Monday, May 31, 2010

Is Live Music the Key to Peace and Love?


The Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 1969 was one of the biggest events in the 1960's, establishing the cultural importance of the flood of new music and alternative lifestyles that had been developing for years, and then celebrated with its own documentary film, soundtrack albums, books, commemorative festivals, a museum, and untold references to the event in the popular culture.  Although the event originally generated $1.4 million dollars in debt, countless promoters have been trying to duplicate its success ever since. 

When the event occurred I was just about to begin my graduate studies at UC, Berkeley.  When word came that one of our friends, Bill, from our recent days at Oberlin College, had attended the event and described it in glowing terms, my small world of recent Obie graduates was jealous of Bill's good fortune.  It seemed so unfair. Here we had all moved to Berkeley, the center of the new counter-culture, and now our thunder had been stolen by an event on a dairy farm in New York!

Less than four months later we got our own chance to be involved in a historical event of music and coolness, thanks to the Altamont Speedway Free Festival organized by The Rolling Stones and presented on December 6, 1969 not far from our new home in Berkeley.  The timing of the event just barely got it included in the Sixties.  And though it became historic, it was not for its coolness or "peace and love," but for its violence, shown in a documentary film of its own, as the symbolic end of the hippie era, a conclusion to the youth culture of the Sixties.        

We all went, as it was free and promised an incredible lineup of acts: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.  How could we go wrong?  Surely this would trump Bill's good fortune on the East coast and confirm our wisdom in moving West.  The first sign of what was to come was when we had to park our car by the side of the road miles from the venue and start walking.  In fact Stephanie Gutieri and I hitched a ride, sitting on the trunk of a car inching its way forward in the gridlock.  Stephi is the one who had gotten me into Dylan only three years before at Oberlin.  The ride must have taken about an hour, which we mostly passed playing a question and answer game of "Who Am I?"  As it turned out, this was the high point of the day for me and is still one of my fondest memories of Stephi.  Rest in peace, dear Stephi.  I miss you and have for many years!

Once we got to the event, we staked out less than nine sq feet of space with our blanket and then endured the day, feeling claustrophobic and threatened by the bad vibes rolling through the audience all day long.  And it was only later that we learned that a man had been killed right in front of the stage, no more than fifty feet from our cramped location.  To his credit, Bill never rubbed it in with any of us.
But this is not a history lesson about the Sixties.  This blog is about the transformative experience a live musical performance can provide, when the "numbers were burning."  Amazingly, this even applies to Altamont, now known as "an infamous rock concert."  The Stones performed last and by the time they appeared we were worn out from the long day of cramped quarters and bad vibes.  And though the violence interrupted their "Sympathy for the Devil" song, with Jagger then urging everyone to be calm, the band restarted and played on, even as Meredith Hunter was killed in front of them at the foot of the stage during "Under My Thumb."  The band was afraid that if they stopped playing a full-scale riot could develop.

Their decision was a wise one.  The one thing that finally unified the crowd and brought peace to the day was the charismatic and electrifying performance of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Imagine this, the very next song they performed after the killing of Hunter, was the first ever live performance of "Brown Sugar," yes, a world premiere they had saved for that day.  And somewhere along the way, during the rest of their set, Stephi and I, as well as all those around us, finally gave up our guarded enclave and rose to our feet for the rest of the show.  Jagger had turned around the bad vibes and gotten the audience with him and only him.  Finally we were all in the moment, witnessing a powerful performance and letting the good vibes of the glorious music wash over us.  For the last songs of the set, "Satisfaction" and "Honky Tonk Woman," we were fiercely dancing around, like all the rest, culminating in perhaps the most ironic song selection ever to end  a concert, when the band finished with "Street Fighting Man."  

This is one of the best examples from my own life of how the performer and the audience interact to create the experience and how the power of music can bring peace to the unruly mob, as suggested by Dr. Karl Paulnack.  As I write this on Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen soldiers, I wonder whether it would be more effective to invade foreign shores with armies of artists, rather than soldiers.

The Latitude Festival is an example of what music festivals have become.  Also presented on farm land, but in England, it strives to be an all-encompassing festival for all the arts, with performances on its various stages "from the worlds of comedy, literary, poetry, cabaret, theatre, film, art and dance."  That's a tall order to fill, but they seem to be fulfilling their promise, as all tickets for their fifth season had already been sold out, two months before the festival was to begin in July 2010. 

Park in one of their lots and then transport your tent and other camping gear to your weekend home on the farm using one of their rented "cloth barrows" or skip the trouble of bringing your own stuff and buy a ticket for one of the campsites with "ready pitched and fully equipped tents for hire" in the Tangerine Fields.  Surely the Beatles would have found these ideas to be truly delightful.

A wonderful synthesis of pastoral beauty & the bright colors of the arts.

And surely this festival offers something that no other venue can offer: neon bright pink and orange sheep.  Getting cold at night? Cuddle up with some lovely pink wool.

Which brings me to the origin of this festival in July of 2006.  One of the performers presented in their inaugural outing was the great Patti Smith, a woman from my own generation, who helped create the punk rock movement of the 70's when she started reciting her poetry to the chords of an accompanying guitar, and later singing them with a full rock band.  

By 2006 she had already been named a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and less than eight months later she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognizing the importance of her significant contributions to music.

On July 15, 2006 Patti Smith and her band performed on the second day of the first ever Latitude Festival.  Fortunately her performance of "Gloria" is now preserved on YouTube, placed there by John Macaulay, who shot the video.  Many audience videos of live concerts are difficult to watch, often marred by bad positioning, noisy crowd near the taper, jerky cameras and lousy sound.  In this case the filming was done from an excellent position very close to the front providing engrossing closeups of the performers throughout and the noisy crowd adds to the passion of the performance, rather than detracting from the recording.

Two minutes into the performance, the audience begins to catch fire, which inspires Patti to greater passion and by five minutes into the song she and the audience are performing the song together.  Just short of six minutes in, the taper is rightfully drawn into shooting video of the audience, not just Patti, as they have become performers as well, and then she is enthusiastically thanking the audience. "Thank you!!  I'm at the place of my ancestors. I'm bucked down!" and the rest is pure love and joy.

She thanks her always guitarist, Lenny Kaye, and then "Be! We the People!" And at the very end she thanks the crowd again with, "Attitude, ya got the good attitude!"

Is there any better example on YouTube of what the Spanish call El duende, the spirit of evocation?  As Wikipedia says, "It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive." 

You notice that by the end, both the performers and the audience were creating this moment together.  And Patti appreciates that fact and thanks them for their participation.  She maintains no professional distance, as the "legendary performer."  She is just like them, as she acknowledges with her "We the People!"

Now I consider this video very unusual for having captured this magic in a tiny window on our computers.  You can begin to feel what it must have been like to be there.  I laughed and cried while I watched it.  But here is the part I want to emphasize.  I have seen Patti Smith perform a number of times and every time I have been inspired by her performance.  So it gets back to my repeated encouragement for everyone to get up from behind their computer monitors and go see the live performance of music.  Patti Smith would be a good place to start.  She is one of the best performers I have ever seen for really connecting with her audience and encouraging their participation. She is real, just one of us, though bursting with talent and always totally life affirming.
Peace and love to all on this Memorial Day!


indrasijie said...

Yes, art would be a perfect replacement for soldiers. We all need to keep it alive with participation and appreciation.

Squash Lady said...

Loved the post. Thank you for sharing. I feel I know you better today than I did when we were married. Weird.
Could comment on "music replacing soldiers", but the powers-that-be would have to become a lot more enlightened first.