Woodstock then and now

August 10, 1999|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- We are between Woodstock revivals at the moment. There was one at the end of July in Rome, N.Y., and there will be one in Bethel, N.Y., on Sunday -- the site and date of the original in 1969.

So far the reviews are not good. The fire, looting and rape that ended the first 1999 revival do not seem to match up well with the old legend.

"This was the nicest bunch of kids I've ever dealt with," said the local sheriff, a guy named Louis Ratner, back in August 1969. This time the sheriff is using the Internet to try and track down kids who wreaked havoc in Rome.

I was there the first time around, living on the gigantic stage most of the time. It looked like the Middle Ages from that perspective. In front of me, the peasants were sloshing through the mud in rags or nothing at all, having the time of their lives.

Behind me, backstage, lords and ladies of rock were screaming for more money as they popped champagne and almost every other mind-bending substance.

I was there by accident, a 31-year-old New York Times reporter in a suit and tie. I was covering the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, who was campaigning for re-election among the New Yorkers at Grossingers, the Concord and other Jewish resorts of the time in the Catskill Mountains, when we ran into the densest traffic jams I had ever seen.

"What's up?" I asked a state trooper. He told me what he knew about Woodstock -- "hundreds of thousands of kids in a field up there" -- and I hitched a helicopter ride with a group called Canned Heat.

Not all peace and love

So I landed among the nobility, just in time to watch John Wolff, manager of The Who, yelling at anyone near, "Cash or certified check or we don't go on!" There were a dozen other group managers, a pretty nasty bunch, yelling the same thing, usually in more colorful language.

"I'm from Wells Fargo, here to pick up the receipts," someone shouted, but there were no receipts. The organizers never expected the kind of crowd they got. Youths came from all over the country to walk in without paying the $18 price for three days.

The ticket booths and fences lasted about 20 pre-Ticketmaster minutes, and the organizers lost at least $1.3 million -- which they made up later with film, record and logo royalties.

Legend tells us now that a lonely nation turned its grateful eyes to Bethel that weekend. But, in fact, a lot of people and press were demanding that the National Guard be sent in to stop drugs, sex and rock.

Alas, things went bad very quickly toward the end of that summer 30 years ago -- Charles Manson, bombings and violence at other rock concerts soured the American mood -- but the "Spirit of Woodstock" legend grew into the idea of generational community, young people as a tribe united by promise and idealism.

Now "community" is out of fashion. We are all creatures of "the market," and a lot of young people think they're entitled and can get away with being as hostile, self-centered and greedy as some '60s rock stars were offstage. And the music has changed; the hostility is onstage -- and in the audience, too.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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