Saturday, August 15, 2009

Q: What is the cure for our woes?

A: Three days of fun and music, and nothing but fun and music.

Forty years ago today I woke up in the back of a Pepsi truck. I had left Port Authority Terminal the previous night on a bus to Bethel, New York to go to Woodstock. I was with my friend, Henry.

The bus got caught in traffic way outside of the festival area, so we got out and walked, all night long. Sunrise came. It was pouring rain. The only dry place that I could find was in the back of an empty Pepsi truck on the periphery of the festival field. Henry was across from me. It was Saturday morning. We fell asleep in a sitting position.

When we woke up we were cold, damp and hungry. So, we did what the times demanded. We ate the orange acid.

And thus began my participation in the Woodstock Festival.

We trudged down into the mud, found a place to the center-right of the stage, about 150 yards up and sat down. The sun came out. Things began to warm up and look a whole lot better. I was no longer cold, damp and hungry. I was someplace else, someplace really, really else.

The first band up that Saturday was named Quill or Keef Hartley. I had never heard of them at that time and I have not heard of them since. No matter.

From then on it was pretty much as depicted in the movie, except for two things: Sly and chicken tacos.

After traveling around the cosmos for most of Saturday, I needed a rest. At some point in the late night, after Janis, I fell asleep again. Somewhere in my sleep I remember feeling the ground shake. I woke up. The ground was shaking still. I got up to look around. Down on the stage was Sly and the Family Stone. The ground was not really shaking. It was moving sympathetically to Larry Graham’s bass lines. The music literally took over my body. I had no say in the matter. The next thing that I knew I was singing “Higher” while dancing around on the little piece of muddy heaven on Earth that the cosmos had given me for the weekend. Had you told then that I would carry those sounds and memories around with me for the rest of my life, I would say that you were probably right. At that point the whole notion of what it meant to be alive shifted a few degrees off the beaten path. And, at last I knew what it meant to really play the bass.

After Sly finished his act and the stage was clearing I realized that I had not eaten in two days. So, I figured that getting some food might be a good idea. I left my muddy piece of paradise and made it to the periphery at the back of the field. I found a taco stand and stood in line for a while. I bought some chicken tacos and took them back on plate to share with my friend Henry. All of the fairy dust had worn off, so I was pretty hungry.

So there I was trudging through the mud back to my spot when out of nowhere a hand came up and overturned my plate of chicken tacos. I was really hungry and really looking forward to those tacos. The guy that had tipped over my meal looked up at me from the ground where he was sitting and said, “I am sorry man.”

I said, “It’s alright.”

And, it really was. At that point I had not a stitch of anger in me. The tacos were on the ground. That was it. There was nothing to get mad about. Why? Because for the first time in a long, long while I felt safe; really, really safe. At that moment everything was all right in the world. It was as if the horror that the TV had been bringing me since Nov 22, 1963 did not exist. Walter Cronkite was not there on the 6 O'Clock News to tell me how many of us and them had been killed that day in Viet Nam; there was no “we interrupt this program to tell you that somebody has been shotagain.” There was no more fear of getting arrested and being tossed into jail for ten years for being an adolescent pot smoker. I did not have to think about what I was going to do if I was drafted when I turned nineteen, to be brought into a war that had been with me all of my life. At that moment in time and space, I was safe. Nobody was going to do anything bad to me. Nobody was going to threaten to take me in the boy’s room, cut my hair and then beat the living daylights out of me. All that I had to worry about was to not eat the purple acid that the guy on the stage was telling me to watch out for.

And, for one tiny, itsy, bitsy, teeny-weenie, morsel of time I was not alone. There were a lot of me out there. It’s a feeling that’s been hard to replicate since, despite the relief of the last election and close to thirty years of drug-free, alcohol-free living.

Then the sun came up and the rain started again. Henry and I looked at each other. It was time to go. The rain was winning.

So we worked our way out, jumped on the hood of some car going to a bus station and headed for home. I was barefoot. My shoes were out there someplace in the mud.

And so it went, forty years ago today. I was fifteen years old.