In 1969, three hundred thousand people went to Woodstock. However, by 2017 seven million people remember being at Woodstock. The memories of baby boomers have transformed the sixties into this magical, mythical landscape where everyone was a hippie, everyone was a draft resister, everyone was a veteran, and everyone was at the forefront of sex, drugs, and protest.
In truth, most of us were entirely clueless during the sixties. We ambled through the decade much as we ambled through the fifties before and the seventies after, not realizing much of anything. We confronted big historic moments and didn’t realize that they were big and historic. Instead, we concentrated as always on the trivialities of getting through each day.
Any American around my age can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that JFK was shot. For my parent’s generation, the same was true when they heard about Pearl Harbor. For my children, it was the attack on the World Trade Center. Also most Americans my age woke up in the middle of a summer night in 1969 to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Aside from the JFK assassination and the moonwalk, four things had to touch anyone, no matter how clueless, who came of age during that period: the Vietnam War, drugs, protest, and of course the music.
Music defined the sixties. The music was so pervasive that it is hard to even think of the sixties without a Beatles-Stones-Doors soundtrack. “Light My Fire” was the generation’s marching tune and “Satisfaction” its national anthem. In the early sixties, rock and roll was high school music. When you graduated you moved on to some mature boring crap. The Beatles changed that. Now rock and roll was for our lifetimes. Simple three-chord progressions gave way to better musicianship that still managed to make your heart beat faster and make your feet move. Music changed from something to dance to or make out to, into something to experience. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” spoke to all our concerns clueless or not and the Temptations “Ball of Confusion” echoed our own confusion as the world swirled around us.
In 1968, in no particular order my concerns were going to work, going to school, my family, playing ball, chasing women and rooting for the Yankees and the football Giants. In 2017, what are my concerns? Going to work, going to school, my family, now from a different perspective. Playing ball, baseball and football have given way to tennis and golf. Chasing women, now reduced to one and rooting for the Yankees and the Giants. Being a Yankee fan in recent years has been mostly paradise. However, watching the Giants, except for brief shining moments, are still painful.
In 1968, I had mastered the fine art of “hanging out”. This consisted of sitting somewhere, a park, a bar, someone’s front steps and wasting countless hours talking about essentially nothing. This is known commonly as BS-ing.
By 2018, I have evolved into a full professor at a good university. Aside from a few troublesome hours where I actually have to lecture, I sit somewhere; my office, a faculty lounge, a park, a bar, someone’s front steps, and waste countless hours talking about essentially nothing. In academic parlance, this is called BS-ing. Of course, some of my colleagues prefer to call this either office hours or necessary discussions of research.
As we clueless people marched through the decade, the music leading us onward, Woodstock became the apex of the music experience. For most of us, Woodstock meant nothing. It was only after we were told that this was a momentous occasion that we turned to it. However, I know exactly where I was on Woodstock weekend; trapped in a VW beetle returning from a football game in New Haven.
On that Sunday morning, in late August of 1969, I was in my friend Les’s VW with two other friends, Dennis and his younger brother Irwy, on the way to the Yale Bowl in New Haven to see the first-ever Giants-Jets game. Dennis was a Jets fan and a pain in the ass to the rest of us, loyal Giants fans all, who were making the trip to watch the Giants regain the honor of the NFL and beat up on the Jets. We argued and argued football but in the background, ever present was the radio and the music.
“Namath got lucky – you’ll see the Jints defense take him apart – hey turn that up I love that song”, I said.
“You’re crazy the Jets are so much better. Yeah, that song is sweet – you hear the Stones new album?”
As we continued to New Haven we had a beer or two and the conservation wavered between football and music. Dennis continued to goad me about the NFL.
“Hey did you bet on this game? It’s stupid to bet on these exhibition games”
“Nah, I laid off. They had a line on it though – Jets by 10. Hey, Les turns this up, it’s a new Frankie Valli cut. Hey Dennis, notice how despite everything, the Four Seasons just keep rolling along?” I told him.