Back in the middle of the 1980s, on the air one August day, the news guy and I talked a little about the anniversary of Woodstock. Later that day, one of the station’s sales reps flagged me down in the hall. “I heard your bit about Woodstock this morning,” she said. “I was there, you know.”
“Really?” I said. I did some math in my head. “You must have been pretty young.”
“I was 13, but I was there.”
That seemed plausible enough. “You should come on the show tomorrow morning and we’ll talk about it.”
And so she did, but what she claimed to remember about Woodstock were things anybody who had ever heard of Woodstock would know, whether they’d been at the show or not. When I prodded her for personal recollections, they were hazy to the point of incoherence. The interview was pretty much worthless, and although I didn’t confront her about it, I was convinced that she had lied to me. She hadn’t been there at all.
There’s an argument, of course, that her inability to remember proved exactly the opposite: “if you can remember it, you weren’t really there.” In the only lengthy piece I ever wrote about Woodstock, I called that “one of the snottiest catchphrases the 60s generation ever dreamed up.” A portion of that piece—which was posted here in 2006 but was based on something unpublished that I wrote in the late 90s—is below, with a couple of links added to relevant pieces written since.
Scratch an ex-hippie, and many will wax lyrical about “three days of peace, love, and music” and the magical community that sprang up in the countryside, where people got stoned, played together in the flowers and the mud, danced for hours to unbelievable music, and spontaneously formed the forever indivisible Woodstock Nation. Well, not exactly. . . . The significance of Woodstock is a bit overrated, I think. For all the talk of “Woodstock Nation,” it’s worth noting that the nation was primarily white, middle-class, and East Coast. And for all the talk of Woodstock marking the climax of the 1960s, it’s just as much the off-ramp. A little more than three months later, the communal ethos of Woodstock would go horridly sour at Altamont. A year after Woodstock, the antiwar movement that was as much the generation’s glue as the music suffered a fatal blow at Sterling Hall. From there, it became a duel between Woodstock veterans who claimed that if you remembered it you weren’t there and an ever-growing number of people who claimed to have been there but really weren’t.
That’s the extent of my take on Woodstock. I would revise it to mention Kent State in addition to Madison’s Sterling Hall bombing as nails in the counterculture coffin, but aside from that, I’ll stand by the rest of it. Woodstock interests me as the catalyst for other festivals that I have studied more extensively, including the Iola People’s Fair and the Wadena Rock Fest, and as one of the last landmark events of the 1960s, before the calendar turned to 1970, but its significance, in terms of long-lasting historical impact, is indeed overrated. Its main legacy, thanks to the success of the soundtrack album and film, was the realization that hippie culture could be monetized succesfully—as it has been ever since. Certain performances on that weekend remain iconic a half-century on. Leaving aside the question of how and how long it affected individuals who were there that weekend, whatever Woodstock did to affect the broader American culture was done and gone within a couple of years.
But as a totem? That’s where Woodstock lives, and why it lives. For all the mud and the drugs and the unwashed thousands, it possesses a kind of purity as a place before the world was born: our world, the one we live in today. A world that in the five decades since Woodstock promised much and delivered some of it, but that also failed to deliver much of what it could have. A world that is now moving swiftly backward, immolating itself in sacrifice to the gods of greed, hate, and death—pretty much the opposite of everything Woodstock is supposed to have stood for.
So let us read about Woodstock this weekend. Let us watch the movie again. (Or the recent PBS documentary.) Let us listen to the music made at Woodstock. Let us take a few hours’ respite from 2019’s hell of our own making and be there in the garden one last time.