(Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1970)
When Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon was released in 1970, I was 12 and not thinking about who I was or where my life was going or much of anything beyond the confines of my neighborhood. I did not have an identity crisis, was not worried about world peace, and the Selective Service was way beyond the pale. I played Capture the Flag in the backyards with my friends, watched Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, and I Dream of Jeannie first-runs after school, and fought with my sister (two had moved out). I didn’t know where Woodstock was, much less what was going on at Yasgur’s farm, or who Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell were. Yet, in the midst of twelve-year old play, I remember feeling like I was on the cusp of something new, something just beyond my grasp. I knew the world was changing but just didn’t know what it had to do with me. That came later.
About 14 I discovered some of the incredible music of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Sometimes I forget about the great singer-songwriters of the Seventies because of the fact that the decade was so infected by disco after “Saturday Night Fever” hit in 1975. Looking back I have to first part the mirror-ball body-bumping spectacle of that music to see the golden music that was there all along. A couple of days ago, I went to Pandora and typed in “Joni Mitchell” and it’s like an intimate friend, someone who was with me then, is playing song after song of my high school and college years, back-to-back tracks by Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Fleetwood Mac, Eva Cassidy, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Carol King, and the queen of melancholy herself, Joni Mitchell. But I digress. . . . By the time I hit senior high school, folks weren’t going to Yasgur’s Farm anymore for enlightenment but boring down deep to figure out the meaning of life. Just like personal introspection had taken root in the music, so we were consumed by the personal.
It was an intense time. Let me see if I describe it for you. One night I’m in my room on the ground floor of our house, and my friend John comes to my door. He can’t speak, only stand there and look at me. I ask him what’s wrong and all he can murmur is “Carol broke up with me.” So we start walking and walking and walking, and he never says a word about it, despite my asking. We end up at Pizza Hut, me unable to figure out what to do, him a despondent teenager sure that his personal life is forever ruined, that nothing would ever be the same.
And that’s how it went back then. Every rejection was perceived as life-ending. Of course it wasn’t. At worst it made for a bad day or week. But teenage vision is myopic, and we could not see over the rim of the pit we had dug for ourselves. We had so little perspective, so little history of tribulation and trial to draw upon that we were unable to see God’s providences in our lives. It was all present tense and so, so all about me. Parents might reassure, but they remained on the periphery, distant planets in a solar system where we were the sun.
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Like everyone else in high school, I was trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. Nobody seemed to know anything. I didn’t even know all the questions to ask, but I did sense that there was something wrong with measuring my worth by the expectations of others, by whether someone liked me or didn’t like me.
One day my mother (who did not offer many explanations for life but listened well) gave me a book called I Never Promised You a Disneyland, by Jay Kesler. Reading that book, for the first time I felt like someone understood what I was facing as a teenager (which was mostly what all teenagers were facing). I cannot even remember what the book said, but it was something like “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” if you want to be poetic about it. In other words, it was a book that connected to the concerns of my life, reminded me of my immense worth because of the love of a very personal God, and pointed me back to the elemental things I had been taught all my life. Of course it wasn’t the book that resulted in me making the faith my own, as many factors were at work in my life, but it was a precipitating factor, one which, if the writer knew, would make the writing of his book worth it just for my sake.
Maybe it was also those great singer-songwriters of the Seventies, the ones who made me ask questions and wonder. Neil Young was looking for a “heart of gold,” Joni Mitchell said we were “golden,” and Dewey Betts and the others in America were out on the Ventura Highway writing about life and its discontents. Believe me, it is not nostalgia that makes me write about this, as I would never want to return to the conflicting emotions and turmoil of that time, but I look backward in gratitude for music and books that made a difference. Some people are helped to faith by real, live people; me, I had books and music to provoke me and even disciple me. Even the good music of the nonbelievers led me to faith.
We are golden. We are the handiwork of a living, personal God who made us for himself, with unique, immense worth, and who wrote himself into the story as the one who came along side us and asked: Do you know where you’re going? I’m thankful to be able to answer that question in the affirmative, even as I cannot offer a detailed roadmap of how to get there. I can only point you to the Writer himself, to the golden music that lies behind the mirror-ball spectacle of life that parades before us. It's always been there. That's my Woodstock.