Having grown up and experienced the Woodstock Years, I attend as many events about this unforgettable era and its music as I can. For example, on April 5-7 Boston’s Berklee School of Music hosted Woodstock: Then and Now with Michael Lang and Chip Monck, the producers and idea men behind the now legendary concert in attendance.
Still, I knew going to see The Boston Pops Orchestra’s (led by conductor Keith Lockhart) Summer Of ‘69 in Symphony Hall would be a much more conservative affair. After all, they are a classical music band.
Compared to 99% of the people walking into the magnificent venue, I was dressed pretty wild in my Panama hat with a wide red, green and gold band, purple Chinese robe with old coins with holes in them for buttons and a Rajasthani gipsy black, red, orange, green and yellow elaborately beaded necklace. With sandals to boot.
As I was standing outside people watching, battalions of extremely conservative-looking white teenagers and their chaperones from the Christian Heritage Society (I looked it up in the program) were streaming by in their suits and blazers, ties, shirts buttoned to their collars and not a hair out of place on one hundred heads.
This is absurd, I said to myself. I tried. I really did try to remain silent but the little devils inside me were poking me with their pitchforks, so I said it. Coward, that I am, I chose one of the smaller callow boys, tapped him on the shoulder and commented, “So, the young republicans are doing Woodstock tonight, huh?” He was either not happy about that or didn’t understand the implication of what I said. My guess is he wasn’t pleased.
We are 50 years removed from Woodstock. I remember 1969. Beatles, pot. Stones, hash. Led Zeppelin, mescaline. Jimi, Jim and Janis, LSD. And walking through the Boston Common after school taking a long way home. Who and what were those long-haired androgynous freaks tossing frisbees, strumming on guitars, laying on sleeping bags, carrying their lives on their backs? How about that black and white guy smoking a spliff together, laughing, talking, shaking hands, calling each other brother. Hmmmm…
The Pops are popping from the opening note with Strauss’s Sprach Zarathustra, Daybreak by Ravel and John Williams’ The Turbulent Years from Nixon, the Oliver Stone movie. By the way, according to the meticulously researched book Family of Secrets about the Bushes by Russ Baker, President Richard Nixon was framed for Watergate. He knew nothing about it.
The Pops dug for even more gold with Beatle George’s Here Comes the Sun and Bowie’s Space Oddity (“Can you hear me, Major Tom?”). Eleven days after Bowie released that song in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Then renaissance woman, Dr. Mae Jemison, physician, engineer, former NASA astronaut and so much more, narrated composer James Beckel’s From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond.
After intermission, a guitarist in a white tuxedo and bow tie played the Jimi Hendrix version of The Star-Spangled Banner, during which senior citizens scattered throughout the audience whooped and, at its conclusion, stood. Funny they don’t list the guitarist in the program, although they list the stage manager and librarians, among others. They weren’t done mining. Next up was Pete Townsend and The Who’s Tommy Overture/Pinball Wizard.
Yes, See me, Feel me, Touch me… Townsend was, and maybe still is, a devotee of the Indian Avatar, Meher Baba. After several decades of silence, the sage spoke these words: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. If they sound familiar, it is probably because Bobby McFerrin recorded “a little ditty” by the same name. He, too, was into Baba.
A lotta nostalgia on this night. The Beatles, Bowie, Hendrix and The Who rocked out symphonically. The band was stretching out, too. I can’t substantiate that the esteemed conductor, Mr. Lockhart, smokes herb. However, judging by the far-out arrangements, I bet he does.
Arlo Guthrie, the evening’s featured musical performer, strode on stage, ever the freak with his way long white hair and white beard and played a spirited rendition of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are-A-Changing. Ever the wit and wag, Arlo fiddled with his guitar and cracked: “I might as well be in tune, especially with these guys behind me.” (In fact, there are many females in the orchestra.)
Naturally, he had some things to say about Woodstock, the first quoting Wavy Gravy of The Hog Farm: “If you remember Woodstock, you weren’t there.” Arlo added: “I remember getting there. I don’t remember what they were doing, but I was doing it with them.” And this: “I remember stuff but whether from the movie or my life, I’m not sure.” He got so high that when they asked him to play (he was actually scheduled for later), he said: “I can’t play. I am not even here.”
When he eventually made it to the stage, he got the munchies but there was nothing to eat back there for the musicians. The only refreshments were 137 cases of champagne, to be drunk at the end of the show. “But they drank it all up,” he laughed.
His classic Mr. Customs Man about a dealer’s flight and fright about being frisked and busted received a quirky, creative arrangement with snippets of The Pink Panther, Mission Impossible and James Bond themes interspersed in the song. He followed his hit with Leadbelly’s Alabama Bound and a nod to Elvis with I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. Arlo is nothing, if not unpredictable. For an encore, he and most of the audience sang his father Woody’s, This Land Is Your Land, the real national anthem, in my mind.
After I had sat in the nearly empty hallowed musical temple for several minutes basking in the afterglow of the spirited evening, I went downstairs and - I couldn’t believe it, I was questioning my eyesight - who did I run into but the young republican. He was sanitizing his hands. Maybe he was trying to wash off Arlo the Hippie.
I greeted him amicably and asked: “How'd you like the show?” The kid was sober, real sober, scarily sober. Of body, mind and demeanour, as if someone had robbed him of something vital. Although he probably didn’t want to ask and probably didn’t care, he replied: “How’d YOU like the show?” I told him I loved it and wished him well.
It was a festive night, “Summer of ‘69” was, with the Christian Heritage Academy, the well-to-do Boston Brahmins and other well-healed sponsors and a bunch of old stoners in the house.
Music brings us all together like nothing else.