Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Long Time Gone

Thirty-seven years ago today, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair opened in upstate New York. Scratch an ex-hippie, and many will wax lyrical about "three days of peace, love, and music" and the magical community that sprang up in the countryside, where people got stoned, played together in the flowers and the mud, danced for hours to unbelievable music, and spontaneously formed the forever indivisible Woodstock Nation. Well, not exactly. While it's probably not true that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren't there--surely one of the snottiest catchphrases the 60s generation ever dreamed up--a lot of what people "remember" about Woodstock isn't true, and some of what they've forgotten is interesting. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list.

Who was on the bill and who wasn't. Thousands of people "remember" Joni Mitchell singing her song "Woodstock" on stage at the festival. It didn't happen. She was booked, but never got to the festival after authorities closed the New York State Thruway to keep the crowd from becoming even more unmanageable. (Crosby Stills Nash and Young perform it in the concert film, but that performance was recorded later.) Other thousands have forgotten that Creedence Clearwater Revival played the festival, following the Grateful Dead and preceding the Who, during the early-morning hours of Sunday. The reason is that CCR's performances are not in the movie; performances by the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Blood Sweat and Tears also didn't make it in. Jimi Hendrix, who was supposed to close the show at midnight Sunday, didn't get on until 9AM Monday, thanks to the famous rainstorm and lengthy sets by earlier acts, including Crosby Stills Nash and Young, who famously admitted to being "scared shitless" by the size of the crowd. Playing the set immediately before Hendrix: Sha-Na-Na, who at that moment of the 1960s had counterculture credibility. Because it was Monday morning, only scattered handfuls of people saw what Hendrix considered a subpar performance. The Doors were booked but canceled at the last moment; John Lennon offered to perform but was turned down by the promoters, who had asked him to bring the Beatles. Led Zeppelin turned down an invitation in favor of a better-paying gig elsewhere.

The free festival. Woodstock wasn't intended to be a free festival, even though it eventually became one, after the logistical nightmare caused by 500,000 people showing up when 60,000 were expected--and thanks to the widespread belief that the festival was in fact going to be free. Three-day tickets cost $18--which was expensive for 1969, equivalent to about $95 in current dollars.

Peace, love, and music.
That was the phrase the promoters settled on, but they also intended to make money. Trust-fund baby John Roberts had the initial bankroll; his partners included Yale-educated lawyer Michael Rosenman, record executive Artie Kornfeld, and local businessman Michael Lang. They had the presence of mind to record and film the show for later release. Organizers had tried to prepare for the crowd they expected, but the concept of corporate sponsorship for such events was largely unknown. Vendors were brought on-site, but they were quickly cleaned out by the crowd. So volunteers made PB&J sandwiches by the hundreds, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best. Roberts ended up bouncing hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks during the festival in the attempt to meet the needs of the throng.

Back to the garden. The significance of Woodstock is a bit overrated, I think. For all the talk of "Woodstock Nation," it's worth noting that the nation was primarily white, middle-class, and East Coast. And for all the talk of Woodstock marking the climax of the 1960s, it's just as much the off-ramp. A little more than three months later, the communal ethos of Woodstock would go horridly sour at Altamont. A year after Woodstock, the antiwar movement that was as much the generation's glue as the music suffered a fatal blow at Sterling Hall. From there, it became a duel between Woodstock veterans who claimed that if you remembered it you weren't there and an ever-growing number of people who claimed to have been there but really weren't. Succeeding anniversary shows were little more than cynical attempts to exploit a younger generation's desire to have their own Woodstock experience. The last one, Woodstock '99, dissolved in a disastrous riot, and likely marked the last time anybody would try to emulate the original, or would want to.

Bob Spitz's Barefoot in Babylon is the best history of the festival, although it's out of print. The Woodstock 69 website has some interesting stories and memorabilia also.


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