Monday, August 12, 2019

Reflections on Woodstock at 50: Music, Memories, and Forever Postage Stamps

“Did you know this is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock?” That’s what the clerk asked me when I asked her what new stamps were out. It was a rare trip out in the 106°F heat to go inside the post office to mail a package where I was stunned how she had pegged me as someone who might care that it’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this week. Of course, I am, but it got me wondering about who among my generation of Baby Boomers knows, and cares, about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

Clearly I’m not alone, when I’ve just become one of the stamp collectors to invest in a sheet of the new issues. There on the sheet of 20 stamps can be found an array of colors, ala Roy G. Biv (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, which is about as groovy as 8th grade science class got), and a small white dove with a red beak. The swirl of words in the message read:


A sheet of forever stamps, just issued on August 8th. Calling them “forever” stamps helps you forget that the price of one stamp is $.55, or a sheet of 20 is $11.00. Still, it was a must-have for the collection. Researching, I found art director Antonio Alcalá designed the stamp to commemorate “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in the small farming community of Bethel, New York, in August 1969, was the most famous rock festival in history and an expression of the youth counterculture of the 1960s.”

Last year I gave substantial thought to what the year 2019 would bring. Whereas 2017 could be considered the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” in 1967, or 2018 could even be considered another variation of the “Summer of Love” in 1968. That loving summer really spanned more than 365 days, anyway.

Ironic that the 30th and 40th anniversaries of those auspicious events didn’t generate much, if any, fuss or cause for celebration. It’s the 50th (golden) anniversary that brings a profound weight upon the days and times when the world was spinning around in chaos as young men were in the midst of the Vietnam conflict, which had really begun in 1965 in terms of U.S. entry into battle. At the same time war was creating the dividing line towards the draft, conscripted service, and conscientious objectors formed two divisions within the country.

Meanwhile on the radio stations (primarily AM radio, thank you), we heard songs of love, peace, and sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. The Beatles’ invasion of America in 1964 overtook the minds and hearts of most teenage girls who fell in love with teenage boys and teenage boys who fell in love...with guitars, bass, and drums. Meanwhile over in Vietnam, strains of pop sounds by The Buckinghams' Carl Giammarese, Nick Fortuna et al., brought sounds of a greater, gentler time. Ironically, The Buckinghams, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and even Paul Revere’s Raiders posed for album covers in various military uniforms ca. 1968. The Cowsills, Chuck Negron and his bandmates in Three Dog Night, the Turtles and the Classics IV were all engaged in battle, against and with the uniformed ones, on the Billboard Music Charts for top spot each week.

With growing dissent in seeing our country at war, an attitude that some dared question the logic behind the war, much to the dismay of longtime patriots who’d rather lose a limb than question authority, the young people of the United States quietly chose positions. Even so, the protests against war were loud but generally orderly. Adults looked at the “children” assembled on college campuses, surveyed the ones who quickly enrolled in college and others who left college to serve their country and yet both groups coexisted in society without venom. No parent wants to lose a child to battle, any battle, and yet the generations who came before never had a choice, or took the effort to make one. Music was a means of disappearing here at home.

Music across the FM airwaves, though, was launching a counterculture sound. Artists who chose to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” mastered the art of guitar, keyboard, and drum solos that might go on for four minutes each as FM radio and 33 RPM albums provided a lengthier expression of music to undergird a protest and profess that love would overcome hate, and war.

Songs of love comprised both AM sunshine pop and FM protest sounds did battle of their own for an audience to listen and purchase their music. Music did battle here at home, but it would be 35-40 years before groups like The Buckinghams would have concerts where, at the end, Vietnam veterans would stand in line for an hour to shake the hands of Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna and their sidemen and say “Thank you so much for playing your music back then. It brought ‘home’ to us.” As the vets stood there, many of them who resembled body builders with waist-long hair cascading over well-worn leather jackets, their eyes filled with tears recalling in an instant what they’d felt like some three and four decades earlier.

Meanwhile, in upstate Bethel, New York, a three-day event occurred that people, especially those who were not there, would remember fondly and warmly for the next five decades. The first evening of Woodstock was August 15, 1969. Among the performers from Max Yasgur’s Farm, are many who are still with us today, still going strong...Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Melanie, Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, and Tim Hardin were six of the acts.

Personal favorites of the songs they brought to life in that time include Arlo’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a song that is at least 17 minutes long and was played by every FM deejay at the end of their radio set, particularly so they could leave the station a good 15 minutes early, or they could take a needed trip down the hall during their long show. Guthrie’s storytelling in song, with guitar, is one-of-a-kind, and all some of us have to hear is one phrase “8x10 color glossies, with the circles and the arrows on the front, and a paragraph on the back of each one, telling what each one was” before bursting into laughter. And no one wanted to sit on the “Group W” bench either. War could be funny, too, although not for long.

Richie Havens, it is said, opened the festival because heavy traffic kept some of the openers from arriving on time, so he managed to become very well known to a crowd of people who really didn’t know much about him before. Singing “Freedom” and many other songs, the audience got a sense of appreciation of what the messages the artists were saying in words and in songs. Others of his 10 songs included “I Can’t Make It Anymore,” “Handsome Johnny,” and “I’m a Stranger Here.”

Joan Baez sang “Oh, Happy Day,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and covered The Stones’ “No Expectations,” “One Day at a Time,” “Take Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” among her offerings. Today when she sings, she brings back memories so strongly.

Saturday, August 16 brought Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, and The Who among the lineup.

Janis Joplin is no longer with us but the memories of her performances there and then are ingrained among everyone who’s ever had access to YouTube, to hear “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime” and “Try(Just a Little Bit Harder),” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose” to the showstopping “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” Janis paved the way for women of grit and substance to take the music scene by storm and if they wanted to live a life out loud in between concerts, well then, that's exactly what she chose to do. And dare anyone to say anything about it other than "she was gone too soon." The power of her voice is still unforgettable.

Santana did Evil Ways,” and “Soul Sacrifice" and covered another Willie Bobo song, “Friend Neck Bone and Some Home Fries” in their set.

Sunday, August 17th brought Johnny Winter, Ten Years After, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young among the artists, with Jimi Hendrix on Monday, August 18th.

Some 50 years later, everyone who dreamed of a CSNY reunion is still waiting for a day that will never arrive. Recent articles in major newspaper interviews find David Crosby lamenting how he was such a (his words) “Jerk” to his bandmates, but still none of the others wish to communicate with Crosby. Crosby is perhaps more famous for discovering Joni Mitchell, and promptly losing the object of his heart to Graham Nash. Everyone has a biography or other tome out that describes love won, love lost, love won again, and oh yes, a bit of Woodstock and Laurel Canyon history to boot.

Blood, Sweat & Tears tours today, with few original members but the lineup gets the songs just fine, and these days it’s harder to find original members playing the songs you fell in love to (on AM and FM alike).

Despite three and four failed attempts to restage Woodstock, or even a reasonable reunion of Woodstock, in the past 18 months, nothing materialized because frankly, in my overly judgmental personal opinion, it seemed an individual or two were just looking to capitalize on the big 5-0 of Woodstock. Thoughts were on the merch that could be sold if people paraded in and out to hear groups that really did not belong anywhere near Woodstock. Some of the proposed lineup was absolutely ridiculous to book for such a gig. It’s a matter of record labels and greedy promoters fighting to get a foot in the door of nostalgia bringing genre that is nowhere near authentic, and fortunately that didn’t happen.

There’s a concert in Bethel, NY, going on this week, all right, but it’s not Woodstock, nor even a reasonable facsimile. Many Woodstock performers are no longer with us. Janis is gone, Richie Havens, Jimi is gone, and some of the bands that were once, are no longer. The members of The Band travel the country today to big audiences, and they have thin but reasonable connections to the ‘real’ Band, so no one cares who’s there as long as the music keeps playing.

Meanwhile, back on the AM side of the dial, ironically one answer to Woodstock at 50, you have the Happy Together anniversary tour available this year. Fifty-three cities mark the path of the tour, currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first reunion concert after 25 years following the first Happy Together Tour (a 60s reunion tour rocked the mid-80s and set Pollstar touring records in 1985).

On this year’s lineup are The Buckinghams, The Cowsills, Chuck Negron (formerly of Three Dog Night), Gary Puckett (& the Union Gap, sans Gap), the Classics IV, and The Turtles (Mark Volman and Ron Dante, longtime studio singer and producer pinch hitting for Howard Kaylan for the 3rd consecutive year). They’ve sold out virtually every show because people are still hungry to hear those sunshine pop songs that promise love, happiness, and forever, all typically in songs that last three minutes or less.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Woodstock 50 is not happening. There’s a concert in Bethel, NY, but frankly, it just doesn’t matter, because it’s not the heart of Woodstock in its origin. Over in Delavan, Wisconsin, a Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young tribute band, CSN Songs, had to add a fourth night to their show at the Belfry Music Theatre because of the hunger for remembrances of their sweet harmonies.

And, in Southern California, Laguna Beach to be specific, on Tuesday, August 13, Kiki Ebsen’s Joni Mitchell Project takes the stage for their fourth year at the Festival of Arts, Pageant of the Masters because people love hearing Joni’s songs, and she gave up touring many years ago. Ebsen’s band (Grant Geissman, Terry Wollman, Steven Lawrence, and Bernie Dressel) together with Kiki bring Joni’s songs to life with standout jazz arrangements and pay homage to Mitchell without being a note-by-note-perfect tribute band. It’s conceivably the best way to honor an artist, providing your own take on their songs.

Song by song, year by year, AM radio gave way to news-talk and sports programs more or less, and FM radio now programs “classic rock,” “soft rock,” and “hard rock” in blends such that you might hear a CSN song, followed by an 80s hit, sandwiched between a yacht rock blend, and barely a hard rock song in the mix. You're lucky if you catch “Bohemian Rhapsody” every now and then. Good news, though. SiriusXM has the formula mastered far better in creating stations devoted to various branches of music and introduces short-term channels devoted to various artists. Pick your favorites. They play them.

Wherever there is live music, there are memories that come along for the ride. You remember when and where you first heard the soundtrack of your life, and as the band on stage cranks up the volume on whatever they’re playing, you look up at them and smile, and they smile back, because every day is the anniversary or some great song or other from our lifetimes. In our lives we amass our very own favorite playlists, and we know the songs we want to hear and the artists we want to see, and we get there however we can to catch these performances.

My dear friend, Betsy, often quotes her husband, Sam’s, wisdom; one of his truths she shares is “Never miss anything that only happens once.” Word. It’s also a command to keep your favorite music alive today, as you did back in the day. You’re never too old to have your favorite songs on the radio. Your songs, your artists, your lyrics, your melodies are a part of the fabric of your life that begins at birth and sustains you all throughout your life, even helping your memories stay strong when your mind can forget a few other things as the years pile on and the information piles up.

And as the postal clerk handed me my sheet of “Woodstock” stamps, I smiled as I kept my thought to myself…the anthem of the multiday festival of love and peace, “Woodstock” was written by a woman who wasn’t even there. But the song has been beloved for over 50 years and likely some 50 years from now, it will be playing on some station somewhere, and even fewer people will understand why some envelopes from 2019 had that stamp on them. Music and memories are what we make of them. It all comes around again on the guitar, Arlo Guthrie said, if you just wait 17 minutes. Life's chorus is just 17 minutes away; nice to know. Peace and music forever. After 50 years, we are still in battle, both here at home and abroad. May our distinguished military service personnel always have concerts to come home to, and may they all come back to us safe and sound. Our world today is not at peace, far from it in fact, but in the next year or so, we will indeed be that much closer to realizing equilibrium, where we belong.