What If Woodstock Was Just a Party With Music and a Lot of Weed?
We have two requests today. One, don’t take the brown acid. Two, please stop calling the 1969 Woodstock music festival the defining moment of the 1960s counterculture.
It was not. It was just the most over-romanticized.
Nor has the mythologizing abated with the death of the ill-fated Woodstock 50, a mercy killing that probably finishes off the whole franchise as a living entity.
Rhino Records just announced that its limited-edition 38-CD Woodstock set, containing almost all the music from the three-day festival plus a fair amount of stage banter and other miscellania, has sold out.
I’m thinking maybe a package that inclusive should include a wheelbarrow full of dirt and 50 gallons of water, so buyers have the option of sitting in mud while they listen to Sweetwater and Canned Heat.
Then there is Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, a 50th anniversary film that airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’s prestigious American Experience series.
Director Barack Goodman, a skilled filmmaker, buys wholly into the notion that Woodstock proved the “peace and love” ethic of the 1960s counterculture had finally triumphed.
As if everything that transpired in the 1960s led to . . . Woodstock.
As if the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the voting rights struggle, the women’s movement, awakening environmental awareness, the gay rights battle and all the efforts to loosen up the repressive strictures of the 1950s all added up to a rock ’n’ roll party.
Nothing wrong with a party. But as we approach the actual anniversary, Aug. 15–17, we should remember that convening for a rock ’n’ roll weekend is not the same as storming the Bastille.
Woodstock was 400,000 people, give or take, sitting on a hillside listening to music. If you were willing to take a short walk, food was free. There were no parents, no cops, no real rules. If you wanted to take drugs or swim naked in a pond, hey dude, right on.
It also should be remembered that most of the attendees were white kids who had a way to get to upstate New York. Nothing wrong with being a white kid. It’s just that they were only one slice of the counterculture.
At the risk of sounding like a clucking parent, there was also that famous Life magazine photo of the hillside after the crowd had left. It was blanketed with soggy sleeping bags, tents, cardboard boxes, cans, clothes, bottles, food and everything else that 400,000 people generate over a couple of damp days.
So you spend three days listening to rock music, then go home and let someone else clean up.
That’s not a revolution.
It’s a party.
Nothing wrong with a party. But however hard some folks still try to ridicule “The Sixties,” the incredibly complex and often ragged forces that shaped the decade produced dreams more ambitious than Woodstock.
That doesn’t make 400,000 people shallow or trivial. It’s cool that they had fewer serious arguments with each other than they might have had with their parents if they had stayed home.
Let’s also get nostalgic for a minute that so many musicians had such broad appeal back then. The role of popular music in the culture and counterculture of the 1960s can’t be overstated even as it often goes underappreciated.
That said, Woodstock neither created nor added to that legacy.
The Beatles, the Temptations, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Aretha, Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, the Swinging Medallions, Mississippi John Hurt, the Stones, Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye, the Ronettes, Frank Zappa, artists like that, they built the music of the 1960s. Woodstock showcased some of it. It would be hard to find an artist who’d say Woodstock was a peak musical moment, and you can find a number, like The Band, who felt it was musically dismal. e.
There’s a reason most historians cite exactly one enduring performance from Woodstock: Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” which 90 percent of the crowd missed because they had already left.
No, the mythology of Woodstock is rooted more in the the idea we could all get along, and let’s agree that’s an admirable goal.
But the real legacy of any generation, including that of the 1960s and the counterculture, doesn’t lie in the parts that were easy. It lies in the parts that were hard, often complex and almost never neatly resolved.
Woodstock was wrapped up on the morning of Aug. 18, 1969. We have 38 CDs to prove it. The hard issues, we’re still wrestling with every one of them today.
My own Woodstock story goes like this.
On Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, Mark, Karen, Robert, Michael and I piled into my 1967 Mustang and headed for Wallkill. We had a tent, food and a Coleman stove. The fact several of us were willing to sit for hours in the back seat of a Mustang correctly suggests we were serious attendees.
Two hours later and several miles from the site, we hit a traffic jam and wondered what could possibly be slowing traffic in this middle of nowhere.
We soon figured it out and several more hours later we were directed into a festival field, where we parked. We walked over to the stage area, approaching it from the rear. Tim Hardin was playing.
It was cool and damp and we didn’t care that much about Tim Hardin. We walked back to the field, falling into an endless line that was passing another endless line headed in the other direction, toward Tim Hardin. Every other person in both lines, it seemed, was holding out a handful of something and saying, “Grass.. . hash. . . acid . . . .”
For the rest of Mark’s life, that phrase was one of our running gags.
On Saturday morning, after a rain-soaked night in a tent and the back seat of the Mustang, our group voted to leave. We were not alone. There were now traffic tieups in both directions. As far as I know, none of us ever regretted missing the rest of the show.
Nor, to my knowledge, do we begrudge a good time to all the folks who stayed. For me and maybe for Mark, Karen, Robert and Michael, it just seemed like a lot of trouble to hear music we could — and in most cases did — hear in better circumstances someplace else.
If Woodstock really lived up to its myth, we wouldn’t still be wondering who’ll stop the rain.