Monday, August 17, 2009

Woodstock Nation

Posted By on Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 4:00 AM

I have a photograph that shows a glass case containing a stack of wrecked electric guitars belonging to the Who's Pete Townshend. In his glory days, Townshend made a habit of smashing his guitar at the end of every concert. Evidently, he hung on to a fair number of these battered instruments, because they became part of an exhibition celebrating the Who's 15th anniversary at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1978.

Yes, in those days the very idea that a rock band might hang on for 15 years was reason enough to organize a museum retrospective.

Townshend and the Who played at Woodstock, and this past weekend we were reminded that 40 years have passed since several hundred thousand people gathered at a farm in Bethel, N.Y., for that festival of music and mud. I was in the midst of getting ready to leave home for my first year of college at the time; the idea of making the trip East didn't occur to me. But even in that analog, nonwired world, I, along with countless others, was aware of what was happening.

The buzz from Woodstock crossed the country in real time, so that when the festival ended on Monday, TV host Dick Cavett had already worked out a deal to have several performers, including The Jefferson Airplane, Stephen Stills and David Crosby in his studio for a follow-up taping late Monday afternoon. Jimi Hendrix was supposed to make it, but couldn't because his set ran late. Cavett's Woodstock show ran the next night and felt like a dispatch from the counter cultural front. Stephen Stills stonily joked about the mud encrusted on his jeans. Cavett showed his solidarity with his guests by eschewing his usual tie for an open collar and a jaunty neckerchief. I remember my dad, whose taste ran more to Bing than David, saying he thought Crosby sounded "glib."

The legend of Woodstock Nation quickly mushroomed. An event where very little had gone according to plan was practically enshrined as Exhibit A in reasons to believe that a better, brighter world based on peace and love and the virtues of getting high was within reach. As David Crosby famously said, no one was killed, ergo the Age of Aquarius was upon us.

Woodstock's era of good feelings was short-lived. It will be interesting to see if, this December, our media's nostalgia reflex devotes equal time to 1969's other landmark rock festival, Altamont. Altamont was a speedway in a scrubby landscape near San Francisco. Woodstock no-shows The Rolling Stones were the headliners, supported by such Bay Area luminaries and Woodstock alums as The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Since nothing had gone according to plan at Woodstock, preparations for Altamont were given short shrift. Carelessness was cool -- as was the idea of hiring the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang to be in charge of security.

Altamont has gone down in history as Woodstock's evil twin, the festival where Woodstock Nation came face to face with its dark side. Bad trips abounded as scores of people, including the Airplane's lead singer Marty Balin, who tried to defend a fan in front of the stage, were beaten up by Hell's Angels. And this time, someone did get killed.

If Altamont couldn't erase Woodstock's good vibes, it certainly neutralized them. As 1970 dawned, the war was still raging in Vietnam. That spring, National Guardsmen would open fire on students at Kent State in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine others. Richard Nixon was most definitely the president. He would be overwhelmingly re-elected in 1972.

Woodstock, it turned out, was not a beginning but the high-water mark before a fall. It was the apex of a movement in which the arts, particularly music, seemed to represent the leading edge of real social change. A slew of bands that wrote their own material and expressed contempt for an entertainment business they claimed bred complacency and the status quo developed followings that understood their music as the promise of a new way of living.

This, of course, was more than rock and roll was ever meant to bear. The bands that played at Woodstock didn't change the world, but the music business. Many of them became -- and still are -- stars not that different from the older entertainers they once put down.

As for the fans, we have fond, if highly selective, memories. We certainly haven't translated peace and love into anything like a coherent politics. More often than not, we've voted in ways that seem more aimed at denying Woodstock's legacy than attempting to channel it into new and constructive contexts.

That's a shame, because it turns out that, whether it embarrasses us or not, the energy Woodstock represents has an uncanny staying power. Once it seemed incredible that something as seemingly ephemeral as a rock band might last for more than a generation. But 40 years on and more, that creative rush is still palpable. It transcends politics and fashion. It doesn't tell us what to do, but it's a sign that, if we let ourselves, we're capable of wonderful things.

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David Hoppe

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