Driving the road between Johnstown and Freshford between eleven and midnight, flicking through the radio channels to avoid the talk between the music, there were two songs from the end of the1960s. Maybe they were played by different stations; maybe they were both on one station; maybe the station search had gone right through the FM band and finished where it started.
The Beatles’ enigmatic ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ was followed by ‘Woodstock’ from Matthews Southern Comfort. It was a felicitous juxtaposition, as a clerical colleague would put it; it was good to have the two songs together.
Being only eight years old when Woodstock took place and having few memories of the Beatles (other than the strains ‘Eleanor Rigby’ coming from the radiogram in our living room), liking for such music is hardly a matter of nostalgia, but there was a sense of being at a turning point in the songs; a feeling that these were times that would be remembered. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics for ‘Woodstock’ include:
Well, maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
Maybe it was ‘the time of man’. Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon; the civil rights movement was asserting human equality; a social revolution was manifest in the emergence of the ‘permissive society’. The times were memorable, historical even.
The changes in those years were first order changes, they were about the ways in which human beings treated each other, about the ways in which they ordered their affairs. Perhaps lasting change brought lasting music.
In the forty years since, there has been nothing of comparable substance. Singers may have stood and called for changes, but they have neither been part nor agents of revolutionary change.
There is a touch of melancholy listening to ‘Woodstock’ now; the new world ushered in by the social revolution of the 1960s did not bring an age of happiness; individual freedom allowed space for individual greed. Maybe the roots of the casino capitalism that brought the economic collapse of the past three years lay in the casting off of all restraints and responsibilities forty years ago. It is difficult to imagine the staid, conservative societies of the 1950s allowing the excesses that were to emerge fifty years later.
The world is a better place than it was; it’s just that it could have been a whole lot better than it turned out.