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Columnist Jay Fleitman: Musings on Woodstock

  • In this Aug. 16, 1969, file photo, rock music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York. aP

  • After years of searching for his late brother attending Woodstock 50 years ago, columnist Jay Fleitman discovered this photo on the internet. HIs brother is in the middle of the photo, leaning against the green car. WOODSTOCK ON INSTAGRAM

Published: 9/2/2019 8:00:10 PM

This last August marked 50 years after the Woodstock Music Festival. That event one half-century ago was the apogee of the 1960s counterculture movement.

It is remembered as a time of great idealism and creativity, our generation fighting the good fights of an antiwar movement and national civil rights, while exploring ways of living that broke from the staid ways of our parent’s generation.

I and some friends were going to Woodstock. We had bought our tickets, packed the car and hit the highway. We were one hour from home when the news came over the car radio that the New York State Thruway was closed due to traffic and that no one more was passing through. We turned to home with no understanding that we would be missing the seminal generational event.

My older brother had already gone up by himself and I intended to meet him. He was an artist and he lived on St. Marks Place in the East Village of Manhattan, the absolute epicenter of the New York hippie scene.

Many years earlier when the movement was coalescing, I had started to spend time at my brother’s apartment during the summer. I have images in my memory of the streets being full of brightly dressed young men and women in the costumes of the time. The raw energy and excitement was palpable.

I remember the early head shops selling smoking paraphernalia, with stoned patrons being intensely fascinated by the shiny reflective toys being sold. I remember watching a table set up on a sidewalk selling LSD. A few bills changed hands, and then the vendor would remove an eyedropper from a small blue glass bottle, take a sugar cube from a pyramid on the table, put a few drops on that sugar cube, and off walked the customer.

My brother and I would see shows at the Fillmore East, one of two national temples dedicated to the ’60s music. I remember the frequent visits to my brother’s apartment by his friends looking for an easy place to have sex with their girlfriends.

Only two years after the Woodstock Festival, my brother would come to die from a drug overdose, a byproduct of the hippie movement.

In all the years after his death I searched photographs of Woodstock looking for my brother. I would scour crowd scenes looking for his face. I would never find him. Then about five years ago as I was channel surfing on TV, I saw a show on the History Channel about a cache of previously unreleased black and white photographs of Woodstock. They had been found in the basement of a man who died in upstate New York, who had been sent to Woodstock as a teenager by his local high school newspaper to take photographs. As these pictures passed on the screen, I was shocked to see two photos of my brother.

I wanted a copy of these pictures. I tried to call the History Channel, using numbers found on the internet, but this ended up being a corporate office and nobody ever returned my calls. I kept meeting people who knew people at the History Channel who would try and reach out on my behalf, but nothing ever came of it.

Often, there were “sponsored stories” on the bottom of news media websites that would advertise new and never before seen pictures from Woodstock. I always opened these up and waded through the advertisements only to find the same old photographs that I’d seen over and over again. About a year ago, when I was doing this yet again during my lunch at work, I was stunned to see another photograph that I had never seen before, and this one had my brother in it.

There it was, a moment in my brother’s life and this historic event fixed in time; and I myself was never there. He was shirtless, leaning back against a Karmann Ghia, near a pizza truck and surrounded by many others. I can only guess what was happening in that moment. Was he alone or was he with friends? Was he high on drugs, was he waiting for food? What had he done earlier in that day, and what would he do next? It is a sadness to never be able to know.

As an adult, I have come to take a very different perspective on what has become a romantic and exciting time in our national memory. I now see it as a time of great self-indulgence and narcissism. There was this effort to make a break from the materialistic and narrow lives of our parents. The generation of the 60s demeaned their parents and was going to find the way to fuller and freer lives.

Our parents’ generation had lived through the twin traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. Poverty and unemployment had been rampant, and foreign dictatorships in Asia and Europe sought dominion over the world through a seismic war. It was unclear if husbands, brothers and sons would return alive from overseas.

By the time the 1950s had rolled around, that generation sought some stability. Providing food on the table, having a secure roof over their heads, and being able to simply watch television without a background of exhausting anxiety was what they needed.

They had seen the world as it can be. The youth of the ’60s were blithely dismissive of their parents’ experience. In looking back, the ignorance on display in the 1960s was breathtaking.

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