Sex, Drugs, Music, Mud
Woodstock at 40.
Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
The Road to Woodstock
No social phenomenon can be completely analyzed, thoroughly critiqued, and given its full philosophical due in just one word. Except Woodstock. Altamont.
And that--except for the shaded sidebar containing the titles of the reviewed books--should be the end of this book review. However, the long weekend of August 15-17, 1969, was one of the great where-weren't-you? moments of recent history. Along with 202,177,000 other Americans, where I wasn't was at Woodstock.
Though it was not for lack of trying. I was 21 and smitten with a girl--call her Sunflower--from exotic Massapequa, Long Island. I had come by motorcycle from Ohio with the idea of Sunflower riding pillion to a "Woodstock Music and Arts Fair" which, according to a poster in a record shop back in Yellow Springs, was "An Aquarian Exposition" featuring "Three Days of Peace and Music." I pictured something on the order of a wind chime sale with evening hootenannies and maybe a surprise guest appearance by Mimi Fariña.
Sunflower, alas, chose the Sunday prior to make a feeble gesture at doing away with herself. (Such feeble gestures were more or less obligatory among fine arts major co-eds in those days. There was a bridge at an Ohio women's college from which at least one art student per semester would plunge. The drop was less than two yards into a foot-deep duck pond.)
While her parents were out slicing Titleists and lobbing Wilsons, Sunflower emptied the family medicine cabinet, swallowing upward of half-a-dozen Midol, One-A-Day, and Miltown tablets. There was a great crash of Cadillacs backing into each other as mom, dad, aunts, etc., raced from the parking lot of the Massapequa Golf Club, Par Venue Links. Ambulances were called. A tummy was pumped. (A rather cute little tummy, if memory serves.)
I was slightly disappointed to be missing Woodstock until the nightly news reported that it had turned into a catastrophic, drug-addled, rain-drenched disaster area lacking food, water, shelter, and Port-A-Potties. Then I was furious to be missing Woodstock.
What this says about 21-year-old boys I needn't tell anyone who has been, dated, or raised one. Furthermore, Sunflower's suicide attempt was the result of a fight with her mother about a department store charge plate bill for a $128 peasant blouse and had nothing to do with Sunflower's desperate romantic feelings for me.
To top it off, a few years later I became a Republican.
What with one thing and another, I was always touchy on the subject of Woodstock. I'm over it now, thanks to various books celebrating the 40th anniversary of too many people in bad haircuts going to an upstate New York dairy farm for no good reason. I've counted three of these books so far. Since counting to three was as much as most Woodstock attendees could manage on goof butts and silly pills, three is where I stop.
Each book is worse than the others, and any would be enough to banish all interest in Woodstock even if you were guilty of (or pleading) nolo contendere to having been there.
The Road to Woodstock is the painfully boring epic of how it all came together--or, rather, didn't. A quote from "festivalgoer" Rob Kennedy says more than needs saying:
As the neologism "festivalgoer" indicates, Woodstock veterans would remain so out of it that they never watched Seinfeld. Kennedy (no relation to the more famous, if equally clueless, family) went on to pursue a career cultivating medical marijuana.
The Road to Woodstock is "by" Michael Lang, one of the two original promoters, "with" Holly George-Warren who is coeditor of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll and thus, presumably, knows the alphabet. I have no idea how much of the book Lang wrote, but he doesn't seem to have read it. He is described therein by a pair of ex-business partners as having "a face that is, by turns, evil, wanton, fey, impish, and innocent." This is more than I would let ex-business partners of mine say about me in my book.
And yet, if you reverse the order of the adjectives, you get the progress of the sixties, perfectly delineated. It was not, by the way, a decade: The sixties were a strange episode of about 80 months' duration that started when the Baby Boom had fully infested academia (roughly the 1966-67 school year) and came to a screeching halt in 1973 when conscription ended and herpes began.
But I seem to have wandered from the point, not that there is one. Woodstock was an occasion of enormous pointlessness. I'm loath to give the New York Times credit for anything, then or now, but the newspaper did run the following editorial on Monday, August 18, 1969:
And The Road to Woodstock proudly quotes the editorial--further proof that Michael Lang's porch light may remain on, these 40 years later, but he's still not home.
"We shared everything," Lang gushes on page 4, and on page 226 he blithely notes, "There were two fewer Food for Love stands on Sunday. . . . Angry kids . . . fed up by the prices and the wait, burned them down Saturday night."
This be-in required some "Be All You Can Be." Lang, with utter deafness to irony, says, "A local politician requested that the National Guard . . . supply helicopters. The guard agreed, and their helicopters transported donated food." (And let us note that the National Guard also did a heckuva job at Kent State the following spring.)
"We recognized one another for what we were at the core, as brothers and sisters," Lang intones. But a music journalist, present at that core, described a wooden bridge between the performers' area and the stage as crossing "over the wall separating the stars from the main mulch."
Woodstock had a tremendous impact on American artistic life. "The lighting of candles," Lang says, "would set a precedent that carries on to this day. The candles became lighters, which have since become cell phones."
And Woodstock had deep political meaning: "Out of that sense of community, out of that vision, that Utopian vision, comes the energy to go out there and actually participate in the process so that social change occurs," said Abbie Hoffman, shortly before he killed himself. In the meantime Abbie had written a book, Woodstock Nation. Like everyone else I have never read it, but I've been to that country--overcrowded, muddy, lacking in food, and public order. It's called Bangladesh. (And wasn't there a concert that had something to do with that place, too?)
Abbie Hoffman was the source of the one amusing Woodstock anecdote. You'd think you'd get a lot of funny stories from filling a cow pasture with half-a-million adolescents. But no. The Who were playing. After "Pinball Wizard," Pete Townshend turned away to adjust his amplifier. Abbie rushed onstage, grabbed the microphone and began a political rant. Townshend "whacked him in the head with his guitar."
It was one of Pete's best licks. And here's another: "The people at Woodstock," the book quotes Townshend as saying, "really were a bunch of hypocrites claiming a cosmic revolution simply because they took over a field, broke down some fences, imbibed bad acid, and then tried to run out without paying the bands."
Ah, the bands, Woodstock did have all that wonderful music--Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan (not there), Joni Mitchell (also not there but wrote "We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden" after she heard about it later), Melanie (there but didn't write "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" until someone told her she'd been there).
Less well remembered, and for good reason, were the performances by Bert Sommer, the Keef Hartley Band, Sweetwater, a group called Quill playing a song called "That's How I Eat," and Country Joe McDonald without the Fish--a McDonald's Happy Meal missing the toy.
The show opened with three hours of Richie Havens. That's a lot of "Handsome Johnny," but no other performers had yet arrived. "How to follow Richie?" Lang asks himself. An idea dawns: "My old friend Peter Max . . . had brought the swami." Swami Satchidananda was duly trotted onstage. Said Woodstock's other promoter, Artie Kornfeld, "He put a wave of peace out there." Tim Hardin played a set that caused the rhythm guitar player backing him to declare, "It was so disastrous that afterward I quit the music business for many years."
Say what you will against the crowd at Woodstock, they did not murder sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar when he played "Raga Puriya-Danashri/Gat in Sawaritai," which, if it was as long as its title, must have tried the patience of even the most blissfully stoned.
There was the Incredible String Band "whose folk-psychedelic improvisations featured banjo, oud, mandolin." What fun! "Robin Williamson started the set by reciting a lengthy poem." Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead confessed, "Jeez, we were awful!" Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane admitted, "I sang the goddamned songs with my eyes closed, sort of half asleep and half singing." Country Joe McDonald got reunited with his band "and everything was going really well," he said, "until Barry Melton, who was the lead guitar player of the Fish, brought two cases of beer in aluminum cans and started throwing them into the audience and hitting people in the head." About The Band, Lang says that "they didn't connect so well with the kids."
Graham Nash, of Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, opined, "I thought we did a lousy set." And the famous Jimi Hendrix performance took place at, of all times, 8:30 on Monday morning when everyone who was able to leave Woodstock had done so.
"Hendrix was okay. I had heard him better," said Nash.
Woodstock Revisited was edited by Susan Reynolds, author of, among other works, Change Your Shoes, Change Your Life. That cannot be a more idiotic book than this one. Woodstock Revisited is far too well described in its subtitle: "50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories From Those Who Were There." Say no more. Please.
The 240-page paperback contains exactly one intelligent sentence, from a Jeremiah Horrigan, who asks, "Who invited Sh-Na-Na to the party?" It provides one insight into political liberalism, from a Linda W. Hamilton, who writes, "After the riots in 1968, I spent many hours in the D.C. ghetto tie-dying T-shirts for the neighborhood children." And it delivers one plea for new, fireproof drapes: "Woodstock . . . ignited international change while weaving the value of countercultural ideals into the vibrant tapestry of modern life." That statement was made by a Dixon Horne, who now contributes articles to a magazine called Mature Living.
Duller even than Mature Living is Woodstock: Peace, Music & Memories. It is a photo book. Especially dull are the nude photos. Two facts are evident from these pictures. The gym had not been invented. And the ratio of boys to girls at Woodstock was of almost Castro District proportions.
Woodstock looks quite sad. At least the fellows on Castro Street didn't go there hoping to meet girls. Woodstock also looks drab, dated, and inspirational only in a "Every Little Bit Hurts" way. Woodstock PM&M is otherwise notable for this thought in the foreword by Michael Lang's cohort, Artie Kornfeld: "That mud was like heavenly water washing away all that was wrong with the world at that time." In case you were wondering where the tranquil prosperity of the Reagan era came from. And do not look at page 199 where there are very, very scary snapshots of John Sebastian and Melanie as they look today.
And yet Woodstock is somehow apparently immortal. I speak here, of course, of the one great core contribution to our cultural heritage made by Woodstock: Snoopy's friend, the bird Woodstock, in the comic strip "Peanuts" which amazingly continues in syndication even though Charles M. Schulz is dead as a smelt. And so are Jimi, Janis, Abbie, Jerry Garcia, Max Yasgur, and a whole bunch of my brain cells.
P. J. O'Rourke, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Driving Like Crazy.