“So why be so sure that that the Woodstock lightning that struck in
Bethel and in Saugerties won’t electrify Rome this time around?”
Those were the hopeful words that closed my column last month about
the bright prospect of the Woodstock festival that was about to
kick off. I didn’t realize how literal that lightning strike would
be and that fires set by rampaging fans would scorch the festival
grounds and plunge the entire event into chaos.
Of course, the lightning I was talking about was metaphorical. I
was hoping that music, the natural environment and a sense of
community would overwhelm the shameless marketing of the event.
Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Not by a long shot.
Everyone who cares about popular music was horrified by the fires
and all the reports of violence and even rapes. The hand wringing
has begun and will no doubt continue. Politicians and right-wing
crackpots will exploit the controversy for their own cynical ends.
In New York City, just to cite one example, the police commissioner
cancelled a rave scheduled to take place on the Brooklyn pier. The
reason given was crowd safety, but many people, including me,
believe the specter of Woodstock was the real cause.
Beyond the bullshit and the media posturing, are there any real
lessons to be drawn from what happened at Woodstock? Well, some of
the lessons that people want to draw from it are just plain wrong.
There is no evidence, for instance, to support the idea that this
generation of young people is any more violent than the
counterculture crowd that packed Yasgur’s Farm thirty years ago.
(Statistics show, in fact, that violence among young people has
been declining significantly in recent years, but that’s another
story.) Commentators back in the day routinely attacked students
for participating in antiwar and civil rights demonstrations that
turned violent. It was not at all uncommon for university buildings
to be set ablaze, and political bombings by the Weather Underground
and other radical groups were an established, if heatedly
controversial, part of the tumultuous cultural landscape.
And, as far as music festivals are concerned, the peace-and-love
vibe at Woodstock was an anomaly even in its time. When more
traditional events like the Newport Jazz Festival began inviting
rock groups to perform in the late Sixties — for many of the same
commercially driven reasons that motivated the Woodstock ’99
promoters — riots by rowdy fans triggered plenty of consternation.
Concerts by groups like the Doors and Sly and the Family Stone
often incited melees. (The naked revelers dancing in the flames at
Woodstock were obviously acting out a scene from Oliver Stone’s
film, The Doors.) And does the word Altamont ring a bell
with anyone? Gimme shelter, indeed.
That doesn’t excuse the vandalism and sexual predation that took
place at Woodstock — and it doesn’t explain them either. Both of
those aspects of the weekend are debased versions of elements that
at least seemed more innocent at the original festival. If the gate
crashers in ’69 were at least partly motivated by anti-capitalist
idealism, the rioters this year were truly enacting the Yippie
credo of revolution for the hell of it.
And if nudity and sexual freedom have become part of the Woodstock
myth, the ’99 versions were far more titillating and threatening.
At least from the evidence of the pay-per-view telecast, taking
your clothes off was more about attracting the attention of the
cameras than striking a blow for a more liberated vision of
sexuality. And with bands like Metallica, Korn, Limp Bizkit and,
despite their progressive politics, Rage Against the Machine
setting the festival’s macho tone, women who went naked were viewed
as sexual marks, freely available for groping and worse.
On a more practical front, confiscating the food and
(non-alcoholic) drink of people who were about to spend
one-to-three days in oppressively hot weather, as the Woodstock
promoters did, is a sure way to put folks in an extremely foul
mood. Especially when those people have already shelled out
hundreds of dollars for transportation, tickets, lodging and camp
sites. Then selling food and drink back to those people at insanely
inflated prices was a true recipe for disaster. Combine all that
with an understaffed security force and you get the results that
Marketing and greed played an enormous role in what went wrong at
Woodstock. That’s a reflection of the culture at large, in which
everything is for sale, all value is measured in monetary terms and
even great music becomes just an excuse to sell you another
product. No one could have foreseen the debacle that Woodstock
became — and it’s nanve and self-serving on the media’s part to
suggest that anyone could. But that doesn’t mean its worst aspects
couldn’t have been prevented. Viewing the audience as something
more than revenue generators might have been a good start. The
bands on stage could have helped cool things out. The people in the
audience showing more respect for each other might have made things
“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” Joni Mitchell sang
many years ago. It’s an ideal to strive for. But we clearly haven’t
gotten there yet. And, in the wake of Rome burning, we’re obviously
not going to be arriving any time soon.