In preparation for the release of Ang Lee’s ‘Taking Woodstock’, which Jett and I discuss on Episode 86, I watched Michael Wadleigh’s director’s cut of the original documentary (a gorgeous, filled-to-the-brim Blu-Ray) – a telling experience, given that it’s so full of the evocation of an era gone by that we’re all supposed to want to live in. Some immediate reactions followed by a question or two:
The film really takes its time to get ready; the split screens give a sense of the fantastic madness of the endeavour, what immense planning has gone into it, and how enormous the scope of the event was when it actually happened.
‘There has to be some way of stopping the influx of humanity’ – Bill Graham’s considered opinion of how to keep the show business-friendly.
‘It’s about what’s happening now’ – the succinct thoughts of someone who typically says ‘man’ at the end (and/or beginning) of every sentence.
‘I want to know why the fascist pigs have been seeding the clouds’ – concertgoer disappointed that the CIA or somesuch have made it rain.
‘Helen Savage please call your father at the Motel Glory in Woodridge’ – either an indication of just how community-oriented this festival was, or proof to conspiracy theorists that coded messages were being sent from the stage to J Edgar Hoover.
‘The brown acid is not specifically too good’ – a lovely understated piece of pharmaceutical advice.
When the concert finally starts, the most obvious thing is how enormous Richie Havens’ hands are; he’s not precious about asking for guitar mikes to be turned up; it’s clear that nobody cared about professionalism or needing to show i.d. or, by the mid-point, making money. It was about communication; people unshackling themselves; taking the risk of looking stupid because social norms have made them afraid to smile at strangers. Or at least that’s what I want to hope it was about.
James Parker in The Atlantic recently called this the last time we were able to police ourselves; there was only a brief window before the festival gave birth to its evil twin, Altamont, infamous for being the site of the killing of Meredith Hunter during a Rolling Stones concert. Parker tells us that Woodstock itself was not without tension – the burning to the ground of 12 food stands in an outbreak of less than peace-enhancing radicalism not making the final cut of Wadleigh’s extraordinary framing of ‘what’s happening in America’.
‘America is becoming a whole’, according to Sri Swami Satchidananda’s on-stage invocation, whoe sentiment I want to embrace. But the mingling of idealism, optimism, wish-fulfilment, fear and anger about the war, and whatever else was going on then gives way today to, at the very least, a question: What the hell happened to these people? These people, who looked so beautiful, who spoke without embarrassment about the potential for love to be realised as a political strategy, and some of whom created communitarian experiments that actually worked, who, at their most open were willing not to refuse light from any quarter – knowing that the only recently baptised military-industrial complex was failing humanity, so let’s look East… What happened to them?
Well, they became my parents – and I can still see traces of the sentiments expressed in the field when my mum and dad talk about politics and tolerance, especially in a general suspicion of institutions that try to tell you how to be. But my folks are just two people; and they weren’t even there. It’s fashionable to say that more of the Woodstock generation learned indulgence than self-costing activism for a better world; that the gruesome scenes of Reaganite techno-greed a decade or so later were built on the foundations of a social cohort that had taught themselves they could have anything they want, and now. And there may be some truth in that; surely some of the people responsible for nurturing the vision of being American as selfish, angry and afraid that came to dominate pubic discourse over the past forty years were in that field at Bethel. But let’s also acknowledge that the leaders of recent social movements that have achieved real change were there too, at least in spirit. There are still true believers out there; they still have something to say; they’re still doing things that would slow the world down, and would give us peace and music if we were ready to listen.
So, what ‘Woodstock’ means to me?
1: I’d love to make a film like this; and the democratisation of cinema may well allow someone to do just that right now.
2: My generation is lonelier than they were.
3: The Who look ridiculous; but so does everyone else. Some in a good way.
4: The contrast between the anti-war movements of 1969 and 2009 depends on the existence of the draft.
5: The most pessimistic thing I can say? Some of these people are saying the same things today that they said then. And it didn’t work.
6: The most optimistic thing I can say? Watching Joe Cocker redefine what a human body needs to do to make a sound in 1969 (and it’s amazing) looks not that different from watching what Joe Cocker does to make a sound today (and it’s still amazing); if he can do it…well…