Hear Laurie Anderson Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bardo

Laurie Anderson began her career as an artist in the late 1960s, and since then she's made connections both personal and professional with many of the most influential cultural figures of the past five decades. She has also, inevitably, seen a fair few of them depart this earthly existence, including her husband Lou Reed. The question of what happens to the dead is, for Anderson, apparently not without interest, even in the case of the non-human dead: the 2015 documentary Heart of a Dog traces the journey of Anderson's late pet Lolabelle through the bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism the liminal state between death and rebirth.

The bardo is the central theme of Bardo Thodol, better known to Westerners in translation as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. On the new album Songs from the Bardo, Anderson reads from that eighth-century text with improvisational accompaniment by, among others, Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and composer Jesse Paris Smith.

Stereogum's Peter Helman writes that "Smith, the daughter of punk legend Patti Smith" — one of the many still-living influential artists in Anderson's wide network — "first met Choegyal in 2008 at the annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall." Seven years later, they enlisted Anderson to narrate the first performed version of what would become Songs from the Bardo.

"Anderson narrates text from the Tibetan Book Of the Dead while Choegyal, Smith, cellist Rubin Kodheli, and percussionist Shahzad Ismaily provide the musical accompaniment," writes Helman. "Smith plays piano and creates drone beds using a collection of crystal bowls, while Choegyal incorporates traditional Tibetan instruments like lingbu (a bamboo flute), dranyen (a lute-like stringed instrument), singing bowls, gong, and his own voice." In the record's liner notes, Choegyal writes of trying to "channel the wisdom and traditions of my ancestors through my music in a very contemporary way while holding the depth of my lineage." The music, Anderson explains, "is meant to help you float out of your body, to go into these other realms, and to let yourself do that without boundaries."

You can get a taste of this transcendence from "Lotus Born, No Need to Fear" the first sample track from the album the group has released. On it Anderson reads of the experience of the bardo, where "consciousness becomes airy, speeding, swaying, and impermanent." For a Metafilter user named Capt. Renault, listening brings to mind another of Anderson's artworks: her virtual-realty piece Aloft, which "has you sitting in an empty airplane which disintegrates around you, leaving you high, high above the ground with no support. You are aware of the possibility of death, but Laurie's smooth, comforting voice leads to a complete absence of fear, and you are free to explore this world she's created. Because of Laurie, I faced my death and I didn't mind it."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invented everything.

The wheel…

The printing press…


Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feather isn’t an arbitrary cultural construct of humanity but rather a hard-wired neurological impulse in beings classified as vocal learners—us, elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots like the Internet-famous sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, above.

Animals outside of this elite set can be trained to execute certain physical moves, or they may just look like they’re dancing when tracking the movements of their food bowl or shimmying with relief at being picked up from doggy daycare.

Snowball, however, is truly dancing, thanks to his species’ capacity for hearing, then imitating sounds. Like every great spontaneous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Aniruddh Patel, a Professor of Psychology at Tufts who specializes in music cognition, was the first to consider that Snowball’s habit of rocking out to the Backstreet Boys CD he’d had in his possession when dropped off at a parrot rescue center in Dyer, Indiana, was something more than a party trick.

Dr. Patel notes that parrots have more in common with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our monkey cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s disappointment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Usher? It may sound like Usher, but you'll find no scientific support for the notion that its vocalizations constitute singing.)

Snowball, on the other hand, has made a major impression upon the Academy.

In papers published in Current Biology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz delved into why Snowball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but certainly your average moshing human.

After extensive observation, they concluded that an individual must possess five specific mental skills and predilections in order to move impulsively to music:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cockatoos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s former student R. Joanne Jao Keehn recently reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snowball getting down to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," identifying 14 distinct moves.

According to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Headbang with Lifted Foot.

If you’ve been hugging the wall since middle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, followed by an avian dancing lesson.

How did Snowball come by his astonishing rug-cutting confidence? Certainly not by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His human companion Schulz dances with him occasionally, but doesn't attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as "limited."

Much like two human partners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the choreography is purely Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Harvard Gazette:

It’s actually a complex cognitive act that involves choosing among different types of possible movement options. It’s exactly how we think of human dancing.

If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.

You can read more science-based articles inspired by Snowball and watch some of his many public appearances on the not-for-profit, donation-based sanctuary Bird Lovers Only’s website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Listen Online to Every Minute of the Original Woodstock Festival

Image of Joe Cocker by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lifehacker has this great tip. "Starting at 5:07 p.m. EST today, August 15, you can listen to every minute of the three days of concerts, courtesy of Philadelphia radio station WXPN. It will include all of the festival’s archived audio: from the iconic performances to the stage announcements to the rain delays. The exclusive broadcast will feature newly reconstructed audio archives of each of Woodstock’s 32 acts, starting with Richie Havens’ opening set, and continuing through to Jimi Hendrix’s closing performance on Sunday morning. According to a release from the station, it will be broadcast in as close to real time as possible.” To listen, go to this page, scroll down, and launch the media player.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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A Short Animated Introduction to Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philosopher

Ten years ago, a film came out called Agora, a biopic of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of mathematician Theon, the last recorded director of the Library of Alexandria. The movie wasn’t well-reviewed or widely seen, which is neither here nor there, but it was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies. This seemed a little silly. “One does not go to the movies to learn about ancient history but to be entertained,” as Joshua J. Mark writes at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Agora is not an accurate rendering of the little we know of Hypatia, but neither is Spartacus, a far more entertaining film, an accurate depiction of the 2nd century B.C.E. gladiator and rebel.

And yet, we should know who Hypatia was, and we should understand what happened to her, something many of the film’s religiously-motivated critics refused to admit, claiming that the depiction of hostile, anti-intellectual Christians in the movie was nothing more than prejudicial animus on the part of director Alejandro Amenabar. The truth is that “the anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers,” Mark points out. And “the historical records state” that Hypatia “was beaten and flayed to death by a mob of Christian monks who then burned her in a church.”

The TED-Ed video above calls this mob a “militia” who saw Hypatia’s scientific pursuits as “witchcraft.” The charge is, of course, specifically gendered. The manner of her death was so brutal and shocking that “even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch,” Mark writes, “are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.”

As is the case with many ancient figures, none of her own writings survive, but both her contemporary critics and sympathetic students record similar impressions of her intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge. The short video lesson tells us Hypatia was born around 355 A.C.E., which means she would have been around sixty years old at the time of her death. She lived in Alexandria, “then part of the Egyptian province of the Eastern Roman Empire, and an intellectual center.” Educated by her father, she surpassed him “in both mathematics and philosophy, becoming the city’s foremost scholar.”

She eventually succeeded Theon as head of the Platonic school, “similar to a modern university,” and she served as a trusted advisor to the city’s leaders, including its governor, Orestes, a “moderate Christian” himself. Her achievements were many, but her teaching, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras, was her greatest legacy, the TED-Ed lesson (scripted by Soraya Field Fiorio) asserts. Hypatia’s death not only deprived the city of a beloved teacher and scholar. Her murder, at the behest of Alexandrian bishop Cyril, “was a turning point.” Other philosophers fled the city, and Alexandria’s “role as a center of learning declined.”

“In a very real way,” the lesson tells us, “the spirit of inquisition, openness, and fairness she fostered died with her.”

For a more complete treatment of Hypatia's life and intellectual contributions, read Maria Dzielska's book, Hypatia of Alexandria.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch John Entwistle’s Bass-Playing Genius on Display in Isolated Tracks for “Won’t Be Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Reilly”

I guess it’s easy to be “The Quiet One” in The Who when surrounded by a preening singer with golden locks, a guitarist with a windmill arm who smashes his equipment, and a completely insane drummer (on and off stage). But John Entwistle helped root the band by standing still and delivering some of the meatiest and beatiest licks and melodic runs in ‘60s rock.

The above footage salvaged from the doc The Kids Are Alright shows the master at work. “Won’t Be Fooled Again” isn’t known as a bass-forward song, so this isolated track from a live take show will make you hear it anew. Entwistle plays his bass like an electric lead, doubling the drums sometimes, other times mimicking the vocals. He plays triplets and runs. He zooms up the neck, slides down, arpeggiates, the lot. It’s thick. Just hit play.

As some YouTube wag points out, it’s something of a bass player joke come to life at the end, where Entwistle leaves his bass onstage and walks off, while a girl rushes out of the audience to embrace the lead singer. Such is life in a band.

From the same shoot, you can also check out his isolated bass from “Baba O’Reilly.” Entwistle has a three-note riff to work with. He stays true to it while filling in spaces here and there with distortion turned way up. At the end he has a sip of (I assume) water and looks about as excited as when he started.

In the mid-nineties, Entwistle was interviewed for a book on drummer Keith Moon. Author Tony Fletcher caught him in an honest mood:

“I wasted my whole fucking career on The Who,” he said between gulps of Remy Martin brandy, his favourite tipple. “Complete fucking waste of time. I should be a multi-millionaire. I should be retired by now. I’ll be known as an innovative bass player. But that doesn’t help get my swimming pool rebuilt and let me sit on my arse watching TV all day. I wouldn’t want to, but I’d like the chance to be able to.”

Not all rock bands consist of best friends, and some are downright rancorous. But that’s often what brings out the best in people. So as you gaze at Entwistle stifling a yawn during these two clips, consider his confession and enjoy.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

People Pose in Uncanny Alignment with Iconic Album Covers: Discover The Sleeveface Project

We've all heard a great deal over the past twenty years or so about the death of the album. This talk seems to have begun with the emergence of the downloadable individual song, a technology that would finally allow us consumers to purchase only the tracks we want to hear and avoid paying full price for "filler." But against these odds, the long-playing album has persisted: artists still record them and listeners, at least dedicated listeners, still buy them, sometimes even on vinyl.

Somehow the album has remained culturally relevant, and a fair bit of the credit must go to its cover. It didn't take long after the introduction of the 12-inch, 33 1/3-RPM vinyl record in 1948 for the marketing purposes of its large outer sleeve to become evident, and the past 71 years have produced many a memorable image in that form. Few platforms could be as representative of our digital age as Instagram, but it is on Instagram that the album cover has recently received homage from across the globe.

"Sleeveface is an amusing participatory photo project in which people from all over the world strategically pose with matching album covers," writes Laughing Squid's Lori Dorn, "creating the illusion that the original picture is complete."

Browse the tags #sleeveface and #sleevefacesunday (for everything on the internet eventually gets its day) on Instagram and you'll see a variety of tribute poses, some of them uncannily well-aligned, to musicians whose faces we all know not least because they've appeared on iconic album covers: Bruce Springsteen to Bob Marley, Simon and Garfunkel to Iggy and the Stooges, Leonard Cohen to Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin to Adele.

All those famous names have undergone the sleeveface treatment, and quite a few of them have undergone it more than once. Many of us have grown familiar indeed with these albums, and surely even those of us who've never listened to them start-to-finish probably know at least a couple of their songs. But even if you've never heard so much as a measure of any of them, you've almost certainly seen their covers — and may well, at one time or another, have been tempted to hold them up in front of your own face to see how they lined up. Popular music shows us how much we have in common, but so does its packaging.

via Laughing Squid

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Philosopher Portraits: Famous Philosophers Painted in the Style of Influential Artists

Ludwig Wittgenstein/Piet Mondrian:

Ludwig Wittgenstein & Piet Mondrian

What do the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian have in common? For philosopher and artist Renée Jorgensen Bolinger, the two have similar beliefs about the logic of space.

"Many of Mondrian's pieces explore the relationships between adjacent spaces," says Bolinger "and in particular the formative role of each on the boundaries and possibilities of the other. I based this painting [see above] off of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in which he develops a theory of meaning grounded in the idea that propositions have meaning only insofar as they constrain the ways the world could be; a meaningful proposition is thus very like one of Mondrian's color squares, forming a boundary and limiting the possible configurations of the adjacent spaces."

An Assistant Professor at Princeton, Bolinger studied painting a Biola University before making philosophy her second major. "I actually came to philosophy quite late in my college career," Bolinger says, "only adding the major in my junior year. I was fortunate to have two particularly excellent and philosophic art teachers, Jonathan Puls and Jonathan Anderson, who convinced me that my two passions were not mutually exclusive, and encouraged me to pursue both as I began my graduate education."

Bolinger now works primarily on the philosophy of language, with side interests in logic, epistemology, mind and political philosophy. She continues to paint. We asked her how she reconciles her two passions, which seem to occupy opposite sides of the mind. "I do work in analytic philosophy," she says, "but it's only half true that philosophy and painting engage opposite sides of the mind. The sort of realist drawing and painting that I do is all about analyzing the relationships between the lines, shapes and color tones, and so still very left-brain. Nevertheless, it engages the mind in a different way than do the syllogisms of analytic philosophy. I find that the two types of mental exertion complement each other well, each serving as a productive break from the other."

Bolinger has created a series of philosopher portraits, each one pairing a philosopher with an artist, or art style, in an intriguing way. In addition to Wittgenstein, she painted ten philosophers in her first series, many of them by request. They can all be seen on her web site, where high quality prints can be ordered.

G.E.M. Anscombe/Jackson Pollock:

G.E.M. Anscombe & Jackson Pollock

Bolinger says she paired the British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe with the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock for two reasons: "First, the loose style of Pollock's action painting fits the argumentative (and organizational) style of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which Anscombe helped to edit and was instrumental in publishing. Second, her primary field of work, in which she wrote a seminal text, is philosophy of action, which has obvious connections to the themes present in any of Pollock's action paintings."

Gottlob Frege/Vincent Van Gogh:

Gottlob Frege & Van Gogh

Bolinger paired the German logician, mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege with the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Van Gogh's famous painting The Starry Night and Frege's puzzle concerning identity statements such as "Hesperus is Phosphorus," or "the evening star is identical to the morning star."

Bertrand Russell/Art Deco:

Bertrand Russell & Art Deco

Bolinger painted the British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in the Art Deco style. "This pairing is a bit more about the gestalt, and a bit harder to articulate," says Bolinger. "The simplification of form and reduction to angled planes that takes place in the background of this Art Deco piece are meant to cohere with Russell's locial atomism (the reduction of complex logical propositions to their fundamental logical 'atoms')."

Kurt Gödel/Art Nouveau:

Kurt Godel & Art Nouveau

Bolinger paired the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel with Art Nouveau. "The Art Nouveau movement developed around the theme of mechanization and the repetition of forms," says Bolinger, "and centrally involves a delicate balance between organic shapes -- typically a figure that dominates the portrait -- and schematized or abstracted patterns, often derived from organic shapes, but made uniform and repetitive (often seen in the flower motifs that ornament most Art Nouveau portraits). I paired this style with Kurt Gödel because his work was dedicated to defining computability in terms of recursive functions, and using the notion to prove the Completeness and Incompleteness theorems."

To see more of Renée Jorgensen Bolinger's philosopher portraits, click here to visit her site.

Note: This post originally appeared on our site back in 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Elegant Design for a Perpetual Motion Machine

Is perpetual motion possible? In theory… I have no idea…. In practice, so far at least, the answer has been a perpetual no. As Nicholas Barrial writes at Makery, “in order to succeed,” a perpetual motion machine “should be free of friction, run in a vacuum chamber and be totally silent” since “sound equates to energy loss.” Trying to satisfy these conditions in a noisy, entropic physical world may seem like a fool’s errand, akin to turning base metals to gold. Yet the hundreds of scientists and engineers who have tried have been anything but fools.

The long list of contenders includes famed 12th-century Indian mathematician Bhāskara II, also-famed 17th-century Irish scientist Robert Boyle, and a certain Italian artist and inventor who needs no introduction. It will come as no surprise to learn that Leonardo da Vinci turned his hand to solving the puzzle of perpetual motion. But it seems, in doing so, he “may have been a dirty, rotten hypocrite,” Ross Pomery jokes at Real Clear Science. Surveying the many failed attempts to make a machine that ran forever, he publicly exclaimed, “Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”

In private, however, as Michio Kaku writes in Physics of the Impossible, Leonardo “made ingenious sketches in his notebooks of self-propelling perpetual motion machines, including a centrifugal pump and a chimney jack used to turn a roasting skewer over a fire.”  He also drew up plans for a wheel that would theoretically run forever. (Leonardo claimed he tried only to prove it couldn’t be done.) Inspired by a device invented by a contemporary Italian polymath named Mariano di Jacopo, known as Taccola (“the jackdaw"), the artist-engineer refined this previous attempt in his own elegant design.

Leonardo drew several variants of the wheel in his notebooks. Despite the fact that the wheel didn’t work—and that he apparently never thought it would—the design has become, Barrial notes, “THE most popular perpetual motion machine on DIY and 3D printing sites.” (One maker charmingly comments, in frustration, “Perpetual motion doesn’t seem to work, what am I doing wrong?”) The gif at the top, from the British Library, animates one of Leonardo’s many versions of unbalanced wheels. This detailed study can be found in folio 44v of the Codex Arundel, one of several collections of Leonardo’s notebooks that have been digitized and made publicly available online.

In his book The Innovators Behind Leonardo, Plinio Innocenzi describes these devices, consisting of "12 half-moon-shaped adjacent channels which allow the free movement of 12 small balls as a function of the wheel’s rotation…. At one point during the rotation, an imbalance will be created whereby more balls will find themselves on one side than the other,” creating a force that continues to propel the wheel forward indefinitely. “Leonardo reprimanded that despite the fact that everything might seem to work, ‘you will find the impossibility of motion above believed.’”

Leonardo also sketched and described a perpetual motion device using fluid mechanics, inventing the “self-filling flask” over two-hundred years before Robert Boyle tried to make perpetual motion with this method. This design also didn’t work. In reality, there are too many physical forces working against the dream of perpetual motion. Few of the attempts, however, have appeared in as elegant a form as Leonardo’s. See the fully scanned Codex Arundel at the British Library.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Philip K. Dick Tarot Cards: A Tarot Deck Modeled After the Visionary Sci-Fi Writer’s Inner World

What does Philip K. Dick have in common with Jorge Luis Borges, Hermann Hesse, and John Cage? Fans of all three twentieth-century visionaries will have much to say on the matter of what deep resonances exist between their bodies of work and the worldviews that produced them. But they can't overlook the fact that Dick, Borges, Hesse, and Cage all, at one time or another, enthusiastically consulted the ancient Chinese divination text known as the I Ching. Also known as The Book of Changes, it became a must-have countercultural volume in the 1960s, and the words of guidance it provided, in all their openness to interpretation, surely influenced no small number of decisions made in that era.

What the I Ching had to say certainly influenced the decisions of Philip K. Dick, in life as well as in writing. Not only did he use the book to write The Man in the High Castle, his 1962 novel portraying a world in which the Axis powers won World War II, he also included it as a plot element in the story itself.

And speaking of alternate histories, we might ask: could Dick have written The Man in the High Castle without the I Ching? Or could he have written it using another divination tool, perhaps one from the West rather than the East? What would the novel have looked like if written while harnessing the perceptive power of tarot, the 15th-century European card game whose decks also have a long history as windows onto human destiny?

Recently the world of tarot, the world of the I Ching, and the world of Philip K. Dick collided, resulting in The Fool's Journey of Philip K. Dick, a tarot deck published by Wide Books. "PKD scholar Ted Hand and tarot artist Christopher Wilkey have brought together a new vision of tarot and the great works of Philip K. Dick," says Wide Books' site. "Ideal for advanced students of tarot as well as novices to the I Ching," the deck "takes the seeker through an initiation into the life and writings of one of the greatest writers of recent times." In addition to its 80 cards, each drawing from some element of Dick's body of work, the deck includes "four rule cards for two I Ching inspired card games and an eight-sided folding booklet about tarot as Gnostic Allegory, with beginning exercises contrasting tarot to the I Ching."

Two of the games pay tribute to particular Dick novels: A Maze of Death and its "domino-type game" that "familiarizes players with the trigrams of which I Ching hexagrams are composed," and Ubik, which has "players either hoping to avoid accumulating entropy or trying to capture all the energy you can from the deck and other players to be the last standing at the end of the game." If that sounds like a good time to you, you'll have to register your interest in ordering a copy of The Fool's Journey of Philip K. Dick on Wide Books' contact form, since the initial run has sold out. That won't come as a surprise to Dick's fans, who know the addictive power of one glimpse into his inner world, with its rich mixture of the supernatural, the scientific, the paranormal, and the paranoid. But what kind of books will they use his tarot deck to write?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Legendary Protest Songs from Woodstock: Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & More Perform Protest Songs During the Music Festival That Launched 50 Years Ago This Week

This year's big event to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the most famous music festival in the world has died an ignominious death. As Variety wrote in a scathing “obituary” last month, "Woodstock 50 passed away today at the age of 7 months, following a brave and very, very long battle with cancel."

Not a few people have said good riddance. What could the tribute—to take place not in Woodstock but in Baltimore—have in common with its namesake, save a small handful of the still-living original performers? The use of “Woodstock” as a brand seems cynical, but then again, we’ve also grown leery of the legend of Woodstock 1. What was it about? Classic rock stars on a farm? Stoned, naked hippies flailing in the mud? What justifies the fifty years of hype?

Woodstock was about much more than druggy flower children shagging in bedraggled tents, yet this stereotype was propagated from the start. The festival “was a stridently antiwar spectacle,” online history project All About Woodstock explains. “Its message was diluted by the media. Rather than focus on the political statements made, mainstream cultural commentators talked about hippies, long hair, and nudity.” A belated wedding party, Woodstock symbolized “the merger and ambivalence of the counterculture and protest.”

The marriage may be in shambles in the time of Woodstock 50 but it held on for several decades. Woodstock “was the ‘coming out’ party of the rock ‘n’ roll generation,” writes NPR. Folk singer Richie Havens, the festival’s first performer, remembers it as “the beginning of the world, as far as I was concerned.” Booked for a 20-minute set, Havens ended up playing for much longer when Santana couldn’t be found, ad-libbing “Freedom (Motherless Child)” as his closer.

“The word ‘freedom came out of my mouth because this was our real particular freedom,” he says in an interview with NPR’s Tony Cox. “We’d finally made it to above ground.” A few months later, in December, the decade closed on a much darker note, symbolized by the Rolling Stones’ bloody Altamont Free Concert. But for three days that year, August 15-17, 1969, it seemed like music festivals might change the world.

Maybe they did. Woodstock organizer Michael Lang thinks so. “I think Woodstock proved the world that it was possible for people to live peacefully,” he said in a 2015 interview. “It gave credence to the positions we as a young generation took on personal freedoms, ending a war we felt unjust, respect for the planet, the fight for civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights in general. The impact on society continues to this day.”

The festival was also, of course, a massively star-studded event filled with career highlight performances like Hendrix’s radical, blistering “Star-Spangled Banner.” Not every act showed up to make a statement. The Who were pretty sour about the gig, Lang remembers. “They were not part of the ‘hippie’ thing and Pete Townsend had to be talked into taking the date.” But those who came to make a statement weren’t shy about it. Jefferson Airplane called for volunteers for the revolution in their anti-war anthem “Volunteers.” Country Joe and the Fish ended the second set on Saturday with their satirical “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” an explicitly anti-Vietnam War song that asked, “what are we fighting for”?

Joan Baez, six months pregnant at the time, sang traditional folk songs, Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind.” Her closer, spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” bridged the music of the Civil Rights movement with that of the anti-war movement, proclaiming in her glorious soprano, “We shall live in peace someday.” The moment, fifty years ago this week, can never be recreated, no matter how much money organizers throw at Woodstock retreads. But we don’t need millions to remember what the original Woodstock stood for. Sex, drugs, and mud got all the press, but the festival’s intentions were to protest war overseas and hatred and murder at home with three days of peace and music—a vision, as Havens extemporaneously sang out, of another kind of freedom.

The original festival, "essentially a mass movement promoting peace," gets yet another look in a new American Experience documentary, Woodstock: Peace, Love and Music, which premiered last Tuesday on PBS. (Stream it free here.) With "never-before-seen footage" and testimonials from "those who experienced it firsthand," the film documents the event's highs and lows, including the many "near disasters" that "put the ideals of the counterculture to the test." Also see the New York Times article, "How to Relive Woodstock From the Comfort of Your Couch," which features "six movies, 12 album collections, two songs and 17 books that will take willing travelers back to August 1969." This includes, of course, Michael Wadleigh's iconic documentary, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music.

Related Content:

Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock: Historic Concert Captured on Film

David Crosby & Graham Nash at Occupy Wall Street; Echoes of Woodstock

Wattstax Documents the “Black Woodstock” Concert Held 7 Years After the Watts Riots (1973)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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