Woodstock: 53 years On
Below are two articles I wrote about Woodstock, the first as soon as I could get my thoughts together after the event, and the second, a book review of an oral history, twenty years later. I was 23 years old when I wrote the first article. Typing it up for posting on the internet in 2014 I found it charming, embarrassing, baffling, muddled and insightful. But I did not change a word. (Nor did I remove any of the parentheses). In fact, I returned it to the original italicization as appeared in the original Fusion magazine article that was altered when it was reprinted in The Age of Rock 2. Additional comments follow the second article.
The Politics of Rock: Movement vs. Groovement
Fusion, October 17, 1969
In my lifetime, which is exclusively post-World War II time, I have felt some interest and identity for two things: Rock and Roll and ‘the Movement.” One is a cultural form, and the other a political form, and both are peculiar to my generation.
Rock, and it’s constellation of associations—Dope, Hippie Ideals and Styles—gave a form for our middle-class avant-garde rebellion against tedium and repression that wasn’t associated with the irrelevant and abhorrent situations of the past. I remember, when I was in high school, via my Advanced College Prep English Class I developed an attachment to the poets of the ‘20s who lived in Paris, particularly e. e. cummings.
Eventually, of course, I had to see that as a dead allegiance to a time gone by whose attempts at freedom were largely failures, as my own fucked-up life could prove.
Eventually, of course, I had to see that the Beach Boys, of course, had been my avant-garde all along. That they were dealing with the context I lived in.
Likewise, somehow, the Movement, or the New Left, has usually been described as a political alternative for our generation. “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” used to be a popular motto. And for a while (less so now I think), it was in vogue to give present-day America a totally new political interpretation related to its advanced technology. Both of the above generalizations, actually, aren’t really true. And that’s why they sound a little hackneyed.
Rock and Roll has reached such a level of success that it is almost boring, and is becoming so old that it can spawn a revival of itself. The promises of Haight-Ashbury, if you didn’t guess, haven’t been fulfilled. Not many of us, though we tried, were able to live like the Beatles, and now many of us aren’t sure we’d want to. The kids beginning to buy records now are the same age as Elvis Presley’s career.
The New Left and/or Movement is going through some heavy convolutions relating heavier to its middle-aged and aged heritage. We are seemingly at a moment of disintegration and crystallization, to the point where it isn’t clear whether the term New Left is appropriate anymore, and that vague sense of a social “Movement” doesn’t seem enough.
Nevertheless, outside of the institutions connected with home and the Establishment (school, church, psychotherapy, the draft, the Stu Erwin Show, Time magazine), my life has swung back and forth between Rock and Roll and the Movement, and it’s only their failures that I can feel responsible for and sad about.
I would imagine, too, that if most post-Hiroshima people look at their lives they will see the same thing.
The problem, of course, is that there seems to be some sort of connection between the two—they get entangled in your life—but it isn’t clear what the connection is. They both developed at the same time, and both, it some ways, dealt with the same problems—Race, Sex, Repression, class (remember when Rock was low-class unrespectable?). But they are both so new that . . .
On the one hand you have cats like Lennon who have really gotten into their thing and are forced to prove that there is no connection. Or the third-rate ideology of the move Wild in the Streets. Or far-out jive like Marshall McLuhan runs down to give a set of symptoms and tools credit for all social reality.
On the other hand you have the politicos seeing all those kids smoking dope, tired of school, into something, and the idea of course is how do you pick up on that. Even if they aren’t class conscious.
Well, lately, to be simple, I’ve been into my political phase. I was planning to go up to Woodstock anyway since it sounded Like An Event, plus a lot of good groups (which is why I imagine most people went). But I was wondering, well, is that responsible, shouldn’t I stay in New York City handing out useless leaflets convincing nobody to be radical instead? Or attend a meeting? And then I had my excuse. Somehow Abbie Hoffman had coerced, conned, or threatened the festival promoters into giving him space at the festival and bread for the Movement. Various groups in New York were getting together and planning to go up to Woodstock to organize. I could have my weekend and be political.
It also seemed like a chance to resolve the Rock-New Left contradiction in my life. Here was a large, organized (the first attempt at a collation between New York groups) attempt to relate politically to a Rock Event.
What happened was instructive.
First off, everyone knew that this was something new. A test to see if the Movement could relate to something hip.
Here were the approaches I heard suggested:
- Point out to people that what they were doing wasn’t fun, free, warm, wet, or whatever, that it was happening under Capitalism, and therefore bad.
- Point out to people that what they were doing isn’t real. Bread and Circuses, Co-optation, The Plastic Straitjacket, that it was happening under Capitalism and therefore phony.
- Talk to the Natives in Their Language Approach—Be elitist but Don’t Show It. Talk hip to hide your straight ideas.
- Point out to people that Rock and Roll is good, that it’s “Ours,” but it’s run by capitalist corporations and thus mistreated, stolen from “US,” fucked-over, etc. That it’s happening under Capitalism and therefore suppressed, That, of all things, the Promoters were trying to make money off this.
All of these were interpretations of the event. All of them are wrong as far as I can see. But nevertheless, no matter what we thought, the preparations for the Festival were mainly the printing of literature, banners and posters, and preparations for doing more printing up at the festival.
The promoters had also given us a sections of the grounds, across the woods by the Hog Farm, to camp out and set up booths: Movement City. All these people, see, will walk over to Movement City, go to the booths of the different groups, scoop up literature . . .
The old campus lit table approach.
The other plan was to go around to the different campsites and rap with people.
Rap means talk, the same old verbal-intellectual bullshit. But it sounds hipper.
Well, we got up there with our literature. And we set up our booth (I’m in MDS) with the others. And behind it was this $1,000 printing press that was going to run off a newspaper each day.
As you may know by now, having read it in Time-Newsweek-Special Issue Life-Times-Post-Rolling Stone-Fusion-On the Radio-TV, Woodstock wasn’t like that. It was big (I have my big anecdotes) it was far-out (I have my far-out anecdotes). (But I’m not going to use them.)
Besides the fact that our analysis and preparations were all wrong, the Festival, at that time, which seems a long time gone, . . .was a mind blower.
I was there, Abbie Hoffman was there, SDS, MDS, Motherfuckers, Peaceniks, Swamis, Mehr Babaites, the Hot Chow Mein truck guys, we were all there, trying to pick up on it, but nobody got all the energy. Not even the performers. Not even Janis Joplin, who I once saw DANCE with 3,000 people—she couldn’t really relate to the whole audience. Too big, too far-out.
The one good tactic planned (to storm the gates and let everyone in free) was never used. Everyone was already in. The gates weren’t even put up.
The booths were never used. The scene was so far-out people started leaving right away. Literature got rained on or was never distributed. The plates for the printing press never showed up, so it couldn’t be used.
Friday night the rain was a very bad scene for the many people there without cars or tents to get into. We awoke to hear the U.S. Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front announcing over their loudspeaker: “Get Your Dry Che Guevara T-Shirts: Only Two Dollars.”
The T-shirts had cost them, so I heard, about 5-10 percent of that, maybe, and were silk-screened earlier in New York.
That’s called Radical Politics.
The next day, Sunday, when it started raining, we rushed back from the concert to save our sleeping bags and saw it, the thousand-dollar printing press, standing in the rain, unattended. We covered it, a little amazed, and that stayed my symbol of all our political activity—leaflets blowing through a field, a printing press in the rain that was never used.
The Movement failed at Woodstock, in a small way because the event was basically incomprehensible to everyone up there. The incredibly mind-blowing aspect of that weekend, however, only helped expose and render useless an approach that usually appears just irrelevant.
Once again the Movement approached things from a stagnant, formalized position exterior to what was happening, while managing to be both uncomprehending and elitist about it. This was shown by our inability to think of anything to do except write things down on a piece of paper and hand them out to people. And our acceptance of a campsite that put us in a particular location, distinct from those where just plain old campers were.
This was to be expected, since the Movement must, really, set itself in opposition to the existing order, and must constantly be creating positions of opposition. That’s the idea. In this case, though, it was clear to everyone that the opposition was meaningless, and the alternative position was swept away immediately by the monster energy and eventual good vibes of the event itself.
The problem remains though, because Rock and Roll, in spite of what the hip theorists say, whether they are Leftist-hip or Buddhist-hip, works in a constant process of assimilation of contradictions.
What does assimilation of contradictions mean?
It means, first off, that Rock and Roll, Rock culture, hip, pop, and youth culture all spring out of middle-class reality, and spring out of capitalism, and all spring out of affluence.
That Rock and Roll wasn’t created (like the Port Huron Statement) by a bunch of smart-asses sitting around saying, “Let’s make an alternative revolutionary culture,” it was made by some businessmen who began to understand that the recreation of black music (blues, rhythm and blues) into a white context made money.
Of course they never understood the total significance of it. And that’s why we all like Rock and Roll.
Because it contains both the respectable reality of its own position and the suggestion of something destructive to that reality. So it was never really clear whether Elvis was a good guy or a bad guy. That’s the idea.
Just like the ever-continuing dialectic of black/white that everyone knows is the staple of Rock and Roll. And will continue to be as long as it, racism, and repression (sexually) continue to exist here.
Well, all I’m trying to say with this muddled theory is that Rock and Roll, like you and me, is a child of capitalism. Listening to Rock and Roll can be pro, anti, non, or a-capitalist, also like you and me.
To me Woodstock was another Rock and Roll adventure. Since, lately, the music has become slightly boring (who has been excited about a record or a concert lately?) Rock and Roll created an event that transcended the music, and that event was definitely exciting and incomprehensible, the way Rock music used to be.
A higher plane of assimilated contradictions.
What this meant however, was that it was necessary to have money behind it, i.e., capitalist promoters, be they dumb, smart, hip, or piggish. It also meant that it would be a middle-class experience, not a revolutionary one, although there would be revolutionary implications or seeds in what happened.
This is to say, the kids (including us, finally) were up there to have a good time. And would have it, God-damn-it, no matter what. The possibilities for a good time were there, and so the possibilities for a bad time were ignored.
This is how you survive in affluent middle-class adolescence, and beyond. You take the good things, which are lying here or there, and turn them into something you can dig or turn yourself into someone who can dig them. You ignore the rest.
It worked beautifully at Woodstock. You took the massive energy, the freedom (dope, going nude), all the good music, and general friendliness, and dug that. You ignored whether or not someone was making money from it. You ignored the rain and mud, lack of water, toilets, food, and too much sun, and assumed that on some level people would provide.
They did. It never became a crisis.
In fact, the few inconveniences gave everyone something to do, and developed a reason for cooperation, which made you feel good, although it can hardly be said that the audience themselves solved the problems of food, medical supplies, and water.
Now at the time, seeing the total meaninglessness of our “political” attempts, and digging the good vibes, from the crowd, the music, and being in the country, we were hip to the idea that the Movement was missing the whole thing.
We camped near the Hog Farm, the commune that served the free food and helped the people on bummers. Our line going up there was that they were co-opted sell-outs and so on who were going to con people into thinking that COPS WERE GOOD IF THEY WERE HIPPIES. (They had been hired by the Festival.)
Well so on and so forth for that shit. I ended up eating Hog Farm food (mainly grains) that was cheap and good, admiring their productivity and good vibes and comparing them to the politicians and their leaflets.
In the rain and mud, water shortages, heat and cold, the Hog Farm served the people, whatever their ideology, while others were trying to point out that if there wasn’t enough water, that meant capitalism was bad.
At the time, I went away from the weekend with hordes of good vibes. Sharing with people, being in the country, not relating to possessions. Being able to smoke anywhere you wanted.
And I was thinking that this good-vibes stuff is where it’s at.
Since then, however, I have heard and read (and yes written) so much about Woodstock that I’m sick of it. WMCA has a special Woodstock record selection. Life magazine has a special issue. Someone on the block has a “We Proved it at Woodstock” bumper sticker.
The only thing I’m thankful for is that no one sent Norman Mailer there.
And, as we all know, the good vibes don’t last.
We were all out in the country around nothing but white middle-class kids (notice that intentional lack of soul acts or more proletarian acts up there). We were in the country. And entertainment, food, and water was being provided, at least minimally.
We didn’t build the city, that’s for sure.
Sometimes I wonder if it can ever happen again. Whether anyone will be able to pull off a super-Festival again where things are run just well enough to keep everyone happy and just poorly enough to give everyone something to do.
It was interesting, you know, when we went over to the concert area, how eager people were to take our leaflets. Out of boredom and lack of fear.
If one is sufficiently well run, I bet it will get as boring as the Fillmore concert-light show thing has become. Nothing to do but watch it run.
And when I think about it now, in tranquility, after the original rush of good feelings, I can recall my bad moment anecdotes, too, which only goes to prove that one far-out weekend can’t turn around twenty crummy years of middle class life. (A bunch of kids on Mescaline, next to us, spending the evening insulting each other, laughing, not bad.)
Finally, no one really had anything to say about what was going on You were just sitting on your blanket. And at some point that becomes a drag. If you aren’t a personal friend of Jimi Hendrix and aren’t at the performers’ party eating strawberries and cream, but in a blanket sharing a Coca-Cola it took an hour to get.
Well, it was limited game, and someone should have run down the limits to people. But it had to be someone who understood the game, and related to it, and knew why people were playing it, and what the payoff was or might be.
Incomplete, But Festival History Works
Woodstock, The Oral History, by Joel Makower, Doubleday
New York Post August 6, 1989
Joe Cocker recollects: “It was quite incredible. That’s what it was. The helicopter pilot told me, ‘Joe, wait ‘til you see this,’ like I’m not going to believe that big a crowd. I know that when I talked to the rest of the band members a couple of them got sick and threw up outside their helicopter going over the crowd.”
And that may have been more contact than most of the musicians made with their audience all weekend.
Which is the point. Because it didn’t matter.
Sure, some of the music was inconsequential. Sure, most of the performers looked and sounded like ants singing through the world’s smallest transistor radio. But this wasn’t just a monster version of Bon Jovi at the Meadowlands. Or a liberal fundraiser like Live Aid or Bangladesh.
This was the concert where the audience got so big it became the story. So big no one could sing to all of it. So big the radicals couldn’t organize it. So big the promoters never made money from it. So big it can’t be reduced to an object of nostalgia 20 years down the line. So big no single voice can describe it, which is why the oral history format works so well.
Some voices from the spectrum:
Joe Rosenman, young entrepreneur: “From roughly Wednesday night through Sunday night, I would say the financial welfare of the venture seemed very unimportant. I don’t underand why . . . I think all of us found ourselves in a situation that we had never been in before and would never be in again, with pressures and considerations that don’t usually happen to you.”
Bonnie Jean Romeny, the hippie: “There was a transformation of human beings that took place that was cosmic or spiritual or whatever word one would use for a higher level of interacting with people . . . And the music was the backdrop.”
David Crosby, the musician: “At that point we were all thrilled with the idea that our values were triumphant someplace in the world. That at least for this one small space of time in this one little town in New York, the hippie ethic was the ruling way to do. And it felt great.”
And Abbie Hoffman, the politico: “The people who were flying the helicopters were, of course, National Guard . . . And here we were the antithesis, we were the Woodstock Army. But you know, when it came to things like saving lives and getting out good information about not drinking certain water, you know, all of a sudden the casual sex and the nudity and the drug smokers and the fact that we were against the war didn’t matter. So in a sense, we were all Americans and I can’t remember a single moment of friction.”
I tore through this book in a motel room in May while watching Dan Rather and Bernard Shaw live from Tiananmen Square. And without trying to trivialize China’s current agony, I’ve got to mention that this ex-hippie felt a shock of Woodstock recognition. Not just because of the spectacle of festive, freedom-loving youth backed up by just plain folks, but from the sheer mind-boggling size of the two events.
Before the troops moved in, Dan and our other usually cool anchors looked, well, unanchored—as if they were witnessing a democratic moment with so many participants there was no room for the pundit’s customary hook. Except the event itself. Far out.
After a weekend, Woodstock, at least, melted away (the narrative, incidentally, show how much work went into making that melt graceful), leaving us with our consumer artifacts — the recently re-released videotape, the soon-to-be-released CD, this book and several other inferior versions of it. But the event might well have ended ominously.
Woodstock took place, let us remember, during the middle of a war. For some participants, literally so. I have a friend who attended on leave from Vietnam and went back after the weekend. The sound crew and many of the doctors had honed their skills at demonstrations.
And in a bit of yin/yang that deserves more contemplation, military similies keep popping up in the oral history — all those choppers and organization of such large numbers. A couple of the key movers, in fact, were hippie offspring of cops and soldiers with special skills of deploying “the troops.”
And most of the players in the drama, from cooks to stagehands to audience, felt both the heat of the law and the heat of history. That’s why there was such a will to make things work.
“We were naive with a vengeance,” said one participant. And it’s this tension of catastrophe escaped, alongside the good spirits of “Hey, let’s put on a show!” that makes for vivid reading and continues to make Woodstock a vivid time. It may also explain why the music that still holds up from Woodstock is agonized — like Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix — rather than pastoral.
If it does anything, this book restores the hip capitalists and hip lefties to their rightful places alongside the musicians and the audience in the Woodstock pantheon. A lot of hard work and intelligent decision making, as well as good luck, set the stage for those three days — way more than the glimpse of hippie carpenters and their old ladies on horseback that the prologue to the movie suggests.
Among the good guys:
John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, honest young businessmen who continued to pay off debts and settle gripes a decade after, thereby keeping the mythology intact. No, they didn’t break even until 1980 because they had to sell the movie to Warners to stay afloat. But, yes, they own the rights to any sequel.
Wes Pomeroy, head of security, a liberal cop who helped to place the emphasis on audience involvement rather than on crowd manipulation and control.
Wavy Gravy, Bonnie Romny and the other Hog Farmers, New Mexico hippies who fed the masses and talked them down from bad acid trips.
Abbie Hoffman, often portrayed in Woodstock lore as Mr. Bad Vibes, herein revealed as the man who helped whip the nearly non-existent medical services into shape, avoiding a disaster.
But Roberts, Rosenman, Pomeroy and Hoffman aren’t in the movie.
Woodstock wasn’t just the world’s biggest frat party, or even simply the dawn of youth culture commodification. If anything it was a national office Christmas party, where, by means of inebriation, some sense of solidarity was forged among people who are customarily at one another’s throats. It was also an expression of American good will under the auspices of the counter culture, with Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix as bait. (Bait that, at least in their cases, rose to the occasion.)
Joel Makover goes a long way toward restoring our sense of just how broad and deep the cast was that put on the original production. But, curiously, outside of a foreword that contains some rather predictable stories, he does little to define that surprising star of the show, the audience.
John Roberts: “We would get a lot of correspondence in those days, particularly with the letters which ordered the tickets. It wouldn’t just be a check in there. The outporing of love coming from people — peace signs drawn on it, ‘Love and peace forever, Little Raven’ or some bizarre kind of late ‘60s nickname. And we were seeing this, and maybe there really was something going on there. It was very strange and very lovely.”
For some, Woodstock was a sudden plunge into the counterculture; for others it was a culmination. A guy in a bar once told me he had never been outside the city until he went to Woodstock. I’d like to have heard more from people like him. I’d also like to have read an interview with Little Raven.
Reading these two articles together I noticed the juxtaposition of Woodstock and Tiananmen Square. Better to have an event covered too often than have an event erased from history. The Woodstock movie itself became event, and the performers were the focus. But in China and upstate New York, the audience was the main character.
Passing its 50th anniversary, I believe Woodstock deserves remembering. For some it’s just a good concert, for others an unpleasant slog through the mud. But for many a small town or neighborhood hippie or would be elitist hipster or lefty politico, it was proof that they really were a piece of a much bigger something. At a moment when the country was pulling apart, the musicians, the audience, the promoters, the security, the locals, the National Guard, the communes, and the lefty anti-war doctors all pulled together. That’s worth commemorating by asking, “How did it all happen?” And “Why did it all happen?”
Tom Smucker, 2014, 2022