A chapter from The Last Happy Occasion
For some mysterious reason, most of my friends in childhood and adolescence were from broken homes. In grade school, the kids I ran with—Saul Chessler, Stevie Goldstein, Michael Carr, and Gary O’Brien—were raised by single mothers, and they all went wonderful places and did exotic things on the weekends when their fathers visited. They went to movies, ball games, circuses, museums; in the summertime, they took day trips to the Cape, or to the north shore; they went camping and hiking in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire. I, whose parents were thoroughly, if not happily, married, never went anywhere. Whatever fission of the early sixties split apart the nuclear family inside other people’s houses became the glummest fusion of the fifties in my own. And as the weekends rolled around and my friends deserted me, with my mother down in the basement doing laundry all afternoon, and my father napping in the den before the droning television, it was hard not to think that life was a perpetual party, and only those kids got invited whose parents were divorced. I used to beg my parents to please get divorced, or separate at least, so I could go someplace for once, do something exciting. They’d laugh and pat me on the head and say, “What a card, what a sense of humor.”
By the time I went to high school, I’d long since given up any hope of their divorcing, but I was still drawn to kids from broken homes. My closest friend in those years was Jeff Morrison. At the beginning of our freshman year, Jeff had moved to Brookline with his mother and brothers, John and Bruce, after his parents got divorced. Even at fifteen, Jeff was a handsome, even manly-looking kid, dark-haired and muscular. But his apparent manliness was qualified, if not entirely undercut, by his utter guilelessness, his incapacity for deceit or dissimulation. He was kindhearted and too trusting. He had an almost childlike faith in the goodness of other people, assuming everyone accepted him on his own terms as he accepted them on theirs. Though he never talked about his family or how the divorce affected him, I wonder now if his inveterate openness to others, his almost reckless refusal to think that anyone would do him harm, wasn’t in some way a reaction to the pain and betrayal he may have felt about his absent father, his broken home, as if he thought the more remote somebody was to him, the more reliably familial that person was or ought to be. Though it confused and bewildered him when other kids would take advantage of his great good nature, or when adults would misinterpret his nave honesty as disrespect, he was incapable of changing, of taking on a more guarded, more circumspect demeanor. His innate, unsophisticated decency seemed to prevent him from learning from experience.
But it wasn’t just his innocence that made him vulnerable to others. Jeff also had about him a rather hapless air; he had a gift for getting himself into difficult and embarrassing situations. I discovered this soon after we met at tryouts for basketball. We both made the freshman team. The school supplied uniform and sneakers, but we had to purchase our own jockstraps. Jeff and I went to a local sporting-goods store. I bought a medium jockstrap, Jeff bought an extra large. Now I’d already seen him in the showers after tryouts, so I was a little surprised. He was well enough endowed, but an extra large? When I called him on this, he said, “Didn’t you see that beautiful chick at the cash register?” I said yeah, I saw her. So what? “Well,” he said, “I thought maybe if I got an extra large she might, you know, notice me.” She didn’t, of course, and now he was stuck with a jockstrap that maybe the Jolly Green Giant could have worn, but certainly not Jeff. It looked more like an oxygen mask than a jockstrap. All that year, as we got dressed for games and practices, Jeff had to put up with merciless teasing from his teammates. Invariably, somebody would pull on the baggy cup and call down into it, “Anybody home?” “My man, you got room in there for all the team equipment,” Dale Clark, one of the black kids, used to say. “You suffering some serious delusions.” Jeff would laugh along with everybody else. He took the razzing in stride, submitted to it the way he submitted to life in general, with cheerful, even dignified acceptance.
Jeff was a good basketball player, serious on the court, hardworking, dogged, his face impassive, utterly without expression, whether he played well or poorly, whether his team won or lost. His interest and pleasure in the game seemed entirely intrinsic to the playing itself. He was intense without being competitive at all.
His attitude to the game couldn’t have differed more from mine. By my freshman year, I was only just beginning to doubt my prospects for a career in professional basketball. In grade school I was something of a star. Physically and athletically, I bloomed early. In fact, I am now roughly the same height and weight I was when I was twelve years old, so back then I was bigger and more agile than almost everyone I played against. The men in my family, especially on my father’s side, are rather tall. My father, himself, a star in high school, used to tell me as I was growing that I had big feet, I’d be taller than he was, and so if I only practiced hard enough, who knew with my big feet how good I’d get, how far I’d go. Unfortunately, while my peers continued growing, I was stuck at five foot eight, one hundred and fifty pounds. I went from power forward in sixth grade, to small forward, in seventh, to big guard in eighth, and by high school I was just a point guard, and a rather small point guard at that. Even now, some thirty years later, whenever he sees me my father always shakes his head and says, “I can’t understand it, Al, you had such big feet.”
Anyway, being highly competitive and emotional, someone whose pleasure on the court depended much more than it should have on winning and excelling, I was drawn to Jeff’s detached attachment to the sport. His single-minded, unworldly devotion to just playing became a sort of laid-back, unambitious earth to the ether of my intense ambition.
By the summer between my junior and senior years, however, Jeff’s peculiarities took a political form. This was the summer of 1969. Over the past year or so, we’d seen the Tet Offensive, the escalation of the antiwar movement at home, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and widespread rioting in many inner cities. It embarrasses me to say this now but I followed these events from a safe distance, with only casual interest. My two obsessions, basketball and my girlfriend, Martha (in that order, I’m afraid), were all I cared about. I had my sights monomaniacally set on my senior year, when I would move into the starting lineup of the varsity team. But even if basketball hadn’t so completely occupied my mind and heart, I doubt I would have joined the student-led antiwar movement. I was too cowed by my father in those days, too fearful of doing anything he’d disapprove of. Not that he was dictatorial or hypercritical. Far from it. In his eyes, I could do no wrong, especially as an athlete. If I had a bad game (and he came to all of them, even hitchhiking sometimes to the remoter suburbs to see me play), it was the coach’s fault for not utilizing my abilities, or my teammates’ for not playing up to my level, or the officials’ for favoring the other team. No matter how I played, he praised me, and the more he praised me, the more acutely I would feel the discrepancy between the player he imagined me to be and the player I knew I was. After a while I began to feel his disappointment was in direct proportion to his encouragement, his compliments a measure of my failure. The pressure of trying to justify his excessive faith in my abilities made me resent him even as it terrified me that I might let him down.
In reaction to the social turmoil taking place around us, I think he began to fear that I might throw away what I had worked so hard for. He grew more watchful, protective, and authoritarian than he normally was. We’d watch the nightly news at dinnertime, the latest body counts from Vietnam, the rioting at home, the demonstrations, marches, drug busts, and even though he was against the war, repeatedly he’d warn me that if I got involved in any protests he’d disown me, as he had already disowned my older sister. A graduate student at Michigan State University, she was a member of SDS and had been arrested several times for antiwar activities. She was also living with a black man, her love life and her politics seamlessly expressing an out-and-out assault on the middle-class American values my parents represented. They’d already lost her, and they were going to make damn sure, for my own good, that they didn’t lose me too. To keep me busy when I wasn’t on the court, my father got me a job downtown as a stock boy with a novelty wholesaler. Mornings on our way to work, we’d pass the hippies sleeping on the steps of the Arlington Street Church. “Look at that,” he’d say, pointing to the long hair, bare feet, and dirty clothes. “If they want to live like dogs we ought to treat ‘em like dogs, we ought to round ‘em up and shoot ‘em. How can they do this to their parents?”
That summer Jeff let his hair grow long, partly to overthrow “the system,” but mostly just to imitate his older brother, who, as I recall, was a rock musician and a poet. Jeff’s relation to the counterculture (drugs included) was like his relation to basketball: it seemed to be based entirely in pleasure. To him it was, like everything, else, just a trip, just what he was into. In the eyes of others, though, his ponytail meant only rebellion. To his teachers and his friends’ parents, mine especially, he became a dangerous, subversive influence. It takes a certain effort of imagination now to appreciate the political valence dress and appearance had in those days. The sign with respect to hair and clothing hadn’t yet so promiscuously separated from the signified. Of course, what started as a political statement expressing radical disaffection from the status quo became in no time nothing but a fashion statement that almost everyone was making no matter what the politics. By 1975, even my father wore bell-bottoms, grew longer sideburns, and let his hair inch dangerously down a little over his ears. By 1979, in Skokie, Illinois, the adolescent neo-Nazis—who demonstrated for the right to march through Jewish neighborhoods in which many Holocaust survivors lived—all had long hair and scruffy beards, berets and earrings. They could have been refugees from Woodstock, except that instead of a red fist on their T-shirts they had swastikas, their earrings sporting German crosses instead of emblems of peace and love. In the late sixties, however, dress, appearance, music, and drug of preference defined you quite precisely in relation to the status quo, politically as well as culturally. So much so that, during the summer of 1969, shortly before his trial for conspiracy at the Chicago Democratic Convention, Abbie Hoffman could write, “I want to be tried not because I support the National Liberation Front—which I do—but because I have long hair. Not because I support the Black Liberation Movement, be because I smoke dope.” As Godfrey Hodgson remarks, Hoffman “was not saying that long hair and marijuana were more important than radical politics. He was saying that they were, to him, inseparable.”
Early in the summer, the basketball coach, Don Slavin, asked me to round up a few other players who might still be in town to participate in a clinic for grade school coaches that he and some other high school coaches were running out in Lexington. I went with Jeff, Dale Clark, and I forget who else—there were five of us in all from our team, and some thirty or forty kids from other schools. We all sat together on one bank of stands, the coaches, some seventy or eighty of them, on another. Coach Slavin made some introductory remarks. Then he asked for volunteers to illustrate some particular play or exercise. Jeff was the first kid to jump down out of the stands. This must have been the first time Coach Slavin had seen Jeff since the spring. His jaw dropped when he saw Jeff’s ponytail and red headband. “This is boy’s basketball,” he said with mock sincerity. “The girls don’t meet till next week.” Some of the players giggled. The coaches were all dead silent. Jeff didn’t realize at first he was being told to leave. He just stood there, stone-faced, waiting for the coach’s instructions. “Go on,” the coach shouted after a moment, “go on, get out of here. You’re no longer on the team.”
In his defense, let me say that Coach Slavin was a decent man, all things considered. Unlike most of the coaches I had had by then, he was too irritable to be a tyrant. He saw himself less as a Vince Lombardi “molder of character” than as an undeserving and long-suffering victim of the inadequacies of the adolescent players he was stuck with. During games or practices, he never chewed us out about our failures and mistakes. He never ranted or abused us. Like a despairing husband with a wife he knows he can neither change nor live without, he’d stroke his close-cropped head in exasperation, pleading with us, whining, for God’s sake, get back on defense, don’t rush your shots, look for the open man.… Harried irritability was about as close as he ever got to joy or passion. His dedication to coaching was a function not of an overwhelming desire to win but rather of a fear of losing, of humiliation. Not to be embarrassed by us was his sole ambition. To play poorly, of course, was one thing. To act badly, to show him up before his colleagues, was unforgivable.
I sat there in mortified silence as Jeff walked out of the gym. I was appalled and outraged, yet I knew that if I did the right thing by walking out or speaking up on his behalf I’d be thrown off the team as well. Even later, when the coach pulled me aside to ask what in the world I was thinking of, how could I bring Jeff here and embarrass him like that, embarrass the team, the school, I didn’t respond, afraid of what he’d do. I knew that by my silence I had taken sides, and that it was the wrong side. And I felt ashamed.
Jeff, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind. “What a trip,” was all he said when we met him later at the car. “What a trip,” as if what had happened was just what happened, something to contemplate with fascination or amusement. “Don’t let him get away with this,” I said, now angrier than ever, wanting him at least to stand up for himself since I was too afraid to. “He has no right to kick you off the team, it’s unfair.” But he just said to cool it, basketball just wasn’t his thing anymore, coach did him a favor. I was amazed, admiring, and horrified at how easily Jeff could shrug it off, as if it were a superficial inconvenience. Basketball was inextricably part of who I was. Not to be a member of the team was as unthinkable as not to be a member of my family. The claim of both on my identity was so extreme that life without either would have been a moonwalk, weightless and insubstantial.
Still, I was too ashamed of what the incident revealed in me to let it go. That evening, after telling my parents what had happened, I surprised myself by saying that I was going to quit the team. They must have known I wasn’t serious because, normally, whenever I would announce an intention to do something they flatly disapproved of, my father would bang his fist down on the table and yell, “Hell you are,” and that would be the end of that. But this time he just shook his head, sorry for me, it almost seemed, as if he knew my self-righteous indignation was a pitiful face-saving compensation for my spinelessness. “Poor Jeff,” he said, when I finished ranting, “he just can’t find himself.”
Around midnight or so that night, Jeff rapped on my window. “How ‘bout a walk?” Well, if I couldn’t give up basketball for him, at least I could break curfew, so I snuck out, and we went up to Cory Hill Park at the top of Summit Avenue. For a while we sat in silence on the small hillside overlooking the city. I wanted to apologize for being such a coward. “Jeff, ah, about today…,” I started to say, when he interrupted: “Hey, Al” (he was holding out a joint), “let’s celebrate, man, I’m free.” I’d never smoked dope before. I was a little scared of it, if truth be told. Like all of my friends, I ridiculed our elders for believing that marijuana was the first step on that slippery slope that led to heroin, but secretly I half-believed it. I was, moreover, leery of anything, beer included, that might interfere with basketball or jeopardize my standing on the team. But despite my trepidations, I said, Sure, yeah, far out, for Jeff, it seemed, was offering me redemption, a chance to make amends, to stand up with him, take his side for once. As I took that first long toke I felt giddy with the risk of it, with doing something I knew would enrage my parents (not to mention what the coach would think); I felt courageous, even principled, like the kind of person I should’ve been that afternoon.
“Jeff,” I said after a few minutes, “my dad says your problem is you just can’t find yourself.”
“Your dad’s a wise man, Al. A guru. I’ve looked everywhere for me. I just don’t seem to turn up.”
“You ought to put out a missing person.”
“Yeah, maybe.” After a moment he added, “What do you think I’m doing, wherever I am?”
“Who knows. Balling a chick?”
“Who knows.” Then he laughed. “Hey, maybe my real self really is an extra large.”
“No wonder he ditched you.”
“Hope he isn’t into basketball,” he said.
“Cause I got his jockstrap.”
We laughed and laughed. I don’t think I’d ever laughed with such sheer abandon. The city lay before us in a dense chaotic maze of glimmering lights. Sirens crossed and crisscrossed on the edge of hearing, one now fading away as another now came on, making my being there with Jeff more pleasurable for the continual reminder of what I had escaped. It was as if the sirens were a citywide parental system of surveillance, sounding an ineffectual all points alert that another kid had slipped through its net of warnings, its constraints and hassles—“Because I said so, that’s why”; “Under my roof, you do what I say”; “You walk through a field of shit, you’re gonna smell like shit.” Another kid had slipped through and entered a forbidden place where there was nothing to live up to, or try for, and therefore nothing to fail at, no one to disappoint.
I was only visiting that forbidden place, though, whereas Jeff, it seemed, was settling in for good. As we started back down Summit Avenue, I was already worrying about how to get back into the house without waking my parents, their imagined fury already closing in around me, sobering me up, bringing me back to the sullen law-and-order earth where I knew all along I had to live. Jeff, on the other hand, was singing in a raspy twang, his head thrown back:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
How freely Jeff seemed to come and go. He didn’t need to sneak around, as I did, to find what little freedom he could behind his mother’s back. He had no curfew, no constraints, it seemed, of any kind. Out of my own dissatisfaction, I imagine that his mother gave her blessing to whatever he did or desired. She let him go his own way happily, guiltlessly, without judgment or resistance. Under the chafing pressure of my father’s love, I couldn’t recognize back then the almost orphaned loneliness implicit in his apparent equanimity, the “crazy sorrow” that gave a less than peaceful tinge to his idea of freedom. In this, I think, Jeff was typical of many of the citizens of Woodstock Nation.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was, in fact, the anthem of the Aquarian Age. For the younger baby boomers, those who came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, that song marked the decisive turn away from radical politics to an almost exclusive preoccupation with states of consciousness. Though many rationalized this inward turn by claiming that all politics was personal, that you had to liberate the mind first before you could liberate society, the emphasis was nonetheless entirely on the self’s interiority. That rationale, moreover, enabled many kids to justify, on political grounds, what they were doing for purely personal reasons. Now it was possible to get high, go to rock concerts, and “ball” to you heart’s content and think you were doing your heroic part to overthrow “the system.”
But the quasi-Eastern fascination with altered states of consciousness, with visionary dreams, with less restrictive, less “bourgeois” attitudes toward sex, love, and material possessions in general, wasn’t merely self-indulgent, at least not in any conventional sense. This inward turn wasn’t motivated by a rejection of societal norms felt to be too repressive, in the name of robust and uninhabited expression, so much as by a wholesale rejection of ways of being in the world that made one vulnerable to pain and loss. What we all craved, in varying degrees, wasn’t freedom, exactly, but a sense of belonging freed from the crazy sorrows, restrictions, and ambivalences of the flawed and contentious suburbs we had come from. We desired to replace our particular identities as individuals, as members of a certain family, class, race, ethnicity, country, and religion, with a transcendent self above and beyond the messy particularities of time and place. We wanted to believe that what you truly were you shared with others. What made them strangers to you, and you to them, your personal history and theirs, your ordinary consciousness with its unique and unrepeatable lore of memory and desire, was really nothing but an inauthentic, because culturally constructed, froth upon a sea of universal being that made us all just one. And if we were all one, if everyone embodied that single human essence equally, then we didn’t need to cling to those we loved. And not clinging meant we couldn’t hurt, betray, or disappoint each other. What the counterculture offered in effect was not the liberation of feeling, but a collective stoical retreat from all those habits of feeling, thought, and social affiliation that held us hostage to a world that we could not control. Like ancient Stoicism, the philosophy of free love purged of Western possessiveness and guilt promised a state of mind in which, as Charles Taylor describes the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, “the soul no longer touched by accidents of fortune is like the upper part of the universe, which rides serenely above the tempest-filled lower air.”
Michael Lang, Woodstock’s executive producer, had a similar vision of enlightenment while tripping on acid a year or so before the festival. Lang claims, in fact, that the idea for such a festival originated with this vision of an ideal nation, pictured as a many-tiered structure that is part wedding cake, part magic mountain, and part high-rise shopping mall:
The first tier was the shore with all the paraphernalia, nice karma, peaceful music. The second floor would have subtle changes, the sound and the texture maybe. The walls would begin to lose their shape, items that had a substantial feel would feel different on the next level. Everything would begin to shed its former skin as you climbed higher and higher. As you became accustomed to one experience, you’d want to seek the next. And by the time you got to the top, you were, in fact, free. Nirvana. A floating feeling and sounds, sensations, tastes—all free. A total environment. A nation away from war and racism, where drugs were easily accessible. With rock music and toys everywhere you turned.
The fascinating thing about this vision is the way it combines so many contradictory elements, blending together the traditional image of the spiritual quest as a mountain climb (think of Dante’s Purgatorio, Donne’s “Second Anniversary,” or the allegorical mountain climb in part five of The Waste Land) with rank commercialism (the head shop on the first tier “with all the paraphernalia, nice karma, peaceful music”); political idealism with psychological regression (“A nation away from war and racism, where drugs were easily accessible…rock music and toys everywhere you turned”). The higher you go into this spiritual emporium the less distinct everything becomes. Just as “items”—the mercantile connotations are probably not accidental—shed their skin and dissolve into an indefinite haze, so your own identity (with all its imperfection and ambivalence) dissolves into pure, disembodied feelings, sensations, a floating sentient fetal-like amorphousness. If there’s no war or racism in such a nation that’s because there’s no history, which is to say, no people, no individuals with differing and therefore possibly conflicting interests, needs, aspirations.
Yet to reach that Edenic toy store of effortless fulfillment you have to climb. Implicit in the image of an upward quest (even if it’s on an escalator) is the recognition of some degree of effort, struggle, even self-denial. For those who took it to its logical extreme, the ideal of free love, peace, and harmony through sexual liberation, drugs, and rock music proved every bit as rigorous and severe in its demands as even the most ascetic practices. Some years later, I remember Jeff excoriating himself for feeling jealous at a party when he looked up while “balling” a girl he didn’t know and saw the girl he’d come with “balling” another guy. Jealousy may be, as he believed, a “bourgeois fiction,” but we were products of the bourgeoisie, and it took terrific effort to extirpate its values and assumptions from the mind. In the same paradoxical way that the doctrine of predestination enabled the New England Puritan to call upon almost superhuman reserves of will and ingenuity in meeting the challenges of the New World, the guilt-free ethic of the Aquarian Age produced the extraordinary guilt in those who tried to live by it. Perhaps the flower children were nowhere more American than in the puritanical anxiety with which they went about cleansing their hearts and souls of their own past, in the merciless demands they imposed upon themselves to get beyond a culture of demand, self-denial, and guilt.
In saying all of this I don’t mean to bash the sixties. Nor do I want to make a virtue of my own deficiencies and claim or imply that my hesitation to follow Jeff into the world he was beginning to enter proceeded from any sort of strength of character, from a capacity to deal unflinchingly with what he and many like him seemed eager to escape. At the time, I saw the counterculture only as a sexual and psychedelic paradise I yearned to enter with hormonally driven desperation, but was simply too afraid to, attached as I was to my father’s love, to the ordinary, angst-ridden, ambivalent relations that nonetheless, with bracing clarity as well as pain, reminded me of who I was. If the euphoria and freedom Jeff pursued turned out to be self-destructive in certain ways, my fear of that freedom and euphoria, if not so self-destructive, was certainly less fun.
However nave or deluded, however much it was, for many, just a flimsy cloak for other darker things, there’s still much to admire in the counterculture’s vision of a more cooperative, less acquisitive, less ego-centered way of living in the world. To realize that an understandable disaffection with the status quo, with ordinary life at a particular time and place, became for many of the young a disaffection with life itself, with life as it could be lived by anyone at any time, is not to deny the validity of such countercultural ideals as benevolence and generosity, openness and trust. For all their impracticality, these ideals still serve as an important measure of the possibilities of being, which life now, as we ordinarily live it, has perhaps too easily forgotten or suppressed.
In any event, I didn’t begin to sort through my conflicting attitudes about the period until a good decade later while studying Thom Gunn’s poetry of the sixties and seventies. That a poem such as “The Geysers” should have helped me understand the darker side of liberation was ironic, for this poem, like so many of Gunn’s poems about sex and drugs, is a celebration, not a critique, of the counterculture’s Dionysian excesses. Gunn’s passionate affirmation of these years was something I needed to hear; even now, it forces me to qualify my own suspicion and ambivalence. In his autobiographical essay, “My life up to Now,” he describes the period as “the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer, as we moved [with the aid of sexual promiscuity and LSD] between the ecstasy and understanding.” However quickly that euphoria faded into something far less innocent, he refuses to deny “the vision of what the world might be like. Everything that we glimpsed—the trust, the brotherhood, the repossession of innocence, the nakedness of spirit—is still a possibility and will continue to be so.”
Knowing how dangerous that euphoric vision turned out to be for Jeff, whenever I consider Gunn’s more celebratory and moving account of what went on in those days, I have to remind myself how different his situation was from ours, or from that of the majority of Americans who eagerly experimented with alternative ways of living. Even aside from his homosexuality, as an Englishman living in San Francisco whose parents were already dead, and whose relatives lived far away, he had a kind of freedom and independence that many of us, still caught up in those parental dramas of rebellion, sorely lacked. Already in his forties by the early seventies, Gunn was much older than we were. He was, moreover, a highly respected poet, teaching at Berkeley. He had a firmly established and publicly acknowledged sense of self unavailable to me or Jeff. Our relative lack of experience may have made us flexible and open to the counterculture’s paradisal dream, but it also made us more uncritically accepting, less discriminating. To those like Jeff, that dream invited not the freedom of a fuller life but the freedom to evade, and therefore never overcome, the insecurities and ambiguities most middle-class adolescents of our generation had to face. That evasion for him and many like him, had devastating consequences.
“The Geysers” crystallized for me both the incredible beauty of those years and the dangers that were inextricably bound up with that beauty, both the positive and negative motivations involved in the pursuit of it. It is a poem about transcendence of the ordinary conditions of human life through what Gunn in the essay quoted earlier calls “hedonistic and communal love.” The transcendence is simultaneously upward and downward: upward toward a kind of godlike freedom from constraints and limitations, and downward toward a preconscious, even preanimate oneness with the natural world. The men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, who camp here in the prelapsarian world of the geysers are all naked, their nakedness itself a figure for their desire to divest themselves of custom, memory, of all the accoutrements of ordinary life that define them as individuals. Stripped down to an almost undifferentiated being, they are described first as “talking animals,” and then “like plants and birds,” filling out this unclaimed space “without too many words / Treating of other places they have been.” All of the images in the first two sections of the poem not only foreshadow the more-than-human, less-than-human state the speaker will achieve in the sexual orgy of the concluding part; they also indirectly picture what it is about the human condition he desires to escape: the two birds that “like one dart upstream toward the falls,” and the snake “alert in its skin” that “does not watch itself,” living by sheer instinct alone, are immersed in the present, at one with their surroundings. They have a wholeness and indivisibility denied to us. This is what Keats means when he calls the nightingale immortal (“Thou wast not made for Death, Immortal Bird”), for, being at one with the eternal holy present, the nightingale is unaware of death. Unlike the human speaker, who suffers from his consciousness of time, of loss, of his neediness and vulnerability, the nightingale can neither mourn the past nor fearfully anticipate the future. Here among the cool streams of this natural setting the talking animals approximate that preconscious state:
Some rest and pass a joint, some climb the fall:
But the racial and sexual harmony pictured here takes a darker turn in the next section as the speaker, alone, climbs from the cool stream to the geysers. Like Michael Lang’s vision of an ideal nation, the transcendent vision afforded by the geysers also involves a climb. But the landscape one ascends to, unlike Lang’s, almost allegorically embodies the human cost of such a radical transcendence to one’s prehuman source:
A cinderfield that lacks all skin of soil,
Reaching the geyser, the speaker has gone beyond whatever he has learned from custom or past experience. This landscape, unlike the more accommodating one below, has no complication, no detail, no familiar markers by which he might distinguish good from bad, beginning from end. The radical transcendence it offers is not the free-floating Nirvana Michael Lang imagines, but a deeply ambiguous, amoral source that is simultaneously outside the self and inside it. Here the self with its own complications and details, its history, its habits and desires, is burned down to an impersonal force, “under the pleasant flesh.”
The bathhouse section that concludes the poem draws away, it seems, from such austere impersonality. The bathhouse appears to be situated somewhere between the Edenic harmony of the cool stream and the solitary and stringently burning source of the geysers. If “a man might shrivel in his source” up there, here in the hot bath he can move at one and the same time down through the self toward some prehuman origin, and out toward others in a communal embrace. The boundaries of the ego, of self and other, male and female, human and nonhuman, dissolve as the speaker goes from not knowing who is who, “not certain who I am or where,” to a kind of reptilian passivity “plated slow / stretching my coils on coils,” to a kind of fetal, oceanic oneness with the scene (“and bobbing in the womb, all round me Mother / I am part of all there is no other…”). What Gunn describes here is not dissimilar from Lang’s Nirvana. In both visions, freedom from the human has a strong regressive element; it means returning to or reestablishing and embryonic unity in which all the doublings that consciousness entails, the painful divisions within the self between mind and body, and between the self and others and the external world in general, are healed. Whether this unity involves, as Gunn suggests, a diffusion of the self into the world, or a contraction of the world into the self, whether it’s pantheistic or solipsistic, seems beside the point. What’s crucial is that, in either case, there are no others, and if there are no others to acknowledge or attend to in any ordinary sense, then there is no risk, no neediness, no possibility of loss. Gunn indicates the power of this regressive urge by describing the appearance of other people in the subsequent passage as a painful rebirth; “It tore / what flash cut / made me fugitive / caesarean lightning lopped me off separate….” It’s as if the speaker has reversed his biological (and evolutionary) history and returned to the womb of Mother Earth in order to be born again into a world of others, where in their sexual orgy they can reestablish that primal unity, but on a higher level:
I brace myself light strong and clear
The Dionysian ecstasy of the experience, as beautiful as it is terrifying, is undeniable. But what is also undeniable, it seems to me, is that to be a god or meat—pure spirit freed of bodily limitation, or pure body unburdened of mind—is no longer to be human. Both extremes eliminate the very qualities that define us as creatures of consciousness and choice, dependent on and therefore always at the mercy of a world we can’t control. Both extremes eliminate the very qualities that define us as creatures of consciousness and choice, dependent on and therefore always at the mercy of a world we can’t control. Both extremes eliminate the historical dimension from experience; a god has no history because he cannot change or die; and pure animal consciousness has no history either because, living entirely by instinct, it cannot recollect the distant past or anticipate the distant future (“Let me forget about today until tomorrow”). To be one of the other, to be simplified into divine or animal completeness, is no longer to be human, and that of course is precisely its appeal. This is not to say that the utopian dimension of such ecstasy, the glimpse it offers of communal love, is deluded or false. Nor is it to say that an ideal is wrong just because it can have dangerous or destructive consequences for those who try to live by it (think of the inhuman slaughter committed in the name of Judeo-Christian values, or in the name of love of country, or democracy). Kids like Jeff who sought to live forever in that hedonistic freedom, not merely glimpse it on a weekend holiday, were motivated less by that utopian dream than by a desire to escape the risk-laden, needy incompleteness of human life itself.
Of course to be a god or meat is also not to be a poet. To be a poet is to heighten the very qualities—keen awareness, memory, a historical sensitivity to words and rhythms—that either extreme destroys. One of the most interesting aspects of “The Geysers” is Gunn’s decision to write about such an expansive and indefinite experience in the tightest, most definite of forms—iambic pentameter couplets. This decision is more than a rhetorical strategy to convey the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured. For the strategy itself represents an allegiance to a complicated sense of life contradicted by the very experience he’s affirming. What I learned from the poem when I first came across it in the late seventies as an aspiring poet were the very things that made me distrust the experience that the poem celebrates. The poem taught me that, as an artist, as a technician of awareness, of keen perception, immersed in language, in the transpersonal history that language bears, one is always doubled, always standing to some extent outside of what one writes about, even when one writes about the purity of absolute possession. The speaker of “The Geysers” desires to transform the complicated inside/outside relation to his own experience into the “unconsidered grace” of animal or divine completeness. But the person implied in the poem itself, by the subtle and ironic control implicit in the forms, is never wholly possessed. As a man, Gunn may be tempted to dissolve into a part of consciousness, but as an artist he remains committed to the whole of it.
Much to my surprise, my father didn’t threaten to disown me, didn’t rant and rave, when I told him Jeff and I were going to go to Woodstock. By that point in the summer, he was too worried about me to make much of a scene, afraid perhaps that if he put his foot down he might lose me as he had my sister. I still dutifully went to work each day. I still played ball in various summer leagues in the evening. I worked hard studying for my SATs so I could get into a Division III school (meaning academically challenging) where I’d have a chance of playing ball. But I did all this in silent protest, asserting my independence by doing glumly, sulkily, all that he demanded of me. By withdrawing from him, I rebelled against his power even as I submitted to it. Whenever I was home, I stayed in my room and read or studied or listened to the records Jeff would lend me. Late at night, I was also sneaking out with Jeff to Cory Hill Park, where we’d get high and talk and sing. Despite the mainstream’s warnings about the evils of dope, I was still no less committed to my various ambitions. Without diminishing my obsessive drive, the dope provided a marvelous relief from it, a temporary space in which I could just be, just enjoy myself with no though of winning or losing anyone’s approval. It was on one of these nights that Jeff told me that his brother had scored a couple of extra tickets to the festival and that Jeff and I could have them. I imagined a festival full of Jeffs, of kids like him, free spirits getting high, balling, dancing to the music we loved. It would be the adolescent version of the party that all of my childhood friends had gotten to go to, a festival of kids from broken homes. Now it would be my chance to go.
“What about basketball?” my father pleaded. “School? College?”
“What about them?”
“Once you’re up there with those hippies, that’ll be the end of that. Believe me. I’m telling you, you won’t come back.”
He seemed more sad than angry, his sadness a mixture of befuddlement and defeat, as if his only hope now of holding on to me were to let me go. In me at that moment I think he saw the ironic fruits of a grimly virtuous existence, of a lifetime of denial and self-sacrifice in the name of making life easier for his children. I don’t think my father ever held a job he loved, or ever expected to. Whether he was serving as the foreman in his father’s slaughterhouse, or running the belt manufacturing business that his brother owned, or, as now in 1969, a salesman in the men’s department of Saks, work always and only meant the antithesis of pleasure, self-expression, and fulfillment—the flower child’s holy trinity. Work was what you did for money, and money in turn was what you laid away, first for your children’s education, and then for your retirement so you wouldn’t have to be dependent on your children in your old age. This dedication to our welfare he never lorded over us. The dedication was simply how a man, a father, was supposed to live. If you expected a medal for acting like a mensch, then you were definitely not a mensch. What he expected of me was respect, by which he meant conformity to how a man should live.
I don’t think either of us realized that afternoon, as we sat across the kitchen table from each other, that my generation’s utopian expectations for a life of play and freedom were created by the very material comforts his generation worked so hard to give us. When I think now of all the pleasures we regarded as our birthright, the moral constraints and inhibitions that had defined his life, and that we case aside, to quote Philip Larkin, like “an outdated combine harvester ,” I imagine that there must have been some element of envy in his disapproval. He may have glimpsed in our rebellion an image of freedom he secretly desired. And glimpsing this, he may have felt like an unacknowledged and embittered Moses, watching his children crossing over to the very promised land to which he’d led them , but was too old himself to enter.
Max Yasgur’s farm did seem like the promised land to me and Jeff when we arrived that Thursday afternoon, a day before the festival officially began. Jeff’s brother told us Woodstock would be one gigantic communal happening, so we didn’t need to bring anything with us but a sleeping bag. When we got to the campgrounds, he and his girlfriend set up their tent, laid a few joints on us, then sent us on our way.
By that time there were already some sixty thousand kids scattered across the fifty-acre farm. We found our way to an area called Hog Farm, named after a commune based in New Mexico, a hundred of whose members had been flown in by the festival organizers to help with crowd control. These were career hippies, the freaks of the freaks, wholly dedicated to communal living and enlightenment through dope, acid, and organic food. They had set up a free kitchen for those who had come without money, and various first-aid tents for kids on bad trips or overdoses. There was a small stage there as well, where lesser-known groups performed for those who couldn’t get to the main concert. Everyone was very friendly in a cosmic, dreamy sort of way, some of the men in dresses, pajama bottoms, buckskin trousers, vests patched together with pieces of the American flag, the women in long peasant skirts, some in Day-Glo halter tops, some bare-breasted, with naked babies in their arms. One guy in a white toga, sandals, and top hat walked past us saying over and over to himself, as if it were a mantra, “I peak therefore I freak.”
As a city kid who’d never had so much as an outing in the country, I was utterly taken by the pastoral setting, the wide fields sloping into one another, the green ponds, the patches of woods, and the blue sky overhead as deep and clear as it must have looked on the first day of creation. There were no police, no authorities, it seemed, of any kind. Here we could do openly with no fear of reprisal what we had grown accustomed to doing late at night behind locked doors. Wherever we happened to be, at any time, without anxiety or circumspection, whenever we wanted, we could get high or ball our brains out if the opportunity arose. Truly, it seemed, we had entered a new world that stood on its head the values and mores of the old one. Maybe my father was right. Maybe I wouldn’t return.
Late in the day, we came upon a large pond where thirty or so kids were skinny-dipping. Without hesitating, Jeff took his clothes off and joined them. I hung back. I was deeply self-conscious about my body. Even to take a shower in the privacy of my own bathroom I had to overcome some degree of inhibition. And even though my girlfriend and I had been sleeping together for several months by then, the lovemaking was always furtive and shy, our bodies only glimpsed in the flurry of passion while before and after we were careful to keep close enough to one another so as not to get a panoramic view. What I found remarkable and chastening was how relaxed everybody seemed to be. They were physical in their nakedness without being sexual at all. They played and cavorted as if they all had clothes on. Wading in among them in my cutoff jeans, because I was the only one still partially dressed, I felt as if I were the only one exposed. It seemed that everyone but me had somehow figured out a way to reattach the apple to the tree of knowledge. What I wanted to do more than anything was to gawk at all the pretty girls, but gawking would have violated the Edenic code of innocence. Instead, while Jeff cavorted with the others as if they were his lifelong friends, I looked casually ahead at no one in particular at the same time that I desperately tried perfecting my peripheral vision, ogling breasts and asses out of the corners of my eyes.
I was so distracted by the naked flesh around me that I didn’t realize that Jeff was gone. Eventually I found him back at Hog Farm among a bunch of people doing yoga. As I approached, a man was talking to him and the other kids. He was older than most everybody else, maybe in his mid-thirties, and he had short hair. I realize now he must have been a cop, one of the hundred or so brought in by the festival security team in case things at any point got out of control. In keeping with the atmosphere of benevolence and trust, the cops didn’t carry guns, and aside from being older and having shorter hair, in their jeans and t-shirts they looked and acted like the rest of us. Anyway, by the time I got there, the guy was claiming to have just returned from a Zen monastery where he’d been initiated into a highly secret form of meditation, but in honor of Woodstock, he’d let us in on it. It was designed, he said, to bring Nirvana to your very bowels. More likely, though, it was the other way around, for what he proceeded to do was squat down like a sumo wrestler, and with his hands held before him palm to palm, his head bowed reverently, his eyes closed, he began to fart, fart with a capital F. I mean, these weren’t just ordinary farts, these were long frank inexhaustible belches he seemed able to release at will, in different keys and registers as he moved from one position to another: now waddling like a duck with his ass cocked first to this side, then to that; now swiveling his hips like a belly dancer, swiveling and grinding them, his arms held over his head while his head bobbed side to side, forward and back. The Zen of farting. I have to admit that for a while I was taken in. Only someone with almost mystical control over his body could vigorously fart at will the way he did. Then I remembered what we’d all been eating at the free kitchen (it wasn’t called the Hog Farm for nothing)—beans and brown rice. By then everyone was flatulent enough for true enlightenment. Most people think the haze hovering over Yasgur’s farm that weekend was marijuana smoke, but me, I’m not so sure. In any event, Jeff exclaimed “Oh wow!” and began to imitate the man, and the others followed suit till there were maybe fifteen or twenty new initiates all letting it rip as they squatted and rose and waddled, lifting up first this cheek, then the other, in a kind of Animal House imitation of tai chi.
When the group broke up the cop put his arm around one of the more “enlightened” girls. “Your spirit’s just amazing,” he was telling her as they went off together.
“What a gas, no pun intended,” I chuckled as Jeff and I walked away.
“What do you mean?” There was no amusement or irony in Jeff’s face or voice.
“Jeff, you can’t be serious. That guy was putting you on.”
Jeff put his two hands on my shoulders. “Al,” he said, looking straight into my eyes in that obsessively earnest way of his, “you gotta be more trusting, man, you’re too uptight, it’s like you’re stuck in prison, in solitary, and there’s all this beautiful shit going on outside, and you’re all alone pretending there isn’t ‘cause you can’t be part of it.”
Though there was more to my skeptical detachment than mere inhibition, Jeff was right. I was uptight and too distrustful, more so than usual, to my surprise, at the very time when I should have let myself relax into what was happening around me. Among so many people, all of whom, in Joni Mitchell’s words, were content to be “a cog in something turning,” I had to insist on being different, better, shrewder. If, in the name of that communal embrace, they were happy to be duplicates of one another, to be heads, freaks, hippies, transparent in their openness and gullibility, I would by my very watchfulness become opaque, mysterious, dense with complexity, too streetwise and knowing to be the butt of anybody’s joke. While this standoffishness prevented me from being duped, it also cheated me to some extent of the experience itself, of living it more deeply, or more richly. I was an American middle-class adolescent version of the speaker in Baudelaire’s “Le Jeu,” who sees the limited being of the whores and gamblers crowded around the gaming table, but at the same time recognizes in their obsessions and addictions a fiercer hold on life than he possesses, his own compulsion not to live but to stand back and observe in the nonbeing of detached superiority.
A little later, we settled down for the night on a hillside we had entirely to ourselves. Despite the night sky busy with shooting stars, the balmy weather, the one last joint we smoked, nothing could break the chill our differences had place between us. We lay there in awkward silence, Jeff probably thinking that if Woodstock was a trial of my allegiance to the new enlightenment, then clearly I had failed it.
To give me one last chance, he asked me how much money I had, and if I’d split it with him.
“What happened to your money?” I asked. He said he’d given all of it to some Hog Farm freaks.
“And what are you gonna do with the money I give you?” Suddenly I sounded just like my father.
“Probably donate that, too,” he said. “They need the bread. Anyway,” he added, shrugging, “it’s only money.”
Only money. Only basketball. The records, the books he gave me and never wanted back. Everything abandoned with the same shrug of easy acceptance, which only now began to seem forlorn and fatalistic, not liberated in the least. Jeff hated things, I think, because things broke, things meant anxiety and worry. If you gave them away before they were taken from you, then you at least had some control, however self-destructive, over what might happen. But there was also a social dimension to this personal asceticism, for the less you had to lose, the less chance there’d be of being envied and disliked, and the easier it was to get along with others. If you had no material advantages, nothing to distinguish you from others, to set you apart from them, then nothing could be expected of you. And you had therefore nothing to live up to, which is to say, nothing to fall short of. Implicit in the communal harmony Jeff desired was an idealized family in which the collective is the happily married parents, and the individual is the child, and the love between them is unconditional, instinctive, and unlosable, falling like sunlight impartially on everyone, no matter who they are or what they do.
But for me, what I found most difficult to accept, what I instinctively resisted, was the ideal of passivity (what Jeff would have called receptivity) at the heart of this vision of the good life, the anti-perfectionist perfectionism that required its followers to abandon any upward notion of self-refinement, any notion that by dint of conscious effort, practice, dedication, you could redefine the limits of what was possible, which in art and sport defines the truly excellent. In the same way that the extraordinary care and acute awareness enacted in the form and style of the “The Geysers” contradicts or qualifies at least the psychic dissolution Gunn is celebrating, so too the musicians who encouraged us to “forget about today until tomorrow,” to “let it be,” to not “make plans just clap your hands,” would never have become the musicians they were, would never have acquired the skills they needed to write those very songs, had they followed their own advice.
As odd as it may sound, it was my athletic training and not just my inhibition that made me balk at the counterculture’s invitation to seize the day. All through grade school and high school, day in, day out, in the gym and on the playground, with single-minded dedication (or was it obsession?), I had given myself over to the discipline of learning how to play the game of basketball. I had learned to dribble, shoot, and pass with either hand. I had learned how to study my opponents and adapt my own play to their strengths and weaknesses. By subordinating myself to the discipline the game required, I’d become a better, more imaginative, more versatile player. And that convinced me I was capable of overcoming other sorts of obstacles, on and off the court. And while I eventually ran up against the limits of my physical abilities—no amount of practice would make me six foot four—that freedom to resist my limitations, to change myself, and its collateral gifts of concentration and sheer undiscourageable doggedness, would serve me later when the poems I was writing challenged my mental and imaginative powers.
Jeff had what seemed to me a horizontal vision of the good life, in which pleasure, spontaneity, and freedom were not in hock, as they were for me, to discipline and sacrifice. It may be that my more vertical understanding of the good life is partly a fancier version of the upward mobility that drove my father’s life, a transference to the realms of art and sport of the competitive virtues of the marketplace. Now, twenty-five years later, with children of my own, I can admit what I would have been too eager to deny back then: that I am, for good or ill, my father’s son, a child of the American bourgeoisie. So too, of course, was Jeff. The new self he struggled to become was no less dependent on the values and practices of the culture he was struggling to define himself against. Yet when I think about the kind of life I wish for my own children, I can’t help but think my vision of the good life, despite the many ways it unconsciously participates in the less than ideal features of the American life, is simply better than the one Jeff pursued, better because it gives a more potentially inclusive image of human flourishing.
As we fell asleep under the stars, Jeff was no doubt lost in his contemplation of the night sky, wholly absorbed by the amazing light show overhead. I was thinking that when I go back to Boston I’d have to make up for the time away from basketball by doubling my evening workouts.
I was awakened at dawn when someone stepping over me accidentally kicked me in the head. The hillside we had entirely to ourselves when we closed our eyes was now entirely covered with people, shoulder to shoulder. They had come all through the night. Rumor was that Route 17, the main road that led into the festival, was backed up for miles. Ignoring the fields the organizers had reserved as parking lots, the kids grew tired of being stuck in traffic and just abandoned their cars right there on the road and hiked the last few miles to the farm. Word had also gotten around that the festival would now be open to the public, a free concert. This decision was made less out of generosity than out of fear that if the organizers tried to collect money from kids who had already crashed the gate they’d have a riot on their hands. The festival designed to accommodate maybe a quarter of a million people now had twice that many. Imagine a subway car at rush hour jammed wall to wall with people, then project that human density over a fifty-acre farm, and you have some idea of what the crowd was like.
By dawn on Friday the weather was already hot and sultry, the air so humid it was like breathing someone else’s spit. The humidity also seemed to bring out the mosquitoes. I should add here that I am and always have been a kind of human No Pest Strip. If no one else among the five hundred thousand people at the festival seemed bothered by the bugs, that’s because all of the bugs were buzzing greedily around me, a Woodstock Nation of them feasting at the free kitchen my body had become.
I wasn’t surprised to find that Jeff had split. Anyway, with my eyes nearly swollen shut from the mosquito bites I hardly cared. I spent the better part of Friday standing in lines. I waited for several hours to use a portable toiled only to find the stench so blindingly repulsive that I couldn’t enter. Eventually I found a relatively open field where other people were shitting and pissing, and being by that time more desperate than shy, I happily joined them. Then for several hours I waited in line at the Hog Farm free kitchen for a plate of something that looked and tasted as if it came from someone else’s stomach. It was after five by then. The concert had begun. I was to tired and uncomfortable to work my way into the massive audience. Besides, I had to keep on moving to keep from getting bitten by the bugs. As night fell, and the rains came, in a crowded field among tents and plastic huts I lay down utterly miserable, soaking wet, and exhausted.
Just after dawn on Saturday, I saw the person I would come to think of as the queen of Woodstock, the living enactment of the euphoric ideal that would lead Jeff over the years from commune to commune, drug to drug to detox center, till he disappeared entirely from the lives of all his old friends. I saw a naked woman in a mud whole in the middle of a path. Kneeling in the mud, she was slowly, almost ritualistically, taking handfuls of the thick brown mud and smearing it down all over every inch of her, her hair, her face, her neck, breasts, hips, and belly, a darker caking of it on her crotch. When she had covered herself completely, looking less like a woman dreaming of herself as mud than like mud dreaming of itself as woman, she began to dance among the people swarming past her, her hips swaying, her arms held over her head, her eyes closed, her dark smiling face all dreamy inaccessibility. Now and again, a man or woman would dance in front of her for a moment or two and then pass on, while she, oblivious, continued dancing, her trance unbreakable, the queen of Woodstock Nation floating blissfully free beyond “the twisted reach of crazy sorrow,” beyond her name, her past, her family, even her sex, forgetting in the moment all the gravities that held her to the world beyond the moment.
Later than morning I caught a ride on a departing garbage truck. I rode on the running board, clinging to the door handle as the truck lurched precariously forward on a shoulder of the dirt road that led out to the highway, halting and inching onward against the jubilant stream of people still arriving, everybody smiling and flashing peace signs to me as I started back in the direction of my anxious father.