by Alan H. Rolnick, author of Landmark Status

My brother recently sent me a riotous pictographic transliteration of a Joe Cocker performance from Woodstock, which, despite seeming like it was only yesterday to those who were there and are still here, really did take place almost forty years ago. Watching the clip, I realized that Joe was the original air guitarist, inventor of the invisible instrument and the leading techniques for playing it. At the time, we didn’t know there was (or ever would be) a name for what he was doing.

I don’t remember if I saw Joe’s performance, though I remain certain I was there, despite having reached the age where one’s own history begins fermenting into a strange brew of half-remembered facts, stuff other people did and wishful thinking, later to be quibbled about by old farts on park benches, one alta cocker to another. Which makes it a perfect time for folks who can’t leave well enough alone to print tickets to a reunion concert.

Reunions are tricky, because nostalgia usually promises more than it delivers. Like the thirtieth-anniversary Woodstock concert, which was such a disaster that this year’s event will occur hundreds or thousands of miles away from Yasgur’s farm. Lucky me, to have been there the first time and grown up nearby, where everyone knew about Woodstock, fabled home to artists, beatniks, folkies, girls with no bras, even Dylan and the Band. There was no doubt we’d be there when Richie Havens sawed through his strings.

I’d just finished my first year in college, largely spent chasing the latest sound up and down the East Coast. Like Sly and the Family Stone, who I shlepped to Philly in the snow to see, joyously inventing funk. Or Steppenwolf opening for Quicksilver opening for the Electric Flag at the Fillmore, all on their first national tour (I still have the ticket stub somewhere). I’m not saying that concert is the reason why Chuck Steinberg’s obsessive-compulsive navigator in Landmark Status always had to play the Flag’s version of Killing Floor before a black-ops mission over Laos. Okay, maybe I am.

That summer, I was home from freshman year at “yes, his first name really was Johns” Hopkins, a grad school that maintained a men’s college so it could call itself a university. That’s changed for the better over the last forty years, but all the wild green spaces are gone, replaced with buildings holding quadrangles hostage. At the time, a woodsy campus with a woody (not tinny) name, Homewood could have been in the country. It wasn’t, as I later learned living along nearby Druid Lake, a couple blocks north of Whitelock Street, where I discovered Happy Boy margarine and other brands unknown to suburban Giant Food stores, and nearly got shot over two packs of gum.

The flames of urban riots had lit up Whitelock Street after Dr. King was gunned down the previous spring, but the campus culture wars hadn’t yet reached the Hop when I arrived. Steeped in Mid-Atlantically ambivalent Southern gentility, the place offered hoary fratboy rituals and straw boaters for (almost) every hatrack. Whenever possible, we fled, desperately bumming rides with anyone who had a car, to any school where they had girls. With a pint of Madera Port in my pocket, I’d throw out my thumb at northbound traffic when no ride was in the offing, standing under a billboard that identified the brand as “the boom-boom wines” and asked, “can you handle it?”

The big concert on campus that year had been a stroll down someone else’s memory lane with Sha Na Na, on a rainy night in a gym so damp we opened and closed our umbrellas over our heads during the show to get a breeze going. One should not be surprised that the climax came when they sang “Let’s Go to the Hop” (ahem), no doubt the reason they’d been booked in the first place.

Nonetheless, Hopkins’ soul had been psychedelicized by my freshman class. Apart from killing off half the fraternities (which have since come back with a vengeance), while pioneering the hippie/slacker approach to college, we’d all gotten maced and tear-gassed when the local cops raided the freshman dorms to arrest some of my classmates for selling marijuana. They could have arrested a hundred more. A rather well-mannered riot ensued, with students trying to prevent the cops from hauling away their prey (one of whom went on to become  a world-famous graphic designer, uploading his hallucinations onto television screens around the world).

And when it was all over, I came home to the only political patronage job I’ve ever had, finagled through my family’s good standing with the Rockefeller Republicans who ran my home town. I worked on the Newburgh-Beacon bridge that summer, “Rocky’s Catwalk” as it was called, a mile long, two-lane cantilever that hoisted a slender strip of pavement high above the Hudson.

No amount of hazard pay could get me to walk the steel with the painters, and I did my best to avoid my turns taking tolls. I wheedled my way onto the maintenance crew most weeks, drag racing the riding lawnmowers down the driveway behind the garage, poking holes in the jeep’s soft top trying to put the door back on, and conniving to drive the tractors and dump trucks whenever possible. The next year, when my brother did his turn on the bridge, none of the summer kids were allowed to drive anything, and he got the familiar lecture about how he wasn’t going to get away with any of that stuff his brother did (I have apologized for this many times).

A month before my calendar’s heavily circled mid-August weekend, I started lobbying the bosses for three days off, allegedly to attend a cousin’s wedding in Toronto. They bought it, and we sent a scouting party up to Bethel two weeks before the festival. We had no clue that a half-million bodies would obliterate the landmarks, that we’d have to hike in and out the last five miles, or that our destination would become known as the Hog Farm, after the first commune to arrive, evidently a few minutes after our scouting party left.

Two weeks later, the divine racket on the Love City stage provided a shimmering soundtrack to my wobbly mental movie, whose main theme was getting lost and found. It started with stumbling around in the rain on Friday, trying to remember which missing piece of fence had marked our rendezvous. Somehow, I found our advance party and we spent the night sharing odd visions with strangers waiting for the rain to stop and Jerry Garcia to bring the matches, so they could keep the chalice lit.

In the morning, we opened the tent flap on a disappearing front yard full of muddy new neighbors. Following our ears toward the music, we kept getting separated, and I soon learned the best way to get found was to stop moving and look around when I realized I was lost. I remember giving up trying to find my people while The Who were on stage, then looking down to see they were sitting at my feet. By the afternoon, everyone had turned up, including my brother and his crew, my college roommate, and friends who’d come in from every direction. In the swirling chaos, I still don’t know how that happened. A humble achievement, it seemed remarkable at the time.

The music was epic, and the peace and love was real, if fleeting. But by Sunday morning, we’d had enough of the muck, and decided to get the hell out of there. After slogging back to the cars, we rode off in style, top down in a friend’s father’s Chrysler 300 Convertible, that is, unless it was another friend’s father’s Deuce and a Quarter. How they talked their way into those cars, I still don’t know. Even daddy don’t drive in that Eldorado no more. Nobody does.

When we got home, I surprised the bosses by volunteering to take tolls in an extra booth opened to deal with the exodus from Sullivan County. I kept my beaded bear-scare on my wrist, so the drivers would know I was one of them. Stuff like that was a big deal back then, a small symbol of the boisterous counterculture the man was keeping down (before co-opting it). Like Joe’s tie-dyed t-shirt. I guess it’s okay that he’s put away the air guitar and favors dark suits these days. After all, he’ll soon be an alta Cocker, and so will I, toasting, boasting and arguing about foggy memories of the mother of all rock festivals, one long-ago weekend in August.

* * *

Alan H. Rolnick has practiced law in Miami for twenty years, appearing in high-profile civil and not so civil cases, after putting himself through a music career by working at the New York Times. His first novel, Landmark Status, has received ecstatic reviews without resort to the scandalous pictures in his publicist’s safe. He provides trenchant social commentary without warning, and is Executive Producer of the independent film Canvas. To learn more, visit his website or email alan@alanrolnick.com.

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