Was Woodstock the Beginning? Or End? 

Looking back on the famed music festival forty years later.

Let me get this straight up front: I didn't go to Woodstock. But I was teaching a "student-initiated course" in pop-music history at Antioch College at the time, and a number of my students announced that they were going to miss a couple of classes because they had tickets to Woodstock that they'd bought through the mail. Although I was their age — or a little younger — I had no desire to join them, and I warned them that the thing would be crawling with cops. I'd lived in New York City a few years earlier, and my memories of the police were still vivid: the casual violence, the disregard of suspects' rights, the corruption, and the policeman who said, "Don't worry about us findin' dope if you don't have any; we've brought our own." The place would be crawling with these guys, I said. Make sure you have bail money. The students staggered back several days later than they'd expected, looking awful. I had been completely wrong about the cops, they told me, but that was about the only bright side of it. I'd caught a little of the coverage on television and in the New York Times, but that was mostly facts and figures. The story my students told was reported not from a helicopter passing overhead but from the (muddy) ground. There were way too many people there, they said, and you couldn't see or hear anything. There was no place to camp properly, and the whole thing, as one guy put it, "was like Boy Scout survival camp with dope." The grounds got filthier and filthier; since there was no place to dispose of garbage, it smelled. And when the members of their little group had found each other again and decided to leave, that too was almost impossible because of the mobs coming in. (It didn't help that they'd decided to hitchhike there and back, of course.) "And the worst of it was, we'd spent all this bread for tickets, and they just let everyone in for free. If we'd known that, we could've saved a lot of money."

They quickly forgot about Woodstock; meanwhile, I read a totally different version in Rolling Stone. This account, the result of a reporters' pool the magazine had sent to the festival, didn't ignore the sanitation and the crowd issues, but it played up a hippie-idyll angle my students seemed to have missed. What's more, the reporters had enjoyed backstage access and had gotten to hear the music very well, and they wrote about it with their usual skill. All of this interested me, because in addition to being passionately hopeful that a new world might be ushered in by a new generation of which I was a part, I'd had a couple of my own pieces accepted by Rolling Stone and was hoping to become part of it, too.

But I was disquieted by Woodstock then, and this feeling got more intense as time went on. There was the crowd's demand for a free festival. I'd done some concert promotion and watched others do it, and I knew it was hard work. I also knew musicians and was aware of how difficult their work could be. I didn't understand why these gate crashers, who I assumed were middle-class white kids (though crowd shots I've seen recently show far more black faces than would have been in a similar shot three years later), felt they had a right to free entertainment.

I was also put off by the juggernaut of hype that followed the event, hype that was generated by the media — including Rolling Stone — and snowballed as the release of Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary drew near. By the time the film came out, I was living in San Francisco and working for Rolling Stone, and my colleagues and I got to attend a screening in a big theater with a deluxe sound system. I wasn't aware at the time that much of what some people thought was the best music played at the festival — like the performances by the Band and the Grateful Dead — hadn't made it into the film. Neither was I aware that some of the music on screen — specifically the much-hyped debut of Crosby, Stills & Nash — had been rerecorded afterward. As a music critic, I was appalled by Ten Years After's interminable "Goin' Home," but not as appalled as I was by the many people I read and talked to who considered it the highlight of the film.

As the years went by, I found the endless attempts to replicate Woodstock depressing. Of course, "replicate" is the wrong word: Nobody wanted to repeat the filth and the mud and the bad sound system. No, these were attempts to do it right. That's what was depressing: In a world where the drugs of choice had gone from the kind that made you passive and inert (marijuana, LSD) to the kind that made you surly and aggressive (alcohol and amphetamines), idiots were still trying to cram 100,000 people into a field and make a profit on a peaceful gathering that had no way of happening, and you still got filth, mud, and bad sound. I went to only a couple of events like this, and I made sure I had VIP access and a way to get home. Even so, I found them so physically grueling that it was impossible to enjoy the music. And wasn't that the point? Well, no: People came to get stoned, hang out, throw Frisbees, drink, and flirt, all to a soundtrack that was a lot like the local FM radio station, only louder and more distorted. Some came to hear the bands, but not as many as you'd think.

That's why it was so refreshing, about ten years after the event, to hear I wasn't alone. I was in a car riding from one gig to another with George Clinton, who, though his music was grounded in the black community, had always made it his mission to reach out to white fans. Someone, probably his publicist, mentioned Woodstock. Clinton exploded. "Man, don't even talk to me about Woodstock! I was there! Everyone's always saying how Woodstock was the beginning. Hell, no! It was the end! Once was a time, you wanted some weed, you could ask your friend and he'd lay some on you, and you'd pay him back when you had some. But at Woodstock, there were signs: 'Weed for sale!' Once, a musician was a cat like you, only he could sing and play better than you — you know, like Bob Dylan — not some god on a stage! Woodstock invented rock stars, man."

He wasn't completely right, of course. People had been selling marijuana at least as far back as Mezz Mezzrow's 1920s Chicago. And if rock stars had a place and time of invention (which I also doubt), it was the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where star turns by the Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, among others, changed the rock landscape. But each generation discovers things anew, and Clinton's outrage, at least, was appropriate to his.

As time went on, the rock festival became an institution, especially in Europe — huge events like Roskilde and Rock am Ring have now existed for decades. It has nothing to do with building a new world —they're where you test-market strategies for youth-oriented products. And the hordes who battered the gates at Woodstock have migrated to the Internet, where, with an identical sense of entitlement, they're downloading from torrent sites.

One thing they're probably not doing, however, is going to Woodstock.com. There you'll find a number of things you probably expected — posters and memorabilia from the festival, DVDs of the new "director's cut" of Woodstock, the six-disc box set of live performances — along with a number of things you probably didn't, like very random concert reviews and a section on "living green." If you look carefully, you'll see that the whole thing is owned and operated by Sony. Wow, man: Forty years later and the Japanese own Woodstock. Heavy!

All this has come into existence because of that 40th anniversary. (Forty, after all, is the new fifty: The people who were twenty at Woodstock will be seventy on its 50th anniversary, so let's take advantage of the marketing opportunities while those folks are still alive.) But Woodstock was an illusion when it happened, and forty years hasn't changed that. It's one of those relics of the 1960s that gets trotted out to show younger generations how much better things were then, an assertion the youngsters are perfectly correct in not believing. Oh, it wasn't completely awful. It inspired a very nice song by Joni Mitchell (who wasn't there), and there were some memorable musical moments (though almost nobody heard Jimi Hendrix's astonishing set because everyone had left by then). But George Clinton was right: Far from being the start of a new era, it was the end of one, and an inglorious end at that. If it were up to me, I'd just say let it be. But where's the money in that?

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