This summer is the fortieth anniversary of two pivotal 1960s events--the moon landing and Woodstock. I was too young to go to either, but I watched the film and video of each in a state of rapture and awe, thrilled we'd made it to another world, and convinced that the music and arts festival was a shining glimpse of our utopian future. Naive? Perhaps. Utopia didn't come to pass, in any case. The war in Vietnam dragged on, and we still had Nixon and the hawks to get rid of, and since that golden season history has repeated itself so many times I can't keep track if this round is tragedy or farce.
That same summer, on July 20th, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and American spacemen ambled onto another world. They planted a stiff flag that would forever wave in a vacuum, and beamed back pictures of Earth, which looked nothing like the dusty brown globes in our social studies classes that were mapped and marked by man-made boundaries. Our home planet was sparkling and blue. There was a global recognition that this was a small boat indeed, and we were all on it. There was hope. If worse came to worse, some reasoned, good old American technology could save us. Mankind could shoot its silver seed into the cosmos and escape our war-torn planet to build a sci-fi fan's dream of an antiseptic orderly future a la Star Trek. That was also naive, I suppose, a utopian fantasy of a different sort.
Woodstock didn't commence the Aquarian Age, but the three day rock festival at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York was a gathering of the tribes. This was "youth culture" in full freaky fruition, and a joyous celebration of the hippie message of peace, pot, nudity and music. Fantastic music. Sure, it didn't stop the war machine, but it spit in its eye. This was art and whimsy on a mass scale, and people looked up from every uptight button-down small town to think, maybe I'll grow a mustache. Wear a peace button. Get the hell out of Dodge.
Woodstock inspired countless rock festivals, but this was the milestone. The country was violently divided. It was less than a year to the Kent State shootings, when National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters Nixon referred to as bums. It was less than a year til progressives like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. The counterculture was driven underground. Soft drugs, once considered a ticket to expanded consciousness, were replaced by hard drugs that left people strung out and hopeless. The anti-war movement and the black power movement were harassed and wiretapped and infiltrated by various secret police forces and red squads. Body bags kept coming home from Nam. Nixon went down, sure, but history provided even more Nixons, more greedy Republican war hawks who invoked Jesus while robbing the treasury and incinerating peasants. Change is impossible, you might think. Stupidity is hard-wired into our DNA. Maybe so.
But for one brief shining moment there was a festival--no more, no less--where a possible future played out in a few rolling hills and cow pastures, a future that was crowded and muddy and crazy and stoned and for a brief moment also stardust and golden before it got sucked back into the devil's bargain.
The last morning of the festival, Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze to the tired huddled masses