Woodstock was the senior prom of the sixties. It was the time to dress up, give your gal a corsage, get wacked and escort her to the place where the music was.
Well, more or less.
I just got home from my old haunt, Culture News at the New York Times. To mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the Times recorded a podcast featuring three of the team of reporters who covered it back in 1969, Mike Kaufman, Bernard Collier and me, moderated by chief rock critic Jon Pareles. The podcast will be
available on the Times site on Friday, August 14. The print coverage will be in the Sunday, August 9, paper.
I was the youngest of the three reporters on the panel, and ironically the one who didn’t think the event was majestic. I’ve said this before: the future did not open up, spilling forth wonderfulness onto the generation that will save the world. What opened up was the skies, pouring water onto acres and acres of sodden souls forced to spend three days sitting in mud.
Mike’s take on Woodstock featured the thought that drugs were the attraction, the possibility of sampling new and better ones. Bernard focused on the generally overlooked, very good point that the birth control pill had only begun to achieve widespread adoption at the time we all hitched and walked to the garden. I recalled those black and white photos of Civil War battlefields with bodies laying in the mud.
I did not spend my three days there with the folks doing the stuff that became folklore – bathing nude in that lake, having dramatic acid catastrophes, or hanging at the rock celebrity drug den. I spent the whole time with the huddled bodies in the fields, the 90% who would have left after a day had there existed the opportunity to do so.
And I also filed stories, three of them as I recall, commenting about the bands that appeared as well as noting the fact that barely anyone was close enough to the stage to hear them. This was not what went into the mythology created by an adoring press, members of whom spent most of their time on dry land with food and drugs. Not the Times guys of course. We worked.
New York deejay and splendid music scene observer Pete Fornatale, with whom I once shared WNEW-FM in New York (I did a brief stint as a DJ; I was awful), has just published “Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock” (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone). “Back to the Garden” is the best book ever written on Woodstock. From his base at New York’s WFUV-FM, Pete and his son Pete Junior assembled observation from just about all the performers and other participants, including me.
Quoth Pete Townshend, “Woodstock was horrible. Woodstock was only horrible because it went so wrong. It could have been extraordinary. I suppose with the carefully edited view that the people got through Michael Wadleigh’s film, it was a great event. But for those involved in it, it was a terrible shambles. Full of the most naïve, childlike people. We have a word for them in England. Twits.”
In an interview, Pete Fornatale offered this of Woodstock: "On the downside, the seeds for its destruction were planted even as the event unfolded: recognition by Corporate America that there was a lot of money to be made from these 'kids' ; the so-called "Woodstock Laws" that went into effect almost immediately making it almost impossible that anything remotely like it could ever happen again; and now, in a post-9/11 world, it can certainly never happen again. So there were a lot of unfulfilled promises in the 40 years since Woodstock."
But he added, "Apart from everything else you can say about it, Woodstock made us feel the rapture of being alive. It’s time to get back to the garden."
Well, okay. But keep this in mind while suffering through the onslaught of Woodstock mythology we will get in the next few weeks -- if Woodstock was a garden, realize that gardens also have a lot of downpours and a lot of mud.
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