MEMORY IS an uncertain thing. A quarter of a century later, I'm not sure, sometimes, whether what I remember of Woodstock isn't some amalgam of my own experience, friends' stories, the movie and other rock concerts I went to. Only a few moments really stand out about Woodstock. What I vividly remember is what I felt then; the feelings of a long-ago time when we were young and naive and (so we thought) special.
A friend and I bought tickets a month before for 15 bucks each for the whole weekend, I believe. Then both of us had to work at our summer jobs on Saturday, and we almost decided to skip it. But tracking the news from upstate New York (stories of great music and freaked-out good times on the rock radio stations) made it clear: You had to be there. So we ignored reports of closed roads and by early Sunday morning drove to within three or four miles of Max Yasgur's farm.
We left the black Volkswagen Beetle in a ditch and just walked in -- into a monstrous crowd where we knew we belonged. Belonging, you see, was a very big thing then. Not content being the disaffected middle-class kids we were, we wanted to be different. But we didn't want to be alone in that differentness, we wanted to be a part of something. Something larger than ourselves. (Even our books -- "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" -- were about belonging. Reading them was a key to the subculture; the old and the straight did not go, were not on the bus, would not consult the oracle. And there, spread across acres of soggy pasture, it was: one huge, organic being. Not some earnest, adult-like commune with ideals and goals and constraints.
With not a grown-up in sight, about the only expectation was that you would pursue your pleasures peaceably. There were no hassles -- not about property, not about drugs, not about sex, not about your view of the stage. Sharing was easy, kinship was assumed.
This grows much too elegiac and meaningful, which it should not. Because we (baby-boomers) raised self-importance and gullibility to levels that would not be seen again until Shirley MacLaine ushered in the New Age. However, we did have a sense of humor. We goofed on anything and everything. Sometimes we even let a goof play at being a spokesman for us. How else to explain Abbie Hoffman?
For all the talk of revolution in the air then, in the summer of 1969 the world was still a relatively stable place. Those who went to Woodstock were the children of the upwardly mobile, expanding-economy, intact-nuclear-family '50s. We could afford to be spoiled kids because we could count on our elders to behave properly. We were, simply, secure enough to rebel.
Yes, sometimes Woodstock feels like an embarrassing memento of the days when the most middle-class of kids aspired to be part of a counterculture.
Remember, too, there was in fact a more or less coherent dominant culture to be rejected. We had not yet been fully disabused of fantasies about America's place in the world by Vietnam and oil embargoes. Watergate hadn't happened. Kent State was just a little-known Ohio school.
Alienated, yes. A bad dream for our parents, certainly. But we were, in truth, fully anchored in the American experience. Woodstock could have happened nowhere else. I knew that even then, as I listened to Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," from a mile away as we walked toward the car that Monday morning.
As we grew up, each of us would face our personal travails individually. But for one weekend in August of 1969 it was as if we -- a whole generation, it seemed -- were all in this thing together, and for a moment, it felt like that could last.
When he grew up Douglas Peddicord became a psychologist. He writes from Columbia.