The first music I learned to hear, after a decade of listening – first to classical music, than jazz – were anthropologists’ field recordings played on tape reels in a second floor office above Fourth Street, where I had a job blacking in tiny rectangles on computer cards for Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics project. It was not until I had immersed myself in those field recordings and was building a collection of Folkways LP’s and other ethnic music, that I suddenly figured out what differentiated rock and roll from the tawdry popular music I had been avoiding, when I could, for twenty-odd years: ethnic roots. If I couldn’t hear roots in a rock-and-roll track, it didn’t make the cut, as far as I was concerned. Usually the roots were Southern black roots, but not always. Behind The Four Seasons I heard the strident harmonies of Balkan polyphony; in Joe Cocker I heard the hoarse incantations of Central Asia; in Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” I heard the lovely treble solo of an Ituri Forest pygmy. At first I deigned to listen to Bob Dylan because I heard the Childe ballads there. Then, with Blonde on Blonde, I had to admit there was a genius in our midst.
Most of the rock-and-roll I heard on the radio I thought of as either childish – the Beatles, for example – or self-indulgent – Jimi Hendrix, for example. Generally, I didn’t dislike it to the point where I would turn it off or change the station, but there were exceptions. The modulations of The Mamas and the Papas and The Fourth Dimension for example, were just too corny; also, whenever a rhythm-and-blues singer came out with a soppy ballad – Otis Redding, “The Dock of the Bay;” Aretha Franklin “Natural Woman” – I felt betrayed. (It’s a strain of Orientalism that I still suffer from, in which, for example, I regard Louis Armstrong as a sell-out.)
My benchmark for rock-and-roll was, and still is, The Rolling Stones. Nevertheless, even though I considered most rock-and-roll only mediocre music, I felt an allegiance to rock that didn’t have anything to do with music – just as I feel patriotic when I hear the National Anthem. (Hendrix’s synthesis of the two, even today, can bring tears to my eyes. Even though I had resigned myself to living in a world where throngs of unmusical people considered music to be at the center of their lives, I was shocked when I heard someone equate Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” with flag-burning.)
The band that hung out in Salt Point was The Burning Bush – at their best, in my opinion, when they were rocking out Junior Walker covers. Joe Virgilio, whose honking alto sax sometimes rose to Coltrane-like peaks, was living in the apartment in our barn. Phil Paratore, lead guitar, parked his bus, and his wife and baby, in our driveway when The Bush was gigging at Spinelli’s or The Belly Butt-Inn (my gorge still rises at the name). Adrian Guillery, who sometimes sat in, inspiring the others into a juke joint down-and-dirty, was the bluesman-who-came-to-dinner, who slept on the couch in our living-room and haunted our domesticity until one evening he ate an entire box of Freihoffer’s chocolate chip cookies that I had bought for Ellen, before she had had even one, provoking indignation to well up through my habitual mellowness and I told him he had to leave. When Phil discovered Fresh Cream, they all regarded it as some sort of breakthrough and insisted on playing it over and over again. To me, Cream sounded tiresome and bland.
While I considered Eric Clapton just another soulless guitar virtuoso, I was thrilled when the huge graffiti CLAPTON IS GOD appeared on a concrete railroad overpass outside of Poughkeepsie. (How was it done? Did someone suspend themselves from the rail bed? or totter on a step-ladder on the roof of a bus or the cab of a pickup?) In The Eighties, when “The Sixties” had atrophied into only a shiny meme for hucksters, the graffiti was still there: CLAPTON IS GOD. It had become the poignant symbol of yet another Utopia blasted to bits by reality, like the Confederate flag I’d seen drooping over a shoddy souvenir stand on Route 1 north of Fort Lauderdale (this was before politics had turned it into a symbol of racism instead of the emblem for an imaginary ante-bellum South constructed by a clutch of Jewish refugee romancers in Hollywood), and the stencil of a hammer and sickle fading on the side of a Monoprix in a dingy suburb of Grenoble.
The same double-standard (in which I could disdain Eric Clapton the musician, but still be exhilarated by the graffiti CLAPTON IS GOD) informed my attitude about the Woodstock Festival. It was the defining event of a noble and magical era, an era in which, for the first time and the last, I felt myself at home; but I am glad I didn’t go. We had tickets. They’d been pinned to the bulletin board in the kitchen for months. Our plan was to throw the kid in the car and drive over for the day. Then the traffic jam became national news.
Instead, I decided to hitchhike to nowhere.
In the busy, noisy, swarming life we lead in the Victorian house above Salt Point Turnpike there was no opportunity for quiet meditation or the contemplation of some paradoxical koan. Hitching to nowhere was my Zen retreat. Ellen would drive me over to the Taconic Parkway in the morning and I would put my thumb up in the northbound lane (to the south was suburbia). I went wherever my rides took me. Then, sometime in the afternoon, north of Schenectady or west of Pittsfield or in the Catskill foothills, I would cross the road and start hitching home. It was an efficient one-day karma cleanser.
One reason I decided to hitch to nowhere during the Woodstock Festival was that I figured that my counterculture compatriots would be headed in the other direction. I wanted adventure, not the same old same old. When I was hitching to nowhere, if a VW bus or a merrily daubed jalopy with flower stickers came along, I would put down my thumb and look as if I were waiting for a friend. Half the time the hippies stopped anyway to see if I needed a lift. Sometimes, if they were very stoned, they’d want to linger and chat. Once, without a word being spoken, I was handed an open bag of Fritos. (Along with everything else, The Sixties was The Generous Generation.)
Among the people whom I did take rides with, I remember a farmer in a station wagon, with a Marine Corps crewcut and a grim, disapproving wife, a young guy who looked like he came out of my father’s high school yearbook, in a blue suit about two sizes too large, with cartons of gumballs on his back seat, whose job was to top up all the gumball machines between Peekskill and Albany, and a burly, bearded mountain man in a flannel shirt, driving a flatbed truck, hand-lettered “Ron’s Used Cars,” hauling a wrecked Cadillac to Utica, where he was going to exchange it for a working Ford Falcon.
Early in the morning of August 17, 1969, Ellen dropped me at the Salt Point Turnpike overpass. I walked down to the end of the northbound exit and put my thumb out. After about ten minutes, an aquamarine Mercury Cougar pulled up. My ride was a hood from Queens, with pomaded hair and a face as smooth and shiny as plastic. He was listening to WABC, which was just beginning to fade out. “Fuck,” he said. He leaned over and tried to fine-tune the radio, then gave up. “What can I listen to up here?” he said. I found an Albany rock station in the 1500 range where the local stations gathered, and he settled back in his seat. He was on his way to Saratoga, he said, to stay with a cousin and go to the races.
After we had passed the third state trooper lurking under an overpass in less than thirty miles, he said, “Fuck! What’s with all the cops?”
I’d been wondering the same thing. Then the penny dropped. “It must be this music festival in Woodstock,” I said.
“Fuck,” he said, slowing to below the speed limit. “That’s why I took this fucking road instead of the Thruway.”
Finally, on the Interstate 90 spur from the Massachusetts Turnpike, we were pulled over at the Route 9 exit. The trooper leaned his big red face and his big grey hat into the open window. He sniffed at the air in the car for a moment, then asked, “Where you going?” The driver said he was going to Schenectady to visit an aunt and uncle.
It was clear to the trooper that the driver and I didn’t match. “What about him? You got an aunt and uncle in Schenectady too?” he asked me.
“I don’t know him. He’s a hitchhiker,” said the driver.
“Is that right?” He assumed a menacing stare. “Well, this is the end of the ride, fella. You can get out of the car right now.”
As the Cougar primly drove away, I waited while the trooper, seven feet tall, including his hat, in a uniform of gun-metal grey army blanket material and a creaking leather Sam Browne belt and holster, eyed my driver’s license.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
Hitching to nowhere was too difficult to explain, so I told him I was going to Syracuse to visit a friend at the university. (It was a journey I actually had taken, many years earlier.)
“No you’re not,” he said.
It was clear that he couldn’t figure me out: thirty years old, with the know-it-all attitude of a professor, plus a driver’s license, dressed like a Communist folk singer, with an address in the sticks just a couple of counties away. “You’re going up there,” he said, motioning toward the Route 9 embankment, “back to Salt Point. And if I catch you hitching in any other direction, or on the Thruway or the Taconic, you’ll spend your week-end in jail waiting to see a judge.”
As I was about to start off, he noticed the flat bulge in my denim jacket pocket. “What’s that?”
It was Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. He took the book over to the hood of his car and began opening it to random pages. He seemed to study them briefly before moving on to the next. When he handed it back, he shook his head at me and clicked his tongue pityingly.
Route 9 then, as now, was not a deserted road. It runs parallel to the Taconic, which is closed to trucks. The trucks use Route 9 and it’s also the Main Street for local north-south traffic in the corridor between Connecticut and the Hudson. My first lift was with a guy who worked at a hospital in Albany and was on his way home to Valatie. Then I was picked up by a pale middle-aged man in a new Renault – so new that it still smelt new – who didn’t say a word or even cast a glance at me, whom I would have tagged as a traveling salesman, with his single wave combed neatly back from his forehead and his polyester pants, but instead of a matching jacket, he had on a pink cardigan.
He let me off at a grocery store where I used the payphone to call Ellen to tell her I might not be home until late, and bought a bag of potato chips. I no sooner put out my thumb again than I was picked up by a farmer who’d been in the grocery store. He dropped me a couple of miles down the road.
I assumed the stance I considered the best combination of moderately eager, soberly patient and potentially grateful for that stretch of Route 9 and again stuck my thumb out. Five hours later, I still hadn’t been given a ride. I don’t know whether it simply was bad luck or if the televised enormity of the Woodstock pilgrimage, which included plenty of unsavory looking hitchhikers, was spooking drivers even here, 100 miles away. Then it was rush hour, with everyone heading for home, bumper to bumper – never good for hitchhiking. Then dusk fell.
I hadn’t stayed in one place, but had walked a mile or two from one good spot – a straightaway where drivers could see me from far enough away for Christian charity to overcome their instinctive reluctance – to another. As it grew darker, and chillier, I just kept walking, hoping now to find a diner, another grocery store, or at least a pay phone somewhere. I had finished the potato chips and, earlier, had used the outdoor water tap at a gas station (that was still when you couldn’t buy anything at a gas station but gas and oil), cupping my hands under it to drink.
I was hungry and thirsty – and elated. This was an adventure.
I gave up trying to thumb a ride when all I could see were blinding headlights whizzing toward me, and just kept trudging south. Finally I came to a Chrysler dealership – closed, of course. I methodically tried the doors of one car after another in its used car lot until I found one that was unlocked. I lay down on the back seat, covered myself with my jacket, and slept.
As soon as I put my thumb out the next morning, I was given a lift by a guy in a pickup who could see that I’d just come out to the road after sleeping in the rough – although not as rough as he probably imagined. He dropped me at a diner. I had a breakfast of bacon and eggs, called the railway station in Hudson, called Ellen and told her what train I would be on, then called a taxi whose card was tucked behind the telephone.