Entertainment

By the Time We Got to Woodstock, We Were Middle-Aged

Living the rock and roll fantasy turned out to be something of a nightmare

We are stardust, we are golden ... oldies.

We were middle-aged and in a rock group. Our keyboard player was balding and had a tiny ponytail. Our drummer wore a red do-rag to cover up his lack of hair. I bet you’ve seen a band just like us.

We didn’t suck and sometimes we even sounded pretty good. There were some misadventures, of course. Our lead singer once nodded out at a synagogue fundraiser and forgot to sing in the middle of a Lucinda Williams number. We played the same bar, round and round, until I kicked him in the shins to wake him up.

Then disaster struck.

A friend who had never heard us play asked us to open a Woodstock Revival festival on a local sports field. The bill was full of talent. There was a Hasidic Jew who played the Israeli national anthem on the guitar in the style of Jimi Hendrix. The guy who cuts my hair turned up on his Harley in a sleeveless tee to play harmonica with a Doors tribute band. There was no Woodstock mud — in fact the ground was covered in Astroturf — but it was a fairly rocking lineup.

If you were lucky enough to show up late.

Since we were basically an unknown quantity, we were asked to open the show. I thought it would be fun and there were couple of guys in the band who were afflicted with the rock and roll fantasy, which meant that they were simultaneously incredibly nervous and incredibly pumped.

As is it happened, our vocalist couldn’t perform. He had rheumatism and painful nerve damage in his back (did I mention we were middle-aged?). Our drummer brought two female friends to audition for us. One of them sounded stiff and strangled, like a sober karaoke singer. And she was the better of the two. We rehearsed a few numbers from the Woodstock era and were ready to rock — as long as we didn't have to stay up too late.

When we hit the stage in late afternoon, there were already more than a thousand people in the crowd. Did we give them a hell of a show?

Um, not exactly.

They got to see me play bass like a deaf guy because I couldn’t hear anything from my monitor. Fortunately, I was wearing shades, which hid the fact that my eyes were bugging out with panic. The guitarist also played out of tune, even after I'd begged him to tune-up. “We don’t have time,” he said, repeatedly.

He played “Hush” by Deep Purple three times as fast as it should be done. I tried to keep up by missing a few notes out of the bass line. But remember, I couldn’t hear my instrument, so I had no idea how that sounded, although I could certainly make an educated guess.

Our drummer frowned at me. Had he noticed some mistake I’d made? No, his monitor had nothing on it except the keyboard, which was too loud for him to hear the singer.

He was lucky. Have you ever been to a concert where the singer holds the microphone toward the audience and some goon at the front bellows into it? That’s what she sounded like. Although not as good.

As she sang “Gimme Shelter,” I was thinking: “'Rape, murder.' It might be better than listening to this ….”

As soon as it got dark, the smoke machine blew atmospherically across the stage. The lights filtered through it, and an honest-to-god purple haze appeared. As I was hammering at my apparently silent bass, the smoke machine blew straight up my pants and I appeared to be on fire. In some ways, I guess I was.

Afterward, everyone said we were great — and I don’t even think they were on drugs (not including cholesterol and blood pressure meds). My bandmates were stoked. They posted clips online.

I, however, was traumatized. Living the rock and roll fantasy turned out to be something of a nightmare. Being Mick or Bruce or whoever is your favorite rock star — even for a short opening set — isn't as easy as they make it look.

On further reflection, though, I learned that a bad gig can be just as much fun as a good one. It's all about attitude — as Mick, Bruce or any real rock star can tell you.

I grew up needing to please my parents because they were less than content with their own lives. Consequently, I ended up trying to please people in general, often at some cost to myself. After the gig, I felt like I’d disappointed — perhaps even disgusted — all those people in the crowd.

I should’ve just turned it up to 11 and had fun.

That was the message of the original Woodstock, after all. Who cares what anyone thinks of you? You’re free to do what you like. Roll in the mud. Sing “With a Little Help from My Friends” while you're having an aneurysm. Even if you are middle-aged.

You could even grow a tiny little ponytail.

Matt Rees is an award-winning novelist. He blogs and podcasts at mattrees.net and you can get a free ebook of his stories here.