Sunday, 6 October 2013

Woodstock? Just more proof, if proof were needed, of mankind's infallible tendency to delude itself (and then some)

The not-so-astounding news I have just read on the BBC News website is that tickets for Glastonbury 2014 have already sold out and have done so in record time. This item caught my eye because a night or two ago I watched Taking Woodstock (here, one of several such sites in which you can watch films completely illegally but, crucially, without spending a penny (U.S ‘cent’), but this is the one I almost always use (and remember to install some kind of ad-block to stop all those malware infected ads popping up).

Taking Woodstock was directed by by Ang Lee and distinctly underwhelmed the critics, and I can see why. I should imagine that most of those critics are under 50, immune to all that hippy-dippy love-and-peace man bollocks and none of them are the hippy bores whose interminable reminiscences and memoirs of the ‘peace era’ made reading the Sunday papers in the Seventies and Eighties such a dull and dispiriting experience.

Thankfully, quite a few of that generation of ageing hippies are now dead, although every so often one will pop up on TV and drone on about ‘how we all started it, man’ until someone has the good sense to shut him up. And it was always a ‘him’ - the much-vaunted free love at the time wasn’t so much the liberation of women but the liberation of men from any kind of responsibility and respect for the female gender. Of course women have sexual urges just as strong as men - and I wished to God I had realised that rather earlier in my life - but with ‘the pill’ still not widely available at the time, they were always the ones left to carry the can when they found themselves up the duff, and the prospect and fear of that will have meant they couldn’t act on those urges quite as often a they might have liked. The trouble was the ‘free love’ doctrine was simply an extra strategy to persuade ‘a chick’ to get her knickers off and spread her legs. As for the peace, well up to a point Lord Copper.

The ‘Sixties generation’ was remarkably, often violently, uncharitable to their parents’ generation, and I don’t think it occurred to any of them for a second that their mums and dads (US ‘moms’ and ‘pops’) were just like them though, except that they were two decades older, and as young lads and lasses wanted just what they wanted. The trouble was that after World War II - especially here in Europe - in which many family and friends had died, they wanted nothing but a quiet life, the quieter the better and, if at all possible, without unplanned death of any kind. Of course, when you are 18 and bursting with hormones a quiet life is that last thing you want, but then nor did their parents then they were that age 20 to 30 years earlier.

Unfortunately at that age, just when I was desperately growing my hair as long as possible and making sure I always had a lump of dope in my matchbox, the boys were being marched off to war and possible death. Ironically, the war perhaps brought greater freedoms for women, who had to man (Lord, I can’t believe I just used that word, but I shall leave it in for the sake of the irony) the factories and offices vacated by all the cannon fodder being shipped to Europe and tasted greater independence. But this is all a long way from Woodstock and the supposedly great cultural event it was.

. . .

I have never been to Glastonbury and, in theory, never will. I say ‘in theory’ because I am now 63 and I can’t imagine the young folk rolling around in the rain and mud and paying extortionate prices for goddam-awful burgers while listening to music of which the major constituent is a booming bass would want a cynical, dyspeptic old

A rare picture of me at 14. Note especially the joint I’m smoking and the V sign on my chest

fart like me hanging around. Which is fine by me because even if they did, I really wouldn’t want to go. And if Ang Lee’s portrayal of Woodstock is anything like the real thing, I’m bloody glad I didn’t get to go there, either.

When it comes to listening to music or, as once I did, going clubbing, give me a small, intimate club. I dislike gangs and crowds at the best of times, and the idea of spending more than a minute in the company of ten thousand other people, many of whom can’t wait to wallow in mud, strikes me as simply bizarre.

Then there’s a music. Many bands are great live, but many are not. Many need the resources of studio technology to sound even halfway decent and die a pitiful death when asked to perform in public, often reduced to a boring two-chord riff to a mid-tempo 4-4 beat. And even if they are half-decent playing live, the conditions of a festival, the distance you might be from the stage, the fact that bass notes carry, but treble notes do not, a badly balanced sound scheme, the vagaries of the weather, and - believe it or not - out-of-tune instruments can all add up to a pretty piss-poor performance.

How does he know all this, I hear you ask, if he has never been to a festival? Quite simply because I’ve quite often caught festival performances on TV. Well, isn’t it a fact that television rarely does justice to live music? Perhaps, but I’m not going to risk goddam-awful burgers, portaloos overflowing with shit and crap, and the combined body odour of a hundred thousand people just to find out.

. . .

As for new direction the Love Generation apparently took and which, in that vacuous phrase often employed by TV and the press, ‘changed the course of history’, again up to a point, Lord Copper. Sadly, the new direction was just the old direction in longer hair. The relevant cliche here is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As the love generation itself found out here in Britain at the end of the Seventies when the punks stuck two fingers up at their hippy-dippy older brothers and sisters, and gobbed at them to boot in case they had missed the point, there’s nothing a new generation loves better than to put as much distance as possible between itself and the older generation. You like white? Well, we’ll like black. You want love ’n peace? Well, we’ll like violence and abrasion. You like slow, dreamy, meandering ballads? Well, here’s a two-minute piece of cacophonous noise you can stick up your arse and then fuck off!

Ironically, as an excellent BBC Four series chronicled a few months ago, the principle of plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose still held true and, it seemed, within a matter of months the lure of big bucks got many a gobbing, spitting, pogoing punk band to see the light, sign on the dotted line and ensure that the gobbing, spitting and pogoing became safe enough for public consumption and ensure you were still home before midnight for a mug of cocoa and a good night’s sleep.

Further, not even within a matter of months but, it seemed, within a matter of hours, the safe punk music had metamorphasised into something entirely different. And how the hippies hated it. Now in their early thirties, desperate to persuade themselves that the mortgage, house, pension plan and station wagon (UK ‘shooting brake’) are just a passing phase, man, I’m still a rebel at heart, they could not believe and could not accept that they were nothing more than history, taken seriously be no one but themselves and their peers.

Good Lord, life is cruel.

. . .

Why this rant, you must be asking yourselves (and I am most certainly asking myself)? Well, the answers are both highly personal and very straightforward. I shall save the highly personal answer, perhaps, for another time, but the straightforward answer is this: when I turned 18 and was released from my public school with nothing but a posh accent and a set of illusions as long as your arm, it was 1968. The Vietnam War was well underway, as were ‘student politics’ (and whatever happened to them?), and the Sixties, with barely two more years to go, was getting into its stride. All I wanted to do was grow my hair, lose my cherry, and smoke dope (and to tell the truth, I hadn’t even thought about that last half as much as mentioning it here might make it seem).

For some reason, I found all the hippy-dippy stuff, all the peace-and-love routine and the we’re-going-to-change-the-world fantasy wholly and utterly unconvincing. All that interested me was the dope (cannabis, hash, not heroin) and acid. That was it. And to complicate it just a little further, I didn’t hang out with the ‘druggies’ because the druggies were dull, dull, dull. All they wanted to talk about was drugs. I remember walking into the students union one afternoon to find a table of druggies who had all dropped downers, all sitting around motionless and all as boring as fuck. If this is what drugs downers do to you, I remember thinking, well fuck downers. Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull!

It wasn’t that I didn’t get it. I did get it, and because I got it, I couldn’t help asking myself ‘who the hell do they think they are kidding?’ and others ‘who the hell do you think you are kidding?’ This wasn’t some great intellectual insight, it was nothing more than a gut feeling. And, dear friends, whether you agree with me or not, it’s a gut feeling I still have: who the hell do we think we are kidding except ourselves?

So when I see film’s such as Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and when I read, as I did today, that tickets for Glastonbury 2014 are already ‘sold out’ - Glastonbury 2014 being, of course, the successor to Glastonbury 2013 and Glastonbury 2009 and Glastonbury 1998 and the rest where it is now necessary to hire security firms to patrol the ‘perimeter fence’, where corporations can now block-book the prime sites, where keen young cunts appear on TV, the radio and in the press to laud the ‘business opportunities’ Glastonbury has brought and can still bring, where Glastonbury is now as much a part of the Establishment social calendar as Wimbledon, Ascot, the Mojos and the birth of a new royal baby - I am again reminded that individually some are quite bright, but as a gang, a crowd, an electorate, an audience, a congregation, a market we are all as thick as shit.

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