The other night, I stumbled upon the movie Taking Woodstock on HBO. I’d already missed a half-hour, so I was going to watch just a little as I ate dinner alone. The Ang Lee-directed film quickly became a guilty pleasure because it used editing techniques, split screen, and moments from the 1970 documentary movie, throwing me back to when I was a teenager watching Woodstock at the Hopkins (Minnesota) movie theatre over and over with my friends. Outside of a few assassinations, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is one of my generation’s major signposts.
The new movie made me feel nostalgic. Seeing the film also made me see my relation to concerts and to aging in a quick flash, taking me back to one recent and one long-gone event in particular.
When I was a teenager, I called in sick for my dishwashing job at the Hopkins House, an upscale restaurant outside of Minneapolis, and spent the entire day with friends at a July open-air concert listening to such groups as Poco and It’s a Beautiful Day. The next day, I had to explain to my boss why I was sunburned if I’d been home sick. (“I was feeling so bad, so I just had to go outside.”)
Even though I was put on probation, it’d been worth it to sit outside with my peers, fellow young people who knew what mattered most: music. A few months ago, my friend Gordon took me to a concert by Emerson and Lake (sans Palmer) in Los Angeles. I’d been in high school when the life-changing song “Lucky Man” came out with its amazing Moog synthesizer sounds.
As we entered the grand marble lobby of Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre—this was where a concert was?—I looked at the concertgoers around me and saw what seemed to be A Night Out from Assisted Living.
I did some quick calculating. The first ELP album came out when I was a sophomore, which would make it 1970. Emerson had been in The Nice before that, and Lake was the power behind King Crimson, one of my favorite groups. So say Emerson and Lake had been twenty in 1967 or 68. That would make them now in their early sixties. Most of the audience, therefore, had to be in their fifties like me, or in their sixties.
What caught me off guard was everyone around me looked like Woodstock through a wrinkle-and-gray machine. Many men and women still had long hair, but it didn’t look right on their old-person bodies. A few women in short dresses shouldn’t have been wearing short dresses. Skin isn’t supposed to look like cottage cheese.
Gordon’s twenty-two-year-old daughter Brita who had never heard of ELP had come with us out of curiosity. She eagerly pointed to an elderly gentleman and said, “Oh, I want a tie-dye jacket like that!” Later I caught her texting to a friend from our seats before the show started: “I’m surrounded by old people, people older than my Dad, but there’s an interesting energy here.”
Interesting? “Creepy” was the better word. Were there really this many Rip Van Winkles who woke up old and still wanted to rock out?
Brita also was the only one her age I saw there. While I’ve been to Springsteen concerts in the last few years and saw a graying crowd, too, there were always young people in attendance--young people who looked as I still felt.
Not so, here. These people still probably listened to ELP on vinyl. Didn’t they know CDs are better? There are none of the scratches and pops, and you don’t have to turn it over after twenty minutes. Wake up, people. You’re old. You’re supposed to be interested in the stock market, I Love Lucy reruns, early-bird specials at the local diner, and whatever old people do.
On stage, the set looked like a recording studio in a dungeon. There was a big thick-glass window in the middle of a stone wall and to the left of the stage was a cove of keyboards, dominated by a giant box with an ivy of wires—an ancient Moog synthesizer. On the right side of the stage were a couple of stools. Lake was going to sit, clearly, not stand defiantly as he did with his freak-flag-hair flying when I saw ELP play in Minneapolis in the seventies.
Emerson and Lake emerged, and the audience clapped politely. Greg Lake is a husky guy now, short hair on a round head, and Keith Emerson is shorter, thinner, still with long hair. Lake sat with an acoustic guitar, and Emerson stood in his keyboard bay at the ready. They began with “From the Beginning,” with the opening lyrics, “There might have been things I missed/But don't be unkind/It don't mean I'm blind.” And my eyes opened. Realizations came at me like waterfalls.
First, these guys still had the chops. Second, Emerson and Lake had major careers during a time when I was a stockroom clerk in a camera store, trying to figure out my career path. Third, they were still doing what they loved, their hands, fingers, and whole bodies working well. Shouldn’t you do what you love for as long as you can do it?
Fourth, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which is an examination of extraordinarily successful people. Gladwell notes that successful people happen to be in the right place in history when economic forces work toward their advantage, such as John D. Rockefeller being around in the 1860s for the transformation of the American economy with railroads and Wall Street. Bill Gates was around just as the personal computer emerged. Also, successful people spend over 10,000 hours working at what they do well until they are masters.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer formed at a special moment in music history. Music dominated my generation, and bands could start and become superstars. There was money in albums then, before the Internet, digitizing, and free downloads.
When Lake mentioned that the evening’s set was based on the look of his recording studio in the basement of his Irish castle, I was reminded of how rich he must have become. ELP albums sold over 30 million copies, and the group has toured for four decades. They’ve certainly spent over 10,000 hours in concert alone, and probably much more practicing. Last, Emerson and Lake did something I’ve never seen in a concert. They passed wireless mikes around to take questions. What a friendly thing to do. These guys weren’t all about show. As older men, they wanted to connect to their audience beyond music alone.
One question was “How was ‘Lucky Man’ inspired?” Lake explained his mother gave him a guitar at age twelve, and “Lucky Man” was a song he wrote as a kid. In recording the first ELP album, they came up short in material, so Lake offered “Lucky Man.” Palmer was into it, but Emerson wasn’t until he came up with a Moog solo at the end, putting the synthesizer into pop culture, and the rest is history. A small thing became big. There’s a lesson there.
For their encore, Emerson and Lake played “Lucky Man,” and Gordon’s daughter said it’s her favorite. “It’s simple, its lyrics are powerful, and I just love it.”So did I and everyone there. I say, dear peers, let’s slip into our final IVs rocking out.
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