Woodstock and the Other Mother: A Brief History of the New Age

When the wave of Woodstock nostalgia awakens this week with the 40th anniversary of that spontaneous celebration of peace, love and dope that so deeply marked a generation and impressed the media so thoroughly that we still listen to these people, youth will want to know: Is that Granny and Grandfather dancing naked in the mud? Is that Great Auntie Eleanor firing up a jumbo? To find the answers to these questions, youth might ask: Is Great Auntie a lawyer or a journalist? Then probably yes, because virtually everyone who was at Woodstock then is either a lawyer or a journalist today.

There are several unmarked or unnoticed elements of the storied Woodstock festival. First, the music sucked. Most of the performers — Country Joe, Sha-Na-Na, Quill, Mountain — were never heard from again. But Janis was there, and so was her elegant shadow, Grace Slick with the Jefferson Airplane. Nothing free and awakening like that which they had at Haight-Ashbury in California just a year or so before, but well enough for a bunch of fledgling lawyers on acid. Woodstock would be Haight-Ashbury for lawyers.

The other great acts — Bob Dylan, the Beatles — didn’t go. The arc had passed; the age was ending — it was clear that Dylan’s contemptibly square and myopic Mr. Jones had gone hip; was wearing jeans and a tie-dyed shirt now and would write the ending for Life or Newsweek. The really rich and original stuff had happened in the brief, breathtaking and contagious years just before, when the age had reached apogee; Sgt. Pepper’s and the Summer of Love — 1967, in Haight-Ashbury (“The Haight”); it would be and still may be a catalyst to what Madame Blavatsky had claimed a hundred years ago, the beginning of a new spirit civilization in the golden state of California; the beginning of the Age of Aquarius.

Madame Blavatsky, New Age Earth Mother incarnate, is said to have influenced Einstein, and his niece said that Einstein’s motivation for the General Theory came from her complex text, The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888. He kept it on his desk at the Princeton Institute throughout his life, she said. I took a look at it and couldn’t make head or tails out of it. All math. Hippie math, like the General Theory, that has time going in both directions and whatnot.

People today hardly recall that Blavatsky said that or hardly recall her at all, but if anyone is responsible for the New Age of New Beginnings that seemed to just pop out of nowhere in the early ’60s, it might be her more than anyone. They recall instead the Other Mother, Gertrude Stein, the flipside of Madame Blavatsky, who looked to the same general region and said, “There is no there there.” Ambassador Clinton likes to say that too.

There is a second thing about Woodstock that is unknown or forgotten, and this could be a test: Ask anyone you know who went to Woodstock who was the Indian guru who appeared on stage between acts and gave little talks while Great Auntie was frolicking in the mud. The answer is Swami Satchidananda. He is entirely forgotten or was not even remembered at all. But Satchidananda was friend to Mia Farrow and guru to Laura Nyro, one of the great, soulful voices of the day, who was also quickly forgotten.

Satchidananda’s message was “Truth is One, Paths are Many,” and I can’t see a more perfect point of order for our own period. And had it not been for Satchidananda, and had John Lennon not brought the Beatles to the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in India the year before, it would not have been possible that an old Christian, Southern conservative like Jesse Helms would find a true and authentic friendship with the Dalai Lama in the last decade of the 20th century.

But anyway, all the real action was before, in 1967 and 1968 around Hashbury, when Janis Joplin awakened to the world with a scream and a cry as if born of the earth itself; a cry that had been sleeping for maybe 600 years. But sadly, she would be gone too shortly after, leaving us too early. The gods take the great ones young and they intentionally obscure the Paths by sending those lawyers later to write the history.

Woodstock marked the end of a period of what Tibetan Buddhists call a “between” — it is the creative, “timeless” gap between childhood and adulthood. The age began in the early-mid ’60s at my high school football field in Newport, R.I., when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were still singing about Jesus. Not only that, but they brought in these great people from North Carolina and Tennessee: Doc Watson, Johnny Cash and the Johnson Family singers — real, authentic people like we who wore suits to high school did not know existed in our great country. You can still see this on PBS because they run it by during fundraiser time; Joan Baez, the most beautiful young woman of the age at 20 who sang like a bird, peering out into the audience and asking, “Is Bobby there?” Then he’d lightly jump up on the stage too and sing with her. I like to watch it with my kids because I am there too.

Then one day he changed from a wooden guitar to an electric one and they say it was then that the age really began. About 1965. Indeed, everything was different after that. They brought the rite of entry for the age. Woodstock was the rite of exit. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell coming to him shortly after. They closed the portal that Joan and Bob opened. They were good. They were great.

But it all collapsed nine months after Woodstock as if the coming death was going through a returning pregnancy; May 4, 1970, at Kent State, when National Guardsmen shot down and killed four students who were protesting against the war in Vietnam.

Neil Young, howling a sacred animal chant like a wolf lost and alone on Alberta’s frozen northern tundra, sang: Tin soldiers and Nixon coming … we’re finally on our own …

That was the key phrase: We’ve finally on our own. Because there the gap between the generation’s childhood and adulthood had closed.

Jerry Rubin, hippie leader of the day, wrote in one of his biographies, “After Kent State you couldn’t get a girl to type your term paper for you.” For sure, for sure, there would be no carrying signs like “Chicks up front,” like they held two years before at the Democratic Convention riots led by Rubin in Chicago.

It has somehow been my twisted karma to be like Waldo, walking anonymously through the crowd when these things were happening. I happened by the Haight-Ashbury scene right at the peak as I was flying out then from San Francisco to Tan Son Nhat. It was a moment exactly like Madame Blavatsky said: It was a moment possibly like the Yeats/Krishnamurti/Blavatsky day which started the new age, and it was a moment like none other that had occurred in the Western tradition for a thousand years and more.

It was astonishingly joyful and free and beautiful. I had so much fun I missed my plane to the war and had to catch a ride the following day. A year later, at the end of my tour of duty, it was all dark and dangerous. And the “chicks up front” riots were happening in the Chicago Democratic Convention and I ended up there too sleeping in the train station when I ran out of furlough money.

Within that year — between August 1967 and August 1968 — the age had become politicized. The age was over because as the Christ, who awakened another age 2,000 years before almost to the moment, had said: The Father lives on the one side of the coin, The Caesar on the other. If I may be so arrogant as to update the Master on that a little: The Earth Mother likewise lives on the one side of the coin. The Other Mother lives on the other. (For further exposition, see Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.”)

In that regard, Woodstock was dénouement. It was a shadow of the real thing which had happened just a year or so before on the other end of the continent in San Francisco. But politics and public policy are more accessible to lawyers and journalists than Vedic riddles about the Eggman (“I am he … ”) and koans and Krishna Consciousness and all of that. And smoking dope seemed an adequate short cut to Enlightenment: That is, you could sort of understand these things if you were stoned, so what’s the difference? So they left the Earth Mother side of the coin and went over to the Other Mother.

The men had landed on the moon, John Lennon had married Yoko at Yalta in a white suit suggesting Jesus and the hippies had all left the farm and gone on to grad school. A lot of people started going then into rehab.

Jerry Rubin entered the life of suits. He was, as he said, a pilot fish for his generation, and what he did millions of others just his age would do as well. He moved to Wall Street. And they did too.

He told them: “Wealth creation is the real American revolution." It’s OK to be rich.

The age of the Earth Mother had ended. The age of the Other Mother had begun. Hillary Clinton and Joe Namath were featured in Life magazine in 1969, the same summer of Woodstock. You can get a copy online now for $35.


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