On the muddy trail

On the muddy trail

Woodstock Way

On the muddy trail

Jimi Hendrix performing

On August 15 to 17, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people, me among them, gathered in a lovely natural amphitheater in Bethel (not Woodstock), NY. We listened to some of the best rock musicians of the era, enjoyed other legal and illegal pleasures, endured rain and mud and exhaustion and hunger pangs, felt like a giant community and dispersed, all without catastrophe.

A year after the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, expectations about large gatherings of young people were so low that this was considered a surprise. Although the festival didn’t go exactly as planned, it was, as advertised, three days of peace and music. That made Woodstock an idyll, particularly in retrospect, even though it was declared a state disaster area at the time.

“Not withstanding their personality, their dress and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work,” Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, told The New York Times.

Yet for all the benign memories, Woodstock also set in motion other, more crass impulses. While its immediate aftermath was amazement and relief, the festival’s full legacy had as much to do with excess as with idealism. As the decades roll by, the festival seems more than ever like a fluke: A moment of muddy, disheveled, incredulous grace. It was as much an endpoint as a beginning, a holiday of naïveté and dumb luck before the realities of capitalism resumed. Woodstock’s young, left-of-center crowd — nice kids, including students, artists, workers and politicos, as well as full-fledged LSD — popping hippies — was quickly recognized as a potential army of consumers that mainstream merchants would not underestimate again. There was more to sell them than rolling papers and LPs.

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

A new, much expanded anthology of music recorded at the 1969 festival has been issued: The six-CD ‘Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm’ (Rhino). Complete Woodstock performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and others have been released by Sony Legacy. Cable and public television channels have their Woodstock specials scheduled, and there’s yet another batch of commemorative books, including The Road to Woodstock (Ecco) by the festival’s instigator, Michael Lang, which includes tidbits like how much the bands were paid. Taking Woodstock, a comedy directed by Ang Lee, is due for release this month.

A summer package tour, ‘Heroes of Woodstock’, features musicians who appeared at Woodstock — including Jefferson Starship (playing Jefferson Airplane songs), Levon Helm from the Band, Tom Constanten from the Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, Canned Heat and Country Joe McDonald. It arrives at Bethel Woods precisely on August 15.

Unlike previous anniversaries in 1994 and 1999, however, there’s no big festival this year bearing the Woodstock name — reflecting, perhaps, the dismal memories of Woodstock ’99 in Rome, NY, where a hot, pent-up audience, angry at high vendor prices, set fires and looted and vandalized the site.

While the original Woodstock showed how much discomfort an audience would put up with for the sake of sharing an event — something promoters were happy to learn — Woodstock ’99 breached the limit of fan exploitation.

Yet the original Woodstock still has a rosy glow. It was finite and all smiles — far different from the Vietnam War, the racial tensions and the much-discussed generation gap of the same era. Woodstock became free in both senses of the word: Free as in liberated (from drug laws and dress codes) and free as in gratis, not collecting tickets and handing out, as Wavy Gravy said, “breakfast in bed for 400,000.”

A cynic might see the festival as a prime example of how coddled the baby boomers were in an economy of abundance. The Woodstock crowd, which arrived with more drugs than camping supplies, got itself a free concert, and when the people responsible could no longer handle the logistics, the government bailed them out. Some people took it upon themselves to help others; many just freeloaded.

Still, Woodstock gave virtually everyone involved — ticketholders, gate crashers, musicians, doctors, the police — a sense of shared humanity and cooperation. Trying to get through the weekend, people played nice with one another, which was only sensible. Musicians performed for the biggest audience of their lives. Townspeople and the National Guard pitched in to keep people fed and healthy. No one, The New York Times reported, called the cops “pigs.”

One lunatic with a gun could have changed everything. The Altamont Festival, marred all day by violence, took place only four months later. Miraculously, at Woodstock, there was none.

Seemingly within minutes after it ended Woodstock was the stuff of legend: A spirit, a nation, an ideal, amorphous but vivid, with an Oscar-winning documentary film, the 1970 Woodstock, to prove it wasn’t all a hallucination.

When the hippie subculture surfaced en masse at Woodstock, two years after the Summer of Love, it was still largely self-invented and isolated. There were pockets of freaks in cities and handfuls of them in smaller towns, nearly all feeling like outsiders. For many people at the festival, just seeing and joining that gigantic crowd was more of a revelation than anything that happened onstage. It proved that they were not some negligible minority but members of a larger culture — or, to use that sweetly dated term, a counterculture.

At Woodstock hippiedom simultaneously reached its public peak and opened itself to imitation and trivialization — one more glimmer of rebellion to be deflated into a style statement.

For true believers Woodstock was about cooperation and mutual aid, and about making love, not war. (At a time when Vietnam had divided America into hawks and doves, that was a peace dove sitting on the guitar in the festival logo.) But Woodstock was also a whole lot of people getting stoned at a rock concert, which was much easier than working to change the world.

There was antiwar fervor in some songs, like Richie Havens’s ‘Handsome Johnny’ and McDonald’s ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.’ Joan Baez spoke about her husband, in jail for draft dodging, and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’

There was also, in much of the music, that particular late-1960s aura of imminent doom or enlightenment, in songs like ‘Wooden Ships’ (performed by both Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and the Who’s ‘Amazing Journey.’ And there was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ with its screams of feedback and its divebombing glissandos, brash and dire, angry and insistently American. But Woodstock was no earnest rally; it had love songs, blues and extended guitar jams. But 40 years later the sensation lingers.