Woodstock: 40 Years of Myths

By Rob Patterson

This August is the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival. And the legend seems to grow larger as the years go on.

To commemorate the event, promoter Michael Lang has written a book, The Road to Woodstock. Another tome, “Woodstock Revisited,” collects 50 stories by those who attended the event. Lang is also involved in a VH1/History Channel documentary, and the Woodstock movie is being issued on DVD as a four-hour director’s cut that will add 18 new performances, including those by The Grateful Dead, Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mountain and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band that were not included in the original. And what was once a three-disc vinyl album soundtrack is being re-released as a six-CD set.

It’s now an event of mythic proportions. And its cultural reverberations were enormous. But in retrospect was it all that it’s cracked up to be?

I can’t tell you for sure. As a 14-year-old music fan and devotee of the counterculture Woodstock supposedly represented, I missed it all by some five miles. And have never much regretted it.

On the Saturday morning of the festival, I hitched a ride from my hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., the 90 or so miles down Route 17 to Monticello, where state troopers waved the car I was riding in to the side of the highway. I started walking the 10 or so further miles to the festival at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel.

Along the way, mounted police were urging us to go back, announcing that the festival was a disaster area. About halfway there, I ran into some friends in their car in the traffic jam on the road. Rumors circulating back from the festival site ranged from that it was a disaster to The Beatles were going to play. As the police got the jam unsnarled and cars started moving, my friends and I looked at each other and asked, “Wanna split?” And we did.

I was among some 150,000 others who never made it to Woodstock, and all of us, as well as those who were there, have stories to tell. My friends who made it had a good time, but as much as they enjoyed the music and the scene, most all of them also said what a mess it was. The one who said it was the time of his life died in his early 20s after doing two prison terms for dealing drugs. Another friend who had a grand time there happened to spend most of it tripping on LSD on a boom crane over the crowd as a cameraman for the movie.

On the 15th anniversary, I was working as a music publicist and spent the better part of the day with Lang and Wavy Gravy (the festival’s “Chief of Please Force”) going around Manhattan to TV talk shows Today and Good Morning America and then down to the World Trade Center for a noonday show on CNN, whose studios were there in 1984. With time to kill after we arrived and before the show, Lang, Wavy — in full clown regalia — and I went to the top of Tower One and then had lunch in the concourse below.

There’s something inextricably hippie about wandering a center of commerce and major tourist stop with someone in a clown outfit. It’s 1960s style “freaking the straights” at its best. On the other hand, the locale where we did it obviously gained massive cultural, historical and political significance 17 years later on another sunny day in lower Manhattan. But even if my memories of Woodstock became inextricably tied to 9/11, I’d already dismissed the myth long before.

Yes, at Woodstock there was a general spirit of cooperation amidst the adversity that epitomized the sensibility of the burgeoning counterculture, and very few instances of violence and crime. But from everyone I knew who was there the report right after was, yeah, we had fun. But mud, no food, rain, some of the music was great, but the sound sucked if you weren’t up close … a mixed report.

The accepted wisdom is that the spirit of the 1960s died at the Altamont Speedway where the Rolling Stones gave a free concert four months later. I saw its end on the road to the Woodstock festival, an interesting day with one small but significant omen that things were changing.

As I walked towards the festival site I saw some guys smoking marijuana, dressed in their boutique hippie best in front of a new Volkswagen camper van. I caught the eyes of one who has the joint in his hand. Among the “freaks” I knew—a term far preferred, along with “head,” by those who were called hippies—it was de rigueur to share your pot. Instead, the guy gave me a hard time because I was wearing straight-legged jeans. “Hey man, get some bellbottoms.” (Hey, jerk, I wanted to say, I’ve been kicked out of school for wilder bellbottom pants than you have on.)

The real 1960s ended at Woodstock, because it was the pivotal moment when a genuine counterculture started to became over-the-counter culture (though the original Haight Ashbury hippies would date its death two years earlier). And even if it may have been a financial disaster as a festival, Woodstock became quite the commercial product—the movie! the album! the poster!—as well as the cultural symbol for the 1960s youth movement coming into its own. But to me, even if it may have been the three days the music went on in spite of everything, it was also when it all began to change from what had been into something different.

Don’t buy the hype, not in full at least. For the true 1960s, look before and beyond Woodstock. It’s there to be found. Woodstock is merely the tourist postcard, even if a source of entertaining products nonetheless.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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