What Ever Happened to
The Age of Aquarius? (1)
Reflections on “The First Aquarian Exposition”
aka “Woodstock” — August, 1969
(an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir: Time Capsule: 1969*)
(Since the Internet has destroyed our capacity to read anything much over 1,200 words, I have broken this ~4,000-word account into three bite-size chunks. This is Part 1; follow the link at the bottom to parts 2 and 3. Each should take about 6–7 minutes to read.)
Update 190815 (aka Woodstock +50): there is now a podcast edition of this story, as related at a story telling event called “10x9 Nashville.” It is a somewhat condensed version of the three installments posted here at Medium. Mine is the third in this three-story segment:
Part 1: You Can’t Get There From Here
Do you remember the dawning of the ‘Age of Aquarius’ ?
You have to be of a certain age — i.e. Baby Boomer vintage — to recall the phrase first hand. The “Age of Aquarius” was one of those things that defined the era — like The Beatles, Vietnam, a couple of assassinations, bra-burning, and a notorious diner called Alice’s Restaurant (to name just a few).
The expression “Age of Aquarius” entered the lexicon from an astrological concept. Practitioners of that ancient science profess that roughly every 2,000 years, the whole solar system rotates into a major new position. For the 2,000 years that started around the time of the birth of Christ, the solar system was associated with the sign of Pisces. This is supposed to explain why Jesus was known for encouraging his followers to eat fish.
The idea of a “New Age” first caught on in popular culture in 1967, when a song called “Aquarius” was featured in a controversial (because people actually got naked on stage) Broadway musical called “Hair.” The same song was released a couple of years later as a pop radio single by a group called The 5th Dimension. In the spring of 1969 their medley of two songs from “Hair” — “The Age of Aquarius” and “Let The Sunshine In” — got stuck for several weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart.
Thus an idea regarded with some seriousness by archeo/astrologers became a major element of late 60s Pop Culture. By the summer of 1969, the mythos had spread and a great transformation was upon us: civilization was now on the cusp between the old Age of Pisces and the new Age of Aquarius. This was taken to mean that the world was leaving its culture of greed and violence behind in favor of an enlightened epoch of peace and freedom and love. In the early stage of the cusp, it was also meant to sell a lot of records. And maybe some concert tickets.
“Harmony and understanding,” the song promised, along with “sympathy and trust abounding.” Those are the things we fervently wanted to believe in the 1960s — especially once the drugs kicked in.
It didn’t hurt that Apollo 11 landing on the moon in the summer of ’69 tucked perfectly into the theme. My god, we humans were reaching out to the heavens! Even better, here on Earth a half a billion people were united in witnessing that one cosmic moment, watching Neil Armstrong on flickering screens all around the world as he took “one giant leap for mankind.”
I watched the moon landing alone, on the TeeVee in my parent’s den in Maplewood, New Jersey, after sneaking down to the basement and smoking some hash — a vice I’d latched on to the previous spring. All I remember now is being riveted to the tense countdown of the actual landing, ending with “Houston… Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” After that, Armstrong’s “One small step…” was anti-climactic. Or maybe by then the hash-induced euphoria had faded.
The summer’s cosmic themes continued in August, when an event billed as the “First Aquarian Exposition” convened on a farm in upstate New York for a festival the world remembers mostly as “Woodstock.”
Woodstock was the ideal event to mark the summer after my graduation from high school — one last fling of communal, escape-from-Suburbia madness before taking off for the serious business of avoiding the draft by pretending to go to college.
I went with my two best friends from school, Artie** and Jamie, and a couple of girls, Julie and Virginia. There was another kid named Charles that joined our group, too. He decided to tag along at the last minute we scored something that was supposed to be LSD from his sister. A couple of other friends rounded our number out to eight.
We’d heard about the traffic — or, rather, the absence of vehicular movement — on the New York Thruway — as we got ready to leave Friday afternoon. Our parents tried to warn us that we shouldn’t go, but such warnings only stoked our interest and determination. Besides, we had all invested the $18 (about $125 in 2015 dollars) for tickets to the event, so there was no way we weren’t going.
We borrowed a big tent from somebody, big enough to sleep the eight of us, and off we went in my mother’s Buick Skylark sedan. It must have raised a few adult eyebrows, this co-ed group going off to spend several nights together in one big tent, but the idea seemed perfectly reasonable to us.
Off we went to find the dawn of the Age of Aquarius.
Through clever navigation — aided by the now quaint geo-locating device known as a “map” — we found our way up the back roads of New Jersey and New York to within a couple miles of the actual concert site. Once the car stopped moving forward, we just pulled off the road and pitched the tent. We really had no idea where we were. We must have been on some farmer’s private property, but there we enough others doing the same thing that there was some measure of safety in the numbers. Once we were encamped, we watched as the road behind locked up into a long parking lot — the Kamground of the New Amerika.
We pitched our big tent, then sat around outside the tent and smoked some pot, made some sort of meal, and wandered off to find the show.
Still uncertain where we were or where we were going, we just merged into the crowd and walked in the same direction as everybody else. Eventually, we found our way to the crest of a hill where we got our first real impression of the event we’d come for.
From the crest of the hill, the stage looked like a bright purple postage stamp. The sound was surprisingly good, and even though the stage was a remote apparition, I was pleased to hear the familiar sounds of Tim Hardin — one of the seminal figures in the folk/rock era of the mid-60s, the author of such well-remembered tunes as “If I Were A Carpenter” — which was covered by everybody from Bobby Darin to June and Johnny Cash — and “Reason to Believe” which was hit for Rod Stewart (Spotify). Tim Hardin was one of the legends of the era, but his name is rarely recalled among the pantheon of legends who also died too young, like Jimi and Janis and Jim.
Because it was dark by the time we reached the concert grounds, it was impossible to see how large the crowd was. It was impossible to figure much of anything, so we didn’t stay long. We somehow found our way back to our tent and smoked some more dope. Artie and James stayed behind, and when they returned in the early morning hours they raved about seeing Joan Baez.
In any event, getting back to the tent proved a pretty smart move; it rained during the night and we managed to avoid the downpour. Besides, we had to rest up for what we were all planning for the next day: our first “trip.”
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / Cohesionarts.com
- *Not their actual names. But close enough…