perfect; there are some clear misses that might be attributable to poor mixing but a couple of tracks that even the most talented engineers couldn’t have saved (and that includes the 1997 remix by Eddie Kramer and the 2018 Deluxe Edition). Roger Mayer, the man who redesigned Jimi’s wah-wah pedal and served him in the role of electronic advisor on his first two albums called it “a patchwork quilt . . . As a body of work it didn’t resolve itself.” There were ongoing tensions with management and with the label; the tension between Hendrix and producer Chas Chandler rose to the point that Chandler walked out, leaving Jimi to take on the production role. I think it’s fair to say that Hendrix placed too much of a burden on himself during the recording of Electric Ladyland and at times it shows.
One of the most curious aspects of the history of Electric Ladyland has to do with why Chandler left Jimi holding the bag. Some sources say Chandler was sick and tired of Jimi’s perfectionism (50 takes of “Gypsy Eyes!”); others say he was pissed off about Jimi allowing a constant stream of musicians and hangers-on into the studio (some of them winding up in Chandler’s control room). Apparently, Chas wanted more of a balance between tight and loose and Hendrix wasn’t listening. To me, those competing forces may weaken Electric Ladyland in some respects, but also serve to strengthen the final product. Electric Ladyland has more than its fair share of virtuoso guitar performances, libido-tingling rhythms and exceptionally well-executed lead vocals (reflecting Jimi’s perfectionist streak), but the feel of the album is loose and sexy (reflecting the vibe of the period). Jimi Hendrix loved to jam; although he didn’t dabble all that much in jazz, he had the spirit of a jazz musician. And some of those folks who participated in those jams weren’t exactly incompetent layabouts. The credits include three members of Traffic (Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Dave Mason), Jack Casady, Al Kooper and The Sweet Inspirations. It seems that Chas was all about the business of recording while Hendrix was all about translating the sounds he heard in his head into an artistic statement. Given that this was his first crack at producing, Electric Ladyland may fall short of masterpiece status but it still contains some of Jimi’s greatest moments.
Hendrix allegedly told an interviewer that he knew that “. . . ‘And the Gods Made Love’ was the track most people would bitch about so he placed it first in the track order to get it out of the way. This overture of sorts has been charitably referred to as a “sound painting,” touted for its “bold, new sonic colors” (in a Rolling Stone re-do of their original thumbs down review of Electric Ladyland). There were many such “sound paintings” during the psychedelic era, and while they may have sounded “trippy” at the time (particularly when listening while stoned), most were failed attempts to create a musical equivalent of abstract expressionism (and I doubt that half of the composers had ever heard of Pollock). The sole virtue of the piece is to remind you that you’re in the ’60s now and you’ll have to tolerate a few doomed flights of fancy.
p. s. For a guy whose catalog contains some of the sexiest stuff ever captured on disk . . . well, all I can say is if that’s how the gods make love, I never want to be a goddess. Sounds like anal without the lube.
Moving on to the more traditional thematic introduction, the title track “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” has been classified as “psychedelic soul” with Curtis Mayfield as the major influence. It’s actually a rather complex composition disguised by its laid-back feel. The first page of the sheet music lists fourteen different chords, not all of which are strictly complementary to the A major scale. Demonstrating the severe limits of musical notation, the sheet claims the piece is in 4/4 time but adds the note “freely” above the verse, indicating the transcriptionists threw their hands up when faced with the obviously truncated and extended measures. Mitch Mitchell demonstrates his intuitive ability to follow Jimi’s sense of rhythm by cutting out from time to time before dropping back into the mix at just the right moment. Jimi takes over for the frequently-absent Noel Redding on bass, reminding us that Noel was chosen more for his hair than his skill with the instrument. The song celebrates the joys of fucking women, one of Jimi’s favorite pastimes, bless his heart (some sources equate “electric ladies” to “Hendrix groupies”). The use of the term “electric” in describing female sexuality always throws me off, because in my experience (electric + sex = vibrator) . . . but the adjective “electric” had a fleshier erotic/spiritual connotation in the ’60s.
Hendrix finally gets around to the ass-kicking with “Crosstown Traffic,” featuring a tandem attack of guitar and comb-and-tissue-paper that qualifies as one of the most ingeniously effective pairings in rock history. The panning of the guitar/kazoo pairing and the Dave Mason-Noel Redding background vocals is really unnecessary and becomes a bit annoying after a while, but one could argue it mirrors the dodging traffic metaphor. Hendrix is trying to unload a broad who has been hanging on too long, and when she gives him the “but I need you and only you” plea (implied by Jimi’s response), he shuts her down with a reminder that he’s not the only one who likes to tiptoe through the tulips:
I’m not the only soul who’s accused of hit and run,
Tire tracks all across your back, uh-huh, I can see you had your fun.
Jimi’s vocal here is outstanding, displaying both his feel for rhythm and his intuitive grasp of the phrasing opportunities available in stop time.
The sounds of handclapping appear towards the end of the track, an effective bridge to “Voodoo Chile,” a fifteen-minute jam. . . no, not a jam . . . here’s Jack Casady from an interview with Uncut:
It wasn’t as simple as a jam, there was a full structure to the song, so it was an extended song that you able to improvise in. We took directions through the language of playing. Jimi was able to experiment with his ability and with effects in order to create an atmosphere. ‘Voodoo Chile’ has a really eerie sound that kind of places you in a different world.
Jack and I have different perspectives; what sounds eerie to him sounds positively erotic to me (maybe there’s something to all those vampire porn movies). This is one of my favorite songs to fuck to, a designation that I think Jimi would have found validating.
He starts out gently, gathering his musical thoughts or imagining how he’s going to probe the beautiful woman in his head. At this point, it’s just Jimi and his strat on a standard reverb setting, but oh my, what a gorgeous sound! After establishing the baseline slow blues rhythm with a classic riff, he gives Mitchell the signal to join in. Mitch Mitchell nearly always played harder and with greater intensity than one might expect, a noticeable feature of the Hendrix sound (hence the need for Buddy Miles on Band of Gypsys). Here it serves to inform the listening audience that “Yeah, it’s a slow blues, but it’s a slow blues drenched in hormones.” Strengthened even further by Casady’s steady bass, the beat creeps along stealthily like a Siamese cat in heat, giving Stevie Winwood a chance to test out a few licks on the organ. Hendrix delivers the first verse in an almost cautionary tone, warning any would-be squeeze that she’s not going to be humping your Average Joe. Taking Muddy Waters’ delightfully exaggerated machismo in “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the nth degree, Hendrix describes his the day of his birth as a parallel to Judgment Day, when “the moon turned a fire red.” His mother screams “the gypsy was right” and immediately drops dead. Have no fear, though—Jimi’s in good hands . . . er, paws and wings:
Well, mountain lions found me there waitin’
And set me on an eagle’s back
Well, mountain lions found me there
And set me on a eagle’s wing
(It’s the eagle’s wing, baby, what did I say?)
He took me past to the outskirts of infinity
And when he brought me back
He gave me a Venus witch’s ring
Hey, and he said “Fly on, fly on”
‘Cause I’m a voodoo chile, yeah, voodoo chile
After a very brief solo where Jimi’s notes seem to spring from the guitar and fly to the heavens, Jimi tells the babe of interest that he will indeed make love to her and assures her that “you’ll feel no pain.” Aww, come on, Jimi, not even a nipple pinch or a flick of your whip on my shapely bottom? Bummer, man! Well, he does give an explanation that might lead the lady to think, “I better not push this guy too hard, because this mother fucker has supernatural powers!
Because I’m a million miles away
And at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame
Jimi delays any further elucidation by inserting an instrumental break with guitar on the left channel and Winwood on the right. The interlude starts with both playing at maximum intensity; about a minute into the dialogue Jimi takes a step back and generously turns the lead over to Winwood, encouraging him with a heartfelt, “Yeah.” A few measures in, Winwood plays a phrase that Jimi immediately picks up on, leading to an extended call-and-response segment that validates Casady’s observation about communication through the “language of playing.” It’s an exciting passage that ends with the sound of a small crowd applauding the effort . . . and I have to say it absolutely killed me when I learned that the audience sounds were added post-performance.
Fuck. That’s the musical equivalent of canned laughter. Yes, yes, I know that they fuck around with most live albums post-production, but geez.
Jimi heaps on the sci-fi hyperbole in the next verse, claiming his “arrows are made of desire/From far away as Jupiter’s sulfur mines.” An extended instrumental passage follows, featuring the obligatory drum solo and Winwood shifting to a melody that sounds like something out of a bagpipe. We return to Earth in the final verse, where Jimi “floats in liquid gardens and Arizona new red sand.” I think the narrative (such as it is) weakens here with the loss of the phallic imagery—I want those arrows, dude! The loss is balanced by some excellent fretwork from Jack Casady as he moves between noiseless and fret-clicking slides. The grand finale features Jimi letting it all hang out (what a lovely period phrase!) with one of his more intense solos, one that inspires the rest to give it all they’ve got. “Voodoo Chile” may not be as popular as its abbreviated cousin, but it’s still a damned fine display of musicianship that calls to mind the words of Octavio Paz—“In every erotic encounter there is an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire.”
Speaking of patchwork quilts, there is no better evidence to support Roger Mayer’s argument than “Little Miss Strange,” a Noel Redding offering that defines the phrase “bad fit.” It’s a lightweight pop song that has no business here or anywhere else in the known universe. In what was probably an attempt to make something out of nothing and avoid hurting Redding’s feelings, Jimi’s comparatively fiery guitar riffs wind up shining a bright light on the song’s inescapable thinness. It’s followed by the equally dreadful “Long Hot Summer Nights” with its laughably overdone background vocals and nonsensical narrative.
We get back on the rails with Jimi’s cover of Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll).” King was a pretty fair guitar picker himself, but Hendrix at hyperspeed is unbeatable—he plays this sucker at warp, handling both rhythm and lead and never missing a beat or a note. We really could have done without Mitch Mitchell here, who has a hard time keeping up (maybe that’s why they shoved his contribution to the back north forty of the mix). And apparently, fifty takes wasn’t enough for “Gypsy Eyes,” as the finished product lacks any tangible groove that makes you wanna shake your moneymaker.
Side 2 ends on a high note with “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” cited often as the song where Hendrix first used a wah-wah pedal. The song is overloaded with effects, making for a somewhat muddy sound, but the sincere anguish in Jimi’s voice as he contemplates the lonely life of the itinerant musician is quite compelling. His extraordinary level of engagement with music came with a heavy price—separation from normal time, the space where most live their lives and build relationships.
The morning is dead
And the day is, too
There’s nothing left here to meet me
But the velvet moon
All my loneliness I have felt today
It’s like a little more than enough
To make a man throw himself away
And I continue
To burn the midnight lamp
The song is certainly one of his most creative compositions and its complexity made for a challenging recording process. Unsatisfactory attempts were made during the recording of Axis: Bold As Love and the final version recorded months later took another thirty takes. Picking out a few notes on the harpsichord gave the song the necessary melancholy cast, and the addition of the gospel-like chorus courtesy of The Sweet Inspirations heightens the sense of internal struggle. What really blows me away is the chord structure, especially the stunning shift from the classic complementary F-Dm pair to a B minor-E major combination, a sequence that defies common practice but turns out to be the perfect choice to describe Jimi’s feeling that he’s unmoored from it all.
Side 3 opens with “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” a song that makes me laugh because it touches on something I had to un-learn in order to survive the years I spent in Seattle. Though the story about the song’s origin refers to a rained-out concert in Miami, that experience probably reminded Jimi of his childhood in the great, perpetually wet Pacific Northwest. In California, a little sprinkle ruins everyone’s day (except during droughts) and people grumpily stay inside bitching about the lousy weather messing up their barbecues or day at the beach. On my first rainy day stroll down the main drag in Queen Anne, I noticed that I was the only person using an umbrella. “What the fuck is the matter with these people?” I wondered. But I learned pretty quickly that a.) the rain isn’t going to kill you and b.) if you let something as harmless as falling water ruin your day, you’re going to go insane during the 6-8 months of continuous soaking. Next spring I joined the company softball team and we nearly always played in the rain—the one time the umpire tried to call a game, both sides howled in protest, screaming at the bastard as we followed his sissy ass to his car. In the meteorological reality of Seattle, Jimi’s advice is not only practical but a mental health PSA:
Rainy day, dream away
Let the sun take a holiday
Flowers bathe and see the children play
Lay back and groove on a rainy day
The song’s groove mirrors that advice in its laid-back comfortable beat, setting the stage for some marvelous back-and-forth between Jimi and saxman Freddie Smith.
“1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” can certainly befuddle the listener with its spacey soundscape and fanciful lyrics. I suggest looking at the song as a progressive rock version of “Apeman.” Both songs are escape fantasies, but while the more terrestrial Mr. Davies just wants to get the hell away from this crazy place and its crazy people, the more ethereal Mr. Hendrix sees escape into the sea as evolutionary progress. Obviously, Jimi had no way of knowing that the sea would become a dumping ground for plastics, but it’s equally obvious that he idealized the oceanic milieu, imagining a sort of underwater Olympics and marveling how “starfish and giant foams greet us with a smile.” Uh, what about the sharks, Jimi? And if he’s so confident he and his squeeze can survive underwater without scuba gear, why does he take the time for one last fuck they stroll into the deep?
While we can laugh at his proposed escape route, there’s no denying the angst and anger Jimi feels about the form of insanity known as war:
Oh say, can you see it’s really such a mess
Every inch of Earth is a fighting nest
Giant pencil and lipstick tube shaped things,
Continue to rain and cause screaming pain
“Oh say, can you see . . . ” Where have I heard that before? Something to do with baseball . . .
I think the most interesting aspect of the song is its progressive style. With Jimi’s grounding in blues and R&B, he might have changed the trajectory of progressive rock by keeping it grounded in its origins. So many possibilities . . . then again, the brief and completely uninteresting “Moon, Turn the Tides . . . Gently, Gently Away” also raises the possibility that had he gone progressive he would have bombed. Listening to someone fiddle around with spacey sounds while turning the panning knob isn’t progressive, it’s boring.
We find Jimi “Still Raining, Still Dreaming . . . ” in the opening track to Side 4, a funkier take on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” that confirms Jimi would have been better off had he cut the filler and made Electric Ladyland a single album. Confirming the wisdom of that perspective, “House Burning Down” could definitely have used a re-think. The core message to rioters (“Try to learn instead of burn”) is solid, and his intent to make the guitar sound like it was on fire is pretty much realized, but the arrangement is so choppy that the players never really find their groove.
But just when you think you’ve had enough, Jimi comes through with the piece that is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest covers ever, “All Along the Watchtower.” His perfectionist streak was on full display during the recording process, tweaking and re-recording the song for months, telling Eddie Kramer again and again, “I think I hear it a little bit differently.” The solo deservedly earns the lion’s share of attention, but I’m also drawn to Dave Mason’s haunting 12-string chords in deep background and Jimi’s commanding lead vocal. If I could name one artist who should have done an entire album of Dylan covers, it would be Jimi Hendrix. Based on the limited evidence (this one, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a scrap of “Drifter’s Escape), he seemed to connect well with Dylan’s style and certainly had no problem imbuing symbolist lyrics with passion.
You can find numerous how-to videos on how to play Jimi’s solo on “All Along the Watchtower” on the net, and in the process, you’ll learn a great deal about rising and declining bends. Many of the notes you hear (particularly in the intro) are bends, and you’ll never come close to duplicating Jimi’s performance without them. So, instead of “hitting the note” by putting your finger on say, the fifteenth fret, you approximate the note by bending the shit out of the string from the thirteenth fret. That’s a rising bend; to reverse it you start from the bent position on thirteen and ease it back down to stasis. As I’m giving you these instructions, I’m reminded of the Monty Python bit, “How to Do It,” and the segment on learning how to play the flute: “Well, you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.” It ain’t that simple.
Technique is obviously important, what makes a great guitar solo has more to do with feel . . . with fascination . . . with the self-expressive urge. It’s also important to remember that Hendrix was not only self-taught, but his self-teaching involved unusual challenges. His dad wouldn’t (or couldn’t) buy him a guitar, so he first learned on a one-string ukelele he found in the trash. He was left-handed and played right-handed guitars turned upside-down and restrung for left-hand playing. These factors mean that Jimi Hendrix approached music from a completely different paradigm than the typical musician, one built on ingenuity, improvisation, determination and an obsessive fascination with stringed instruments. So while I encourage guitarists to learn the solo, don’t be disappointed if you don’t sound like Jimi Hendrix. No one can and no one ever will.
To emphasize that point, Joe Satriani didn’t think “All Along the Watchtower” was Jimi’s greatest guitar moment, choosing his guitar work on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” as the wannabe guitar master’s holy grail: “It’s just the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity.” I never do “greatest” anything, but I don’t disagree with Satriani. The combination lead-rhythm guitar on this piece is absolutely mesmerizing, pure guitar power that stimulates hips and hormones. Initially recorded as an improv piece for an ABC documentary, it only took eight takes in the studio to satisfy Jimi’s always lofty expectations and turned out to be his first and only #1 single in the UK. Had he lived longer, perhaps Jimi could have learned something from this experience . . . something like “exactitude does not always equal perfection.” There have been a billion covers of the song, but my favorite remains the delightfully energetic performance by Angélique Kidjo on Oremi.
Taken as a whole, Electric Ladyland probably doesn’t qualify as a masterpiece and has probably earned that status because of his early death. Band of Gypsys clearly shows that he was in a transition period when he died; the clues on that album regarding future direction suggest he might have explored funk and R&B in more depth . . . then again, that might have been a natural result of playing with musicians who leaned in those directions. You run into too many ifs when speculating on Hendrix’s future to have any confidence in the prediction. If he would have gone progressive . . . if he would have made that recording with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and started exploring jazz . . . if he would have attempted to further refine his modern interpretation of the blues form . . . if he could have sworn off drugs and alcohol . . .
We’ll never know. One thing is certain: we can all be thankful that Jimi Hendrix never suffered a day of classical training. He was a true original, and his greatest legacy is his rare and beautiful originality.
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.)