Some forty-five years ago, I—along with some five hundred
thousand of my closest friends—attended a remarkable party on a farm in New
York’s Sullivan County. Some time later, in reminiscing about that momentous
blow-out, I wrote the following account:
By the Time I got to
On the first of “four days of peace, love and music,” we
packed ourselves into a Dodge Dart and drove from New Paltz to Bethel. OK,
somewhere near Bethel—we got to within nine miles of the festival. After an
immobile hour or two, my Dart-borne companions were ready to turn back.
Not about to miss this historical event, I climbed out,
hoisted a sleeping bag onto my shoulder, and started walking past the endless
line of stopped cars. After walking forever in the August heat—when I was
perhaps half-way to the festival site—heaven smiled on this weary traveler. It
began to rain—no mere sprinkle, but a hippie-soaking downpour.
Imagine the scene: thousands upon thousands of wet, tired,
hippies (many with wet tired dogs) along a twenty-mile-long parking lot.
Somewhere in the middle of this fragrant jamboree, a tall skinny guy, wearing
white bellbottoms, a shiny purple rayon shirt (with puffy sleeves—good lord,
what was I thinking?), trudged along, somewhat stooped under the weight of a
water-logged sleeping bag.
Did this pony-tailed guy give up? No freakin’ way!
Not then, at least—the next morning was a different story.
I had spent the night cuddling up, beside someone I should
never have been with, in that very wet sleeping bag. Did I mention that it was
lined with some cheesy yellow-dyed flannel—and that, at the first sign of
moisture, it released that yellow dye all over the enclosed hippies? Did I
mention that the sleeping bag was, itself, half submerged in the re-hydrated fecal
matter of generations of Max Yasgur’s dairy cows?
Enough was enough. I shuffled back down that same highway,
and—when I reached some traffic that was moving—hitched a ride to New Paltz.
The white bell-bottoms—stained by god-knows-what-all was
living in the mud of peace, love and music—were never white again. No
amount of bleach was to have any effect on them. I had to dye them a nearly
fluorescent shade of magenta.
What can I say—It was 1969, and it seemed like a good thing
to do at the time.
This week-end, I revisited the site of those events. The
times they’ve been a-changing there. The long dirt road from the highway to Max
Yasgur’s farm has grown into a paved two-lane road. A fancy museum and
performance space now perches atop the hill. Inside, a gift shop overflows with
peace, love, and trinkets—both cheap and not-so-cheap.
The museum’s exhibits did a great job of putting the
weekend’s events in historical perspective—but that, of course, is one of the
things that museums are supposed to do. They attempt to contextualize a
collection of images and objects in order to help us imagine what it was like
to be among them when they were current.
Unfortunately, museums can never really succeed because the moments
they try to describe were filled with countless other things and sensations: things that are uncollectable,
sensations that were taken for granted in
the moment, but distinguish actual life from dioramas. No doubt, all historical
museums are up against similar problems in trying to recreate the je ne sai quoi of temps perdu.
Certainly, the Museum at Bethel Woods showed ample photos
and film of healthy young people joyously frolicking in mud… but do museum-goers
smell that mud? Do they feel it
oozing between their toes? Do they feel the grit of drying mud—in their hair, their
ears, their very eyelashes—upon waking, before they even realize where they are?
Can it help them to envision being deeply uncomfortable, but simultaneously
oblivious to their discomforts because they were trivial compared the bizarre
joy of rising amidst half a million equally uncomfortable but ecstatic friends?
Do the photos capture the profound funkiness of half a million unwashed and
mostly unwashable bodies, bodies that were more closely packed than in any time
in human history? Might there have been a moment, onstage, when Ravi Shankar
said to himself, “Odd… this smells a bit like the India I tried to leave behind
when I came to the West?”
Revisiting that oh-so-clean homage to a moment in our history,
with its glass cases filled with sanctified detritus of half-century-old everyday
hippie life, and carefully re-created versions of things that were abandoned
ages ago, I am reminded that, while we might—occasionally—find a spot where we
were once, nothing about the spot will be the same. That the moments we
remember, or even imagine we remember, are not what we believe them to have
been. Inexplicably, words from a Kenneth Rexroth poem—in which he envisioned an amorous
moment shared by Antony and Cleopatra—form in my head:
Their clothes of lace and velvet
And gold brocade and climbing
Naked into bed together
Lice in their stinking perfumed
Armpits, the bed full of bugs.
On the way home, we stopped at a nearby restaurant, where our
twenty-something waitress asked us if we had been to the festival. When I
answered in the affirmative, she followed with, “Do you remember anything?”
Now I don’t know, for a fact, that her question implied a
suspicion of illicit activities at the festival. Perhaps she merely assumed
that I was suffering from senile dementia. Either way, it was a damned good