Whenever someone asks me what it was like to be at Woodstock, the first thing that comes to mind is not Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” Country Joe’s F-U-C-K cheer, nude bathing or brown acid. I always think to spaghetti and hot dogs.
That’s what I had for breakfast on Saturday morning, the second day of the festival. That was all the food out troupe of high-school hippie-wanna-bes — six in number, including myself, just turned seventeen — had to last us the rest of the weekend. The watermelon we’d brought with us from Philadelphia was already history, a victim of spontaneous generosity on Friday afternoon while we were stalled on the extended parking lot otherwise known as Route 17B. It was a gesture right out of The Book of Love-Generation Etiquette — passing out slices of watermelon through the windows of our Volkswagen microbus to other weary festival pilgrims who had abandoned their wheels as far back as the New York Thruway. And we enjoyed every second of it — and every smile we got back in return.
It may seem like a small joy in retrospect. But then Woodstock, for most of the people who were there, was not really a weekend date with pop history. It was an unexpected, often exhilarating series of minor epiphanies and momentary bummers — births, deaths, sex, illness, acts of human kindness, commercial enterprise and sometimes downright greed. The only way you could get the big picture was from the helicopters ferrying performers and crew between the festival stage and the Holiday Inn, a.k.a. Tranquillity Base, in nearby Liberty, New York. From up there, though, you couldn’t see the moments of impact and interaction, hundreds of thousands of them, that made up the giant surging whole.
One of those moments came for me on Saturday morning when a wet, disheveled freak came up to our campsite and asked my friend Wayne and me if we could spare a plateful of our undercooked spaghetti and hot dogs. Sure, man, chow down. In turn, he offered us a tab of what he swore was top-drawer acid. We politely declined. As far as Wayne and I were concerned, breakfast was a bad trip in itself.
In the twenty years since Jimi Hendrix signed off in the early morning hours of Monday, August 18th, 1969, with his immortal guitar overhaul of the national anthem, Woodstock has been analyzed, lionized, censured and sold way out of all proportion to the actual event. It was neither the late-Sixties Utopian dream incarnate nor the last wild weekend of a hopelessly naive generation. When you boil away all the bullshit, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair — held August 15th, 16th and 17th on Max Yasgur’s 600—acre farm, near Bethel New York — was a spectacular accident, an improbable collision of events, energies and expectations propelled by the promise of the Haight-Ashbury experiment and the weekend’s principal attraction, rock & roll. What started out as a profit-motivated mega-concert just spun gloriously out of control. Most of the people who were there simply made the best of it.
The radio and newspaper ads in the weeks leading up to the festival certainly didn’t mention anything about a gathering of the tribes or the dawning of a new age, aside from the official all-purpose subtitle, “An Aquarian Exposition.” The real magnet was the music. Woodstock boasted the biggest and most prestigious lineup of rock & roll talent to be gathered on one stage since Monterey Pop, in 1967, and several top acts on the bill were performing in the wake of major artistic vinyl statements: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, the Who’s Tommy, the Band’s first two albums, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s machine-gun series of classic Rock Americana singles, Conspicuous by their absence were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the rapidly ascending Led Zeppelin and Woodstock’s most prominent resident, Bob Dylan. The festival roster was also noticeably short on color and soul, with a few distinguished exceptions: Sly and the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, the Afro-Anglo-Hispanic Santana.
Despite that imbalance, Woodstock seemed like a remarkable opportunity to address the State of the Music at the end of its second, and probably most tumultuous, decade. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The majority of the bands played under adverse conditions; the Grateful Dead suffered a power blackout in midset, and the Jefferson Airplane cooled its heels backstage for seventeen hours before going on at dawn on Sunday morning. A couple of the lesser-known acts, sorely outclassed by the superstars, stayed that way (hands up, everybody who remembers Saturday’s opening act, Quill). Some of the festival’s most highly anticipated performances (Hendrix Janis Joplin and her Kozmic Blues Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) were actually mixed bags of the transcendent, the merely great and plain good fun.
There was more than enough of all three in the performances I actually saw that weekend — most of them on Saturday, in the afternoon and early evening. For a seventeen-year-old playing hooky from a job sweeping floors in a drugstore who couldn’t make the local Philly ballroom scene because of age restrictions and regular police harassment, the whiplash of Santana’s Latin locomotion was revelatory and liberating. And while it didn’t stop the Vietnam War or anything, there was an awesome, implicit power in the sound of nearly half a million people spelling fuck in unison with Country Joe McDonald. I know; I’m on the record.
But Woodstock — promoted by two rock entrepreneurs, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, Yale Law School grad Joel Rosenman and cosmetics heir John Roberts — proved to be a disturbing glimpse of the music’s future, the beginning of the over-the-counter culture. The sledgehammer blues and amphetamine boogie of Mountain and Ten Years After — bands that came to Woodstock as hopefuls and walked away bona fide stars — were harbingers of the ham-fisted arena rock of the Seventies. And the sheer spectacle of so many people clogging highways and catnapping in rain-soaked sleeping bags just for the love of rock & roll was all the proof the money-changers needed that there was dough-re-mi in Yasgur’s hills. The Eighties pariahs of corporate sponsorship and Madison Avenue’s appropriation of pop songs to peddle cars, beer and toilet paper, not to mention the arthritic conservatism of the music business in general, can be directly traced to the genuine rapture with which the audience greeted the music, and the musicians, at Woodstock.
The mythologizing started less than twenty-four hours after the festival ended. On Monday night, the Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell — who did not play at Woodstock but subsequently wrote the festival anthem — appeared live on Dick Cavett’s network-TV talk show to give their euphoric account of the weekend, complete with a live, uncensored Airplane rendition of “We Can Be Together” (they sang, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” as the credits rolled). The Woodstock movie and soundtrack album, released the following year, accelerated the process.
The rash of copycat festivals over the next two years, though — many of them marred by poor planning, oppressive security and, sometimes, violence — irreparably soured the memory and the fantasy. The tragedy at the Rolling Stones’ hastily organized Altamont free festival, coming less than four months after Woodstock, was and still is widely perceived as the official end of the Sixties, crushing all of the hope and anticipation raised by Woodstock. In fact, Altamont was an ego-driven failure. The Rolling Stones wanted to put on their own Woodstock, apparently at any cost. That cost turned out to be a young black man’s life.
Woodstock itself showed that human nature can be a stubborn, often unpleasant thing. The crowd left in its wake enough trash, garbage and sleeping bags to embarrass a city twice the size of the assembled group. The late Yippie commando Abbie Hoffman demonstrated a woeful lack of timing and respect for his peers by leaping onstage during the Who’s lengthy Tommy medley, screaming, “I think this is a bunch of shit, while John Sinclair rots in prison.” It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was railing against Tommy or the festival itself. Pete Townshend nevertheless demonstrated his impatience with radical wiseacres and the invasion of his stage by clubbing Hoffman with his guitar.
The whole thing was a decidedly apolitical bash anyway, a weekend rock & roll holiday from Vietnam, Nixon, poverty and racial tension. What rhetoric there was was couched in song — Richie Havens’s “Handsome Johnny,” Country Joe’s “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” the Airplane’s “Volunteers.” Still, the actual social impact of Woodstock has been unfairly minimized. No matter what else can be said for or against the event, the festival represented an ideal. It was a demonstration, however brief, of unity and cooperation that suggested there was another, better way to take care of business out there. And at a time when the principal energies of youth and rock seemed to be concentrated along a London-New York-San Francisco axis, it provided many of the gathered delegates from other isolated freak communities — not to mention the hopeful, confused, unaligned teens who came to get their first taste of the groove — with a sense of purpose, focus and familial warmth for at least seventy-two hours, under rather trying conditions.
The music was an essential component, the trigger and the soundtrack for everything that went down there. At Bob Geldof’s 1985 transcontinental charity shebang, Live Aid, the supergig most commonly compared to Woodstock, the music was essentially bait, chopped up into twenty-minute bites to entice the 2 billion people gathered around their electronic hearths to cough up bread for those who had none. While the cause was just and the sense of community no less real than at Woodstock (if just as temporary), the organization was the real star at Live Aid. Which is something you definitely can’t say about Woodstock.
The mixed emotions with which people are greeting the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock — nostalgia, loathing, a big “So what?” — are quite in keeping with the mixed results of the festival itself. It was a success and a failure in equal measure and, like any accident, impossible to repeat. And probably not worth trying to repeat, but worth learning from. After all, I may think of that spaghetti-and-hot-dog casserole whenever anyone says, “Woodstock.” But I haven’t eaten another one since.