When Jimi Hendrix performed “Purple Haze” at Woodstock in 1969, most of the audience was on drugs. They danced feverishly, they brandished tambourines, men and women took their shirts off, they made out with friends and strangers, and capitalist “freak” vendors sold thick veggie sandwiches, heavy on the sprouts.
It was not all fun and music. It was, as prim Susan in Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, suggests to her nostalgic brother, Charles, mostly a lot of mud. Certainly that’s how it looked to me in the movie Woodstock. If you weren’t on drugs, the experience might have been unbearably muddy and sweaty. And if you were on drugs, you might have ended up in the medics’ tent, because God only knows what you were taking: some had the good stuff, some had the bad.
I am not one of the four-hundred thousand people who attended Woodstock, which was held on a 600-acre dairy farm. It would not have been my kind of thing. Later, I went to a few local rock festivals that were disappointing. But what I’m trying to say is, not all of the 400,000 at Woodstock got close enough to the stage to hear the music.
Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” was certainly appropriate, whether they heard it or not.
Purple haze all in my brain,
Lately things just don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky
Of course I was familiar with Jimi Hendrix, recommended by somebody’s older brother. I listened to one of his albums repeatedly on a portable plastic stereo. We mourned when he died of an overdose of drugs. The same thing happened to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and the list goes on. We’re amazed that anybody made it out alive.
The odd thing is, “Purple Haze” seems appropriate, even out of context. By purple haze, of course, I mean the smoke, which has billowed down from Canada, where the forest fires are tragically out of control. The haze is seldom purple: it is more often dustily golden or brownish-grey, though it may have a violet tinge at sunset. It is dismaying, horrifying to breathe in smoke.
In Canada, an area the size of Iceland has been burned and devastated. The pictures of the forest fires, people being evacuated, and the smoky cities are bleak and terrifying. And as we have learned by now, everything is connected: the wind carries the smoke down to the U.S., so we must check the air quality every day. In June, on two separate occasions, New York and Chicago had the honor of being the most polluted city on the planet.
We have been relatively lucky during this fatal season of wildfires. By some miracle, after seasons of floods, tornadoes, and derechos, we have had a startlingly beautiful summer. The sky is gorgeous and blue, with fluffy white clouds like woolly sheep.
We have been spared the worst of the smoke. We have had only one hideously smoky day, when the air quality was so unhealthy that we were strongly advised to stay indoors. And we did stay indoors, because it was hard to breathe. Then the wind changed, and the air changed back from unhealthy to good. It will not, alas, be the last of the smoke.
In much of the U.S., the air this summer has been like L.A.’s in the ’60s, before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. (Yes, Nixon did one good deed.) Here, by the roll of the dice, a milder summer from the past has resurfaced. The comfortable temperatures have been in the 70s and 80s, with the nights cooling off to the 60s. My husband and I marvel: we don’t need to get in the time machine after all!
We are not, however, complacent. And so let me end with another quote (out of context) from “Purple Haze.”
Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You got me blowin’, blow my mind
Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?