Last week was the 50th anniversary of the music festival at Woodstock. There have been a number of articles looking back at that event, and on Amazon Prime a new documentary tells the story from the perspective of the organisers and those who attended. I saw the original movie when it first came out, albeit one with cuts for nudity and bad language, in a school party, presumably because our teachers thought it would be educational.
It was in the cinema, and not in church, that I had my first religious experience, if you can call it that. It came at the end of the movie, when Jimi Hendrix was playing the Star Spangled Banner. Sitting not far from the screen with the cinema ‘speakers at full volume, I was transfixed by what I was seeing and hearing: this was music, not from another planet, but from another universe. I realised then the power that music has to move us at a deeper level.
Woodstock. It’s all about the music, right? That’s why there was a festival in the first place, but the three days of Peace and Music have quickly mythologised into something else. We now refer to the “Woodstock Generation”, which is really a kind of shorthand for the social changes taking place at the time, against the background of the Vietnam War. It was a time before cellphones, when you could be three days away from your parents and have no contact with them. (And do whatever you wanted).
What a lot of people did was drugs. Pot, or even worse, Gallo Californian wine, (see the new documentary). LSD had its heyday around this time too, although not everyone was a believer: John Fogerty and Pete Townshend, who played at the festival, hated the influence of drugs. Drugs formed part of the alternative lifestyle which became the hippie culture, which later included living in communes and rejecting the prevailing “rat race” culture. Hippies as a group didn’t last long. The punks who came only eight years later despised them – “never trust a hippie” snarled John Lydon.
What happened to the hippies? Most became respectable, went to college, or became stockbrokers like Jerry Rubin. Two years ago I attended a concert by one of my musical heroes, Eric Burdon. Halfway through the second song he removed his jacket and on the back of his t-shirt were the words “I used to be a hippie.” Like Woodstock, hippies exist today as a memory of a different time, when people were more idealistic and it was possible for people in close proximity to get along peacefully for three days.
Is the importance placed on Woodstock as a cultural event overblown? Everyone knows the movie, but I also remember another, now forgotten, festival movie made a year later, called “We Have Come For Your Daughters.” That memorably captures scenes of hippies arguing and squabbling like, well, normal folk. Perhaps the hippies weren’t so different after all. But nobody knows that movie now, perhaps because it sheds a different light on what was happening at the time.
The most famous song about Woodstock was actually written by someone who wasn’t there: Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock”, which carries the line “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” She is expressing a yearning for an age of innocence, when Adam and Eve lived without shame in the garden of Eden. The song was a further act of mythologising. But what about the reality?
I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I have been to a three day music festival in the late 1970s. I went with friends, and we put up a tent and drank beer and enjoyed the village atmosphere. Unlike Woodstock, it never rained, so we didn’t have to put up with mud and with everything being soaked. The music was great. The only down side was that the people in the tent next to us had their stuff stolen.
At Woodstock they ran out of food, but ladies of the local Jewish community center prepared 30,000 sandwiches which were handed out by local nuns. The promoters lost money, as did Max Yasgur, the farmer who allowed his land to be the site for the festival. He was later sued by neighbors over damage caused by the large number of people who attended. LSD laced with rat poison made many festival goers ill. Many festival-goers left before the end, especially after the rain turned everything to mud. Three of the best creative lights who played at the festival – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson – died the following year.
Strip away the mythologising and the legacy of Woodstock is primarily a musical one. In fact, the popularity of the counter-cultural movement, if we can still call it that, rested on the quality of the music, most of which still sounds good today, despite (or perhaps because of) the primitive recording technology of the time. This year a 38 CD box set of the festival, limited to 1,969 copies and selling for $800, sold out within a week.
Woodstock veteran David Crosby recently recorded a new version of the song “Woodstock”. I thought to myself, surely the last thing the world needs is another step into the past. Why don’t these old hippies let it go? Then I heard the song and admired its fragile beauty and the poignancy of the words and I was again transfixed. It was the music, I recall, which drew me in the first time. Despite the cynicism of years, a part of me rejoices that I can still respond in an idealistic way to a simple message of peace and love.