August 2009

Woodstock: 40 Years After

Five years ago, we wrote a poem entitled Woodstock: 35 Years After. It was inspired by the fact that having missed the original “Woodstock,” (actual location of course being Bethel, NY) we had at long last made it. Three and a half decades too late…but we had arrived.

If you have ever seen us do a live public reading of that poem, you have caught the setup shtick about why we missed Woodstock originally: “Among the many wussy reasons, the wussiest of all being… it was going to rain.” (Pause for ironic laughter).

We go on to say, that what had finally brought us there was—of all things—a poetry festival: “Boy there’s a wild bunch. Dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, people mixing metaphors in the nude—the police had to be called in!” (Pause for satiric chuckle.) *

So with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock coming up on the 15th-17th of this month, we decided to have a look at the official 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collection Edition DVD (commemorative sew-on patch included!).

In doing so we had hoped to once more get a sense of just what it was that we had missed at THE event billed as one of peace and music.

The peace part of the promise was affirmed by some credible adults on the scene. One being Max Yasgur himself—the owner of the farm on which the festival was taking place. He made this public statement:

“You people have proven to the world…this is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place… a half-million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music, and nothing but fun and music. And I God bless you for it.”

And there was this ringing endorsement that emerged from a media interview:

COP:    Very lovely children, I’m very happy to say. We think the people of this country should be proud of these kids, not withstanding the way they dress or the way they wear their hair; that’s their own personal business. But their inner workings, their inner selves, their self-demeanor cannot be questioned; they can’t be questioned as good Americans.

INTERVIEWER:    That’s kind of surprising coming from a cop.

COP:    I’m not a cop. I’m the chief of police.

And of course, it all took on Biblical proportions when the crowd became too large and the food too scarce, and then indeed, it not only began to rain, but storm. (“PLEASE MOVE AWAY FROM THE TOWERS.”)

Helicopters had to be flown in with emergency supplies, as festival planners and organizers who were expecting “only” 50,000 people, were overwhelmed by the nearly 500,000 who actually arrived, turning it now, into a FREE festival. Yet, Good Samaritans were in abundance. (“We’re all feeding each other”… “kids are hungry, ya gotta feed them.”) And peace did prevail.

As for the music, was there ever a singer who could wrench a song out of a contortion of flesh that passed for a body, better than Joe Cocker?

His rendition of With A Little Help From My Friends at this event, is one for the ages. It confirmed for us that he is one of the best and most underrated rock performers ever—all John Belushi parodies aside. Inexplicably, he is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For shame.

And speaking of exorcizing songs out of tortured bodies, Janis Joplin would later follow and be at her excruciatingly best. Still later, came Jimi Hendrix with his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (on acid), with a rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air, jettisoned from the magic of his guitar.

The list of legendary rock talent went on and on and the music was at its classic best. For sure.

But for us, with 40 years of hindsight now reinforced by this recent reviewing, Woodstock ultimately was not about the celebration of peace and music. Nor do we believe Woodstock was ever really about making any political statement, all anti-war songs and “heavy raps” from the stage aside. And it was not an event from which one could draw definitive conclusions regarding its long-term impact on the culture. Invariably, one’s current political persuasions will tend to color any such assessments.

For us, what Woodstock was about goes something like this:

A celebration of that one summer in a life—a present and perfect circle of moment— when one will never again be this young, this innocent, and this unaccountable.

And that is no small matter. Wordsworth addressed it this way:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

Note that the pun in the metaphor “of splendour in the grass,” as applied to Woodstock is unintended, but most apt.

Though no Wordsworth are we, it is a theme we have tried to address before in our own poetry, and most specifically, in the poem to follow. While not written originally with Woodstock in mind (nor Wordsworth for that matter), it now captures for us, what Woodstock feels like forty years after.


The Cherry Horses

Is it that we have
But one summer, one chance
To ride the cherry horses
In their calibrated circle?

Remember how they had bared their teeth
At the pull on the reins?
How they glistened in their paint?
You can almost hear them whinny

In that callioped syncopation—
Heads bobbing up and down
To a summer's lost tune
To a fool heart's delight.

There were no dreams to cling to in that ride
Of what was, or might one day be.
Just a present and perfect circle of moment
The one we now hold up to the autumn light

On a pedestal of fingertips.
But have no fear.
We dare not let it fall
No, we dare not let it fall.

Hear the music box begin
See the circle re-spin
Ride again
The cherry horses.


Will you still need me, will you still feed me...

…when I’m sixty-four? We’ll find out on the 20th of this month, when we reach that milestone so whimsically immortalized by McCartney on Sgt. Pepper.

We have known a number of people who share this birth date, whom we have affectionately come to refer to as the “820’s.” We take a moment to remember one such 820, Michael Lifset, a dear friend who died of AIDS in 1989. Michael was memorialized with a panel on the AIDS Quilt.

He would be turning 59 now, and freaking out about being on the cusp of a dreaded “sixty.” They say that age is “a state of mind.” Thinking of Michael, we say, it is a state of being.


Kenya: A Trip in Every Sense

We may have missed Woodstock, but would not have missed this trip for the world; a third world at that. If Woodstock was about overindulgence, Kenya is about “under” indulgence.

As a member of St. Monica’s parish (in Santa Monica) we were given the opportunity to go on a mission to Holy Cross—a sister parish in Dandora, an eastern suburb of Nairobi. The purpose was to witness the work that has been done, and that still needs to be done, in assisting the poorest of the poor in their plight.

This entailed not only interacting directly with those in the parish, but with other organizations set up for similar purposes. This was not a trip with an itinerary you would find in any Frommer’s Guide or any other tourist guide for that matter. We were going where tourists dare not go. But in this context, there we went.

We knew that Kenya was a relatively poor country statistically. Between the 1970s and 2000, the number of Kenyans classified as poor grew from 29 percent to about 57 percent. (Source: Library of Congress). But statistics do not prepare one for Dandora, which has been used as a garbage-dumping site and has evolved into a high-density slum. It was listed by the Blacksmith Institute as one of the most polluted areas in the world.

Nor do statistics prepare one for a walk through Kibera, another slum— the largest in Africa— with an estimated one million people squeezed into an area that is 75% the size of Central Park. As another point in our cultural reference, it was also a place featured in The Constant Gardner—a 2005 film starring Ralph Fiennes.

And nothing prepares you for the children who comprise 45% of the total Kenyan population. And it is always about the children, who are ever present; up close and personal. Yet ever personable (“whale-comb veezi-tahs”) and filled with wonder at the magic of our technology. The picture taking and show-and-tell on digital cameras were never ending. Nor did one want them to be.

They come at you in all forms of economical, sociological and pathological development.

At their best, in mind and body, are those receiving a good education at the St. James School in the Holy Cross parish (all excellent in their penmanship, by the way). Impeccably dressed in their school uniforms, they recite for us proudly the lessons they are so diligently learning.

Then there are those who are abandoned to the streets and are picked up and cared for by the Boma Rescue Mission. They greet us with song and tribal dance. Later we would get down with them and kick some soccer balls around.

There are those who are neurologically damaged and cannot verbalize their inner thoughts. Who yet managed a smile that said it all, during our singing and dancing (there was music in the air wherever we went). They are cared for by the Missionaries of Charity—Mother Theresa’s order of nuns. We met a nun there who had worked directly with that saintly woman of Calcutta, and had fascinating stories about her, to tell.

There are those who are HIV positive. And they sang out their names and ran and played in an orphanage called Nyumbani (“at home” in Swahili). It included a small cemetery out back, containing those kids whose affliction was caught too late, and unable to respond to medication. Yet, the children there seem oblivious to it all, and run about among the small crosses. We are told they have learned to accept life and death, as just another part of their everyday.

And then there were those who are just “plain” orphans; healthy infants awaiting a home.

Having taken these children in our arms, we have tempered our prejudgments against those celebrities—the Jolies, the Farrows, the Madonnas of the world—whom we used to think of as adopters of African kids for sport, so to speak. But there are so many kids out there in desperate need. We thought we knew that before. Now we really do.

What one comes away with amidst all this poverty and suffering, however, is the continued upbeat spirit of the Kenyan people. They smile, they wave, they seem genuinely happy to see us. And they are filled with a steely determination.

Visiting some in their ultra-modest homes they are gracious and generous in their offering of something to eat. They are proud of their sparse surroundings and the little they have, which they never hesitate to share.

But admittedly, this trip wasn’t all altruistic. For one thing, we did stay at some quality lodgings and ate at some unique restaurants. Carnivore—serving ostrich and crocodile among its many meats—comes readily to mind. And we did get to do some sightseeing in the form of a Safari at Masai Mara, (a five hour drive from Nairobi on mostly unpaved roads)… a visit to an elephant orphanage to watch baby elephants being bottle-fed… a stop off at the Giraffe Centre (where we had giraffes literally eating out of our hand)… and last but not least, a visit to a Masai village where the tribe still lives in accordance with the old world African customs and ways.

The guide that showed us around— in his red tribal warrior dress and crude weapon— does however have access to email, through some organization not far from the village. Can Facebook and Twitter be far behind?

At this point, we close with an opportunity to view a nine-minute “visual poem” we have composed (as opposed to say, ugh, a vacationer’s eternal “carrousel” of slides, accompanied by a drone of narration) that we think captures the essence of the trip.

(The end)

* Live recitation of Woodstock: 35 Years After :

Web Design by Computaid
Copyright © 2004-2007