Friday, January 25, 2008

Retro-Journal: The Contract with America and Woodstock ’94

National Review sent me to Woodstock ’94 — and my old friend Paul Taylor came along (at his own expense). We weren’t the only Republicans present, since I later learned that my favorite MTV VJ, Kennedy, was wandering around interviewing people in their tents, asking them if they wanted to engage in “free love.”

The first day wasn’t so uncivilized, despite our attempt to sleep near a stage that turned out to be having a deafening all-night rave, as was the fashion in those days. We gave up around 5am and rose, trudging like zombies past a grizzled old man sitting on a tree stump telling a tiny knot of listeners stories from long ago — and I’m pretty sure he was Joe Walsh from the Eagles, but a weary Paul muttered something like “Bah, washed-up has-been loser-guy” and kept marching on toward the vast event’s other performance stage.

The second day, the rains began, and a social hierarchy soon developed in which people bold enough to dive into the resulting lakes of mud were afterwards able to go anywhere they wanted without interference, since no one wanted to touch them, while the rest of us squeezed together to maneuver around them, like passengers on a crowded subway. By the second night — after hearing everything from Baby Boomer bands like Crosby, Stills, and Nash (singing “Love the one you’re with”) to rising Gen X superstars like Nine Inch Nails (singing “Bow down before the one you serve/ You’re going to get what you deserve”) — Paul and I had had enough and fled to a nearby bed and breakfast, skipping the final morning of the event. I think a guy who stood in front of us during Violent Femmes urinated in a Gatorade bottle to avoid navigating the crowd, and I can’t say I blame him.

As it happens, it was that same year that I discovered perhaps the strangest urinal in New York City, the lovely cascading wall of water in the lobby bar of the Royalton Hotel, which I was too taken aback to use at that time (December 2, 1994, according to my surprisingly accurate records on this matter) and found to have been completely replaced by ordinary urinals upon my return there just last week, unless I went through the wrong door or something. Who’s to say whether it or the Gatorade bottle was more bizarre.


I assumed things like the Woodstock adventure would be the lot of the non-leftist in 90s culture — ironically observing on the fringes while neo-hippies called the tunes — so I was quite surprised when the Republicans actually took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. My rock n’ roll-loving friend Dave Whitney (mentioned in my previous Retro-Journal entry as a saddened Cobain fan) called up the morning after the 1994 elections not to sing a number from one of the Woodstock bands but to sing “Oh, what a beautiful morning/ Oh, what a beautiful day!” from Oklahoma.

After nearly a century of government expansion and increased regulation of nearly every aspect of our lives, perhaps — though I was never naive enough to get my hopes up too high — this would be the beginning of a rollback, at least a slight shift back toward the individual liberty that had made peace, prosperity, and happiness commonplace in America as they had never before or elsewhere been in human history.

Things didn’t work out all that rosily — but Newt Gingrich, by almost single-handedly turning the zeitgeist against government spending, did more to make the prosperity of the mid- and late 90s possible than the Clintons who rode the wave (and may yet ride it back into the White House sixteen years after they first entered it). Even that may not have made Gingrich a viable 2008 presidential candidate, but it is his spirit — in some ways his more than Reagan’s — that I hope the Republicans will manage somehow to recapture. Even Mongolia cast off its communist rulers in the mid-90s, citing the Contract with America as a specific influence. That inspires some people less than snide rockers at Woodstock do, though.

Thanks to the anti-government spirit of 1994, libertarian groups like the Cato Institute had a newfound respectability — even as libertarians Rothbard and Rockwell grumpily (but accurately) predicted that the Republicans would start selling out their small-government principles before their first year in power was through. It was also around then that I was in the studio audience — a mere civilian — for the first John Stossel one-hour special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, about irrational risk assessment and excessive resultant regulation, about as libertarian an hour as had ever aired on ABC at that time. Libertarian Chris Whitten (then employed by Andrea and Howard Rich’s Laissez-Faire Books) had invited me along, and while he found the TV production process boring when viewed from the inside (what with the endless retakes, even in news), I was fascinated and would end up working for Stossel about a year later. (Chris, by contrast, is now a website-producing millionaire, as I may have mentioned before.)

It was an exciting time to be a libertarian, and I’m not ashamed to say I had a checklist of the specific promises made in the Contract with America (torn from the New York Post, I think) so I could keep track of them as they were accomplished — and most were. They never guaranteed they’d shrink the government, after all (though it grew relatively slowly for a few years), merely that a short list of reform measures would be brought to a vote in the House (not necessarily passed, let alone passed by the Senate or signed by the President). Most were. And for one glorious year — if I may leap ahead to Fiscal 1996 for a moment — the federal budget technically shrank, by a radical, outrage-producing, anarchic, crazy-go-nuts 1% (mostly due to post-Cold War defense cuts). Somehow, we avoided mass starvation in the streets while the welfare state was thus “dismantled” and “welfare as we know it” ended.


In a bit of personal reform, I’d given up reading comic books for a while, but a two-pronged conspiracy arose to drag me back into the filthy habit:

•First, one of my best friends, Scott Nybakken (a fellow Film Bulletin writer from Brown who’d been living in Seattle and working for the small comic book company Fantagraphics — as well as writing for Seattle’s The Stranger, in part as a result of showing them his old Film Bulletin pieces), moved to New York City to work for DC Comics, the company that publishes Batman and Superman, among other characters. By sheer chance, he moved onto the same corner I lived on the East 20s and worked on the same corner I did in the West 50s, so it was inevitable that the world of comics would again seem near and real.

•Secondly, I have to admit, I’d only vowed to stop reading comics unless DC finally did a real sequel to their 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths (in which the multiverse blew up) — and with 1994’s Zero Hour, they finally did (this time, the one remaining universe blew up but was put back together again pretty much the same as it was before).

This Zero Hour thing was lucky for Scott in my view, since he hadn’t really been paying much attention to what was going on in DC’s fictional universe himself and, as I suggested, could now start paying attention from Day One, as it were, when the universe got rebooted. Fourteen years later, I’m still not sure he’s paying that much attention, but DC has periodically sucked me back in by doing more Crisis sequels or (due to the fact that the ever-shrinking, ever-aging comics fanbase comes to more closely and narrowly resemble me and a handful of my friends) by doing something else taken almost verbatim from my imaginary comics wish list.

Since they promise a miniseries called Final Crisis this summer, written by my favorite comics writer (Grant Morrison), starring characters created by my favorite comics writer/artist (Jack Kirby), and once more harkening back to that 1985 miniseries that my demographic loved when we were teens, I suppose they’ll get me one last time — but they promise it’s “final” this time, and I’m holding them to that. I think this time they’re blowing up the gods or something. Everything must eventually be blown up. That’s what makes it high-concept art.


On December 19, 1994 appears this first-ever entry in my journals suggesting the onset (at age twenty-five) of physical aging (though I’d also developed occasional neck pain ever since that day riding multiple rollercoasters at Six Flags when Scott and some of the DC staffers decided they wanted to go check out the Batman ride):

“I found myself feeling a bit ill this morning and tried to remember which of my meals this weekend might’ve caused it [never having been made queasy by any meal or amount of food in my adult life before this]: triple-decker ham sandwich [which was Saturday's lunch], multi-dish Chinese [early supper with Derek Rose and Chris Whitten in Chinatown], party snacks from Gummi to sandwiches to vodka [with Kaplan co-workers, at a party where I also met a Romanian-American woman named Mihaela Bardasiu whose father had a cherished video of the Ceausescu execution and who went on one museum outing with me that ended with a kiss but who took the odd approach, luckily unique in my experience to this day, of immediately hanging the phone up on me when I tried to ask her out a second time -- my apologies if there was some misunderstanding], three jumbo flapjacks with scrambled eggs and a root beer float [Sunday brunch], and a large cheese pizza [Sunday dinner]. I conclude it was a combination of factors.”

For the first time, I made a mental note to “take it easy.” It has, of course, been all downhill from there.

Other people had bigger problems than that, though — and ones that seemed to reflect recurring patterns of right/left excess amongst some in my milieu, though I never met this particular anecdote-star. Paul was at the brunch that included the flapjacks, root beer, and ice cream, and there he related the story of a suicide among his acquaintances, that of a young woman who’d lived with a cult-leader as a father (not so unlike that ex-friend of mine mentioned in my 1992 and early 1993 Retro-Journal entries), gone on to seduce two poet laureates while at Wellesley, become a war games simulation designer for the Pentagon and thus learned to drive real tanks and fire Stinger missiles, lost her security clearance after a prior suicide attempt involving pills and vodka and a plastic bag over her head, and finally ended it all just as a new political epoch was beginning. People that troubled and interesting should definitely stick around as long as possible. Who knows what will happen next? Why miss it?

And what will happen next, in fact, will be: 1995.

1 comment:

Brain said...

It’s nice to see some more intimate reminiscences. A man’s stomach tells us more about him than his polite philosophical thoughts.

And you finally admit to kissing a girl!