Brand building through storytelling

Missed Woodstock, seeking route to the garden

Woodstock Music Festival PosterI get peevish about crowds, mud, stinky toilets and bad food, so I’ve never regretted missing out on the Woodstock festival. While half a million stoned celebrants were camping out on Max Yasgur’s sodden farm and getting their souls free, I was in staid Toronto, where I’d spent the summer cleaning houses inhabited by student riff-raff like me. Come to think of it, I got the stinky toilets. But I knew I’d missed something momentous. Not just the rock-and-roll bliss-out but the exhausting, ecstatic submission to a “nation” of the young and the sense of putting my spirit, if not my shoulder, to a great wheel of change that was about to roll the world into the age of peace and possibility.

If I were 25 instead of 59 years, nine months and 27 days, I might be amused or annoyed by the waves of hoopla marking Woodstock’s 40th anniversaryOh, those navel-gazing baby boomers! Will they never shut up about their bands, their causes, their ideals? Don’t they realize it was their generation that traded the tie-dyes for office-worthy suits, the better to load up on gas-guzzling luxury cars, faux chateaus and other emblems of affluence?

Guilty as charged, I think to myself. But of course that’s not the whole story. The Woodstock generation—aged 50 to 64—has another chapter to write before we’re through. When I talk with friends more or less my age, many of them recent refugees from careers that once entranced and obsessed them, I’m struck by the shared yearning for a project, a purpose, a vision that will marry the fervour of our wide-eyed youth with the hard-won wisdom of our rueful yet still hopeful middle age.

The other night my dreams had a sound track: Crosby, Stills & Nash singing their triumphal version of “Woodstock,” the one that blasted from every radio in the festival’s aftermath. Because Crosby, Stills & Nash had been part of the rockfest, I assumed the song was theirs. Only later did I learn it had been written by Joni Mitchell, whose jazzy, meditative recording floated over my head at the time (no surging instrumentals, no hummable melody). Joni had watched the festival on TV. Her handlers, like over-protective parents, feared she wouldn’t be safe there—and besides, they didn’t want her to be late for an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. She once said, “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock.”

The morning after my Woodstock dream, I sat down at the computer with my coffee, hoping to watch CS&N belt out the lyrics. Instead I found Joni Mitchell at the Big Sur Music Festival, accompanying herself on the piano in a spare yet eloquent rendition that forced me to hear every word. Then I understood what a resonant, prophetic poem “Woodstock” is, how deeply rooted in literary traditions. Former English majors, take note: speaker meets traveler on the road (hello, Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land” and the bishop who chews out Yeats’s Crazy Jane); then together the two pilgrims set out, like Adam and Eve, for a contemporary Garden of Eden. More elegy than anthem, the poem builds toward a thrillingly unexpected image—a dream of bombers “turning into butterflies/Above our nation—which is then undercut by a final, sombre riff on the refrain so beloved by my generation. We like to think we’re “stardust” and “golden,” Joni Mitchell warns. In fact we’re “billion-year-old carbon,” “caught in the devil’s bargain.”

This summer, without warning, nine million sockeye salmon went missing from B.C.’s Fraser River. No one is sure what killed them. I don’t know how we’ll ever get back to the garden. I just know it’s not too late to try.

Cultural critic Camille Paglia ranks “Woodstock” among the world’s best poems. Hyperbole? Her argument in Break, Blow, Burn might convince you otherwise. Joni Mitchell fans should not miss the insightful portrayal of her creative odyssey and tumultuous life in Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us.


Posted by Rona

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