Sunday, August 16, 2009

Woodstock's 40th Anniversary

Forty years ago yesterday, Woodstock began. I have a bit of a love affair with Woodstock. I wouldn't qualify myself as a hippie. I'm more materialistic. I love showers. I'm not really nonviolent. I'm not into drugs. I like tie dye, but not that much.

And yet, Woodstock and the '60s fascinate me. They fascinate me in part because I am absolutely in love with the music of the period. I can't tell you how many days my stereo blasted Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or The Band. I like the whole optimism of the scene, the idea that music really could change the world, that love was all it took. I find it much more inspiring than the healthy dose of cynicism that seems to plague even the most intrepid of activists.

But what truly fascinates me about Woodstock, the concert, is the fact that it shouldn't have been a success. We're talking about a field that was not planning on housing that many attendees. There were sanitation issues, a lack of food, and a lack of adequate first aid. And then there was the weather. The weather that prompted a couple of people my father knows who had actual tickets they paid actual money for to not attend. The weather that threatened lightening and turned the field into a muddy mess. There was the fact that the Richie Havens had to play a 3 hour set because many of the other acts scheduled to perform had been delayed and weren't on hand.

And yet, it was.

I love the museum at Bethel Woods, at the actual site of the concert. I love how it demonstrates not only a whole perspective of the 1960s social and music scene, but also why Woodstock was a success. And the reason why it was so successful is the reason why I think it still has relevance and resonance today. It was successful because the concert goers, implicitly, formed a social contract.

There were only two deaths at Woodstock - one drug overdose and one unfortunate person who was run over by a tractor. There were no reports of sexual assaults. And many of the concert goers pulled their own weight. There were tents for people suffering from bad acid trips. Those who recovered stayed in the tents in order to help the next group of people suffering from bad trips. I remember learning that and being surprised. I remember watching the film and thinking that I wouldn't have stayed. I wouldn't have wanted to help the next poor schmuck strung out.

But that's what the Woodstock crowd signed up for. They, for the most part, didn't pay for the festival. They came by the carload. And when they got there, they dealt with the lack of food, the lack of water, the lack of first aid, and the incidents of badness resulting from the brown acid. They gave back. Maybe not as much as they took; Max Yasgur's farm, and the neighboring farms, were worse for the wear after the 3 day concert. But I think what Yasgur said then still stands now:
I'm a farmer...(interrupted by cheering from the audience)...I don't know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you've proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you've had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you're taken care of... they'd enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, the important thing that you've proven to the world is that a half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are — a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God Bless You for it!
What Woodstock offers is the hope that we, as a group, can create something almost uniformly positive. That it is possible to live in a world where the deaths are accidental, where people are inclined to give some of their time to the next hapless victim of a bad trip. It may not be achievable. Woodstock '99 stands out as a staunch counter example with its high prices and its rape and violence. But Woodstock '69 shines in the distance as a distinct possibility - though hopefully with modern plumbing and enough food for everyone.

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