Woodstock 25 Years Later (07/94)

On August 9, 1969, mass murder was committed at 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills; nine days later, in the early morning of August 18, at White Lake, near Bethel in upstate New York, Jimi Hendrix ended the Woodstock Music and Art Fair with “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Taps,” and “Hey Joe.” Had the world known then that the butchered bodies of Sharon Tate and her house guests were the work of the Manson Family, a hippie commune, the press coverage of the 450,000-strong hippie commune that briefly established itself as Woodstock might not have been so fulsome. As it was, major dailies gazed in grudging awe at the placidity of the gathering, august solemnizer Max Lerner announced “a turning point in the consciousness generations have of each other and of themselves,” and Life rushed out a special edition. People who were there fanned out across the country to tell tales of a utopia that in size and spirit surpassed all countercultural fantasies. Bands that had showed up for what should have been just another rock festival, just another paycheck (from Jimi Hendrix, $18,000, to Quill, $375), woke up to find themselves part of history.

At the very least, Woodstock was proof that America was still big enough to contradict itself on the grandest scale—to stage its best possible spectacle as if to cancel its worst. On those almost instantly legendary three days, there were nearly as many Americans at Woodstock as there were in Vietnam.

The bubble burst straight off. Plans were announced to bring a million people to a festival in the Grand Canyon; John Lennon bought into the Toronto Peace Festival, which was to have included not only the suddenly requisite million fans, or com­munards, but also visitors from outer space. On the scale of lost hopes, in years to come rock festivals would seem almost as corrupt as the war. In 1979 two would-be history makers (or anyway history repeaters) paid the original promoters $300,000 for the rights to stage a tenth anniversary Woodstock II; they never found a town that wanted the thing.

The Woodstock legend remained inviolate and unspoiled. The Manson connection was not made (and whoever mentioned that Abigail Folger, one of Manson’s victims, had moved to Sharon Tate’s from a place on Woodstock Road?). Not even the immediate, end-of-’69 follow-up—originally known as “Woodstock West,” later known as the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont—dimmed the magic. By 1970 the movie was playing all over the world; in 1989 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, before they were massacred, told reporters that Tiananmen was “our Woodstock.”

There were real reasons for this. They’re the same reasons Woodstock Ventures of 1969 is back with Woodstock ’94, scheduled for August 13 and 14 in Saugerties, New York (closer to the real town of Woodstock than the first Woodstock festival was); that Bethel ’94, without a permit but with a claim to the original site, is promising Woodstock veterans from Richie Havens to Melanie for August 13 and 14; or that down in Tampa, Groove Fest ’94 is advertising the same minilegends, plus Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper, and a Hendrix impersonator, for August 13 through 15.

Something odd, fundamental, and new took place at Woodstock. Whether it took the shape of 200,000 people shouting “Fuck the rain!” or one person smiling, almost everyone there felt it. And whether it was a new movement (as Abbie Hoff­man believed) or a new market (as the movie established), “Woodstock Nation” or a gift the beauty of which was in its evanescence, no one wanted to let the essence or the aura go. Halfway through an era of bad news, in the middle of a horrible war, barely a year after the wrenching, terrifying assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, an entire, desperately wished-for era of good feeling was compressed into a single place and time. That compression produced a corresponding intensity of wonder and delight. Again and again, as Woodstock stumbled on, through rain and mud and heat and cold, people turned to one another and said the same thing: “Can you believe this?”

It wasn’t a rebellion, or even rebellious, but rather the citizens of a city doing as they pleased—taking off their clothes, staying up all night——for the pleasure of it. It was a raised finger to no one. Dreams of revolution were replaced by ordinary realities of freedom. The bands people had come to hear responded in kind; from the stage, you could feel musicians straining to reach people sitting hills and hills away, to bring them close enough to touch. At, say, 4 A.m., you could have the sense that a song or a life was just then beginning. A reminder that the show would soon be over would have been as unreal as the fact that the Manson Family would have been at home at Wood­stock; that in a little more than a year Woodstock heroes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Al Wilson of Canned Heat would, within a month of each other, all be dead; or that the truest and most powerful music made in 1969 would be by the Rolling Stones: “Gimmie Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

I didn’t go to Woodstock in search of a great historical turning point; I went because there were a lot of bands playing I’d never seen before and this seemed like a good way to hit them all at once. I even had a ticket—how square. I left not borne upon the wings of change but puzzling over how such great, expansive, all-night concerts might be continued. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were a mess, they’ll tell you, but for me they brought a thrill I’d never known before, and I wanted to feel it again. It never occurred to me that Woodstock was co-opted, sold back to anyone, because Woodstock had no oppositional energy, let alone ideas, to co-opt. It was 450,000 people trapped in an elevator, making the best of it, and, in some weirdly mythic way, not forgetting, once the elevator came unstuck, to keep in touch. It was a magnificent accident.

Interestingly, though, the only Woodstock artifact that can be called an act of rebellion is also the only Woodstock music that has endured. Everyone knows Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Ban­ner,” at least in snatches; right now, just as everyone in Woodstock has a twenty-fifth anniversary hustle, Budweiser is using a version of Hendrix’s classic for a TV spot celebrating the U.S.’s World Cup Soccer championships. As a fragment of itself, Hendrix’s blasted seizure of the national anthem, heard as such a crazy, brutal insult in its time, is now so familiar it merely sym­bolizes America—still hip, but irony-free.

The complete performance, though, remains another story—a story Woodstock did not actually tell, but for which it finally provided a stage. Along with a sea of garbage, less than 30,000 people were left that Monday morning; as people straggled away, real history was made. Hendrix began by turn­ing the nation into a giant discord, his great No to the war, to racism, to whatever you or he might think of and want gone. But then that discord shattered, and for more than four-and-a-half long, complex minutes Hendrix pursued each invisible crack in a vessel that had once been whole, feeling out and exploring and testing himself and his music against anguish, rage, fear, hate, love offered, and love refused. When he finished he had created an anthem that could never be summed up and that would never come to rest. In the end it was a great Yes, both a threat and a beckoning: an invitation to America to match its danger, glamour, and freedom.

In an essential way—because while we may know only the fragment, we can at will wrestle with the whole—this version of the Woodstock spirit has never been co-opted, because it has never been on sale. Whether they know it or not, it is one more thing people will be looking for this summer. Good luck.



Interview, July 1994


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2 thoughts on “Woodstock 25 Years Later (07/94)

  1. I love Greil’s commentary on Woodstock in the 60s, his Old, Weird America gave what felt like a very complete picture of what was going on in the town before and after the festival. This commentary on Woodstock is similar, affirming how ‘big’ the event really was, but gives you an equal dose of bitter and sweet. Lines like, “At the very least, Woodstock was proof that America was still big enough to contradict itself on the grandest scale—to stage its best possible spectacle as if to cancel its worst,” are the kinds of lines that bring us close to ‘truth,’ then and now. Thanks for posting!

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