I always wished I could have attended Woodstock. I was just a nine-year-old Jewish kid in Chicago when the famous rock festival took place 37 years ago next week, hardly an aficionado of the 60s counterculture. The closest I had come to the hippie lifestyle was gazing out through the locked windows of my father’s Cadillac at the mayhem in Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I’m still not sure what possessed my normally fearful father to drive his entire family into the heart of this sometimes violent anti-war protest but it was a pivotal moment in my political awakening. I wanted to be freed from the cushy confines of my father’s black El Dorado and face down the National Guard with Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman. In theory, anyway. In truth, watching “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on Monday nights was already pushing the envelope of my pre-tween comfort level. Sock it to me? Okay, if you must, but not too hard.
When I heard about Woodstock the following summer, it seemed like THE place for a counterculture wannabe. About to enter fifth grade, however, I was in no position to head off to the soggy mud fields of upstate New York where the incredible four-day festival took place. One interesting blogger I’ve gotten to know a bit, Justin Kreutzmann, actually was at Woodstock, even though he was only three months old. His dad, Bill Kreutzmann was the drummer for the Grateful Dead and Bill and his wife were unable to get a babysitter that week so they brought their baby son with them to the festival. An auspicious beginning for Kreutzmann, now a filmmaker who is currently on the road with The Who making a documentary about their latest world tour. What was that story about Pete Townshend knocking Abbie Hoffman off the stage with his guitar during The Who’s Woodstock set when Hoffman tried to make a political speech? I think Hoffman claimed that Townshend hit him by accident but it’s still a great story. Among the other legendary performers at Woodstock, of course, were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Sly & the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, and countless others. Wow.
I just returned from a quick trip to Chicago to attend the Lollapalooza music festival where my nephew’s band The Blisters and my brother-in-law’s band Wilco performed. I loved it but had the frequent thought that while I was way too young and square for Woodstock in 1969 I’m now way too old and square for Lollapalooza in 2006. I admit I’d never heard of at least 80 percent of the bands playing this year’s Lollapalooza. I assumed that most were obscure, unknown musicians but every time I questioned one of them to the pre-teen Blisters, their parents, or Ellen and Greg, our thirtysomething friends from New York who had flown in for the weekend, they looked at me like I was from another planet. Where have I been for the past ten years, locked in a room listening to 1950s showtunes on my iPod? Well, yes, sort of. Is it too late for me to regain the street cred I pretended to have in the late 1960s?
While Lollapalooza bears little resemblance to Woodstock, it’s always very moving to feel that communal spirit that develops whenever people are gathered together to hear music. As I wandered through the massive grounds at Grant Park, the very site of those Democratic Convention protests that still haunt me, I felt like an ancient relic watching the impossibly young festival goers running to various stages to hear their favorite bands. There was not a lot of counterculture activity or anti-war protests among the mostly white, well off crowd, and the corporate logos were in full force throughout the three days, but I could still feel the spirit. The distances between some of the stages was so great that I feared I'd need a respirator before the festival was over. As luck would have it, our all-access passes gave us entry to the luxurious Artist’s Village that looked like the set from a Calvin Klein perfume ad with its billowing white curtains, circular leather sofas, and gigantic gold Buddha statue. Not to mention the endless free drinks. Should I have shown my solidarity with the real rock fans by joining them standing for hours in front of the stages in the blazing sun? Nah.
The Blisters played the “Kidzapalooza” stage on Friday afternoon. It’s always fun seeing them perform and Spencer’s drumming never ceases to amaze me. The newspapers kept mistakenly saying that my six-year-old nephew Sam was also in the band, an error that I’m sure started because of Sammy’s brief appearance in the Blisters’ Quaker Oats commercial last year. I love watching Hayden, Dylan, Spencer, and Henry in action and it will be interesting to see how their musical abilities develop as they get older. But I’m glad they are leading completely normal kid lives except for the occasional weird experience making a commercial, playing music in front of massive crowds, or being turned into a coloring book page!
On Sunday we drove Spencer to camp in Wisconsin and then headed back to Grant Park to see Wilco. We jumped onto the stage and marveled at the more than 50,000 fans watching rapturously. It was a great show, although frustratingly short because of the strict festival rules that prohibited the band from going over its allotted hour. As the Chicago Tribune reported yesterday:
Wilco came home bearing gifts: four new songs, including “Impossible Germany,” with three lilting, interwoven guitars; the folk ballad “What Light”; a noirish soul-stirrer, “Let's Fight”; and “Walken,” with a three-piece horn section. Tweedy was in an ebullient mood, shouting out to his wife, Sue Miller, on their 11th anniversary, and orchestrating a singalong on the sun-kissed “Jesus, Etc.”
As you can see, I’m still reluctant to “review” Wilco on here since I’m biased and I know I’d sound like an idiot—I'll only say that I’d love their music even if I weren’t related (but I probably wouldn’t have been standing in that crowd of 52,000). More than ever I was struck by the power of Jeff’s lyrics that touch the soul and make total strangers feel like they’re part of some kind of transcendent group experience.
I wandered the stages in between the Blisters and Wilco and enjoyed several bands whose names I sadly cannot remember except for the Violent Femmes, Poi Dog Pondering (featuring original member and friend-to-this-blog Dave Crawford) and Jack White’s new band The Raconteurs. The last band after Wilco was The Red Hot Chili Peppers who did little for me (I’m sure they’ll be devastated to hear that I didn’t care for their show).
While in Chicago, Jeff showed us the rough cut of the new documentary that will be coming out this fall that was shot during his solo tour in the Pacific Northwest earlier this year. In addition to the great music, this Christoph Green-directed film is beautifully shot and masterfully edited. I think it’s coming out on DVD in September but I’m sorry it’s not getting a theatrical release.
The one line of Jeff’s that was quoted in the Tribune review was his appreciation of the enthusiastic crowd. “I'm so proud of you, Chicago,” he said. “You really know how to go to a festival.” And it was true. I felt an extremely positive vibe throughout the whole Lollapalooza event, even with all the corporate shilling that would have made the Woodstock folks cringe in horror. Jeff’s haunting lyrics continue to offer a window into a part of him that is not always apparent in regular daily life. Isn’t that what artistic expression is about? Why any of us write anything at all? I’m sometimes tempted to ask Jeff what certain lyrics “mean” but I don’t. Isn’t it really about what I think they mean and how they affect me?
Jesus, don't cry
You can rely on me honey
You can combine anything you want.
I'll be around
You were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun.
Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.