Thoroughly wrung out after my three days at the 1969 Woodstock festival, I got back to my SoHo loft and my painting. Perhaps coincidentally, my Sixties psychedelic style peaked in late August of that year, and my work took a darker turn. I began softening the hard edges, dimming the colors with airbrush and spray guns. Was it something in the air, a change in the zeitgeist? Maybe, though I didn’t recognize it then. All I knew was that I was growing bored with the colorful hard-edged style I’d developed over the past several years and weary of my frenetic, hedonistic life style.
For me, the Sixties were all about liberation from my straight-laced Midwestern background and the compulsion that drove me toward academic achievement. I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a child of the Sixties. It was late autumn of 1964, I’d been married about six months, and I was enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University. Our studios were in the upper reaches of Lowe Library, and I shared space with Susan Hartung, another native of Milwaukee, who’d brought in a portable radio. One day the radio emitted a sustained, twangy note that segued into an astounding guitar riff that grabbed me in the guts. “What’s THAT?” I asked my studio mate. She stared at me with a look of incredulous scorn. “It’s the Beatles,” she said.
Somehow I’d been so sheltered that I’d missed the beginning of the British invasion, but the opening bars of “I Feel Fine” changed that instantly.* Soon I was buying Beatles records and fan magazines. Pop art was in its infancy, and I began painting nearly life-size images of my new idols. My Beatlemania deserves a post of its own (remind me to describe the time I practically got into their bedroom.) But suffice it to say that I betrayed modern jazz, my first musical love, and entered a delayed but protracted adolescence that consumed me right up till Woodstock, when I encountered that Columbia drawing instructor who’d so detested my Beatles paintings. My art over that five-year period reflected the politics and social issues of the era, including the Vietnam war, but mostly it was about the music, and so was my life.
In music, the darkness descended in earnest at the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated concert at Altamont, where a man was beaten to death by Hells Angels acting as security guards. Things got worse in April of 1970 when Paul McCartney announced the breakup of the Beatles. When the news broke, I was in Florida. My mother was in a coma in a Sarasota hospital following a fall in the bathroom of the house my parents had rented for the winter, and her prognosis looked bleak. At last she regained consciousness of a sort, but the subdural hematoma and the prolonged coma had affected her deeply, and she was no longer the same woman.
My paintings grew ever darker in the ensuing months. Jimi Hendrix died on September 18th, and Janis Joplin on October 4th. They’d already been favorite subjects of mine, but now I painted them in memoriam. In October I flew back to Milwaukee to visit my parents, bringing slides of my newest paintings. My mother was failing rapidly, only intermittently lucid, but when I projected the slides on the walls of her bedroom, she rallied enough to express concern. “Those paintings are so dark and gloomy,” she said. “Why do you paint such sad paintings? Life is beautiful – you should be happy.” She died a month later, on November 20th. In retrospect, she was right – being happy is definitely better, and for me, the happiness, freedom and innocence of the Woodstock era was definitely over.
Now, forty years after Woodstock, I’ve discovered a new kind of happiness. As Joni Mitchell sang, “The seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down – we’re captive on the carousel of time.” Last week I rode the carousel – literally – with my two granddaughters at the Ulster County Fair, and tomorrow my daughter signs the closing papers on her very own house – in Woodstock.
I have some thoughts on the positive parallels between the sixties and the internet revolution of today, but those will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, check back in on Friday, when I’ll be featuring my first guest blogger, Sunny Frazier.
* For music lovers only: Wikipedia has an exhaustive entry on “I Feel Fine,” saying it “marks the earliest example of the use of feedback as a recording effect.” Here’s an excerpt: “The intro to “I Feel Fine” starts with a single, percussive (yet pure-sounding) note (a high “A” harmonic) played on Paul’s Hofner bass guitar that sustains, perhaps beyond any song previously recorded. It is then (famously) transformed and distorted via feedback. According to Paul McCartney, “John had a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar. It had a pick-up on it so it could be amplified… We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp. I can still see him doing it… and it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!” And we went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ‘No, it’s feedback.’ Wow, it’s a great sound!’ George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?’ ‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object– an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.”