Second Thoughts About Woodstock
Forty years ago this weekend I was driving out of New York, where I had spent the summer as a counselor at Camp Pioneer on the shores of Lake Erie in Angola, New York, on my way back to Kansas City. It had been an exciting summer. We looked up at the moon on the night Neil Armstrong walked there. I had played guitar and performed for the first time and bought the Crosby, Stills & Nash album while there.
About the time two of my counselor colleagues and I hit Pennsylvania, we heard on the radio about a music festival northwest of New York City that was closing roads and causing mass confusion.
News and photos of the event were ubiquitous, especially after pictures came out of nude, stoned hippies celebrating the rain, the music and seemingly, life itself. Newspapers and magazines, including Life, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, covered the event.
Seven months later, on March 26, 1970, I stood in line for opening night of Woodstock, the movie, a sprawling documentary that celebrated rock music, peace, love and dope as well as an audience of hundreds of thousands enduring a monsoon, food shortages, bad acid and impossible conditions. The film seemed as long as the festival itself and featured some of the most diverse, celebrated artists of the period at their peaks — Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly Stone, Crosby, Stills and Nash etc. – in brilliant color and dazzling, close-up camera angles. Woodstock literally made the careers of everyone who appeared in it. I went back the second night and saw it again, my enthusiasm stoked, and I bought into the hype hook, line and sinker, as you can see from a letter I wrote to my best friend after seeing the film for the first time.
As I began learning more about the background of the festival and the forces behind it, I began to realize that there were actually two events. The first was the three-day gathering itself; the second was the documentary that showed it. The latter was one version of what happened, but it was a carefully edited version, and for those of us who weren’t there, which is most of us, it’s really the only version.
Was it an important gathering of the tribe? A cultural milestone? Proof that the hippie generation could live in peace and love no matter the obstacles? Yes and no. For some it was blissful; for others, not so much. Mike Jahn, the Times rock critic who covered the festival, wrote recently:
“Woodstock was far from the mythological wonder, but that 90 percent of the attending were miserable and would have left after the first night had transportation been available. I spent time with them, not with the celebs backstage where it was dry and there was food and drugs. They were huddled under blankets in the rain, looking more like those photos of the fields of bodies at Gettysburg than like the nudes prancing in the lake or the celebs shouting ‘far out’ at one another and gabbing about the wonder of it all.”
Actually, for anybody watching at the time, the euphoria over Woodstock’s wonderfulness faded rather quickly and dramatically. It should be seen in the context of another outdoor event that took place less than four months later. On December 6, 1969, a festival headlined by the Rolling Stones at a speedway near Altamont, California, also captured with cameras, showed the darker underbelly of the peace-and-love subculture. The cameras caught Mick Jagger, then the king of rock, pathetically trying to calm an unruly crowd that had gotten ugly and confrontational. The resulting film, Gimme Shelter, showed one homicide, but there were other drowning deaths, and two others killed in an automobile hit-and-run. It wasn’t pretty, and it dampened the enthusiasm I felt about Woodstock Nation.
Woodstock wasn’t really a celebration of the Sixties as it was a harbinger of what was to come. The marketing of the event began almost immediately. I bought a Life special issue with lots of large photos of the event in the fall of 1969 (see photo). Posters of the event proliferated. Many of those who appeared in the film and on the album became superstars. The release of the Woodstock album, which featured two records of selected music from the festival, certainly caught the ear of my generation, but more importantly, caught the attention of record executives eager to cash in on the burgeoning rock phenomenon. Add advances in touring sound and stage technology, and Woodstock helped usher in the era of rock superstardom, big tours and even bigger money.
The myth of Woodstock is that we think we remember the event when we actually only remember the movie. And the truth is that Woodstock was much less about the decade it closed down than the one it begat.