Monday, August 10, 2009

"The trauma of the 1960s still sounds"

In one of a series of reflections on the impact of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago (actually, the real 40th anniversary is next week, but that's OK; time and acid flashbacks probably dim memories somewhat), Rick Perlstein considers the media's influence on our perception of the event.
Page 33 of the Aug. 29 issue [of Time magazine]featured a full-color photograph from Woodstock captioned, “Boys and girls related in a nearby river”; none of the relating boys and girls wore clothes.

The accompanying essay, “The Message of History’s Biggest Happening,” noted that though Time usually recognized “battles won, treaties signed, rulers elected or deposed,” Woodstock should be counted among them “as one of the significant political and sociological events of the age” — “the moment when the special culture of U.S. youth of the ’60s openly displayed its strength, appeal and power.”


Strikingly, Time’s point of view prevailed. A Times editorial had sternly rebuked the silly notion that Woodstock represented anything positive: “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” Later, they came around to what had become the hegemonic view, and re-dubbed Woodstock “essentially a phenomenon of innocence.”

When I was a wee young graduate student at the Catholic University of America, back in the spring of 1995, a professor described "that rock concert a few years ago" as "nothing but an orgy", in tones that suggested such a thing might actually be worse than hanging a crucifix upside down and peeing on an image of the Virgin Mary.

At the times of Woodstock, there were three television networks, one or two leading opinion journals (Time being the oldest and most staid, a Luce publication still), and The New York Times was really the only national newspaper. Part of the reason for the huge impact of Time's editorial view on the rest of the media was due in no small measure to the smallness and (even by today's standards) insularity of the mainstream media. The event, held in Bethel in the Catskill's, was still close enough to New York City, with the promoters based in Greenwich Village, that it seemed just a hop, skip, and a jump up the road. From there, the message spread out. This was further aided by a film (edited by Martin Scorcese!) released the next year in part to help the investors get back the pile of money they lost.

While the weekend was a financial disaster, a last musical hurrah for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (the liner notes to the CD release of his complete set notes that he added a second guitarist, who was both turned down and hadn't rehearsed), and managed to succeed through not providing images of young people being too violent or otherwise unruly, for many on the right, it still encapsulates many of the social and cultural horrors that we continue to abide. The public nudity and lax sexual mores. The drug use. Really loud music promoting both. The absence of any kind of recognizable religion or organized faith system. When hundreds of thousands of young people gathered, there seemed to be nothing preventing them from dropping acid and smoking pot, fornicating, and refusing to feel bad about it.

Since, on any given Friday or Saturday night, in bars, night clubs, honky tonks, roadhouses, and even wedding receptions across this fair land, this same behavior (with, perhaps, alcohol consumption replacing acid, although pot is still pretty popular) still occurs, it seems many conservatives fear the cultural chasm opened by the counter-culture can never be filled in.

I tire of references to the 1960's, to be honest. I was not yet four at the time of Woodstock, and am now a middle-aged man. Many of the attendees at Woodstock are now collecting Social Security checks, and receive Medicare funding to treat their acid flashbacks and venereal diseases they no doubt received at that particular bacchanalia. The musicians from the era are dead, retired, or washed up. While some of the music still sounds fresh, if not exactly new, the entire event seems not just dated, aesthetically, but culturally as well. For the most part, our young people (and Lord it pains me to write it this way, because it is an admission that I am no longer of "our young people") have a whole different cultural understanding, not to mention musical and artistic aesthetic. Cultural and political conservatives, who seem constantly to recall to the 1960's (such as the denunciations of the Weather Underground during last year's election; who even remembers Bill Ayres and the Weathermen, for God's sake, let alone cares?) are far more culturally and politically dangerous than a few naked hippies cavorting in the late Max Yasgur's fields.

That Perlstein's account, quoted in the title, is correct shows how stunted cultural and political conservatism has become. Their reference points for argument are so far in the past as to be irrelevant. Like the neoconservatives who pine for the Cold War, cultural conservatives long for the kind of vocal youth movement against which they can rally the silent majority. Unfortunately, the world has aged, and their touchstones are now the stuff of nostalgic reflection rather than a seedbed of revolution.

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