Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thoughts on Woodstock 40 Years Later: I'M GLAD I WASN'T THERE!!!!

Grooving in the mud and garbage, ah the memories!!!!

Forty years ago today an event which has come to define a generation was held outside a sleepy country village in upstate New York on the farm belonging to Max Yazgur. The small community of White Lake, New York was overrun by up to half a million people converging on the farm for the most legendary rock festival of all time. These four decades later, surely it’s not hard to find a baby boomer who might have been between sixteen and around thirty who might claim to have attended the event. Likewise, there’s a huge population of people forty years old born around April, 1970, nine months after the event, who claim their parents were hippies and that mom and dad made love conceiving them as Woodstock love children. Such was the history of the Woodstock. Billed as an “Aquarian exposition” consisting of three days of peace and music, it seemed like every major rock and folkie act that mattered minus Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, The Doors and the Beatles, who unbeknownst to the world had all but called it quits by then. The Who, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana, Ten Years After, Mountain, Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, Sha Na Na, Country Joe & the Fish, Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian, Mountain, John Sebastian, Joan Baez, Melanie, Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sweetwater, and Joe Cocker all appeared on the giant stage to the adorning mass of hippies or at least music fans who fashioned themselves to be hippies just for the occasion. What was more monumental, the lavish list of rock royalty or the size of the crowd, to say Woodstock exceeded expectations would be the ultimate in understatement as would stating the obvious, with thousands more fans than expected, the event likewise posed an absolute logistics nightmare!

Oh by the way, did anyone mention it rained like hell?

Think of the challenges. While the event was billed as a three day event and many attended with the expectation of camping out, there were not adequate provisions for camping, food, water or personal hygiene. With half a million people present, the assembly exceeded the size of most cities in the northeast spare the major metropolitan centers. Wouldn’t there also be the need for doctors and police protection? Remarkably, the crowd, though engaged in all kinds of craziness, maintained a remarkable sense of order and respect for each other. People could go absolutely nuts and the assembly could be quite forgiving just thinking, “Ah he’s freakin’ out on some bad acid.” There were some medical episodes, a child birth, and a slew of drug overdoses. The imagery couldn’t be more outrageous including naked people frolicking in the mud.

Yes, the Woodstock festival proved to be the epicenter that defined a generation. For adults in their mid 50’s and 60’s today, do they really realize what kind of definition is being laid on them?

This writer is one hell of a huge music fan with a special fondness for much of the music of the Woodstock era. Having first becoming a pop music fan with the Beatles Invasion, I quickly took to the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys. The Yardbirds, Kinks, Animals, Zombies, and Motown would all become part of my early scene with the folk rockers like Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Byrds joining the roster quickly. The harder they rocked, the more they experimented, or the more adventurous their song-writing, the more I listened always searching for the ultimate hook or great guitar solo. How could things get more exciting than the “Summer of Love” in 1967 when an explosion of new groups exploring every music experiment possible burst on the scene even thanks largely to George Harrison even included the sounds of India. For the record, we’re not aware of any rock bands who featured bagpipes or the pan flute (thank God!). For the next two years, just about any trip to E.J. Korvettes or the local record stores would be a treasure trove of remarkable new artists whose work seemed so revolutionary and fresh. From the raw soul of Aretha Franklin to the hard rocking eroticism of the Doors, top 40 radio could barely contain the creative explosion and soon “underground” or “progressive rock” stations started popping up on the FM dial, which had previously been the domain of classical music, jazz, and elevator music.

Woodstock attempted to capture in one glorious weekend the total experience of hip pop music that dominated the music scene from the Summer of Love forward. The Who were experiencing new heights hot off of their great music experiment, the “rock opera,” Tommy. Jefferson Airplane was hell bent on the political anger and rebellion responding to the killing fields of South Vietnam. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were charming the crowd with their sweet harmonies. The 50’s revival got its launch with Sha Na Na’s well received performance, and Joe Cocker’s bizarre moves and slurred lyrics became the stuff of decades of parodies based on his performance perhaps best captured by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live.

So given all this excitement, the chance to see almost every major pop act that seemed to matter at the time, be honest, would you really want to be there? Think of being crowded in as just one person with half a million other people sounding you elbow room only. There was no avoiding getting sopping wet and dealing with the mud. Could anyone have had enough food rations or liquid to get through the weekend? Even folks who might have brought plenty of beer, it would have gotten mighty warm as even the thought of finding ice would be a bold dream. The crowd made it impossible for any food concessions to operate. Gee, how to respond when the obvious happened, “Good God, I gotta pee!!!” Remember it’s three days and where could one take a good dump. Yeah, this is crude talk. We admit it, but for those who romanticize about three days of peace, love, and music, this was a big part of the reality too. Imagine having even the slightest sense of claustrophobia!

Right Minded Fellow will say proudly, I’m damned glad I was just a tad too young at sixteen years old to have made it up to White Lake, New York. I had plenty of great albums from most of the bands that mattered anyway. Yeah, I played the living hell out of the Woodstock album when it was released the following spring ironically in piles of big boxes right next to huge shipments of the Beatles’ swan song album, Let it Be.

Remarkably, though, somehow despite everything that posed a danger and all that seemed to go wrong, not to mention the thought of how many fans were probably whacked out of their minds on drugs much stronger than blowing a little weed, the whole thing worked. A good vibe permeated the population and the music was so compelling it provided the focus that kept everyone working in harmony together. For folks who could deal with three days of not being able to wash, eat, or perform necessary body functions while being covered in wet muddy clothes being constantly elbowed, they can brag of the legend they were a part of. Millions of others pick and chose from the happenings and create their own fictitious account. I can’t imagine going through that experience and not becoming a total wreck traumatized by the evaporation of any kind of personal space whatsoever.

For those wanting to relive Woodstock, new videos of the event are hitting the market. Rhino records recently rereleased greatly improved remasters of the original Woodstock and Woodstock II albums. More comprehensive releases containing more Woodstock material are also hitting the street. Truth be told, for most bands, the Woodstock performances are far from their bests. Some bands like the Grateful Dead, the Band, and Creedence had long barred their material from being released. A complete soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix’s work is available and pretty darned slick. Pete Townshend and the gang performed some glorious rock as only the Who could perform.

Having recently purchased the remasters of the original albums, today they seem more like historical documents rather than vital music. Some of the real hippie stuff, the stage announcements, and just the overall picture of what was really going on shows that Woodstock was a product of its time and this writer not only is glad he never came close to upstate New York in the summer of 1969, but in hindsight, aside from the sheer spectacle of bringing so many choice acts together, the venue was hardly the place to experience them where their talents could be properly appreciated.

Further proof that Woodstock was a one time only amazing feat, though some Brits might include the Isle of Wight events in the discussion, later attempts to capture the Woodstock spirit failed miserably. If there was a Woodstock spirit, it was brutally assassinated the following December outside San Francisco at Altamont where the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Flying Burrito Brothers, among others set the stage for the top act, the Rolling Stones. Just inland from Haight-Ashbury, the center of the hippie world, hell broke lose as a rowdy crowd was subjected to the infamous motorcycle gang, Hells Angels providing “security.” As the Stones got hot and heavy into their set, a young man was murdered, and the whole world of the 1960’s came crashing down in the final days of the decade.

For rock fans young and old, the Woodstock 40th anniversary provides time to reflect on the strange cultural forces that made ordinary middle class kids adopt such a bizarre lifestyle where traditional values and the American way seemed so out of touch with the world they faced. Having grown up in schools practicing civil defense drills to be prepared in the event of a nuclear attack, students were directed out in the school hallways to duck and cover as if that would keep them from being vaporized by a Soviet nuke. As they hit high school and beyond, thousands of young men were conscripted by their government to be shipped halfway around the world to serve as soldiers in a war with no blueprint for victory and even shabbier reasons for them to be involved with to begin with. All this was just six years after Martin Luther King’s famous “dream” speech which helped finally tear down the walls of racial segregation as cities burning to the ground in urban violence were all too frequent every summer during this most peculiar time. Many Americans went through the whole experience remaining more or less ordinary middle class Americans through out. For those who became part of the Woodstock styled movement, they’d face coming to terms with that world and adjusting to the world of careers, raising children, and putting the past in perspective as the years flew by. Oh by the way, almost everybody, straight and hip, was smoking a hell of a lot of pot. How many of the Woodstock gang would be heading to the discos only six years later? How many of them came home to American values, love of country, and traditional values when Ronald Reagan spoke of the “shining city on the hill” and “it’s morning in America.”

Maybe we truly are better off because that most unusual time in history gave us a chance to experiment with who we are, step outside the American mold, and then have to choose to accept it as the right way to live rather than simply being indoctrinated to be a Yankee Doodle dandy in the first place.

The great sixties artists who still perform attract thousands of fans worldwide. Some folks remain lost in the worst of the 1960’s. Does the name William Ayers come to mind?

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