Woodstock '94 can't live up to the myth, but the original festival couldn't, either DON'T LOOK BACK

August 07, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Most of us think of the original Woodstock festival in terms much like the ones Joni Mitchell used in her song, "Woodstock."

We think of it as a time of innocence and brotherhood, when the happy pilgrims of the Aquarian Age were "half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration." We think of it as a cultural cleansing, when "bomber jet planes" turned into "butterflies above our nation," and millions understood how important it was to "get ourselves back to the garden." In short, we imagine Woodstock as one of the defining events of the rock era, a single moment in which an entire generation's hopes and dreams were crystallized in a single, mud-soaked utopian instant.

There are no such hopes for Woodstock the Sequel, though. It will be far more environmentally friendly than the original event, thanks to better planning, tougher regulations and enforced car-pooling. It should also be considerably less chaotic, what with 1,000 security guards (plus assorted local police) on hand to see that no one crashes the gate or declares a "free festival" this time around.

But a "defining event"? Not likely. At best, Woodstock '94 will be little more than a first-rate rock festival, with top-notch talent in an elaborately entertaining environment. It ought to be great entertainment, but as far as cultural significance goes, there's no reason to expect that this event will be any more resonant than any of the US Festivals (remember them?) were. It's just a concert, after all.

Of course, that's all the original Woodstock was meant to be. All Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman wanted to do when they mounted that concert at Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y.,.was put on the biggest rock concert anyone had ever seen. No one gave a thought to what it might mean to the baby boomers as a generation, much less to the nation as a whole.

Nor would they have, had things not gone legendarily wrong. Grossly underestimating both the event's appeal and its logistical necessities, Lang and Rosenman were totally unprepared for the crowd that converged on the festival site. Highways were blocked and fences were down; there was a shortage of food and sanitary facilities; performers had a hard time getting in, and an even tougher time getting paid. On top of which, the weather was miserable.

In short, Woodstock was a disaster. But instead of turning ugly, the way Altamont would a few months later, the gathering at Yasgur's farm seemed a sort of benign calamity, one that pointed not to the folly of its participants but to their optimism and amity.

In short, the festival seemed to confirm all the most basic premises of hippy idealism. There were no rules, and there was no conflict. People did drugs freely, made love freely, listened to music freely, and everything was just fine. Folks were helpful and cooperative, regardless of whether they were freaks or squares. It was as if everything promised by the Summer of Love suddenly and unexpectedly came true.

Or so we were told, anyway. The news media, which previously had cast a baleful eye toward hippiedom's great unwashed, was positively rapturous about Woodstock. It was, Max Lerner wrote, "a turning point in the consciousness generations have of each other and of themselves," and the press made sure everyone was aware of what a momentous event had occurred.

This was the Woodstock Joni Mitchell immortalized. Mitchell, remember, wasn't at the festival herself; unlike Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (who later recorded "Woodstock"), who rented a helicopter to get to the concert site, Mitchell spent the weekend in Manhattan, following events vicariously. She didn't see the crowd, "half a million strong," until the movie came out.

Yet it's no accident that her version of Woodstock rings so true to most Americans, because what she wrote was the myth, not the reality. Talk to people who were there, and for every story of good vibes and great music, you'll hear two about how wet and miserable it was, how unbearable the traffic got, or how smelly the unbathed became by Monday morning. Utopia it wasn't.

Nor was it an especially memorable musical event. Sure, some of the acts were great, particularly Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sly & the Family Stone. But many more were bad, inconsequential, or both. The Grateful Dead, in fact, are still embarrassed at how poorly they played there.

Somehow, though, all that was beside the point. People flocked to the movie and bought the album, not for their entertainment value, but because of the way those talismans manifested the Woodstock myth. Seeing the movie or hearing the album helped reinforce the belief that Woodstock was a great and good thing -- and these were people who desperately wanted to believe in pop culture's greatness and goodness.

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