I’m the child of hippies. Counter-culture, flowingly-bearded, long hair parted down the middle, love children from the Midwest. My mother got pregnant with me after my father returned from being a soldier in Vietnam, and I was named after a hitchhiker named Kip Gentry who they had picked up in a blizzard somewhere between Wyoming and Nebraska in their Volkswagen van.
After I was born, we traveled around the U.S. in our van for a few years, then settled in Minnesota where I grew up with a mane of long blond hair. Until I turned three, the only thing that helped people decide whether I was a boy or a girl was looking between my legs because my mom let me be naked in public often.
My dad was in Vietnam when Woodstock happened. For my parents’ generation, that music festival was a cultural lightning rod. For many, it signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another all tied together with music. The list of artists who performed is legendary. Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Santana, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Richie Havens all had magical performances. But, the final performer of the entire festival on the morning of August 18th was Jimi Hendrix.
My dad told me that GIs weren’t allowed to see the Woodstock documentary in Vietnam because they might riot. He and his buddies once barricaded themselves in a bunker and listened to the live concert album while getting high. The sounds of those bands were a strummed, electric revolt against the hell they found themselves in. It was their punk rock, their acid-flavored rebellion far from home.
When I was five my family and I moved to a farmhouse in the country. Many hippies retreated to farms in the 1970s, and my dad found respite from the world. A quiet escape. Out on “The Farm” he wore his army jacket and let his freak flag long hair and beard fly well into the 1980s.
The 4th of July after Ronald Reagan was elected — when my dad had spray-painted “Reagan’s Here, The End Is Near” on the front of his van — he and I spent a boys’ weekend together. My mom and baby brother were off and it was just us that long summer weekend.
Despite my severe hatred of Minnesota winters, I loved the three months of summer. I lived for the time when our farmhouse would be surrounded by lush, green trees and fields full of corn and wheat. The black and white world of gothic snow and desolation that lasted for months now turned into a melange of colors.
Birds sang, grasshoppers lept, crickets chirped, and mosquitoes hummed a low drone. The marsh around us filled with muskrats, geese, and ducks. The grass got high around the barn, the pig shed, and the garage, and I didn’t mind getting stung by stinging nettles looking for lost baseballs behind the buildings.
The thick humidity and warmth of summer were a beautiful cocoon. Hours spent building ramps out of wood pallets and jumping over them on my bike. Setting up Star Wars battles in my treehouse with my action figures. I lived with boyhood fantasies dancing through my head.
And for a weekend each summer, I’d get to hang out with just my dad. We had a difficult relationship, but I was excited. He worked nights at the local prison as a guard, and for these few days, it’d just be us boys, eating junk food, staying up late, and watching what we wanted on TV.
I was nine years old and playing in the farmhouse. It was hot. Air conditioning was far away over in the suburbs across the fields. Out here, we used box fans. I was lolling away the hours staying cool in front of a fan while driving Matchbox cars between the kitchen and the living room. The day had slipped into dusk.
I lay on my belly under a framed and glassed series of my dad’s medals and photos from Vietnam. My mom had made it. Even though my dad hated every aspect of the war and had suffered ever since, the memento stood out with its strange, patriotic pride.
Nearest me was a living room centerpiece: the Pioneer stereo system Dad had brought back from Vietnam. A stereo receiver, a turntable, and a reel-to-reel player sat inside a makeshift console made out of plywood two-by-fours balancing on gray cement blocks. The speakers were heavy wood beasts that flanked the room. Stacked like flat railroad cars in front of the stereo was a series of colorful vinyl albums.
Janis Joplin’s Pearl, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, and The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Jethro Tull’s Stand Up, Led Zeppelin II, and Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in an embrace on the 1976 cover of A Star Is Born reminded me of who my parents looked like. And Cheech and Chong’s Los Cochinos indicated what they got up to after I went to bed.
For me, there were Sesame Street records, Free to Be…You and Me with Marlo Thomas and friends, and several John Denver albums with his smiling, stony face and grandly goofy glasses.
Buried in the stack was the triple live album Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More. Tonight it would make a grand entrance into my young life.
We had one telephone in the kitchen. A large blue phone with a dial you’d crank with one finger, slowly pushing each number forward and then letting it slowly roll back. The cord connecting the phone to the wall was a series of ringlets that had tangled on itself many times, spiraling and twisting like a knotted blue serpent.
The phone rang loudly then I heard my dad yell from outside through the screen door, “Gentry, get the phone!”
I got up from my racetrack on the floor and went over to the phone now on its fifth ring.
I answered like I was a receptionist at the “Ma Bell” Telephone Company, “Hello, this is Gentry Bronson. May I ask whose calling?” My over-the-top and over-exaggerated manners had been instilled in me from a young age and I didn’t know how ridiculous I sounded.
“Hi, Gentry! It’s Kern. How are ya? Is your Dad home?”
“Hi, Kern. I’m doing fine. Happy 4th of July. I’ll get my dad.”
I went outside and my dad was working on his Volkswagen van. In the summer, he seemed to always be doing that or be working in the garden. My parents had a flourishing garden that stretched the length of a little league football field, filled with every vegetable you could imagine, like a rabbit’s dream in Watership Down.
“Dad!” I called. “It’s your hippie friend from California or the Rocky Mountains or something!” my precocious mouth called.
Dad came in wearing soiled denim overalls, his beard flopping and his long hair blowing. I knew he also had no underwear on underneath because he rarely wore them.
He took the phone from my hand, and greeted his friend, “Hey, Kern!” and I slipped back to my toy metal cars I was now using to create an imaginary demolition derby.
I didn’t pay much attention to the men’s conversation as I played but after fifteen minutes, my dad came over to me and said, “Kern wants me to play him a song for the 4th of July. He wants to be reminded of what this day is all about. Can you hold the phone while I put the record on?”
I looked at him quizzically as he thumbed through the stack of albums, producing one with the image of two people hugging under a blanket with a crowd behind them on a hill. He slipped one of the three vinyl records from its sleeve, placed the record on the player, then carefully found a spot on the album for the needle.
As the needle settled into its groove, I heard the sparkle of static and then the beginnings of complete chaos. Guitar bombs dropping and snare drums beating. A cacophonous flame of sound rose up from the speakers and my dad cranked it up loud. Really loud.
As he turned it up, Dad said thunderously over the music, “Bring the telephone in here!”
The room vibrated, the floor shook, and amplified feedback burned through the room. I was a young pianist and had played The Star-Spangled Banner so I knew the song. We had also sung it in school, but this was like a version played in outer space during an intergalactic war.
I pulled the phone receiver as far as I could into the living room from the kitchen, stretching the cord and handing the phone to my dad. He stood and held the receiver out, placing it as close as he could to one of the speakers.
Music drenched every corner of the room and poured out into the kitchen, through the screen door into the yard and the garden. Out into the fields and up into the night sky. The enormous fury of Jimi Hendrix playing exploded throughout my world with rockets red glare.
When the song shifted into Purple Haze, my dad just continued to stand there, holding the phone to the speaker, smiling gleefully under his beard in his overalls. The entire room became a booming acid rock concert. Guitar, bass, and drums bellowing out fire, smoke, and steam.
When the instruments broke for an instant, Jimi sang “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”
It was the beginning of tomorrow for me. The red, white, and blue were never the same. Freedom was carved out in a new musical and revolutionary way. Led by pirates carrying instruments. Jimi had helped me steal my own anthem and it would never be an American one. It went beyond that. Music burned all invisible boundaries.
When Jimi finished after twelve minutes and the turntable needle settled back home in silence, Dad went into the other room to finish his conversation with Kern.
Shellshocked in the living room, my skin vibrated as the evening heat cooled. I stopped playing with my toys for the rest of the night. There was something new coming for me but it wouldn’t arrive fully for a few years. I couldn’t give it words yet, but it was music.
Jimi Hendrix and my dad gave me those loud, crashing, electric sounds that summer night. Sounds that hovered in the air like the hum of a phoenix from a future burning world.
Music would save me and it would nearly kill me. It would be an essential part of my storyline as I walked the tightrope between salvation and destruction, clown and criminal, and scoundrel and songwriter.