By Galima Galiullina, PhD for VT
This is hard to believe, but the famous rock festival Woodstock is 50 years old. On August 15-18, 1969, half a million young people gathered on a farm in upstate New York to listen to rock music and enjoy their freedom. Three full days and nights of freedom and buzz. Psychedelic music by Jimi Hendrix, virtuoso guitar of Carlos Santana, the hoarse erotic voice of Janis Joplin – we will never be so lucky as those young men and women who kneaded dirt on the field with their bare feet, swam naked like children and plunged into the best rock music nirvana of all time.
At this festival, a new America was signaled – liberated, calling for peace and love, rejecting the war and lies of the government. Free love in an atmosphere of universal ecstasy, rock music and drug use seemed to be the apogee of the movement towards freedom. The era of the sexual revolution began on Woodstock’s field and its first fruits were 200,000 children born soon after those days and nights of frantic embrace of young bodies.
What made Woodstock a pivotal event in the second half of the twentieth century? The festival was a testimony of the coming era of the baby boomer generation. The new generation wanted to leave in the past the gloomy events of 1963-1968 (the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the lingering escalation of the disaster that was Vietnam). The hopes and dreams of this generation for a bright and peaceful future were born along with fate and liberation.
On Saturday July 27, 2019, at the BlackRock Art Center in Germantown, a suburb of the US capital, a rock festival in honor of the anniversary of Woodstock began sounding out tunes familiar to the baby boomer generation. From three o’clock in the afternoon until late evening, the rock groups returned from non-existence to cover the music and the atmosphere of those legendary days and nights.
Of those idolized musicians, few have survived to this day, but I’ve been lucky to see Carlos Santana on the stage in Washington a couple of years ago (who had not lost his temper and possession of the magic of a guitar). I also saw Neil Young and Patti Smith in concert too. In early September you can expect to see 75-year-old Roger Daltrey fronting The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jimi Hendrix left this world at the age of 27 and Janis Joplin left the same 27. Their life was short, but the music was beautiful.
The BlackRock Woodstock rock festival in the small town of Germantown brought back a sort of continuation of legendary Woodstock, although the atmosphere was decidedly more subdued keeping with modern day America. It seemed to me that a third of the spectators were those young dissenters of prohibitions and social norms who could have been at Woodstock half a century ago. But now they had, instead of lush curls and long hair, gray beards and wrinkled faces, figures far from being slim and sporting tired shoulders. But their eyes were shining from returning to that age of youth, when life seemed endless and you wanted to live faster, love hot and die young. The era of sex, drugs and rock and roll was on full display in Woodstock, took away with itself a lot of young rock stars and their fans, but left this everlasting thirst for freedom in the Americans.
I really liked the atmosphere at the anniversary festival in Germantown — the atmosphere of universal love and trust, looseness and warmth. The well-preserved old women in short dresses danced near the stage, in their dances I saw something for the sake of which 200 years ago their ancestors came to America – the fearless desire to pioneer themselves in a wholly new world.
Yes, to be yourself in modern America requires a considerable share of fearlessness – but not like our colonial ancestor’s the landscape has shifted. The counter-culture of the 60s, through the efforts of crooks from this culture, turned the peace and love idol into carefully marketed packages tailored to now hip consumer. This was accompanied by wholesale liberal culture ushering in 50 years of the porn industry and an cocaine then opioid epidemic. The sex industry has practically killed the libido as such, and attempts to show the miserable remains of still unkilled desires have been declared criminal. Asexuality is gradually becoming the norm, traditional men and women are relegated to the level of degenerates, but in the maternity hospital, young parents are now asked what gender they wish to register for a newborn child.
Dana Koch returned to the stage of the festival the unforgettable Joan Baez, the young singer resurrected the memory of the premiant folk singer of Woodstock with a fascinating voice and femininity. Classical hits of the folk star performed by Dana Koch plunged the audience into nostalgic languor.
The stillness flowed smoothly into the psychedelic nirvana music of Jefferson Airplaine. Gingerfunk All-Stars, a trio of young musicians from Northern Virginia, play in a rich palette of different genres from reggae to Beatles. Rows of spectators are replenished with new fans of rock, although the July heat still scorched faces.
The pro-funk quartet “Squaring the Circle” from Baltimore brings a lively atmosphere to the festival with bold experiments based on the compositions of the unforgettable Grateful Dead and a couple of dozen Woodstock veterans surround the stage and start dancing as Deadheads danced long, half a century ago — relaxed, joyfully and selflessly. Gray beards flying in the dance, oddly enough, do not look funny or wild.
Of the many rock musicians of those times, Neil Young was distinguished by a heightened sense of responsibility of the artist for the mood of society. The spirit of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was embodied that night on stage in the compositions of Conor & the Wild Hunt; through indie-folk rock, young musicians try to inspire the world to strive for the best. In their passionate duos, the hot faith of those hippies and their followers who gathered in Woodstock reincarnated was that the world needed only love and war was rejected as a crime.
The real Woodstock fever began already late in the evening, when the tight bangs of the bass guitar were combined with the virtuoso passages of the solo guitar. Jimi Hendrix, a rock music genius who is still longing for rock fans, was introduced by the Baltimore group PurpleFlo. Their work is entirely devoted to the heritage of the legendary rock musician, the music, subtly psychedelic, penetrates the subconscious and you are already in that Woodstock, where young and very beautiful lunar bodies are dancing in the rain and are still completely free.
Picture in Life Magazine
Rock is alive, the thirst for freedom in Americans is indestructible, youth is looking for ways to liberation, Woodstock half a century later did not become just a sentimental memory, it suddenly sprouted in the new germs of a lively counter-culture crushed by globalists and liberals. Those young hippies who danced and kissed on the Woodstock field in the rain wanted to create their own Garden of Freedom. But they got lost, they were betrayed by those who promised them even more freedom, more drugs and more sex. Having gone into the dark corners of the altered consciousness, they did not have time to realize that a real revolution will need a clear mind and strong will.
‘In many ways, it was a miracle’: looking back at Woodstock at 50
Fans sitting on top of a painted bus at Woodstock, 1969. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images
Last modified on Sat 17 Aug 2019 15.26 AEST
“Woodstock was a just few hours in my 60-plus-year-long career,” says Leo Lyons, the bassist for blues rock band Ten Years After, who performed on the final day of the festival in the summer of 1969. “But I suppose my epitaph will no doubt read: ‘Musician who played at Woodstock.’”Three days of peace: Woodstock at 50 – in picturesRead more
It’s a sentiment that’s widely shared by the countless characters who populated the three-day festival famously devoted to peace and love, from the half a million hippie spectators to the musicians, organizers and workers who all converged for not only one of the most important events in music, but American culture in general. It’s a renowned status that has gained new attention timed to the festival’s half-century anniversary with countless retrospectives, documentaries and anniversary events, whether happening or attempted. “The amount of press this anniversary is generating is beyond anything I’ve seen before,” notes Michael Lang, who co-created the 1969 festival along with Artie Kornfeld, John P Roberts and Joel Rosenman. “I think it gave everybody an example of how things could be.”
How exactly a ragtag group of disparate individuals converged to create a cultural movement has been a much-told story that 50 years later verges on cliche. “Woodstock and the 60s in general has been mythologized to the point of kids dressing up as hippies for Halloween,” explains John Kane, a scholar of the festival who wrote the book Pilgrims of Woodstock as well as the upcoming The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound, which focuses on the festival’s sound director, Bill Hanley. “When something becomes too much of the norm, it becomes meaningless. These people were part of a counterculture and denounced dystopian ideals and societal norms. Everybody who went says it was a transformational experience. Some people left and went back to work while others left to join a commune. The question that gets asked a lot is, how and why did it happen that way? In many ways, it was a miracle.”https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/pqN9n2FbuJE?wmode=opaque&feature=oembed
With more than a half million spectators and a who’s who of performers (yes, even including the Who) every person who has an association with the festival has stories they have been telling for decades. That includes Henry Gross, a member of throwback doo-wop act Sha Na Na who improbably took the stage at the festival on a lineup that mostly featured acts firmly rooted in the relevance of the hippie movement. “Jimi Hendrix had a real interest in classic rock and roll music and he loved us, so he dragged Michael Lang to a show and we were booked,” says Gross, who counted the singer as a friend. “When I first heard about Woodstock, I didn’t have one thought or another. It was just another gig.” The rock photographer Henry Diltz, known for shooting album covers for the Doors and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, had the same thought. “I was in my kitchen in Los Angeles when the phone rang and it was [Woodstock lighting director] Chip Monck, who said: ‘We’re going to have a huge music festival and you should be here,’” remembers Diltz, who was then sent an airline ticket and $500.
Two weeks before its 15 August kickoff, Diltz was on the ground in Bethel, New York, with a hundred rolls of black and white and color film at the cow farm owned by Max Yasgur, then a conservative 49-year-old small town dairyman whom Lang and his crew convinced to let them use his property. “I remember watching them build this big wooden stage at the bottom of this green hill of waving alfalfa,” says Diltz of the laid-back vibes before the crowds descended. “We’d go skinny dipping in the lake and it was like summer camp; sunshine and beautiful afternoons. I was preoccupied photographing everything I looked at.” That peace soon turned to chaos when hundreds of thousands more spectators than expected began to converge on Bethel, causing extreme traffic jams. Lang soon realized that even the basic idea of charging people for entry was a pipe dream. “I realized it was going to be free for everyone when our ticket booths never got put in place,” he remembers. “There were ideas about maybe passing a basket around, but so many people were coming and it we didn’t want it to become an issue.” (Despite its popularity, the festival actually became a money-losing operation as a result, not turning a profit until years later.)
“I had not watched much TV aside from the moon landing, so the first time I heard about the size of the audience was from our US manager on our journey from the airport to Bethel,” remembers Lyons, whose band, Ten Years After, was a popular British act before Woodstock became their American breakthrough. “We arrived just in time to catch Joe Cocker’s set and it was quite a spectacle. The organization was hard pressed, and I saw none of the usual backstage facilities.” One memory that’s vivid in Lyons’ mind was a downpour that inundated the property. “There was nothing anyone could do but wait for it to stop. The stage was slipping down the slope and I heard it had moved 8ft. I think the organizers by this time had come to realize the extent of the potential problems.”
Gross, meanwhile, arrived Saturday night and drank Jack Daniels with Hendrix at the local Holiday Inn until sunrise. “It was a very lucky thing [that it didn’t get dangerous] because it could have been five Altamonts together,” he says, referring to the disastrous Rolling Stones-headlined festival later that year. “It was a twist of fate that one of the [speaker] towers didn’t fall over and land on someone.” Throughout it all, Lang (who says he remained sober throughout the weekend) remained a calm center in a sea of confusion. “There was so much going on, and so much responsibility, I just needed a clear head. With all that responsibility, you needed to have a calm perspective to keep everyone the same way.”
When it came to the actual performances, the lineup contained some of the biggest names of the day, from Sly and the Family Stone to the protest folk hero Arlo Guthrie and the blues icon Janis Joplin. Santana and John Sebastian both famously performed while tripping on drugs, while the Grateful Dead had to cut their set short when their amps overloaded. When Lyons hit the stage, bass in hand, he describes a treacherous scene. “It was crisscrossed with cables, in between were rivers of water left by the storm. We considered that we might be electrocuted and joked that if one of us died we’d sell a lot of records.” At one point, his band had to start one song three times to tune their guitars due to the oppressive humidity. “But the audience remained patient and the energy was electric. Despite our problems we made a connection.”
When it came time for Gross and Sha Na Na to hit the stage, the proceedings were so delayed that they didn’t perform until 7.30am that Monday. “I hadn’t slept in a day and a half and had been drinking and whatever else people were doing back then. We kept getting pushed back, so by the time I went on stage we were exhausted. Somebody decided to count very fast tempos, which was a terrific idea.” Once Sha Na Na left the stage, Hendrix closed out the proceedings. Diltz says he was about 20ft to Hendrix’s right, camera in hand. “Jimi and his band walked out when dawn had broken and it was quite a sight. Hendrix was obviously amazing, but everything stopped when he played the national anthem. It was surprising and at first I said: ‘Why’s he doing that? That’s the government’s song and with Vietnam, it represents everything we’re against.’ But a minute later I realized he was taking it back, for us. It felt like we were the Sioux nation filling the valley before they went after Custer. We never knew there was so many of us.” Once everyone left, Diltz remembers that lush green field he enjoyed the week before now looked very different. “It was a muddy mess of soggy sleeping bags and blankets. It reminded me of one of those Mathew Brady civil war photographs.”
Just a year later, both Joplin and Hendrix would be dead and soon the hippie lifestyle would dissipate. But the impact of Woodstock still permeates to this day, whether through the ideas they presented, the stars it made and the legacy it left behind. “In my view, Woodstock 69 should have never gotten off the ground because of the production calamities,” says Kane of its continuing impact. “Think about the last concert you went to. It’s so structured you can’t even stand on your seat to get a better view. Anything with a crowd is looked at differently now.” Gross, meanwhile, looks back on Woodstock with equal parts annoyance and praise. After all, Sha Na Na’s performance check bounced and they were paid a pittance to be featured in the subsequent blockbuster documentary. “Obviously there was great music played by great artists and that’s what people celebrate. But it’s like the country song The Older I Get, The Better I Was,” he says with a laugh. “Every time I speak the truth to this, I’ll get 100 tweets that I’m a bitter old man. It’s very hard to be honest about this. There were good things and very bad things that came from many dimensions of what happened there.” For Diltz, whose photographs of the festival make up the aptly titled new book Woodstock: 3 Days That Lasted 50 Years (some of which are on display now at the Morrison hotel gallery in New York and Los Angeles) notes that it has become a bigger milestone as more time has gone by. “At the time, you’re never thinking how will this compare 25 years from now or 50 years from now. It was a sensual experience to be there, but it wasn’t historic.”
As for Lang, who later went onto become the face of the festival and its anniversary iterations in 1994 and 1999, most recently became the focus of the media snafu that was Woodstock 50 and its much-reported snags and missteps. “Every day, the press was ahead of us,” he says of the experience. “They were talking about things we hadn’t started to do yet. We’re in that modern age when everything is instantly everywhere and there is a media frenzy around anything that will attract listeners or viewers or readers. So [with the current media culture] I doubt we’d be able to be as stealthy as we were in 1969.”
While celebrations are set at the original site this weekend, Lang hints that his own hopes for a 50th anniversary event haven’t died just yet. “It’s a possibility that we do something closer to the election. That’s something we’re thinking about.” It’s an ongoing project that, like many things, stems from that fateful weekend in 1969. “I think people own Woodstock themselves, as its become something that’s a part of everybody’s life. It represented a moment of hope on the planet. I think that’s why it resonates even 50 years later in such a huge way.”