Reflections on Rock Music Festivals

Reflections on rock music festivals take us from a disappointing Goose Lake Music Festival to permanent hearing loss in New Orleans.

| January/February 2013

  • Rock Concert
    Trudging back to my seat, I decided the only way to do penance for ruining my daughters’ good time was to have a bad time myself. But I couldn’t stick to my plan: Ani DiFranco, as it turned out, was ridiculously charismatic.
    Photo By Rob “Berto” Bennett
  • Jazz Musician
    At some point I stopped my usual low-impact shuffling to the beat and took to more-vigorous hopping and then to all-out jumping with no regard for my middle-agedness and tricky back.
    Photo By Weekly Dig

  • Rock Concert
  • Jazz Musician

Rock Music Festivals: “McCarthy for President” Rally, Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I was there in Lincoln Park to see Phil Ochs, whose antiwar songs played on an endless loop those days both on my turntable and in my head. My mother was there to see Eugene McCarthy, whose Democratic presidential-primary campaign was just starting to take off. My mother was also there to drive me. (I was 15.) I was also there to be rude to her. (I was 15.) She kept beaming at me and saying things like “I’m so glad we’re doing this together; we never get a chance anymore to relate.” I kept saying nothing to her. While she was talking, I stared at the empty stage with a focused intensity meant to tell anyone who might be watching, I may be standing next to this overly animated, middle-aged woman, but please don’t think that I’ve got anything to do with her.

Finally, unable to stand being so close to my mother any longer, I squeezed between the people in front of me and worked my way toward the stage, never once looking back. Halfway through “The War Is Over,” my favorite Ochs song, McCarthy strode onto the stage. As Ochs delivered the song’s most incendiary lyric—“Serve your county in her suicide / Find the flag so you can wave goodbye / But just before the end even treason might be worth a try”—McCarthy threw his arms in the air, and the crowd erupted.

Everything about this moment—the heady feeling that my side was finally winning, the memory of all those lonely afternoons listening to Ochs alone in my room, the way his voice caught at “suicide” and rose at “treason”—made my chest tighten, my eyes well up, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I could also feel something else on my neck: my mother’s eyes staring right at it, imploring me to turn around and share this moment with her. And on some level I wanted to. I knew what deep pleasure she would have experienced if I had just let her glimpse the tiniest bit of my excitement, let her know that, in spite of my trying to feel as miserable as I did, sometimes I actually felt—could I admit it to her, to myself?—happy.

But when I did turn around, I saw her grinning at me as if we shared a great secret, completely unaware of how ridiculous she looked in that here’s-what-Mama-Cass-would-look-like-if-Mama-Cass-were-a-Jewish-suburban-housewife get-up. And just like that, all of my good intentions disappeared, and that familiar wave of adolescent righteousness and revulsion clicked back into place. Instead of the See, I’m happy nod I’d intended to give her, I shot her a look that said, Don’t you know how embarrassed I am by you? Don’t you understand how much I want you to LEAVE ME ALONE? 

Rock Music Festivals: Goose Lake International Music Festival, Jackson, Michigan, 1970

Lenny and I should have gone to Woodstock. We had a ride lined up and everything. But then we heard about a party a girl in our class was throwing that weekend while her parents were out of town, and we decided we’d rather do that. Besides, we figured, there was just no way all those acts rumored to be playing Woodstock—Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, the Band, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—would possibly show up.

But of course they did show up, the party girl’s parents stayed home, and I spent the next decade or so convinced (in what I know now was blissful ignorance) that I would never feel another loss as painful as missing Woodstock.

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