The third and final installment of a three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large.

We are stardust, we are golden

We are billion-year-old carbon

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden  

              – Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” 

In the wake of the anarchic violence sparked, among other things, by the haphazard logistics and spectacular avarice that marred the twentieth anniversary Woodstock ’99 festival, this is what I wrote in this space (R.I.P WOODSTOCK, Issue 7/28/99): “By the time the miscreants began looting the evil money lenders and setting fires, Woodstock, as we have come to know and love it, became just another example of humans misinterpreting luck for compassion. Those stumbling into a wonderful mistake and sliding through relatively unscathed thirty years ago achieved a level of fortune rarely reached in the annals of civilization.” Man, was that ever cynical. Even for me. But mostly true. However, two decades later, I tend to believe (it may be my advanced age talking) that for three days, half a million mostly naked and rain-drenched kids, jamming into a field in a sleepy farm hamlet, listening to the greatest assemblage of rock/pop acts ever while peacefully sampling an impressive bevy of drugs, is something that can and should be done again and again and again.

The thing is, it can’t. And it won’t. But in mid-August 1969, less than a month after the first manned moon landing and mere days after the news of horrific ritualistic murders in Hollywood, it sure as hell did. During the weekend hours that passed in that field in Bethel, New York, the world got to see the best of the human spirit. Not by conquest or violence—our favorite pastimes—but sharing, caring, singing, and imbibing. Lots and lots of imbibing.

Sure, there are music festivals. Successful ones that have continued for years. And for the most part they are well run, safe, and mostly fun, but the event billed fifty years ago this week as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” was only two of those. It was ill-conceived, somewhat rushed, and hardly pragmatic in its execution. The persons to food, water, and shelter quotient was way off. There were loads of very weird and strong sixties-level drugs. Technical problems and difficulties getting the acts in and out abounded as a large stretch of the NY Thruway was shut down. It rained and rained and rained some more. The entire area in and around the event was nearly declared a disaster area by the state. The U.S. Army and National Guard had to be summoned to assist while the Collective Hog Farm—the longest running and most effective socialist construct next to Medicare worked overtime. Yet, it was a magnificent, historical success by any measure. In its way, it remains one of the most shockingly implausible examples of human togetherness and collective kindness ever displayed by any group of people anywhere.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for Woodstock. I was actually up there that week. My parents trucked us up to the Catskills from the Bronx every summer and on this particular trip everyone at the motel got violently ill. Later we learned the wells were overused and much of the local plumbing had backed up and… well, you can imagine. But it was years later in college when I first saw the award-winning film and read Bob Spitz’s brilliant Barefoot in Babylon that it burrowed itself into my psyche. Fast-forward to the very night I first kissed the woman I would marry after we strolled in an evening buzz through the empty fields of what I can only describe that night as quiet aura. You can see there has been something about the whole thing that intrigues me, and still does.

Woodstock started off as a half-cocked plan to exploit the art/music community in the small Ulster Country town of less than five thousand in the late sixties when Bob Dylan made it famous by escaping the tumult of messianic fumes for bucolic splendor. Some rich kids and financial backers wanted to build a studio up there to offer the rich and famous rock elite a bit of “back to the garden” aesthetics. But that fell through, so why not a concert? And when the county recoiled in horror at the mere hint of a bohemian invasion, they found a private patch of land in Sullivan in which they convinced anyone who would listen, including the farm’s owner, fifty-year-old Max Yasgur, that only around a hundred thousand or so kids might come up to enjoy a little music for a weekend. Then after hearing Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and the Jefferson Airplane among dozens of other generational talents were booked to play, a half-million strong from all over the planet descended on the place. Under-manned and barely constructed, this idea-run-amok inevitably turned into a free gig.

The backers, most famously Michael Lang (age 24 at the time) and Artie Kornfeld (26), two middle-class Jewish guys from Brooklyn, took a financial pummeling. Later this was recouped handsomely from residuals made on the 1970 film and two subsequent soundtrack albums. But on those blistering hot and damp mid-August days it was all goofy grins and pot smoke. In fact, mostly everyone was intoxicated in some way, making the lack of violence or looting or whatever even more incredible. Many of the acts were also completely wasted. Carlos Santana, whose band had its coming out party on that Saturday (probably the film’s most dynamic moment) claims to have hallucinated his guitar as a slithering snake in his hands after consuming a concoction of acid and mescaline. Much of the LSD that weekend was homemade and named merely for its color (blue, green, and the infamous brown) and moved stealthy throughout the crowd and backstage. Lead singer, Roger Daltrey, trying as he might to avoid this, merely had a cup of (turns out spiked) tea and tripped through much of The Who’s dawn set—a set that saw his guitarist Pete Townshend knock a ranting Abby Hoffman unconscious with his Gibson (okay, there was some violence). Janis Joplin later said she remembered none of it and refused to have her uneven set included in either the film or the soundtrack.

Beyond the stupefied superstars, there were wonderful stories of a fresh-faced 20-year-old newcomer Bert Sommer arousing a standing ovation from the throng, the mousy-voiced bubblegum folkie Melanie taking the trip with her mom and being hoisted upon the stage when no one would follow a rain squall, the charming twenty-minute set from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, who announced in his fluttery stoned voice that a baby had been born in the throng, the spastic bluesy brilliance of Joe Cocker howling like a wounded beast through the Beatles foggy “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and one of the finest funk sets of the nineteen-sixties—outside of the mighty James Brown band—from Sly and the Family Stone that cemented their pop cred for all time. (Another highlight of the movie).

But it was the kids. This sea of youth. This entangled, muddy, cruddy, inescapable, intransigent multitude of peaceniks that would seal the Woodstock legend. Hey, I am no Baby Boomer disciple. I’ve cast most of that generation as a self-centered megalomaniacal phony-fest. But give it up to them, because with White Nationalism on the rise, and hate-speak in our political and social rhetoric, and the general disgusting behavior that is the norm on social media and the Internet, Woodstock is our shining example of good.

This, we can say, is what people can do, if….        

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