1969: The year of Mick, Woodstock and Aquarius

My memory flickers a bit dark these days, but clear as a starry night it awakens to Mick dancing in stutter steps across the stage at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, snapping the end of a long crimson scarf behind him with brash flicks of an audacious wrist.

Vivid in my mind, as if it were yesterday, not the half century ago that it was - Nov. 15, 1969, three weeks before Altamont.

The Stones opened with "Jumpin' Jack Flash." It was a gas, gas, gas.

Such exhilaration, Jagger and the Stones in their prime, soaking them in with a breathtaking sense of bottomless youth. We thought we were going to live the rest of our lives with beaded curtains and bean bag chairs. Far out and outta sight.

I don't remember what I paid for the tickets. A vintage article from The New York Times serves as a reminder: prices for that Rolling Stones' tour went for $3 to $8. For perspective, a loaf of bread cost 23 cents, according to; a gallon of gas, 32 cents. The Dow ended the year at 839.

My, my, my, my, my. Though the Stones somehow persist, a lot has changed in 50 years.

A while ago, I drove down the street where I grew up. It had been part of a new subdivision when we moved in, shadeless saplings popping almost imperceptibly out of the parkway. Now, they are mighty trees overhanging the street like leafy umbrellas.

A year ago, much was made of 1968 as a benchmark, a time of paisley, protest, turmoil and assassination - the coming of age, presumably, for the Baby Boomer generation.

But for my money, I'll take 1969.

As with any year, it wasn't all pretty. The Vietnam War polarized the country. Hearts were stunned or broken by Charles Manson, Chappaquiddick, the Days of Rage, the passings of Everett Dirksen and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the police raid that killed Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their sleep, the violence at the Altamont Music Festival.

And for Cubs fans, alas, there were the Miracle Mets.

Despite those traumas, what we remember most of 1969 was the wonder, the hope and promise.

Near the top of the charts was "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," the Fifth Dimension imagining, "... Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius."

At the outdoors that year, we took in Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, "Easy Rider" leading the pack at the box office. At the theaters, too, we could get anything we wanted at "Alice's Restaurant."

With inspiring eloquence, Maya Angelou touched us with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," her biography of pain, racism and resilience:

"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,

of things unknown, but longed for still,

and his tune is heard on the distant hill,

for the caged bird sings of freedom."

That was the July we gathered around our television sets to watch, breathlessly, in black and white, humanity reach the moon.

"That's one small step for man," Neil Armstrong said in words no witness will forget, "one giant leap for mankind."

With that surreal step - coming less than a decade from when it had been vowed - we understood that there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

"No dream," Armstrong's fellow moon walker Buzz Aldrin later wrote, "is too high."

"For one priceless moment in the whole history of man," Richard Nixon told Armstrong and Aldrin in a phone call to the moon, "all the people on the earth are truly one."

Woodstock took place in August on a farm in Bethel, New York, three days of love that came to define a generation.

It was a concert that drew hundreds of thousands with the lure of peace and music, some of the greatest bands to ever play, no small amount of marijuana and hallucinogens.

A documentary movie by the same name played a large role in cementing the festival's place in history. As it makes clear, the gathering was one filled with good intentions and, in retrospect, a good bit of naiveté as well.

"Over the years, Woodstock got glorified and romanticized and became the event that symbolized Utopia," Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee said in interviews to promote his movie "Taking Woodstock" in 2009. "It's the last page of our collective memory of the age of innocence."

Our generation was going to change the world.

In many important ways, we did. Just think of the enormous social, medical and technological advances since 1969, how much stronger our understanding of the universe has grown.

But we didn't change the world in the fundamental ways we believed we would.

We still have war. Hunger and hatred have not been eradicated. Aquarius remains far from reach.

Too little harmony and understanding. No sympathy and trust abounding.

We relish the images, the memories and the exhilarating nostalgia of 1969.

But clear as a starry night, there still is work ahead - no matter what generation may claim it.

As Mick Jagger told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2001:

"The past is a great place and I don't want to erase or to regret it, but I don't want to be its prisoner, either."

This article is part of a special 50th anniversary section on 1969 that will be inserted in the Sunday, August 4 print editions of the Daily Herald.

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