Smile Politely

Ebertfest Day 1: Groovy, man

5:25 p.m.: Kiss wife and kids goodbye, as if I am going away on a five-day trip. It’s better this way.

5:30: Arrive on scene at Virginia. Interview the two couples who are first in line. Discover that showing up at 3:10 pm is only good enough for second place on opening day.

5:50: Display my impressive, shiny new Press Pass to folks at Virginia. Ask if I can stand inside while the crowd rushes in so I can take pictures. They say no.

6:05: After standing in line that snakes all the way to University Ave, with all the other regular non-journalists, go in and take a seat.

6:06: I am disabused of the notion that my impressive, shiny new Press Pass means anything at all, as I am unceremoniously told to move from the VIP section. Volunteer unimpressed as I re-display my impressive, shiny new Press Pass. I guess journalists really don’t get any respect.

6:07: Find single seat across the aisle.

6:10: Make friends with Susan from Wisconsin Dells, WI, who is sitting next to me.  She saw Jimi Hendrix play at Berkley in the ’60s. I was saw Van Halen play in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in the ’70s. I keep silent.

6:30: Become concerned that Wurlitzer organist Warren York is late. Ebertfest doesn’t really begin until Warren starts playing his festival music. Also, I plan to make a joke in this article about cryogenically preserving Warren in a vault beneath the Virginia, next to boxes of other 1920s paraphernalia, so future generations can always enjoy his playing. These plans will be ruined if he does not show.

6:40: Find out that the guy two seats down has even more ’60s cred, as he was actually at Woodstock, and hitchhiked from Chicago to get there. I now remember that I once went to a Bob Dylan/Grateful Dead/Tom Petty festival concert in the late 1980s. This does not count at all for ’60s cred. I keep silent again.

6:45: Decide to ask someone about Warren York. Find out he is apparently suffering from diabetes and lost his eyesight. This is a terrible loss, both for Warren and Ebertfest. It’s just not the same without his happy festival music. Also, now joking about cryogenically preserving Warren seems horribly inappropriate. Must change article strategy.

6:55: Consider changing joke to cryogenically preserving Roger Ebert’s brain and wit, to be stored underneath the Virgnia and re-activated for the next hundred years of Ebertfests. Chaz’s too, although she seems more sensible than to agree to such a thing. I’m overreaching. Warren York news has thrown me off balance.

7:03: Announcer keeps telling people to take their seats, turn off their cell phones and pagers. They get about the same unresponsiveness as did the Woodstock announcers. I half expect a warning to move away from the towers and watch out for the brown acid that is not too good.

7:09: Roger, Chaz and Nate Kohn emerge on stage. In a Michael Jordanesque statement, Chaz announces: “Heeeee’s Back!” Thunderous standing ovation follows.

7:12: Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh, in period dress, is introduced. He talks about how much he admires Roger and also says that only now can he out-talk Roger (because Roger no longer has a voice).

Before the movie starts Roger uses his laptop to say, in a computerized English accent, that we should stay away from the brown acid. This is way funnier than if the regular announcer had said it. I have missed Roger’s wit these last years.

7:15 to 9:25: Woodstock. Groovy, man.

So, I guess before Woodstock was Woodstock, it was just a farm. Could logistical nightmare that followed be a metaphor for the ’60s? Everyone wants peace, love, and harmony. We just have trouble feeding ourselves while doing it.

“Traffic uptight at Hippiefest.”

I keep leaning over to ask new friend Susan what band is currently playing. She says things like “Canned Heat” and “Ten Years After,” which I suspect might be a joke on the guy with a Press Pass. Occasionally she says something like “Arlo Guthrie” and I kick myself for not knowing that one.

Says one hippie: “People that are nowhere are coming here because there’s people that they think are somewhere.” I think this should be in Ecclesiastes. In fact, it probably is. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun.

The Virginia becomes a concert hall, with loud applause after each act. The bands and songs I know sound transcendent. Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” is what it is all about. No, wait, it’s Santana that defines Woodstock. No, it’s Joan Baez!

On the other hand, bands and songs I don’t know sound excessive and self-indulgent.

Some of the musicians are masters. Others seem like they happened to be in the right place at the right time.

9:25: Intermission. I discover that having a Press Pass in a bathroom line marks you as a fount of knowledge concerning ’60s-era bands that performed at Woodstock. I am asked, among other things, how this could have been only the second performance of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a question I was curious about myself. Luckily, the guy two spots behind me really is a fount of knowledge concerning ’60s-era bands that performed at Woodstock and answers all questions.

10:40ish: Woodstock continues.

This movie has so many sweet moments. Hippies calling their moms. The army helping out with medical problems. The Portosan guy cleaning toilets, saying one of his sons is at Woodstock and the other is in Vietnam.

Two years ago, Alan Rickman was interviewed at Ebertfest and described shooting an orgy scene in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer as an act of bravery by the extras because it took so long to shoot and was so uncomfortable. I can’t help but think that attending Woodstock was the same thing, sitting in mud for three days without much food, water or shelter in order to see the great bands of the generation.

11:15ish: Woodstock ends with Jimi Hendrix doing things with a guitar that do not seem humanly possible. The man was a force of nature.

It also ends with acres of trash left behind. Another metaphor for the ’60s? It was a great party with great intentions and most everyone behaved. But there was a lot of baggage to clean up afterward. That’s why the ’70s sucked so much.

Question and answer period: David Bordwell moderates with guests Michael Wadleigh and surprise guest, Jack Marcellino of Sha Na Na.

Jack tells us that it was Sha Na Na’s eighth gig and that he was a freshman at Colombia, a 19-year-old kid who spent three glorious days at Woodstock. He said they got paid $350. The check bounced. It was completely worth it.

Michael Wadleigh said one of their inspirations for the film was The Canterbury Tales, as they wanted to get the stories of all the townspeople on the journey, such as the mechanic, the police officer, the Portosan guy. I think he succeeded. So much so that I think Chaucer should have put a Portosan guy in the The Canterbury Tales.

Lots of other questions were asked. Many of the answers boiled down to:

  • The ’60s were great.
  • We need more honesty and authenticity today.
  • The planet is dying and we need a ’60s mentality to get going on real sustainability.

But that’s harshing my mellow, man. Maybe we should cryogenically freeze the love, peace, and general groovyness of the ’60s. We could place them next to Warren York and Roger Ebert’s brain, and Chaz, if she so chooses, in a Vault in the basement of the Virginia Theatre. We can trot it out whenever we feel overwhelmed by our social and environmental problems, and we won’t have to clean up any mess if we freeze it before it’s over. But I guess it’s too late for that now.

12:10 a.m.: I’m definitely overreaching now. Time for bed and a brand new Ebertfest day.

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