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Phil-osophically Speaking - August 28, 2009

It was the mother of all traffic jams. Cars were packed together, bumper to bumper, transfiguring the New York State Thruway into the biggest parking lot in the world. Literally nothing was moving. This crushing deadlock did not unnerve the thousands of baby boomers, bristling with excitement, who jauntily abandoned their cars and made their pilgrimage on foot to a mud splattered dairy farm in upstate New York to embrace a nirvana of peace, love and music.

Forty summers later the romance of the Woodstock Festival remains, for its memoirists, the crowning moment of the counter-cultural 1960s. The Dionysian energy of the new psychedelic rock music was the match that lit the so-called Aquarian rebellion and the subsequent explosion unleashed several social revolutions whose reverberations can still be felt today.

For three mind-numbing days, a sea of young rebels luxuriated in a pot-smoking milieu of grime and mud as much as in peace and love. Mesmerizing as it all was, the 400,000 who migrated to Woodstock were hardly the vanguard in challenging the Protestant ethic they saw as self-conscious, sexually repressed and obsessed with materialism.

Its real Mecca was a whole continent away; in the Haight –Ashbury district in San Francisco. During that “Summer of Love” in 1967, thousands of acolytes and thrill-seekers trekked across the continent with an unabashed eagerness not seen since the California Gold Rush. A popular song with the lyrics: “If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear flowers in your hair” captured the time and the mood. Certainly, it was observed, its participants, the slick, “let it be” hippie generation appeared to wear little else.

Many came to the Haight because of a desire for self-liberation, others as a form of social protest and still others simply to embark upon a frenzy of youthful hedonism. More than a hundred Americans a week were dying in the jungles of Vietnam, while student protests were rocking college campuses. Idealistic puffery about changing the world and making love, not war, shimmered with a comforting, Shangri-la solicitude.

The strangely outfitted, love-spouting pilgrims sojourning westward to this mythical wonderland were actually the product of the most affluent generation in American history. Wealth had freed them from want; miracle drugs from disease, technology from backbreaking labor and the inventions of television and mass communication gave them a window to the world. Its social consciousness was fueled by unprecedented prosperity that had turned on itself to rebel against conformity and tradition - all in hot pursuit of a self-deluded miasma of social change and self-fulfillment.

Their prophet, Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor, promoted loosening these artificial restraints with the use of drugs, such as LSD, to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” Too many embraced that creed without understanding, as the novelist Dostoevski did, that learned foolishness is the most dangerous folly of all.

The cartoonist, Al Capp, called the flower children who descended upon the Golden Gate city as “a herd of semi-domesticated animals… uttering their mating cries and scratching their pelt.” Others saw the streets of San Francisco as Elysian Fields populated by gentle souls who resembled early Christians. Neither description captured the whole truth; Haight-Ashbury had its share of idealists and true believers, for sure, but a great many were impressionable and troubled kids who ran away from home to find excitement and adventure or, in the fog of adolescent angst, just something to be angry and rebellious about.

Soon the flower children’s yearning for detachment resulted in an alienation that would become all too real. Squalor and crime became commonplace; but it wasn’t just the drug dealing, sexual disease and prostitution but also, ironically, the pervasiveness of greed and commercialism that would shatter its presumptions of material innocence. High-spirited ideals rapidly degenerated into a pathetic caricature of itself. With its communal confidence undermined, there was little left except an overwhelming sense of emptiness and the superficiality of it all. Consequently, the exodus of the flower children from the Promised Land was nearly as sudden and dramatic as its much-ballyhooed homecoming.  

The dream that became a nightmare for so many was now over; but elements of Haight-Ashbury would reconstitute itself at ritual rock concerts, most famously and spectacularly in New York’s Hudson River Valley in August 1969, where for three days the triad of drugs, sex and rock and roll fused into the grandest party of all. Woodstock was, by all accounts, a peaceful gathering and the glow of nostalgia powerfully attaches itself to the remembrance of those who it touched. But while the culture of what was Haight-Ashbury was seen everywhere, Woodstock was not a community, it was an event and, as such, the germ of degeneration and aimlessness never had time to take root to spoil the bacchanalian festivities of the revelers.

At Woodstock, the young came, saw and retreated - as did the counter-culture movement itself, wafting into a curious but exotic memory. The social revolution of the 1960s largely failed because in the end, like other utopian schemes, it devoured its children. Two of its most celebrated performers, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, were both dead, at age 27, within a year or so of Woodstock.

The clash of values in the 1960s was not only between children and their parents but was intragenerational as well. During the Woodstock festival, 514,000 of the counter-culture’s peers and fellow Americans were still fighting in Vietnam and many others back home were doing the hard work of growing up and becoming an adult.

Woodstock did not change the world; but it left its mark in the realm of lifestyles in terms of the individualization of ethics which, when taken to extremes, has resulted in pathologies of drug abuse, family breakdown, criminal behavior and illegitimacy. Social experimentation is indeed a perilous thing, not only because it rejects the experience of ancestral wisdom, but also because society is not a set of ninepins to be knocked down and randomly set up again.  

After 40 summers, the romance of Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury mostly survives in the reporting of the mass media and in the collective, often anecdotal remembrances of those aging boomers who, in a youthful uprising, tasted its forbidden fruit. Twenty years after Woodstock, barely 20,000 came to mark an anniversary that seemed more like a memorial service for the dearly departed. In truth, the Woodstock culture was dead and buried long ago; its disciples just neglected to pray over its remains.