“When the civil rights battle was won, all the Jews and hippies and artists were middle class white people and all the blacks were still poor.” — Jonathan Lethem
CARPE-ING THE DIEM
All the coolest things happened in the ten year period before I became old enough to participate in them. Here’s a list of events I’d have attended or been part of had I been 18 years old and not still terrified of being grounded for a couple of months by Ma or clunked on the head by Dad:
- The March on Washington
- The Monterey Pop Festival
- The Summer of Love
- The 1968 Democratic National Convention
- The May 9th, 1970 protest against the war in Vietnam
How I longed to have been there!
Accordingly, for the first few years of my youthful independence, I tried to do everything that I couldn’t when I was a tadpole.
I mean, I even burned my Selective Service System registration card the day I got it in 1974, even though the draft had been effectively ended at least a year by that time. I felt revolutionary. I must have looked like a dope.
Some six months before that great act of resistance, I concocted a foolproof cover story, bundled up some clothing, a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush, and pocketed the entirety of my wealth — some $12, IIRC — and set off with five pals for southern Indiana and the Erie Canal “Soda” Pop Festival.
Where Did I Get $20?!
It would be my first rock festival and, I was certain, would be as cool, as transcendent, as culturally significant, as oh wow! as Woodstock. I was 16 years old.
This was my cover story: I was a member of the Astronomy Club in high school. In fact, by Labor Day weekend 1972, I’d already been elected vice president of that august group. The only nerdier guys were the Chess Club members, some of whom were also members of our gang. The Astronomy Club twice a year would hold a weekend camp-out some 50 miles west of Chicago on one of our members’ uncle’s property where we’d set up our telescopes, keep running counts of meteors, and when we got too cold, huddle in cars and look at the Playboy magazines that one of us invariably brought.
I told my parents the Astronomy Club camp-out would be early that year.
“Okay,” Ma said as I shoved off. “Just be careful.” I nodded and walked a couple of blocks to a prearranged meeting point. There, in a rusty old black Ford blaring the 8-track strains of the “Concert for Bangladesh,” sat not my pimply-faced geeky brethren but three hippies named Bart, Karen, and Gaye. Behind the Ford was an even rustier faded blue Rambler containing two more hippies named Ronnie and Sunshine.
I never found out what Sunshine’s real name was. He’d earned his moniker because he was mad for Orange Sunshine, a type of LSD that made other kinds of acid seem like something your Mom would take.
A Four-way Blotter Hit Of Orange Sunshine
Sunshine always had a faraway look in his eyes. Faraway.
Bart, Ronnie, and Sunshine were in their mid-20s. Karen, Gaye, and I were in our mid-teens. Bart and Karen were a couple, which we — self-regarded free-thinking and free-loving freaks — thought nothing of. I was madly in love with Gaye. She was the first white chick I ever knew who had an Afro.
As we barreled south on Interstate 57, I even tried to hold Gaye’s hand, which she allowed me to do for all of 13 seconds. The rest of the time she spent staring out the back window of the Ford, looking for all the world like a lonely puppy. I wouldn’t let myself realize it at the time, but she was mooning over Ronnie, following us in the Rambler. She was madly in love with him.
The Erie Canal “Soda” Pop Festival originally was slated to be held in Chandler, Indiana but county officials there quickly put the kibosh on that idea. After scouting around for a new site, the organizers discovered a piece of oxbow land just east of the the Wabash River called Bull Island, near New Harmony. Because the big river had changed its course over the years, Bull Island, originally part of Illinois, by then was on the Indiana side of the river. Ergo, Indiana authorities had no jurisdiction over it. And, like that, the festival had a new home.
The Way In
I took a hit of Orange Sunshine that Saturday night, my first acid trip. I’d hardly ever smoked marijuana to that point. In fact, I’d only drunk alcohol a handful of times. “Don’t worry,” Ronnie advised me, “this is gonna be freaky.”
Freaky was his word for wonderful.
A couple of hours later as Foghat played “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” I looked down at my hands and discovered that I’d gashed them wide open. The gaping wound was big enough that I could have sworn I saw the very tendons and bones inside of me. “Oh God,” I shrieked, “I need bandages, quick!”
My plea was so desperate that any number of people leaped up and ran for First Aid supplies.
The next morning when I woke up, my pals were laughing at me. I considered this highly insulting; after all, I’d nearly severed my hands. Then I learned what had really happened. A guy was walking around passing out flyers. I stuck out my hand to take one and — wouldn’t you know it? — got myself a nasty paper cut.
That was the extent of my trauma.
As we bathed in the Wabash River that morning, the sounds of Ravi Shankar’s sitar wafted over us. I’ll never forget that moment because it was the very first time I’d ever seen a nude chick. Thank heavens I was waist deep in the river. I loitered there for a long time, not just to catch sidelong glances at her and other unclothed females, but to allow certain parts of my anatomy below the surface to de-tumesce.
Did I mention I was 16?
Ravi Shankar At Bull Island
Anyway, Bull Island was a catastrophe. More than 200,000 people showed up; the organizers were prepared for 50,000. Much of the acid sold there was not just a rip-off, it was dangerous laced with strychnine. Before the acts arrived by helicopter, each was advised not to drop any acid purchased at the site. We were lucky inasmuch as Sunshine had dosed us from his personal stash.
Bull Island, the festival, lacked water, food, medical supplies, and toilets. A downpour of biblical proportions soaked the 900-acre site on Friday night. Trucks bringing food into the festival were looted and one was overturned and burned. A kid in a sleeping bag was run over by a car backing up on Sunday night. Three other kids drowned in the Wabash River.
Scheduled acts included Rod Stewart and the Faces, Black Sabbath, the Allman Brothers, and Joe Cocker. None of them performed. Instead, we were treated to the likes of Black Oak Arkansas.
After the festival was over, the stage was set on fire.
Aftermath: A Burned-Out Food Truck
I think of all this because I learned Ravi Shankar died yesterday. He was 92. He played at Woodstock as well as Bull Island.
Bull Island was not Woodstock.