Almost half a century ago, between August 15 - 18, 1969, half a million people descended upon Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm near White Lake in Bethel, New York, in the name of free love, peace and a celebration of the arts. Woodstock '69 will forever be remembered as a pivotal moment in music history - a brief oasis of respite in a world engulfed with political tension and Cold War conflict. Two years after the Summer of Love engulfed the West Coast and led the counterculture movement to its zenith, the East gave the world Woodstock and immortalized the flower power era in what Joni Mitchell called "a spark of beauty where half-a-million kids saw that they were part of a greater organism."
Forty-nine years later, after being documented and retold in a hundred different ways, how Woodstock is remembered today is a mix of many perceptions. Some remember it as the music festival that started it all - the one that laid down the template that still forms the backbone of music festivals today. The bohemian flavor and festival culture that is celebrated at some of the world's biggest and most popular festivals today, like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury all goes back to Woodstock. Others remember it as a weekend of musical performances from artists who would go down in history as legends. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, The Who, Janis Joplin, The Band, Jimi Hendrix - the lineup reads like a who's who of rock through the ages.
Hendrix's now immortal rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is arguably the distillation of the sound of the counterculture movement. Emulating the sound of warplanes and explosions with his whammy bar while ripping through the national anthem with a fuzzy, overdriven dystopian tone, it has been claimed that in Hendrix's music, one could hear the horrors of the Vietnam War which formed the background to the era of mass peaceful protests.
While it has been romanticized in a hundred different ways and seeped into decades of pop culture, what is often forgotten is the gritty reality of it all. The muck and grime and sea of starved, dehydrated humanity that, in spite of all odds, spent three days at Bethel Farms without a single instance of violence. Sure, two people died: one of insulin overdose and one unfortunate soul who was trampled by a tractor in his sleeping bag. But they were accidents. And considering the fact that the organizers expected a footfall of about 150,000 and the final count was more than three times what was expected, it's practically a miracle that things went down without any major incident. It was the "turn on, tune in, drop out" generation at its best behavior at a festival so wild that there was an actual announcement on stage that "the brown acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good".
The collective fatigue of the masses was probably best echoed during the closing act on Monday morning. When Hendrix finally took the stage at 8 in the morning, most of the crowd was already dispersing, with the last few die-hard fans of 20,000 or so waiting to get a glimpse of their guitar god before walking away from a historical event whose ripples would be felt for a generation to come.
The media at the time called the festival a lot of things. Front-page headlines in the Daily News read "Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest" and "Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud". The New York Times ran an editorial titled "Nightmare in the Catskills," which read in part, "The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation ... What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"
Today, we know that the myth of lemmings committing mass suicides by jumping off cliffs is just that: a myth. And the analogy to Woodstock that NYT made so many years ago has a sense of irony to it. Although Woodstock was a bittersweet experience for many artists and attendees, a "colossal mess" is a gross generalization and short-sighted understatement. That 'colossal mess' reminded the world of the marriage between art and politics and the power that music can have in mobilizing the masses towards a common cause. In fact, the impact has been such that across the years, many attempts have been made to recreate the glory of Woodstock, but all in vain. Still, it doesn't stop us from trying.
A bird’s eye view of #Woodstock! pic.twitter.com/kuYUQn5yWm— WOODSTOCK (@woodstockfest) November 2, 2018
2019 will mark 50 years of Woodstock and as expected, several celebratory events are said to be in the works, including a festival thrown by Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang. But what is most notable is yet another attempt to recreate the magic via a Live Nation-backed event set to take place on the site of Woodstock’s original festival grounds.
The Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival is scheduled for August 16th-18th — 50 years to the weekend of the original Woodstock — at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York. According to the festival’s website, the self-described “pan-generational cultural event” will feature “three days of memorable experiences” including “live performances from prominent and emerging artists spanning multiple genres and decades, and TED-style talks from leading futurists and retro-tech experts.”
From August 16-19, 2019 @BethelWoods - historic site of the 1969 #Woodstock festival - @LiveNation and @INVNT will be bringing you Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival: Celebrating the golden anniversary at the historic site of the 1969 Woodstock festival. pic.twitter.com/PlY0CxV155— Bethel Woods (@BethelWoods) December 27, 2018
This is the fifth attempt to resurrect the festival, with the first four occurring in 1979, 1989, 1994 and 1999, to commemorate the 10th, 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries of the festival respectively. The co-founder of the original Woodstock, Michael Lang, was himself involved in the latter two "official sequels". So far, each iteration has been progressively worse than the previous one. While Woodstock '89 was a low-key, spontaneous event that was a fairly respectful homage to the original, the two editions that followed were giant dumpster fires (in the literal sense too because Woodstock '99 saw the crowds ignite several bonfires on the festival grounds).
The 1994 edition showed us the first glimpse of the commercialization and gross crowd mismanagement that would go on to become the backbone of the following edition. Just like the original Woodstock, about 160,000 tickets were sold but the crowd size was estimated at about 550,000 and the organizers were in no position to handle the unexpected influx. Apart from the crowd statistics, practically nothing else was reminiscent of Woodstock '69. Outside food and beverages were not allowed at the venue and the stalls inside were severely overpriced. This was the Woodstock of the 90s - the Wall Street era of obscene capitalistic excess marked by a dismissive lack of care for human decency.
But Woodstock '94 was just a sample of what would follow five years later. In what has to be the single worst tribute to the original festival, Woodstock '99 is known for all the wrong reasons - violence, rape, death, drugs and the aforementioned fires created a tense atmosphere. Eyewitnesses reported a crowd-surfing woman being pulled down into the crowd and gang-raped in the mosh pit during Limp Bizkit's set while frontman Fred Durst's attempts to tame the crowd proved unsuccessful. Three more allegations of rape were made during the festival. Six attendees were severely injured and one overdosed midway through Metallica's gig, only to die later at the local hospital.
MTV, which had been providing live coverage, removed its entire crew from the festival site. "It was dangerous to be around. The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place," said MTV host Kurt Loder. "It was like a concentration camp. To get in, you get frisked to make sure you're not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths. You wallow around in garbage and human waste. There was a palpable mood of anger"
Of the many incendiary moments, one that stood out was Rage Against the Machine's performance, during which the band burned the American flag onstage. When asked about their opinion for all the criticism the festival garnered, guitarist Tom Morello wrote: "Yes, Woodstock was filled with predators: the degenerate idiots who assaulted those women, the greedy promoters who wrung every cent out of thirsty concertgoers, and last but not least, the predator media that turned a blind eye to real violence and scapegoated the quarter of a million music fans at Woodstock '99, the vast majority of whom had the time of their lives."
Even before any of the "official" recreations surfaced, in the very same year as the original Woodstock and just a couple of months apart, there was the horror fiasco that was The Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Spearheaded by The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead to try and recreate the Woodstock spirit on the West Coast, the event was marred by chaos, three accidental deaths and the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by the infamous biker gang Hell's Angels. Such was the madness of the event that the Grateful Dead, who were instrumental in promoting the festival, declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue.
On this day in 1969, The Rolling Stones played their infamous gig at Altamont Speedway in Northern California. At the show, Meredith Hunter, a fan, was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels, who had been hired to police the event. pic.twitter.com/rSMgnLsx6A— Eric Alper (@ThatEricAlper) December 6, 2018
Still, after all the chaos and carnage, here we are again, taking another shot at trying to memorialize an already immortal event. The sentiment behind the 50th anniversary event is surely appreciated. As the official Twitter account for Woodstock proudly says in its bio, the festival is "important now as ever". In 2018, we find ourselves yet again in a heavily polarized political landscape, similar to the backdrop of the original Woodstock. A wave of protest music has arisen again in response to the political tensions, yet again reminding us of the symbiotic relationship between art and politics. Another hypothetical Woodstock moment would definitely be great, but here's the problem: Fifty years later, the global culture has shifted to such a great degree that a music festival might not be the best way to protest against the capitalistic system.
Music festivals by nature have become the epitome of consumer culture, and what was seen as an outlier culture during the original Woodstock has become the norm at most modern music festivals. We're in an era where the very method of music consumption has morphed to such an extent that it is divorced from the era where physically possessing a copy of your favorite band's music used to mean something. Festival billings and even some artists' setlists are determined by streaming numbers and perhaps festivals today are not really a place to make grand political statements (no matter how much Prophets of Rage jump around and try to unite the forces).
Imagine the hypothetical lineup at the 50th anniversary of the event: some of the members of the original lineup are still alive and making music and sure, it would be a nice touch to have them perform again, half a century later. But who would headline the festival? Five decades ago, rock was the face of anti-establishment. Today that distinction belongs to rap and hip-hop, and champions of the genre are increasingly featuring at festivals that were once almost exclusively rock-centric. So would we be looking at a billing that includes the likes of Drake, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, Migos etc. to recreate a moment that Rolling Stone declared as one of the "50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll"? There's something incongruent about that setting. Meanwhile, the anniversary event has still not revealed any of the lineup or schedule and one can only speculate what it would look like for the moment.
Perhaps organizers can learn from their past mistakes and ensure a safer festival experience this time around, but the question remains. Do we really need to hang on to the glory of the past and try countless ways of recapturing the glory at a time where the whole world is changing more rapidly than ever? The cultural significance of Woodstock has already been etched in people's memories for good. Films like Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock'(2009) and the award-winning 'Woodstock' rockumentary of 1970 have ensured that. Charles Schultz did his part by naming Snoopy's little bird friend 'Woodstock' in Peanuts. The very word 'Woodstock' has taken on a sense of meaning that is almost spiritual in nature. To describe something as "the Woodstock" of anything is equivalent to labeling it as "the Mecca" of something! After all these years, can't we just leave Woodstock alone and celebrate it for the indelible cultural significance that it continues to have? Apparently not, and come 2019, we'll see yet another attempt to relive the magic. Hopefully, at the very least, it won't do any more damage to the legacy of the cultural phenomenon that was Woodstock '69.