“When was that … October … September? Something like that?” Jock looked at me quizzically.
“Do you seriously not know when Woodstock was?” I asked.
“I was in Jamaica … or Haiti? No, it was in the fall, right?” Jock asked again.
Please, I thought silently, please, tell me you are not confusing Woodstock with Altamont.
Perhaps immortalized in the film “Gimme Shelter,” the stabbing death by the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security at the Altamont free concert, is usually marked as “the end of the ‘60s.” We were trying to talk about the sublime, beautiful moment before—the grail of the ‘60s: Woodstock.
“Woodstock was on my birthday.” I responded in a tone of voice with a look that men everywhere are familiar with: Surely you know when my birthday is, right?
“So August! It’s coming up then?”
“Yes, dear, the 17th.”
“OK, I had just listened to the moon landing off the coast of Haiti. No, it got past me, I didn’t hear about it till I got back.”
“Yeah well, my parents missed it, too. My mother was at a Model UN meeting in upstate New York that weekend.”
I shook my head.
“That’s pretty fucking square.”
I mean, really.
Frankly, in retrospect, perhaps Woodstock was actually a better example of the practices of the principals and theories of the UN then the Model UN meeting. For three days—actually longer because people began arriving a week earlier—more than 400,000 people existed together without violence in upstate New York. They shared resources, rode out weather and surprised the nation with the results. It has gone on to become one of the cultural touchstones of our nation. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of a great experiment.
In addition to the merchandising and nostalgia around the 50th anniversary, there has been a roller coaster of news surrounding many failed attempts to organize a 50th anniversary concert. The 25th anniversary was marked with a concert in 1994 and the 30th in 1999. Perhaps the festival in ’99 is most remembered for the deterioration and violence that marked it. Regardless, Michael Lang, one of the four producers of the original festival, was determined to put on a 50th celebration concert.
On a road filled with unexpected twists, turns and pot holes, even Lang couldn’t pull it off. Several artists interviewed by the Associated Press expressed the view that it was Lang’s focus on a big concert, with a big venue, with big names that was the problem: He lost sight of the heart and soul of what Woodstock meant then and continues to mean today. Though other events around the country mark the anniversary, including concerts at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts—located on the site of Max Yasgur’s farm where the ’69 concert took place—I for one am hungering for the possibilities and even reassurance Woodstock promises.
To many people Woodstock has become a brand: hippie culture as it can be commercialized. Nostalgia, especially for those who never experienced the thing, is romanticized. I fully admit I own two ‘60s-era VWs, and the want to relish something I did not experience is part of why I own them. But it’s also the fulfillment of a personal dream: to restore a vehicle and learn new skills. Nostalgia would not have gotten that project through the first year, let alone kept it going for the fifth. Moving forward I have to become competent at vehicle maintenance (I get by with a little help from my friends).
Most folks who read my column frequently know I dwell far more actively in the late ‘60s than in the present. By that I mean I am more conversant in art and culture of that era than with any of the above in a contemporary sense.
CELEBRATING 50 YEARS
2019 has been a year of several 50th anniversaries. Stonewall, the moon landing and Woodstock are euphoric to celebrate. They’re deeply complicated, and in retrospect, popular culture has embraced and recognized their meaning, and placed them squarely as symbols of turning points in our national history.
Altamont will celebrate 50 as well in a few months; it will be interesting to see if “Gimme Shelter” appears in cinematic release or on PBS or even Netflix. Another dark moment of commemoration came last week with the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders and the release of Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated the summer before in 1968. The Chicago 8 had been indicted for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, but the trial would not commence until a few weeks after Woodstock. Still, daily, the death toll in South East Asia rose, and more young men were absorbed into the war machine. The Sword of Damocles, known as the draft, hung over an entire generation’s head.
I mention all this by way of illustrating the world wasn’t perfect or simple in 1969. In reality, a lot of fear, change and uncertainty permeated daily life.
The original site of the festival, Wallkill, NY, passed an ordinance that made holding the festival there an impossibility. It was a power play that illustrated the generation gap and perception of property owner’s priorities. Of course, in retrospect, it was short-sighted. Just think of how much money Bethel, Woodstock and surrounding areas have made on tourism since 1969. For 50 years people like me have dreamed about (and many more acted upon) visiting the location. They all need a place to stay, to eat, to purchase fuel and buy souvenirs. It is no surprise there is a museum and music venue there now.
I don’t think it would be possible to bring 400,000 people together today to peacefully assemble for three days and enjoy music, art and life together. First, the presence of social media and the way it could or would be used to incite violence is infinitely worrisome. In light of the multiple mass shootings our nation has endured of late, how could one believe or trust the collective good would win?
Indeed, at Woodstock, that is what happened. When the festival was unable to supply the food tents because there was no way for delivery trucks to get within miles of the event, the surrounding residents literally brought food to the local school that was airlifted into the festival for the participants. Now part of that is charity, and part of that is self preservation: If you have 400,000 starving people in a nearby field, at some point there may be a food riot if they don’t get fed, so it’s better to address that directly.
If that is the precedent, how are we not feeding the hungry in our community? How are we not harnessing the collective power of this social media engine for more good, and less fear and hate? Because here’s the real lesson of Woodstock, the one Michael Lang missed, and it’s right there on the poster: “3 Days of Peace, Love and Music.” It is something Woodstock epitomized but it took another 25 for Jonathan Larson to put into words for the next generation in his landmark rock musical, “Rent”: “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.”
Creating the world we want to live in.
Do we want to live in a world of ICE agents showing up and deporting our neighbors? Because that is a real Sword of Damocles in 2019 for many people. The story of the neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee, that prevented ICE from illegally seizing their neighbor has made national news. Buried in that story is how ICE called the local police to the scene. The local police did not assist ICE with removal but made it clear they were there should the situation escalate.
Tennessee state law will not allow any city to self-designate as a sanctuary city. North Carolina’s legislature just passed HB 370, which would effectively force the local sheriff’s offices to comply with ICE’s removal orders.
I remember it from the Vichy government; Arthur Miller wrote a piece on it. It’s why local elections matter so much. Off-year elections are not as sexy as presidential years, but they are incredibly important, and provide opportunity to create and shape daily life in our community.
Woodstock did not stop the draft, or the war, or smooth over desegregation of schools. The few attempts to utilize the stage for political purposes are largely ignored in the films and recordings. But the idealism of 400,000 people peaceably assembling to celebrate a shared vision of joy and bliss is a remarkable moment in history. The ideas of a generation might not have been preached from the stage, but they were lived for that weekend.
Maybe that’s more important.