Simon Says

Music preserves your youth. When my wife was studying music therapy, one of the pieces of information she received is that those whose brains have begun to shut down the speaking faculties can still sing. People respond best, in such states, to the music of their youth. Anyone who lives long enough will decry the noise that the younger generation calls music. I’m thinking about this not just because of my recent visit to Bethel Woods, but also because of a New York Times story that Paul Simon is planning to leave the musical stage. Simon and Garfunkel was among the music of my youth. Accessible music with profound lyrics and, for the most part, a muted sadness. I grew up a long way from New York City, but listing to this music I felt like I was wandering the streets of the Village, soaking in a reality I would otherwise never experience.

It strikes me as no surprise that among the earliest manufactured artifacts discovered are musical instruments. While I seem to have missed nature’s boon in offering musical gifts, I nevertheless inherited the appreciator’s side. I don’t often listen to background music. I listen to music to listen. It carries its own meaning, akin to what we tend to think of as a religious experience. No doubt, for many, Woodstock felt like such an encounter. Music that could take you away from the troubles of a war-torn, prejudicial, jaded society. Even if only for a few moments. “I am a Rock,” was, for much of my youth, a kind of personal anthem.

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During a commencement address in not too distant months past, Simon told the graduates that ours was becoming a society at war with art. Music is money. College isn’t about becoming who you are; it’s career training. We don’t allow our young any time to explore any more. Few are willing to admit that capitalism, unrestrained, is just as bad as communism. Music used to be about the soul. The artists I know tell me it’s now about the cash. The man calls the shots. So as I stood on the hill overlooking the former Max Yasgur’s farm a few days ago, the lack of sound was poignant. There used to be, it seemed, different ways of existing in the world. Today the tempo is set and the music composed by those who prefer marching tunes that lead straight to the bank. Standing on that windswept hill I’m sure I can hear the sound of silence.

Things Remembered

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Freedom. Independence Day is our celebration of liberty. Yesterday I happened to find myself at Bethel Woods, the out-of-the-way location in New York where Woodstock was held. Probably no one in 1969 realized just how formative Woodstock and its message of peace, love, and music would become for American culture. Those of us who came of age in the ‘70s learned about it as recent history (I was only seven at the time and, I’m sure, would’ve found the whole thing somewhat unChristian had I been here then). Much has changed in the intervening years. Not many peaceful events get so much airtime any more. Upwards of 400,000, basically unpoliced, youth, gathered in Bethel, New York, for three days of music, chaos, and peace. The Vietnam War was still draining our nation of its youth and murdering its idealism. Fear of the other, racial inequality, and male superiority were part of the context that led to the need for Woodstock. Freedom was free.

Often on this blog I reflect on the sacredness of place. Events that take place in a location leave their impression on the land. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the current administrators of the property, have left the field largely intact. As my wife and I stood at the top of the hill and tried to imagine almost half-a-million people here, it was strangely quiet. The nearby museum had plenty of music playing, but standing where it actually happened, there were only ghosts of an event studied in school and which, even today, kids can generally identify. I couldn’t have named every act that played the concert and, although the music was clearly important, it was the gathering that is most remembered. Self-governing youth getting along in an area so remote that still today you have to drive a couple miles to find even basic necessities, sent a powerful message. It was an event that, I fear, can never be replicated. The snake has spoken.

Nearing fifty years later, we’ve become so paranoid that anyone who looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion. Guns, which children of the sixties shunned, have proliferated and may now be carried, wild-west style, in many states. A fear-mongering candidate bellows fascism before the Grand Old Party. Remember, Nixon was president during Woodstock. I may have lived hundreds of miles from here, occupying myself with the matters that seven-year-olds find so pressing. But Woodstock happened. By the time I got to Woodstock, everybody else had gone. I see others milling about the museum, slightly older than me. Perhaps some of them were here for the event itself. We all seem to be searching for something here. The festival had its problems, for sure, but with a sincere belief in freedom, it makes the pre-seventies United States feel like a strangely foreign county. How do we get back to the garden?