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Woodstock at 40: What it Means Today

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August marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Now a cultural reference point, the three-day festival held in upstate New York quickly became a symbol of the times: the backlash against the Vietnam War, the electric rock and roll revolution lead by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who and the Grateful Dead and a general questioning of society's values.

The following post is excerpted from rock historian Dave Marsh's essay reassessing what Woodstock meant in 2009. The full story can be found in the August/September 2009 issue of Relix magazine - currently on newsstands.

Woodstock stands as the defining moment of my musical generation, like it or not, which I mostly don't. But there's no squiggling out from beneath the myth that has been created around the aborted pop festival that became, momentarily, the second-largest city in New York state and a vaunted site of "three days of peace and music," or however that old saw runs.

Within days of the event, though, another perspective blossomed. Woodstock was a political event, this interpretation said, the eruption of a new class--Youth. Ironically, the person who best articulated the idea, Abbie Hoffman, had made the only expressly political comment from the stage: "I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison." As he said this, Pete Townshend, whose stage Hoffman had commandeered, put his Dr. Marten square into Abbie's ass, swatted him with his solid body Gibson and serenely watched as the acid-addled activist tumbled into the photographer's pit. Hoffman apparently went straight over the hill and back to Manhattan but nevertheless, his next book was entitled Woodstock Nation.

Fittingly, it was Sinclair who best summarized the idea, in his essay "We Are a People," which he wrote from the penitentiary where he'd been sentenced to 10 years for giving away two joints:

"Woodstock was something we produced out of our own national genius and energy, it was a beautiful experience for hundreds of thousands of our people which we produced ourselves, but the mother country record companies and movie companies and vampires of all kinds swooped down on it and grabbed it and took it into their factories and cooked the reality of Woodstock down into records and movies and shit which they now sell back to us..."

The graces of history then gave us Woodstock as the antithesis of itself, in the form of the hideous 30th anniversary concert, held at Griffis Air Force Base. In 1999, the new Woodstock not only provided good music but plenty of food and water-if you were willing to pay extorted prices (12 dollars for a personal pizza, four dollars for a bottle of water). The promoters' approach to sanitation can be seen by the fact that Griffis AFB is a SuperFund site and their idealism was expressed in a horde of corporate sponsors, including broadcasters who opposed any kind of freedom of music choice, and a "shopping mall" filled with everything but necessities. The audience expressed its ideals in arson, rape and looting. Wikipedia nicely sums it up: "Woodstock '99 is remembered best for reports of violence, rape, fires and an abrupt ending of the show." After Rage Against the Machine played, guitarist Tom Morello compared the looters to the promoters, who charged $150 per person for the debacle, which was by far the highest price ever gouged from the hide of the Woodstock Nation illusion. Maybe it should have been held at Altamont.

The real legacy of Woodstock Nation is felt in the battles to create an American health care system, to end the nation's various wars and to save the lives and communities devastated by the finance industry swindles and 40 years of benign governmental neglect. None of those has a guaranteed draw, either. That is what happens, it seems, after an attempt to organize a social transformation based around a group of people who are all for it-as long as it doesn't inconvenience them or keeps them too stoned to notice.

Yet something did come out of Woodstock, and something may yet come out of the generation defined by the most exciting electoral campaign of my lifetime. If not the great lost rock festival, at least a reawakening to the best idea of the Woodstock generation, most recently expressed during that campaign by the candidate himself: "This isn't about me. This is about you," Obama said. When I heard him say it in my presence (I swear this is true) my mind immediately went to Roger Daltrey slamming home the same idea: "Right behind you I see the millions /On you I see the glory/From you I get opinions/From you I get the story." And though I've gone to innumerable Who concerts, the image in my head is Roger with long locks streaming, fringed vest and bare chest and that beautiful night sky framing the scene--an image I saw only in the Woodstock film.