By Paul Smart
When did we start memorializing everything in 10, 25, 50 and centennial anniversary years? More importantly, how many of the Woodstock Festival and sixties memoirs getting published this summer will last beyond the next Holiday Season’s remainder bins (given there even are any more such things left by then)? Sure, festival impresario Michael Lang has a new look back to the big bash he’s been trying to recreate this summer, which he’ll be launching this summer (whether or not his Woodstock 50 ever finds a home). There are several self-published novels partly based at the festival. But for our money, the best of the lot may be Mark Berger’s SUNY Press work, Something’s Happening Here: A Sixties Odyssey from Brooklyn to Woodstock, which charts his time down with the half million who made it to Bethel in 1969, from his arrival with camping gear four days early to his lingering to help clean the site afterwards.
What makes Berger’s work better than the rest is his ability to render memories in terms of clearly wrought incidents, as well as a sense of tested maturity, then and now.
Speaking of mature, and another 50th anniversary this year, there’s also the new Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color by the late Gilbert Baker, who created the Rainbow Flag at the behest of Harvey Milk in 1978, nine years after Stonewall, as a means of supplying a unifying symbol for the growing gay rights movement. Part passionate personal chronicle that takes the author from rural Kansas and a stint in the Army to pre-digital San Francisco and years of flag-making, street theater, the AIDS crisis and eventually a battle with Rudy Giuliani over the right to carry a mile-long rainbow flag down Fifth Avenue for a Pride Day parade.
Baker came to call himself the “Gay Betsy Ross,” as well as a “real Dorothy” from the Midwest.
“I was a smart child, and my parents were thrilled when I learned to read and write before I even started school. But by the time I was in kindergarten, I had also developed a drag routine,” he starts his story in an inimitably upbeat style. “In my bedroom, when no one was looking, I would pull the sheet from my bed and wrap it around me, then tie the pastel percale all different ways and play with the soft fabric billows. (Even then, fabric fascinated me; whenever I touched it, I went to another place, a nirvana).”
Both these works, Berger’s and Baker’s, capture revolutions big and small, and the myriad ways we all grow from them and our own memories, personally and as a people. As a nation. As a world that CAN get better when it wants.