1969. A half-century removed from today. It was blurry then, and it’s blurrier now.
Four-hundred thousand music fans with faces full of wonder ambled to rural Bethel, New York, to frolic in the mud and mostly not hear the musical acts that had to be choppered in to the festival.
Three Americans hurtled through the dark chill of space to set foot on the moon, sending back video postcards from their voyage that would rivet 600 million viewers around the globe.
And smaller in scope but enormous in impact on film and culture, Easy Rider hit the cinema screens.
Others might choose their own mementos from ‘69: the Beatles farewell concert, from a London rooftop; Elvis prepping for his Vegas comeback show; the homespun Americana of The Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell disappearing with its final publication; and elsewhere, the hip snark of the National Lampoon being born — questioning of authority replacing traditional kitsch.
It would be easy to say that this seminal year, which sowed the seeds for the 50 years to follow, was the sunset of the sixties, but the decade of protest did not end until we exited Vietnam several years later, and the outward struggle of the individual against society curled in upon itself as the “Me Generation” explored the inner world of self-actualization. We’d moonwalked; the voyage out was done.
Woodstock itself relied on luck not to electrocute all those around the electrified stage, woefully unprotected from the lightning that soon struck. Luck is not a plan, and when shortly thereafter, at Altamont, the Rolling Stones chose for stage security members of the Hell’s Angels rather than Woodstock’s use of Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, deadly tragedy ensued. Within a span of a few short months, festivals as counter-cultural sanctuaries were a dead letter.
Today, live performance is all we have left of a digitally shredded music business, and the freeway of no fences at Woodstock has long given way to obscenely high ticket prices, Vegas residencies and institutionalized ticket scalping. Where Woodstock boasted the three J’s — Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix; the holy trinity of many a misspent rock-and-roll youth — today we have computerized Auto-Tune pitch correction for acts born on YouTube.
Similarly, though we soared moonward a few more times after Apollo 11, that dream of Camelot has also left only ashes and sand, with the skies patrolled these days by unmanned drones that spy and kill. Unnatural harbingers of death in large doses due to a thinning ozone layer leave widespread destruction in their wake. Long after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, we have Dylan Root in Charleston not Bob Dylan in the town of Woodstock. Bad moon rising.
Yet amidst all this larger tide, generational drift and space-age feats of Godlike aspect, the quietest remnant of that last year of the ‘60s came Easy Rider, a small independent movie made for $400,000 that upended the film industry and created a vehicle for voices that had not found a home in media.
When Peter Fonda, who passed away last month at 79, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern — cinematic co-conspirators who both pre-deceased him some years ago — wrote the film synopsis for Easy Rider, they had no idea their 1969 depiction of biker anti-heroes would gross $60 million worldwide, laying the rails for independent film.
Now this wild bunch is gone, and the heyday of indie film they helped spawn is over as well. When I helped the Sundance Channel get up and running with Robert Redford, it was a film fan’s paradise; these days it is a typical cable channel chasing TV series with no relation to its festival roots. Where’s Bob?
In Easy Rider’s synopsis, the authors wrote that “the money they made from selling the dope has enabled them to be free, to live in their own style without compromising to society.” In the end, it gets them killed, and along the way, I could never figure out if the film endorsed or cursed the hypocrisy of “selling out” via a drug score to gain freedom. In the synopsis, the words bear no irony, but it is dangerous to project today’s mores on yesterday’s behaviors.
Everything seems ironic in a post-Simpsons universe. Get Smart parodied a phone hidden in a shoe, and now I answer the phone on an Apple wristwatch. The Jetsons had us driving through the sky, and today our cars are becoming driverless. We put on VR headsets that allow us to moonwalk right here at ground zero. We endure bad music, bad movies, bad weather.
Yet 50 years ago, Easy Riders on the road to Bethel and straight to the moon, Alice in Wonderland was us.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.