Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Acid Cinema #0: Woodstock (1970)

You can say you were at Woodstock, and no one wont believe you, no matter what your age. Maybe you were there in a past life, or as a gleam in your father's eye, or as a swirling little mess of DNA and placenta, or a spirit drawn from another dimension by the flame-like heat of Hendrix's guitar, a spirit who didn't intend to stay for the encore but wound up caught in a wandering womb matrix. Somehow, in one way or another, a whole future generation was born there, in the crucible heated by the flickering counter-culture's brief, brief candle. The sudden, ecstatic group realization that no one was pushing, shoving, fighting or bitching even in these intolerably wet circumstances rippled through the crowd. If you've ever done something nice for some stranger, for no reason, then you understand. Or ever been at a party where you loved everyone, every single person in the huge mass, and there wasn't even one person who was preventing you from being totally free and yourself, so comfortable in your own skin you slip right out of it.  It was a fire of love, literally, and Joni Mitchell was right: we've been trying to get ourselves back to the garden ever since (Joni actually missed it, stuck in New York, afraid of the traffic and I don't blame her).

However, if Joni had gone to Woodstock, where I was this weekend, visiting my friend Abbe, she might have realized the garden is still alive and well, just cautiously off the radar. During my 24-hour stay, coincidence and cross-currents of fate led me to meeting original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang's wife, Tamara, and his co-planner Lee Blumer. All I could talk about with them was movies, of course, and they were busy actually living something better than movies, like being in them. Oh man! I wasn't familiar with the idea that alternate lifestyles not only had progressed since I was away, they'd surpassed me. I was like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS. All I knew was the search and the struggle, and here they were, back in the garden the whole time, which was now tricked out with hummingbird feeders and heated salt water pools, children who practice their box-stitches without fear, and transcendental beauty everywhere. Even the oak leaves seemed evolved, with tips warped into permanent trail curly-cues.

Whether you're living green and free or beat in a fifth floor walk-up in the city, you can still feel the currents of change, love and empowerment every time you plug in your DVD player and watch WOODSTOCK (1970), a sprawling concert film that's recently been extended to, I believe, 145 hours in length.

Early in the film, we see the curly haired jester/concert promoter Michael Lang riding over the empty rolling green hills on his motorcycle, maybe just a speaker tower or two in the background. Appearing very pleased and unstressed, Lang can't know in these early scenes the extent of his impending success, that his baby would close the New York Thruway. His confidence seems a little weird, then, in the circumstances. People love to forget that the psychedelic drug culture was actually very sharp and high tech. Still, no one would really know just how rare and monumental this event was until they saw GIMME SHELTER and realized Woodstock was a one-time miracle, not the "way it was gonna be... from now on."

To watch a drunk in his cups is to see the arc of a generation daring to toss repression to the wind --they transcend and get accolades, get cocky, and then hungover and remorseful, self-righteous, sacrosanct, dogmatic. Wherever the visionaries, artists, musicians and beautiful people go, the eager-to-get-some free love/sex or in-exchange-for-coke skeezeballs, corporate profiteers, sycophants, home-wreckers, moochers, and knife-wielding loners follow. 

But Woodstock still lives. It turns out my visit coincided with the Woodstock Festival's 40th anniversary, replete with Ritchie Havens and tons of other stuff going on, which I missed, preferring to lie low in Abbe's garden. Apparently the big event planned at Yasgur's farm had fallen through, but the spirit raged on, somewhere in town, some outdoor stage now enriched with hyper-intelligent children in solar-powered geothermal strollers. Again, I was there by chance. But chance is not the same in Woodstock as it is other places. If you were ever once a true freak, you will find your soul's true parents thar.

The peak of the show for me is Joe Cocker, "A Little Help from Me Friends" -- It starts out low and gradually Cocker's burly thick voice builds to a furiously joyous crescendo: "All we gotta do is love now," the bass starts sliding away then comes back with a spine-tingling acceleration, piano, pounding drums, Cocker just roaring along like a big Welsh maniac on his first trip into total freedom, pure love awareness. The charge of "getting together with all my friends" was huge at Woodstock, the song had to measure up, and this one did. The sound quality is supernatural, an amazing moment in time when God is in the machinery, and love surges through every perfect second; the blinders are finally off, and things like private property, shame, anger and resentment all evaporate like water in the blast furnace of Cocker's diaphragm.

The perfect blend of high, help and friends surges through Cocker's soulful voice for this song, his body seems to barely keep up, it contorts in frenzied devotion as the "sound" belts forward, and one can't imagine a better one in a rock singer's life: a big crazy stage, loud, fans into infinity, the dawning of the age of Aquarius; everything was going to be okay. Cocker comes onstage with a little glass of beer or water or something, a little drunk maybe, tripping definitely, coasting through that open hole in the defenses of egoic self that enables open-hearted hugs to palpitate through one's every motion. How can that little paper beer cup ever serve to quench such an enormous thirst? Or is it the reverse of thirst he is projecting? His is a fury without anger, with mystical, massive beautiful side burns, a colorful t-shirt completely soaked, hair wet. He howls like a deep man-banshee and all it's in the name of love, an electric feedback squall of selfless but sexual, fraternal but carnal, chaste but ravenous, universal but familial, love baby. You realize how much 'benevolent ferocity' we've lost as men. Look at the picture up there, with his tie-dye exploding outwards like he just took a love bullet in the ribs, his wild English face is the mirror to the explosion on the shirt, from the depths of his diaphragm and soul, all chakras blazing, out through the diaphragm to Woodstock, to and through the people, the past, the future, and to and through the endless masks of God.

The performance would be nothing without the Beatles' influential Sgt. Pepper's, from which you know comes said song. Ringo's pleasant modesty in answering the spiritual questions: "Yes. I'm certain it happens all the time," was too much genuine open-hearted, non-gender specific communal love for the unprepared ego to handle, it flooded you over and sent you to the ground laughing and crying at the same time. You didn't have to lick the buttons on their tacky uniforms to get way high... it was in the wind, troop! A wind which had fanned a big flame that was now a raging Woodstock bonfire sea. The words are like Poe's Purloined Letter finally and inevitably arriving at its full expression, all that stuff we put out there, those bottled messages, all came pouring down on us all like rain. Just one simple message in that letter: Love Everyone, Right Now. It's okay. We all love you, I love you. It was a transcendental now as just once everyone got attuned to that blazing pink and red serpentine rhythm and release. That was all we needed, and in that one moment, Cocker was its elected voice, a howl of love that overwhelmed lyrics like "I can't tell you but I know it's mine," the way the incoming tide overwhelms a sandcastle. Whether it wiped out the sandcastles of Vietnam and unrest is irrelevant ultimately, despite the felt failure of the hippie protest system (it was protesting got these people together, so in a way, Vietnam created hippies). What counts is there was a wave. And if ever a concert movie captured that elusive power, it's WOODSTOCK. If there's ever another such wave again, we should name it Michael.

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