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Sex, Drugs, Music, Mud

Woodstock at 40.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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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:

The sponsors of this event, who apparently had not the slightest concern for the turmoil it would cause, should be made to account for their mismanagement. To try to cram several hundred thousand people into a 600-acre farm with only a few hastily installed sanitary facilities shows a complete lack of responsibility.

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."