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General Interest

THE 40th ANNIVERSARIES OF WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

On the twin 40th anniversaries of 2 seminal American events, the Moon Landing and the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, there’s one burning question in the minds of many Americans on how to commemorate these memories: Should we spring for the ruby? That’s the traditional 40 Year anniversary gift. Who would we give it to? For the Moon Landing, perhaps Neil Armstrong, the Christopher Columbus of Space? Well, he’s become a recluse, refusing to cash in on his fame and denying all requests for an interview. Perhaps he’s as disappointed as so many of us that America abandoned the grand adventure of space after his “one small step.” Perhaps he thought that the 40th anniversary of landing a man on the moon would be looked back on as the first early milestone of our colonization and exploration of the planets of our solar system as a stepping stone to the stars themselves, just as Christopher Columbus’ voyage triggered a roiling flood of humanity flinging themselves headlong into the vast unknown.

Instead the Moon Landing represents the pinnacle of man’s achievement in that area of endeavor, just one more Notre Dame cathedral or Great Pyramid in the pantheon of Things We Don’t Do Anymore. It’s sad, and a rebuke to our human spirit, to say nothing of missing out on another round of world-transforming technology that the original space program provided mankind. Just velcro alone seems to have been worth it, never mind the miniaturization that led to the development of silicon chips, fiber optics, cell phones, personal computers, water recycling apparatus, food preservation methods and the satellite transmissions that shrink and link our world.

The astoundingly rapid transformation that ushered in the Information Age would have taken many decades without the focused and coordinated effort of the Apollo and other huge space programs. In the long run, the money spent was well worth it and has been returned many thousands of times over in benefits to mankind. True, too many military applications were sought by military leaders in both America and Russia, who both desired to build killing platforms full of nuclear weapons in near orbit of earth, but the vast amount of technology to stem from the space race was beneficial to all people for peaceful progress. Even many of the medical breakthroughs made in the ensuing decades were made possible by the fruits of space race technology.

So, who gets the ruby? And while we’re talking anniversary presents, it’s also Woodstock’s 40th. That was when half a million kids converged on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethlehem, New York to hear a year’s worth of concerts by the top musical acts of the day in just 3 days of Peace, Love and Music, as it was billed. And that’s pretty much what it was, plus torrential rains and a sea of mud. This writer was there, a 16 year old rock & roller who paid $18 dollars for his 3 day ticket and went well-prepared with 2 friends from his band. We had tents, sleeping bags and plenty of food, unlike a lot of people who went for 3 days in the woods as if they needed nothing more than the clothes on their backs. We wound up feeding and sheltering a lot of them but also enjoying a lot of outstanding musical performances, and a couple of stinkers too,¬†truth be told.

We had no idea we were part of any cultural watershed moment in America, we were only there for the music, the broad variety of American popular music available at that time, almost all of them killer acts and quite different from one another. That has gone away today, with music having long since been corporatized, homogenized and pigeonholed by executives who would be just as comfortable marketing appliances as records. Back then the success of Jimi Hendrix did not prompt record company executives to order their minions to go sign another Hendrix. There already was one, and besides, that company might already have had Janis Joplin on their roster, or Sly Stone, Credence Clearwater, The Who, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, Ten Years After, Joan Baez, The Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Gurthrie or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, none of whom sounded alike.

Today’s radio music is segregated racially and demographically and populated by sound-alike and look-alike clones. Even the so called “Indie Bands” are mirror images of one another; mussy-haired, slightly unshaven maladjusted bitchy punks with their generic jangly guitars, horn-rimmed glasses and studied detachment. Where’s the passion here, people? Where are the madman geniuses who challenge and harangue and smash guitars and expectations to smithereens? It’s only an envelope, dammit, not a steel box. Take a damned chance, push it already! What’s with all this rocking within the bounds of decorum and decency? It’s no wonder kids flocked to hip hop, rap, punk and thrash metal, with few exceptions the only people out there with a pulse and an attitude. For every Neil Young who never cared what anyone thought of where his career path ought to take him, there’s a thousand play-it-safers planning their careers as carefully as accountants. And 40 years later it is Mr. Young’s unpredictable and ornery muse that follows the more interesting path.

So maybe old Neil should get the ruby? He’d probably tell you to stick it where the sun don’t shine along with all the corporate sponsorship offers he has always refused. Like the other Neil, Mr. Armstrong, he keeps his own counsel. Offer Neil Armstrong the ruby and he’d probably tell you to sell it and invest in a real space program with real goals. He has rebuffed NASA’s offers to jump on the bandwagon of the 40th anniversary tour and has left millions in endorsement offers on the table without giving them the dignity of a reply. What wouldn’t any company in the world pay to have The Christopher Columbus of Space endorse their product? Well, on this twin 40th anniversary let’s thank the 2 Neils for reminding us that not everyone and everything in America is for sale. So we won’t lament too hard for what might have been. These men show us that it still might be. Here’s to integrity, dignity and following your heart, and ignoring the lukewarm and the safe. And the rubies go to… Neil Armstrong and Neil Young! Long May You Run.

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