It's been forty years since the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, to give it its full name, and it is apparently de rigueur for persons of a Certain Age to have something to say about it right about now. Having graduated from high school seven weeks before Woodstock, I am definitely part of that demographical cohort, so I'm discharging my obligation herewith. Unlike Boomerdom assembled, I don't think it was the defining moment of American culture, or even of American counter-culture: it was, at best, a triumph of hype over substance. For "at worst," I refer you to Roy Digliani at American Thinker:

What do you think all the 60's rebellion was about? There were a lot of unhappy Baby Boomers, dysfunctional families, but the 60's didn't solve that. It just redirected the unhappiness. When the media blared across the land that Haight Ashbury was the place, and the Summer of Love was on the top of the menu, a lot of confused and unhappy people decided to take off for San Francisco. Unfortunately what they mostly did was bring all their unhappiness with them. So, 40 years later we're hearing how revolutionary Woodstock was, how world changing, yeah, yeah. What did Wavy Gravy say in the Woodstock movie? "We showed the world how to live." Woodstock was five hundred thousand or so young people getting high and watching some bands. That's about all there was to it. They got high, goofed off, made a mess, and then went home and left a pile of trash for someone else to pick up. A real new world creation.

Then again, if that's the worst you can say about it, it couldn't have been that bad, could it? Half a million people, (mostly) minor logistical issues. Where things got ridiculous was the effort to make it into something more than it was. Max Yasgur, who owned the property on which the festival was held, felt compelled to say that "if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future." For Yasgur, who probably figured that the damage could have been much, much worse that it was, giving out with a bit of high-flown nonsense — getting high, goofing off and making a mess, as a rule, do not create much of a future — was just a matter of being gracious. Yasgur's neighbors were less gracious: in 1970 they sued him for collateral damages to their own properties. Eventually everybody, Yasgur included, got some money, and Yasgur died in 1973, presumably without regrets.

It may seem heretical to point this out, but Woodstock was always about the money: the four principals were organized into a group called "Woodstock Ventures," which wrote several large checks to bands and early on engaged Warner Bros. for a film version of the concert, for which the studio anted up $100,000 toward what became a $600,000 budget. The involuntary conversion to a "free concert" cost them dearly: the festival ended with Woodstock Ventures solidly in the red. Eventually a profit was turned, once the two soundtrack albums and the film were in circulation.

But people aren't going to remember the lawsuits — dozens of them, in several directions — or the bottom line. They'll remember the stage shows and the visuals — or, like La Shawn Barber, they'll remember the drugs, the promiscuity and the filth. Me, I'm going with one of my more reliable culture arbiters: Joni Mitchell, whose song about Woodstock perfectly captured the yearning without giving any indication that it might have been satisfied. That bit about the bombers turning into butterflies? Just a dream, after all.

The Vent

  17 August 2009

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