ESSAY

Tangerine dreams

Author John Gray remembers Woodstock

August 28 1989
ESSAY

Tangerine dreams

Author John Gray remembers Woodstock

August 28 1989

Tangerine dreams

ESSAY

Author John Gray remembers Woodstock

Broadcaster, novelist and playwright John Gray was on the other side of the continent when half a million young people gathered near Woodstock, N. Y, for “three days of peace and

music”on Aug. 15,1969. But, as a 22-year-old graduate student in theatre at the University of British Columbia, Gray was keenly aware of the festival. He recalls the era on its 20th anniversary:

By 1969, my purpose in life was to get as far from the Maritimes as possible. My artistic friends emigrated to England or the United States. I went to Vancouver, where I found myself in both places at once. Vancouver in 1969 was England becoming America: very proper in the rain by the sea, home of the Terminal City Lawn Bowling Club, where they trimmed the crusts off the sandwiches at teatime, but also home to the Stanley Park Be-In, where freaked-out heads were attended to by Kool-Aid volunteers. Kitsilano, Vancouver’s Haight Ashbury, was where you found the real hippies.

That was for me. I was too hip to live in the same province as Don Messer. I played I-LoveYou and Sorry-Babe-I-Gotta-Ramble songs in a rock band. I wore a turtleneck and a medallion. My hair was long enough to make the local tavern unsafe on Saturday night.

Vancouver was the hippest part of Canada, or so went the Maritime mythology. Not Toronto’s Yorkville, which, along with Rochdale—the “open” university—had been ruined by speed freaks, bikers and city crime. Vancouver, in 1969, had the real hippies.

But even before the speed freaks and the bikers, we Canadians were never real hippies. Real hippies had a tragic, moral basis. The Vietnam War killed and maimed thousands of young men in the name of patriotism, while their elders used Agent Orange to defend a John Foster Dulles world view. The “generation gap” widened, and paranoia took over where the facts led off:

Paranoia strikes deep Into your life it will creep It starts when you’re always afraid Step out of line, the man come and take you away . . .

(Buffalo Springfield —

For What It’s Worth, 1967)

Long hair on real hippies made sense as a reaction to the crew cut. Their clothing— army-surplus gear festooned with peace sign badges—parodied the military uniform and its

attendant masculinity. Their psychedelics and promiscuity were anarchic, antiregimental pronouncements. Or so we thought. The core group of real hippies in Vancouver

were American draft-dodgers who faced jail if

they went home. They had made a hard decision, unlike Canadian hippies, who could not decide which university courses to take. We gathered around the Americans as if they were bonfires, in the hope that some of their moral charisma would warm us. How we envied them. With Yankee ingenuity, they had found what the youth of the world had always sought: a morally superior reason to do whatever they wanted—to do nothing if they wanted. When a real hippie goofed off, he was boycotting materialism and the work ethic; when a Canadian hippie goofed off, he was just goofing off.

How we longed to stick flowers into the rifle barrels of the National Guard. To march on

Chicago with flowers in our hair and have the police beat us with their truncheons. How could we match the charisma of the American rebel? How were we to face those James Dean and Marlon Brando posters?

For Canada, it wasn’t the answer that was blowin’ in the wind, but the question.

Whom were we going to rebel against? Our leader wasn’t the macabre, blue-jowled Richard Nixon; it was Pierre Trudeau, a jet-setting Quebecer who stuck a flower in his teeth, grew what was left of his hair down to his lapels and married a 22-year-old with dilated pupils.

Canadian hippies were mostly showbiz, and the Canadian Establishment soon got into the act. Local politicians gravitated to hippies as nonvoting whipping boys for their favorite populist gripes. Vancouver Mayor Tom Camp-

bell, whose response to the rat problem in the West End was to take his cat for a walk on English Bay, threatened to jail, bathe and/or shave hippie loiterers; local politician Bill Vander Zalm vowed to force shovels on a phantom army of long-haired welfare frauds. Voters in the suburbs ate it up.

But when it came to real protest issues, the pickings were slim.

In my first year at UBC, American activist Jerry Rubin arrived. Hundreds rallied outside our new student centre with the record library and the conversation pit. The U.S. flag burned, a live pig was produced for the symbolic ridicule of policemen, and someone from the San Francisco Mime Troupe told us how to jam a parking meter. Jerry Rubin, pirate-like in head scarf and black beard, whipped the crowd into a lather over the Man and the Pigs. (That mammal took a lot of abuse.) Then Rubin really got us going with a chant you hear these days at heavy-metal concerts:

“Say f— the system!”

“F— THE SYSTEM!”

“I don’t hear y a!”

“F— the system!”

That F-word, a trusty source of middle-class titillation, put anyone into a frenzy who was not too stoned to talk. With Rubin we shouted That Word. As a group. What next? Would we blow up the post office? We seethed with anger as

Rubin exhorted us to go somewhere, do something that was against the law. Do it now. In a collective orgasm we moved as one, raising our fists and shouting at the top of our lungs: Freedom. Freedom.

Do you know what we did then? We occupied the faculty club. It was all we could think of. Somewhat sheepishly, we stormed past the “Members Only” sign by the entrance. In the dining room, late lunchers stared at us, groggily. No truncheons. There was nothing to do but stage a sit-in. We sat. The rebels read magazines and drank coffee; others talked about

Fellini, Hair and Transcendental Meditation, became bored, then left.

I was forced to forgo it because of a rehearsal for a play being put on at the university. My dream of freedom was not to occupy the faculty club, it was to appear nude onstage in the New York production of Dionysis in ’69. But I might as well have occupied the faculty club—in fact, the event is more vivid in my mind than it would have been had I been there. In the mythology of subsequent retelling, the faculty club sit-in became a revolt that threw the university into crisis. The event swelled in the imagination.

I suspect that is also the case with the Woodstock Festival that same year: to appreciate it, you had to be not there. The Associated Press wire service reported a badly managed rock festival in upstate New York—so many

freeloaders that they stopped charging admission. In wire photos, long-haired, filthy, often nude people wallowed in the rain and mud. By a miracle, no more than three died in that overcrowded and underserviced situation. A concert promoter raised two fingers on TV and proclaimed Woodstock a victory for peace and love. So what if he lost his shirt? Later, we found out that his shirt was secured in a movie deal.

It was only the faculty club. Woodstock was only a rock concert.

Except that Woodstock became a vehicle.

The anthem Woodstock rocketed up the charts (its composer, Canada’s Joni Mitchell, was in a New York City hotel while the festival was taking place). Then came the release of the Woodstock movie and the Woodstock concert album—talk about brand identification. It’s a wonder they didn’t market Woodstock as a New Age cologne.

In fact, you wonder if some stoned Svengali planned everything—the hype, the overcrowding, the lack of toilets and food—to make a historic event out of a common rock festival of the period, where a few top entertainers with lucrative contracts (Jimi Hendrix, The Who) headed a lineup of has-beens (Sha Na Na), upand-comers Qoe Cocker) and comeback attempts (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), with the usual array of tunes about girls

and sex and Sorry-Babe-I-Gotta-Ramble.

Was it all showbiz? Years later, when Jerry Rubin started a chain of singles clubs, had he changed? Or had he repackaged the product?

No, that could not have been possible, for they were real hippies, weren’t they? Or, as in Canada, did it all just peter out when headbands went out of fashion?

A year later, our prime minister appeared on TV in his shoulder-length hair, proclaimed the War Measures Act and suspended civil liberties coast to coast. In Vancouver, amid the Kitsilano counterculture, it hardly raised a peep. □