My friend Lou is the only person I know who was at Woodstock in 1969—or at least, the only person who told me they were. He says he remembered seeing Richie Havens open the festival, and Jimi Hendrix closing it, when the soggy hill overlooking the stage had more trash on it than people. In between, thanks to taking “too much acid”, everything except the swarm of humanity was a total blur.
I was still in junior high school at the time, a state away from the festival, and was not old or inclined enough to attend. Among those of us who read morning newspapers or watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, though, the “happening” quickly became the number one topic of conversation in the school halls. I became a huge fan of the subsequent concert movie and double album that helped the promoters recover some of their losses, mythologize the three days for eternity and propel a handful of the musicians into lucrative careers. I saw the marathon movie at least three times in a theater, including once with my dad (a very big Santana and Sha-Na-Na fan), bought the four-hour director’s cut when it was released on DVD, but hadn’t watched it again until early this week, when Turner Classic Movies aired it in its entirety, complete with the very brief “Interfuckingmission.”
And you know what? This time I appreciated the film and actual event more than ever, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll get to.
For starters, Michael Wadleigh’s document of the festival is still an amazing technical achievement. Using a dozen cameras, his multi-angle and split-screen views of the best performances capture every moment of their excitement, particularly the raw, unbridled power of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Latin rock ecstacy of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, and Sly Stone’s funky epic version of “Wanna Take You Higher”. The interviews with concertgoers, town residents, snippets of dialogue from some of the artists, even words from a port-a-potty cleaner create a fascinating mosaic of Woodstock’s populace, and there is so much more Wadleigh shows without using even one second of narration. Forget the skinny-dipping and mud-sliding; the shots of gridlocked back roads and endless lines of young attendees trying to call their parents at a small bank of pay telephones are staggering. (“How did they ever pull this thing off without cell phones?” I asked my wife.)
Of course, some of the music is also forgettable, and due to length restrictions, there was a mountain of tuneage that was never featured in the movie or on the album. Tim Hardin, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Bert Sommer, Sweetwater, Keef Hartley, Quill, the Jeff Beck Group, The Band, Iron Butterfly, and Johnny Winter were all on the original concert poster, and Creedence Clearwater Revival apparently showed up and played. The Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin numbers wedged into the director’s cut are nothing special, but it’s sure good to see them all alive.
Still, watching the film in 2018 was a very different experience, because it brought on a brand new feeling of bittersweetness. It had nothing to do with nostalgia. No longing for Wavy Gravy, or funny announcements about bad acid, or Pete Townsend tossing his guitar in the crowd. Dripping over every hippie cliche and cultural milestone about Woodstock was a focused purpose: stopping the Vietnam War.
Nearly fifty years after the festival (good god, really?), so many horrible things are happening in this country now, so little has been learned, that I long for that same concentrated protest. Where do you even start? With the daily subverting of our Constitution? The insane gun laws? Voter suppression? Immigration nightmares? Rampant sexual harassment? The dismantling of environmental protections? The tax scam? The daily bald-face lying? Whatever tomorrow’s new outrage will be?
One thing is pretty clear, though: Aside from giving future generations a cultural icon to hang the hippie movement on, Woodstock changed virtually nothing. You can argue that it may have fueled subsequent anti-Vietnam demonstrations and helped end that war, but with the daily tsunami of horrors now submerging us, I’m not confident a massive poltical-themed rock festival these days would be little more than another mass selfie opportunity. Barring further Russian hacking, filling ballot boxes seems the best way to move back to the light.
“The New York State Thruway’s closed, man!” said Arlo Guthrie to one of the Woodstock promoters early in the film, with an almost triumphant glee in his voice. It was an innocent time, indeed.