originally published August 17, 2014
“And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.
And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”
As the bone-soaked and weary revelers packed together their tin-foil hash pipes, their mud-crusty jean-shorts and their near-sentient hangovers to leave the festival, one wonders if the historic weight of their experience could be fathomed among any of them. Leaving a grisly wake of discarded garments, blankets so infused with dirt and sweat they could never be clean again, and a weekend’s worth of rubble from the small city that rose and fell upon Max Yasgur’s farm over four days, they likely had other things on their minds.
Would their parents be worried? Those whose jobs necessitated a Monday appearance had likely been trapped in Bethel, New York until the crowd was ready to disperse – would they still have employment upon their return? No doubt a handful were wondering how they’d describe the wondrous soul-swoosh of the previous weekend to their friends and family serving overseas in Vietnam, or if they’d ever get the chance.
Judging by the overwhelming jubilance witnessed in the Woodstock documentary film, some may have tasted the optimistic truth that such massive accumulations of good vibes are possible, and that a few more parties like this might end the war and straighten up humankind’s preternatural bent toward self-destruction. Could any of them have foreseen the generation’s collective retreat from idealism and decay into boring ol’ adulthood?
For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Love Generation, when Free Love meant death from AIDS, when the only war we could protest was the UN’s righteous removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and when drugs were not – as we were told – a liberating force, but rather the egg goop that would sizzle upon the frying pans of our brains, Woodstock became an ideal. We watched the movie, we found the music more engaging than M.C. Hammer’s instructions of what we can and cannot touch, and we subsequently glorified the festival and its citizens. Where was our Woodstock?
We found activism in the burgeoning environmental movement but we lacked the commitment and the cohesiveness. Expedited planetary damage doesn’t spark the heart to action like the constant flow of body-bags from a ludicrous overseas conflict. Drugs fueled parties, not causes. The zeitgeist was splintered, with a generally peaceful coexistence between the grunge crowd, the holdover-80’s preppies and the myriad of other sub-cliques, but no one really cared what the others were up to. There was no unity, no luminous beacon of our generational message.
Can you blame those of us who saw Woodstock as an exaltation unreachable in our lifetime?
The effort to belittle the festival’s significance began almost immediately. Journalist Bernard Collier claimed he’d been pressured by his editors at The New York Times to pen an overtly negative report of the weekend in Bethel. Bernard threatened to write nothing at all rather than falsely condemn Woodstock, at which point his bosses relented. Most of the media focused on traffic jams, on landscapes of mud and garbage, and on the cascading throngs, with less attention placed on the cooperation, the lack of violence and the positive nature of the concert-goers. I suspect writing about the disastrous Altamont concert four months later would have been easier for them.
For Bethel’s electorate, that weekend was a disaster. The town supervisor was tossed from office, and the town (along with New York state) passed a law to prevent future mass gatherings. Max Yasgur left his farm for Florida not long afterward, and the subsequent owners went to lengths to ensure hippie visitors would be deterred from visiting the site. Bethel wanted zilch to do with that moment of its history. Lawsuits were filed against festival organizers. The attendees may have meandered away from the site with dazed, wiggly smiles, but for those who remained, it was all scowls and bitterness.
Then, as time welcomed a few years’ worth of altered perspective, the meaning of Woodstock changed. No subsequent music festival ever scratched that weekend’s magic, the hippie promise of the Age of Aquarius lay unfulfilled, and a reactive nostalgia painted those increasingly grainy images of flower children. As yuppiedom and suburban domesticity overtook the focus of those who were going to save the world, society looked back in reverence upon that time when hope appeared poised to leap over the great waterfall of the future in a splendific display of color and light.
A plaque was placed upon the festival site in 1984. Reunion concerts were attempted in 1979 and again ten years later. In 2006 the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts – which includes an outdoor music venue equipped to handle 15,000 fans – was opened on the site of Yasgur’s magical dairy farm, with Woodstock veterans Crosby Stills & Nash performing for a quieter crowd than had welcomed them 37 years earlier. Just last year, Richie Havens, who had opened Woodstock with a rousing set of power-soul-folk, had his ashes scattered upon the sedate fields where the magic happened. A few of the surviving stars spring up to perform at ceremonial gigs, but the magic of that weekend – plus the increasing distortion of nostalgic frosting that blurs it – could never be recreated.
Not that we haven’t tried.
Music festivals have never gone away, though in my generation they have become increasingly more corporate and homogenized. Toilet facilities are more plentiful (thankfully), but vendors aim to alleviate any food and water shortages with $8 bags of mini-donuts and $3 bottles of water. Fraternity and cooperation are overshadowed by capitalism. Woodstock ’94, held nowhere near Yasgur’s farm (though considerably closer to Woodstock, New York), was a moderate success, melding modern acts like Cypress Hill, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day with original festival stars like Santana, Joe Cocker and Country Joe McDonald. Hey, they also got Dylan to a Woodstock festival, so that’s a win.
But five years later, Woodstock ’99 closed the doors on recreating that 1969 magic. My generation proved incapable of procuring the wondrous vibrations that our parents had unleashed between those muddy horizons some 30 years earlier. Limp Bizkit’s set saw the site erupt in violence. Plywood was torn from festival walls. Sexual assault reports littered police files, including the tale of one woman who was crowd-surfing before getting yanked into a mob and gang-raped. A candlelight vigil planned for the song “Under the Bridge” during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ closing set turned into a series of bonfires and the destruction of an audio tower. Vendor booths were looted and burned. ATMs were smashed and pilfered. The show ended with riot police pushing patrons off the site.
Society had changed. Woodstock was no longer an idea within our reach.
No doubt there are at least four million people who have claimed to be among the 400,000+ at the original Woodstock event. The miles of mess, the desperation that was no doubt felt at the scarcity of food, water and toilets, and any animosity or fear experienced that weekend have all been washed away in a deluge of nostalgic reinterpretation. Woodstock cannot be achieved again because it already exists as a tangible ideal – in 1969 Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were trying to create a ‘happening’. Now, any such festival aims for a comparison to the original, always somehow falling short.
That’s not to suggest that the Coachellas, the Bonnaroos and the Lollapaloozas should be dismissed as unnecessary – only different. What remains of Woodstock is greater than the music, the fashion and the gratuitous sharing of joints from stranger to stranger. It’s the alchemy of hope. The knowledge that most everyone there experienced at least one buoyant moment within the bubble of their own consciousness that told them that yes, universal harmony was possible. Even if it was all illusory, they believed it, and that alone is magic enough for me.