The Woodstock Music and Art Festival took place in the town of Bethel,
forty years ago this week. Although the ready-for-retrospective cliché
is that it's hard to imagine Woodstock happened that long ago, I find
it hard to imagine that those three days of peace and music happened
so recently. Such has the cultural landscape changed since that
surprising weekend when the mass media turned its lens to the
counterculture gathering in upstate New York.
From a sheer standpoint of talent, the gathering--from Richie Havens's
opening set to Santana, CCR, the Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone, the
Who, Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, and Jimi Hendrix's star-spangled
finale--still stands as one of the greatest ever. More importantly,
even though artists and attendees would later complain about the
overcrowding and other conditions at the festival, the fact that
nearly half a million kids could get together and--in a year that
witnessed the Harvard Student Strike, People's Park, North Dakota's
"Zip to Zap," and the Days of Rage--not cause a riot made it a success.
It speaks to the incendiary nature of the late 1960s generation gap
that while, that very same week, Hurricane Camille would bring death
and devastation to the American Southeast and highlight the nation's
lack of disaster preparedness (a theme for a future generation), and
young American soldiers continued to pay for an unpopular war with
their lives (ditto), the hot topic that weekend in mid-August was
whether a Bacchanalian weekend in the country represented society's
collapse. As the media got some distance, more and more would be
written about the beauty of the moment and what it represented for the
younger generation. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz borrowed the
festival's name to give to the little yellow bird that had been
following Snoopy around, transforming the character into a
metaphorical manifestation of the Aquarian Age.
Woodstock was a success in spirit, if not in ROI. While attendees
stripped naked and dove into Fillipini's Pond, Michael Lang, Artie
Kornfeld, and their young financial backers of unlimited capital
famously took a financial bath. It's been said that Michael Wadleigh,
the director of the film documentary, was the only one who made any
money off Woodstock, and even he was the target of backlash: When the
movie premiered in 1970, some objected on the grounds (naively) that
charging kids money to see a film about the festival went against its
original premise. But this seminal event from late-1960s American
counterculture was also a pivotal one in the merchandising of the
counterculture, which would soon be packaged and sold back to itself
by Madison Avenue.
In this sense, the success of Woodstock was almost too great. That
era's Mad Men tuned in and turned on to a whole new target
demographic. One can argue that the mass media's recognition of a
demographic group is the first step toward social acceptance for that
group. (In the days following, one New York State busline ran an ad
that quoted its drivers "rapping" about the kids they took to the
Woodstock Festival. "I don't understand why they wear long hair but
now I don't care," said one. "Come on, kids, ride with me. It's been a
pleasure driving you.") But it's also the first step toward the
co-opting of that demographic into consumer culture. It's useful to
remember that The Gap, today a multibrand name specializing in the
homogenized fashion of mall culture, began in 1969 as single retail
store in San Francisco that sold blue jeans and LP records, both aimed
at the younger generation. Woodstock Nation was very quickly on its
way toward becoming the Pepsi Generation.
Even the artistic village community of Woodstock, the original
inspiration for the festival if not the eventual site, became overrun.
Former resident Van Morrison recalled, "When I first went, people
were moving there to get away from the scene. Then Woodstock itself
started being the scene." Bemoaning Woodstock's sudden emergence as a
sort of mecca to the counterculture, Bob Dylan writes bitingly in
Chronicles of having wanted to "set fire" to these "gate-crashers,
spooks, trespassers, demagogues."
The biggest gate crashers to the Woodstock party, though, were not the
wannabe hippies but the corporate honchos who quickly sought to
capitalize on this newly discovered, long-haired demographic. Ever
since then, it's seemed as if the record company promoters,
merchandisers, and tour sponsors of the rock industry have been doing
their collective best to make up for Woodstock's lost opportunities.
One recalls Lester Bangs as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost
Famous, prophetically warning of how the businessmen would ruin what
was once an art form for young people, by young people. Witness the
footage of the original festival, for example, with its complete
absence of band T-shirts in the crowd. In the era of 1970s arena
rock, record company executives would look at the chests of music fans
and salivate at all that unused advertising space.
Today, the legacies of both the festival and its ensuing corporate
culture thrive. Bethel Woods, where good-natured volunteers work to
help keep the communal spirit alive, hosts performances such as the
recent triple bill of Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, and Willie Nelson.
The setting is pristine, even Edenic--and undoubtedly cleaner than the
place was 40 years prior. At that Dylan show, when a rainbow formed
an arc almost perfectly centered over the amphitheater, someone in the
crowd declared it fitting--a meteorological sign of harmonic
convergence, seemingly blessing the site of the Aquarian Exposition.
Yet I found it hard to buy into that sentiment. Ticketmaster had sold
hundreds of lawn tickets to people who, due to the lip of the land,
were unable to see the stage, rendering the concert experience into
something akin to parking backwards at a drive-in. Those several
hundred fans on the lawn were prohibited from bringing their own
chairs (for "safety" reasons, so said the Bethel Woods web site), but
could (more safely) rent officially sanctioned lawn chairs at $5 a
pop. Attendees were allowed to bring only two bottles of water per
person, thus increasing the sale of beverages at the many concession
booths. I thought back to Woodstock past--Woodstock '99, that is, the
mess of a 30th Anniversary festival in Rome, New York, that was marred
by price-gouging concessionaires, along with incidents of violence and
vandalism. In describing the problems with the '99 festival to my
teenage nephew, he declared "Well, what do you expect? It's
Cue the mass rolling over in graves. Are we so far removed from the
original festival that it will be remembered more for its role in
feeding the music-industry machine than for its establishing a
temporary community in a rustic retreat, away from urban America and
its temples to consumer culture?
For many, the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair represented the apex of
the counterculture, the flowering of a movement in a tumultuous year
at the end of a turbulent decade. But for the counterculture itself,
it also signaled the beginning of the end.
Rob Kirkpatrick is the author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed
(Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).