On Joni, Woodstock, and me
It’s a peculiarly singular thing to listen to music with others. Peculiar because I always expect music to unify, and singular because I always end up in my own head, wishing I had my noise-cancelling headphones to have the sounds, the notes, the words, all to myself. As a result, I have found Spring Weekend peculiarly singular.
When I picture it, I always imagine an aquarian exposition, a community coming together through music, but in reality, I just stand in a field wearing a tank top surrounded by other people standing in a field wearing tank tops, listening to a rapper onstage as I think how great it all sounds but how awesome it would be if I could hear the words he was rapping a bit closer in my ear, and how tired my feet are and how cold I am because why didn’t I bring a sweatshirt again, and wait is that guy in front of me throwing up ohmygod he is ohmygod make way for the guy who’s throwing up. Digital files streaming through my headphones feel more present, more personal. Mine. No sharing necessary.
Recognizing, of course, that music is the “universal language” and the ultimate conversation starter, I do try my best to share. But take, for example, my experience trying to share “Woodstock,” a song written by stardust goddess Joni Mitchell, recorded on her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. It’s a hymnlike ode to the 1969 eponymous music festival, written by a woman who never attended—she was stuck in a New York City hotel room, having elected the more economical choice to appear on a television program there, though probably yearning to take part in what must have seemed, at the time, like a spiritual awakening for a generation that so needed one: “We are stardust,” she wails (wailing not in a spoiled brat kind of way, more like a nurturing-and-omniscient-oracle-who-wants-you-to-see-The-Way), “we are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” To Joni, the festival she never experienced was a chance at rebirth, at salvation. As someone who also was not in attendance, Woodstock for me is romantic hope, a sign that music can bring us together and make us better. Joni’s song is just that to me: breathless, romantic hope.
I played “Woodstock” this past June for my roommates. We had spent the whole day moving boxes into our new, empty apartment; we hooked up one of our phones to a speaker and streamed a playlist with a title like “chill” or “warm summer night.” It was a warm summer night—I was in a t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts sitting on a newly arranged couch and we were drinking beers: a pretty ideal moment for an aquarian exposition. I called dibs on the next song with high hopes that Woodstock would bring us together, but, with the ears of friends fixed on my song, Joni’s wails started to sound a bit less romantic and a bit grimmer—like a cold evening on the Main Green surrounded by a couple of retching tank tops. My friends looked at me, questioning, as Joni let out the song’s closing yodels, normally throaty and passionate, suddenly too raw, too much feeling. I turned it off before it ended. The passion of Woodstock, envisioned by a woman who wasn’t even there, was too loud, too passionate for communal listening. I listened to it later with headphones, with passion restored.
My Dad, a hippie-turned-conservative-turned-hippie-again, who was also not at Woodstock but went to the Atlantic City Pop Festival that same summer (a little less “mainstream,” to be sure), loves hearing the songs of his generation curated digitally by logarithms or however it works, but still loves the sounds of Joni’s dulcimer on a record player, saying this music was meant to be played on vinyl. He took me down to our basement the night before I moved into my Providence apartment and played “Woodstock” and we lugged up his dusty record player into the kitchen. For the next half hour we crouched, muttering, over the apparatus’s many wires and outlets and terms I didn’t understand like “transconductance” maybe and “fuse spork” or something. Dad came to the conclusion that there was a problem with the record player and not the speaker system. I tested a Simon & Garfunkel track, a little warped from sitting under the window of a basement for so many years, unheard. Their voices slid and cracked like an army of old, tuning violins. I listened as Garfunkel’s voice went from high to low, words unintelligible through the curved black surface of the record and the broken fuse spork of the player.
I have a few records in my apartment now: a Simon & Garfunkel single or two, and Joni, of course. But I didn’t bring Dad’s record player—it wasn’t functional, of course, but I also knew I wouldn’t use it. I’m too accustomed to my personal listening experience; I’m too accustomed to imagining that, when Joni sings of getting “back to the garden,” she’s singing to me. To listen to my favorite tracks with others is somehow to feel exposed, caught feeling too deeply. I listen to music differently than Joni or my dad did in the Woodstock era, but our yearning to join the movement to feel out loud is the same. I’d like to get back to the garden, or maybe, the Main Green. I’ll still enjoy my favorite tunes with my headphones but this Spring Weekend, I’ll be listening closely, together, one in a sea of 1000 tank tops.