Woodstock’s Contradictions, 50 Years Later

Woodstock’s Contradictions, 50 Years Later

Fifty years later, I still have what’s left of a pair of three-day tickets to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, numbered 39731 and 39732. They had cost all of $18 each.

By the time my brother (who, unlike me, was old enough to drive) and I had trudged to the site from the car we’d abandoned by the side of a clogged country road in Bethel, N.Y., no one was taking tickets, and the fences that organizers had put up around Max Yasgur’s farm in White Lake, a subdivision of Bethel, had been or would soon be toppled. Overwhelmed and underprepared, the promoters declared that Woodstock was a free festival and welcomed the hordes that they couldn’t have turned back anyway.

And as hundreds of thousands of people continued to arrive, the music and mythologizing began, along with the rain, the mud, the giddy sensation of being part of an unexpected multitude, the forecasts of disaster, the helicopter overflights to get musicians and food in and medical emergencies out, the uneven stage performances, the random and mostly friendly encounters, the lengthy set changes filled with urgent announcements, the waves of euphoria and discomfort, the sheer implausibility of the whole event.

As a music critic, I have been to dozens of festivals since then, and none have been so makeshift, so precarious or so revelatory. Woodstock was an experiment that, as everyone there seemed to realize, could go wrong at any moment and, by sheer luck, didn’t. Just four months later, things went very wrong at its West Coast successor: Altamont.

But the Woodstock festival was simultaneously an epiphany and an indulgence. Freeloaders were not turned away. Many of the era’s best bands were on the bill, including a West Coast contingent that made for one of the greatest Saturday nights — continuing well past Sunday sunrise — of the rock era: the Grateful Dead (though hardly at their best), Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone and Jefferson Airplane, with an explosive set by the Who tucked in as a British bonus.

I was close enough, by the first ring of sound towers, to see and hear the concert, and stayed there, so I missed the many other idyllic, hedonistic activities that have been recounted by other festivalgoers.

Woodstock was a brief moment that would provide contradictory lessons for generations to come. It was entertainment that felt momentarily rebellious — “a festival of peace and music” — that posited art as an alternative reality. Rock concerts, happenings, be-ins and love-ins were all part of the late-1960s cultural upheaval, but they were local events, not city-sized assemblies with people, presumably like-minded people, as far as the eye could see. Woodstock was on a different scale, a few quantum leaps up. It lived up to that “peace and music” billing to gather an unexpectedly large, unexpectedly amiable community; it envisioned pleasure as a solution to societal strife, not merely a distraction from it. (That didn’t pan out.)

But Woodstock also partied while people died in Vietnam; the continual helicopter shuttles, audible in the live music recordings, were constant reminders of military technology, flown by the National Guard. The best song about the festival, “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell (she wasn’t there), envisions bomber jets “turning into butterflies.”

Most importantly, the scale of Woodstock showed people who had considered themselves “freaks” that they weren’t as small a minority as they had thought. Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band paused during a tuning break to marvel, “The thing that surprises me is, like, how many of us there are. And it makes me fantastically happy.”

For those who were coldbloodedly watching numbers, even in 1969, Woodstock simply identified a big, promising segment of the youth market, ready for the commercial exploitation that would ensue almost immediately. “Woodstock Nation,” despite Abbie Hoffman’s hopes when he coined the term, turned out to be a demographic rather than a political force.

At every festival that I’ve attended since Woodstock — Bonnaroo, Reading, Coachella, Electric Zoo, Rock in Rio, even the first Lollapalooza (which did hint at a new outsider community) — the audience has been treated more like consumers than crusaders. Woodstock was different, a festival experience that was still largely unformed. Wow — all these people! But one of Woodstock’s main lessons was one of the most obvious ones: People like free stuff.

I’ve had to recalibrate my distant memories in the light of careful 50th-anniversary documentation. The 1970 film “Woodstock,” directed by Michael Wadleigh — which helped recoup the physical festival’s financial losses — was of necessity partial and edited, disseminating celebratory images and reinforcing a Woodstock aura that had already spread by word of mouth. But this year a far more complete replica of Woodstock is available. A heroic reclamation project has worked through the all the preserved audiotapes from the event; Rhino is releasing 10-CD, five-LP and three-CD digests and a fascinating, exhaustive, sometimes exhausting 38-CD set. For me after 50 years, it’s a startling, revisionist déjà vu.

The full set takes advantage of live microphones and constantly rolling tape from both backstage and onstage. Woodstock’s producers hadn’t exactly figured out traffic, security, lighting, food, medical care or toilets, but filming and recording were thorough. All those between-set announcements — now I remember them, I guess — were a chronicle of individuals trying to find one another (no cellphones or text messages in 1969) and pleas for crowd control: getting the festivalgoers to stay off the access roads, the sound-tower scaffolding, the fragile water pipes. The weariness and exasperation in Chip Monck’s voice keep growing.

Woodstock legend aside, all was not communal good vibes. Bad actors were distributing bad acid in multiple colors, not just the brown from the “Woodstock” film. The tapes also captured prolonged tensions between standees up front and people seated behind them who couldn’t see: “Sit down!” “Stand up!” As there would be at Woodstock ’99, there was deep discontent over food vendor prices. But it didn’t turn into rioting; in 1969 Woodstock also had the Hog Farm, the hippie commune that geared up to provide free food to thousands of people over the three-day weekend. We were assured that, at least minimally, we’d be taken care of.

And that was one essence of Woodstock in 1969. Illusory or not, a certain abundance was taken for granted. It was the end of a prosperous decade and an optimistic economy spurred by domestic spending and, ironically for peaceniks, the manufacturing boom of the Vietnam War. Statistically, 1969 was the last year the United States ran a budget surplus until 1998, and the harsh mentality that set in with the recessionary 1970s had not arrived at all.

The hippie ideal was to ignore or escape the system, not to game it. And the engineering/M.B.A. notion that every transaction is a zero-sum game — if someone gains, someone else has to lose just as much — had not set in. In the expansionary 1960s, it felt as if there could be enough for everyone. Woodstock festivalgoers weren’t reflexively selfish; there was a goofy solidarity. Social science defines a “tragedy of the commons,” where sustainable community resources are instead consumed by short-term individual self-interest, but Woodstock was, for that long weekend in 1969, more like a comedy of the commons. In the mud together, most people were willing to laugh off annoyances and share. The drugs probably helped.

But forget the nostalgia. Millennials have every right to point out how Woodstock represented baby boomer privilege in crystalline form. We got a free marathon all-star concert. (I don’t begrudge my $18.) We swarmed a previously unspoiled dairy farm and its surroundings. We absolutely thought we were the center of the universe. And afterward, someone else had to clean up the giant mess we left behind. Insert the global-warming analogy.

Woodstock startled and baffled the news media. Contemporary reports relied on official sources — police, medical personnel, local government — and painted a disaster of traffic jams, food shortages and drug freakouts. But even in the pelting rain, a whole lot of people were having a great time. For a vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of people at Woodstock, there was no more hardship than there would have been at a very poorly planned camping weekend.

Bands might be running many hours late, but they were there, no doubt as astonished at the crowd size as the crowd was. Hospital tents were somehow staffed — as the music played, we didn’t realize how much volunteering and improvising was going on behind the scenes. The Hog Farm was cooking a whole lot of vegetables, and it was also summer in upstate New York farm country; Sullivan County neighbors were donating food that was being airlifted in. And if things got too bad at the festival itself, it wasn’t that hard to leave.

Which we did, my more pragmatic brother and I, once Saturday’s lineup concluded on Sunday morning, after Jefferson Airplane played what Grace Slick called its “morning maniac music” set. Soggy and muddy and sleepless, we weren’t going to wait while the festival geared up for its third day’s lineup. I missed the Band — I’d see them at the gigantic Summer Jam in 1973 at Watkins Glen, a whole other story — and, yes, I missed Jimi Hendrix, who played his divebombing “Star-Spangled Banner” on Monday morning to a much-thinned crowd. (Anyway, it became my college radio station’s late-night signoff.) No matter. I’m so lucky I was there. Things would never be that loose again.

Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988.

Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles

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