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.)
Soul music went through its psychedelic period, too, thanks in large part to Sly Stone. The transformation wasn’t quite as drastic as in rock: the songs became longer and there was more effect-coated guitar work, but The Temptations still sounded like The Temptations. Sly’s influence is more obvious in the development of funk, where his guitar stylings merged with James Brown’s strong emphasis on the downbeat to create the sound you hear in George Clinton’s bands. Sly also spurred Motown to move beyond the limitations of boy-girl romance tunes and into songs with socio-political messages.
I’ll give him all that, but music critics have consistently overrated Sly Stone’s influence, as well as the overall quality of his work. Joel Selvin wrote in his oral history of the group that “There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.” My goodness! Lumping Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard into a homogenous group of primitives is an astonishingly stupid claim. Having grown up in the same town as Mr. Selvin, all I can say is dumb shit like this is what reinforces the stereotype of San Francisco as hopelessly provincial. Mr. Selvin is a San-Francisco based critic who used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sly and the Family Stone were a San Francisco-based band. Think there’s a bit of hometown bias operating there? I found that this trend is embedded in the DNA of San Francisco music critics; my dad says that Ralph Gleason pulled the same shit with John Fogerty, anointing him the Mark Twain of rock music.
As for the quality of Sly’s work, it was wildly inconsistent, but he did manage to produce some pretty good songs before he became a slave to drugs in the period after Stand! became a runaway success. To his credit, Sly was colorblind when it came to music, and his openness to the work of white artists gave him more territory to explore in his own music ventures. When he was a DJ with KSOL, he stunned his listeners by mixing songs by The Beatles and The Stones in his playlists. He produced white bands like The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men and The Great Society. When he formed Sly and the Family Stone with his two siblings, he hired two white guys to play sax and drums, an act that seriously pissed off The Black Panthers. While I love the message and the meaning of his work, I have to say that Stand!, like nearly all psychedelic albums, is a mix of good stuff and bad stuff, of solid lyrics and mish-mash, of creative highs and undisciplined indulgence.
The title track opens the album, and once you get beyond the rather annoying self-help lyrics and the underpowered bass guitar, you find a well-arranged piece with definite enthusiasm and energy. Many people have commented that the best part is the “gospel” section following the self-help pamphlet. Well, I agree and disagree. It’s a solid, less-than-a-minute sample of good hard funk music, but the cut from the song proper to this segment is so abrupt that it feels tacked-on at the last minute. The contrast is also heightened by the sudden emergence of the bass that had been missing in the song, which is explained once you realize that half of The Family Stone weren’t around to record this section and Sly and the remaining members worked with studio pros to get the job done. A better approach would have been to let “Stand!” fade into nothingness and extend this promising piece of funk music into a track of its own.
Instead, the next track is “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” a title that I’m sure was very provocative at a time of Black Power and White Backlash. As for a message to back up the promise of that title, fugheddaboudit. Here are all of the lyrics:
Don’t call me nigger, whitey
Don’t call whitey, nigger
Well, I went down across the country
Ana I heard the voices ring
People talkin’ softly to each other
And not a word could change a thing
That’s it? Perhaps calling the song “Wimp Out” might have given the listener fairer warning. The song clocks in at six minutes, though, and Sly chose to the fill the time playing with his new toys: a vocoder and a wah-wah pedal. The result defines the word “tiresome.”
Next up is the studio version of the song made famous at Woodstock, “I Want to Take You Higher.” This is a pure groove song where the words don’t matter at all, but it’s pretty obvious that the word “higher” was used specifically to score points with stoners (a point conclusively proven by the call-and-response on the live version from the Woodstock album). Ignoring that shallow attempt at consumer manipulation, this is still a great dance floor piece with undeniable energy and a well-executed arrangement that blends a solid foundation with sonic variation. It also highlights the strength of the family approach, with the four vocalists each getting a line of verse before coming together in the chorus. “I Want to Take You Higher” is easily one of the best songs of psychedelic soul, synthesizing soul, rock and funk into a power-packed, get-down-and-dirty experience.
The idiot who wrote the Wikipedia article on Stand! described “Somebody’s Watching You” as a “somber song about paranoia,” defining himself as yet another male with his head stuck firmly up his ass. Any woman will tell you that this is a song about female cattiness. We broads (self included) have been programmed to check each other out: shoes, makeup, hairstyle, shape and scent. It’s a little different with me, since the reason I check out women is to see if I want to fuck them, but I fell into the habit of eyeing the competition during my formative years because all my girlfriends were doing it. The practice stems from centuries of cultural indoctrination that we need to compete for male attention; its main purpose is to find something wrong with the other woman you can pick at, giving yourself a little buzz of haughty superiority. When the woman is clearly superior, you’re left with, “She must think she’s pretty hot shit, the bitch,” which isn’t half as satisfying. Think of it as the female version of trash-talking, but unlike guys, women really fucking mean it. The effect of all this is to put additional pressure on women to think, look and act beautiful, and that’s really what “Somebody’s Watching You” is all about. It’s a message to women to relax, be themselves, explore the whole person inside and stop spending so much time in front of the mirror:
Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
Witty, witty, witty as you can be
Blind ’cause your eyes see only glitter
Closed to the things that make you free
Ever stop to think about a downfall
Happens at the end of every line
Just when you think you’ve pulled a fast one
Happens to the foolish all the time
The closing line “Jealous people like to see you bleed” is no fiction: there are women in the world who deeply resent those who are prettier, and would love to scratch the sheen off their lovely complexions in a cat fight. The music features nice movement, relaxed spot harmonies and some very tasty counterpoint guitar work. The processed vocals on the last verse are a bit irritating, as the processing lowers the volume and reduces the bottom, but all in all, this is a pretty good tune. I can’t say the same for “Sing a Simple Song,” no matter how many Motowners covered it. It’s like something that you might hear in the soul version of The Sound of Music: flaccid, superficial and sanitized. “I hate each Julie Andrews film they’ve made,” sang Vivian Stanshall, and I feel the same way about “Sing a Simple Song.”
As luck would have it, though, it’s followed by “Everyday People,” one of the great singles of all time. For once on this album, Sly strips the arrangement down to the absolute essentials, allowing the groove to carry the song without a lot of extraneous noise. The piano sticks to the vamp, Larry Graham’s slap-pop bass keeps the throb going, and the space is cleared nicely with the soft “ooh, sha-sha” for Sly to belt out the most important line, “We’ve got to live together.” I love the horn section’s supporting pattern of melody and counterpoint and would love to hear an instrumental-only version. The message is still relevant today, as we all struggle with the notion of “different strokes for different folks.” I have a hard time with gun owners, religious zealots and the greedy rich; people can’t accept me because I smoke, have sex with both genders and engage in various perversions. My solution was to leave the U. S. and live in a place where the people who make me uncomfortable are in shorter supply, but while the move has definitely improved my spirits, I have a weird, nagging guilt that I copped out instead of standing my ground. Maybe I don’t believe in “different strokes for different folks” if it means tolerating someone’s violent, dogmatic or selfish proclivities. Sigh. I’m another flawed human being, I guess.
Hmm. Lots to think about. Well, there’s that and then there’s the truth. I’m stalling because I loathe the next piece.
Casual readers who read my tagline and find my bare ass halfway down the page may assume that I would automatically like a piece of music entitled “Sex Machine.” I would tell those people, “Look, I may be horny most of the time but I still have a brain and a pair of ears connected to that brain and I don’t do all of my thinking through my clit!” Those ears tell me that “Sex Machine” is probably the worst instrumental in all of psychedelia, a rancid piece of garbage more foul than any pointless jam recorded by the Grateful Dead. Sly’s obsession with his vocoder is taken to bizarre extremes, as this structurally boring jam pretty much covers the entire vocabulary of that regrettable piece of technology in thirteen excruciating minutes. The piece engenders a feeling that combines simmering irritation with the creeps, and I hope I never have to hear it again as long as I live.
And that’s me trying to be nice.
Stand! ends with “You Can Make It If You Try,” bookending the album with another set of self-help and self-affirmation messages. The song has a good strong groove but the lyrics are a string of Successory-like clichés designed to buck up those who need more confidence. My prescription would be a few shots of single malt scotch or whatever your favorite likker happens to be. I also think the message “you can make it if you try” is silly, as it ignores the institutional racism, sexism and elitism that can’t be conquered by putting your nose to the grindstone. This is Sly channeling the naive optimism of the hippies, and while it probably helped sell records to white people, he was capable of more nuanced and intelligent thought.
All in all, I found Stand! an album of highs and lows. What I noticed most is that it didn’t generate anywhere near the excitement I felt listening to the records in my Motown series or to the live performance of the band on the Woodstock album. Despite a track called “Sex Machine,” Stand! isn’t a particularly sexy album. While Martha Reeves, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson consistently stimulated both my hip muscles and libido, Stand! leaves me stuck in neutral. Even the social commentary seems milquetoast in comparison to later songs like Edwin Starr’s knock-you-on-your-ass-take-no-prisoners classic, “War.” My hypothesis is that there was something about the psychedelic music ethos that resulted in music that was more diffuse and less focused.
I wrote that, read that and said, “Well, duh!” Less focused? No shit! Everybody was higher than a frigging kite!