Gates, David. “Twenty-Five Years Later, We’re Still Living In Woodstock Nation. (Cover Story).” Newsweek 124.6 (1994): 38. Military & Government Collection. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, WE’RE STILL LIVING IN WOODSTOCK NATION
A couple of weekends from now, as many as 250,000 people will be bused onto an 840-acre site in Saugerties, N.Y., for three days of rock and roll and God only knows what else on (or just about on) the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. No one within earshot of a television or radio will be able to avoid snippets, sound bites and bulletins. And worse still, flashbacks to 1969. All those images of skinny-dipping flower children in muddy ponds. All those tales of rainstorms, traffic jams and bad acid. The nth time around for that clip of canny old Max Yasgur greeting the youngsters laying waste to his dairy farm. The nth playing of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” The nth repetition of the once head-snapping facts that Joni Mitchell herself wasn’t at Woodstock and that Woodstock wasn’t at Woodstock either, but 60 miles away in the town of — enough. Who cares, Bethel or White Lake? Or whether they were really half-a-million strong? Or whether the legendary Woodstock Baby ever truly existed? Sweet and harmless as it may have been — and even that’s debatable — there’s always been something annoying about the whole Woodstock gestalt. By Aug. 13, a good many of us will be fed to the teeth.
It’s not just the smugness of all those middle-class white kids, now frozen in time — if they were 20 then, they’re 45 today and it serves them right — disporting themselves as if joy were a God-given right and only old stodges like their parents had to get up for work on Monday morning. (In 1969, Aquarian layabouts could rent a nice slum apartment for $75 a month and buy gas for the VW at 29.9 cents a gallon; you could practically make your nut by feeling under the sofa cushions.) Nor is it just the self-congratulatory assumption that Woodstock was blessed with extra-special vibes because a bunch of young people who grew up watching “Leave It to Beaver” didn’t turn feral when the food ran low, the rains came down and Richie Havens sang for two hours. No, what’s truly nettlesome is that Woodstock has become the emblem of a lost Eden and an aborted utopia. And these days it’s painful to be reminded — both for those old enough to have bought into the Aquarian fantasy and for those who had to grow up when adults were buying into it. It’s hard even to say the name without a self-protective snicker.
But let’s back up for a second. Did Woodstock really die four months later (as tin-pot pundits have told us ever since) when a Hells Angel stabbed a naked Rolling Stones fan at California’s Altamont Speedway? Or when Janis and Jimi OD’d? Or when Grace Slick and David Crosby got sober? Did Woodstock ever die at all? True, people may not be replacing their Country Joe and the Fish LPs with CDs, or getting their faces painted (unless they’re under 8 and at a birthday party), but in every important particular the Woodstock agenda has in fact prevailed. We’ll be running it down for you in detail, but here’s the gist. The Dionysiac triad of sex, drugs and rock and roll now dominates private life and popular culture. The Aquarian tenet of radical egalitarianism informs much of our public and private discourse. Although few people outside the AMA actually talk like government-off-our-backs hippie anarchists anymore, the principle that laws are for killjoys has been put into practice everywhere from the inner city to Wall Street. Peace and love? Well, love is always a toughie, but Robert Indiana’s squared-off LOVE logo did make it onto a postage stamp for a while back in the ’80s, and it would take an invasion from Alpha Centauri to bring back the military draft. To a degree that would astonish a time traveler from 1969, we now live in Woodstock Nation. And ain’t we got fun.
What Woodstock was “really” like depends on who’s reminiscing. Some festival-goers were permanently transformed by a spirit of communality; others never got over the mud and the stench. No matter: Woodstock is now an episode in the national myth, like the first Thanksgiving or the Boston Tea Party. Or on the other hand, the Haymarket Square bombing or the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been more poignant. Since 1967’s alleged Summer of Love, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — the last reputable political figures the disaffected young could halfway trust — had been assassinated, and the revolutionary alliance of rock-and-roll hedonism, druggy mysticism and left-wing politics had succeeded handsomely in getting Richard Nixon elected president on a law-and-order platform. During Woodstock weekend, we knew Sharon Tate had been murdered, but the Jesus-bearded Charles Manson and his stable of limp-haired hippie chicks weren’t arraigned until December. And you want to hear something really cosmic? On Woodstock Saturday, the morning papers were reporting the auspicious pro-football debut of college star O. J. Simpson. Whoa, too weird.
In retrospect, Woodstock proved only that it takes nicely brought-up young people more than three days to revert to savagery, just as Altamont proved that rock and roll attracts a rough element. Nostalgists don’t want to hear that. The naive ones think Woodstock ’94 — or the threadbare Bethel ’94, planned for the same weekend at the original site — could recapture or rekindle or re-whatever the old spirit. The grumpy ones accuse festival organizers of betraying the name: what the hell kind of a Woodstock is it with corporate sponsors and metal detectors? (Our favorite Woodstock ’94 no-no is no axes: that ought to slow up neo-Mansonoids.) And the grumpiest nostalgics think Woodstock was just a hip-capitalist hustle; the only thing more decadent is trying to re-create it with Bob Dylan, Salt `N’ Pepa and Metallica, as if there were a countercultural consensus left in the age of — whatever this is the age of.
All these people are upsetting themselves over the wrong thing. They won. Game over. But as Oscar Wilde could have told them, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Sex they wanted? Sex they got. Remember when Joni Mitchell bragged that she and her old man didn’t need “no piece of paper from the city hall” to get it on? Today, according to the Census Bureau, 27 percent of all children under 18 were born out of wedlock — a roll-the-dice social experiment that would make an Abbie Hoffman quake in his sandals.
The aids epidemic is another thing the Aquarians never bargained for, and it makes Woodstock’s polymorphous perversity seem all the more Edenic in retrospect — especially if your imagination doesn’t linger on such things as mud, mosquitoes and badly ventilated tents in the dog days. At Woodstock, you couldn’t pick up much that penicillin or Kwell insecticidal lotion wouldn’t handle: one more reason for today’s premaritals to resent the generation whose chief legacy to them will be a titanic national debt. But although AIDS has made the notion of sex without consequences at least temporarily unthinkable, few of us buy the line that AIDS is God’s wake-up call to perverts (plus the hemophiliacs, newborn babies and too-trusting wives who blundered into his line of fire). Fewer still, probably, believe for a moment that the New Puritanism would survive the discovery of an AIDS vaccine.
In one superficial respect we have fallen short of Woodstock’s dejeuner sur l’herbe ideal. Although skin mags from Juggs to Tail Ends seem to be thriving and Kate Moss continues to bare her little all in those moody ad layouts, you still can’t walk around buck naked. There aren’t even streakers anymore. It’s true that all the Nautilus machines nobody knew they needed back in the ’60s suggest a widespread welling-up (pun intended) of narcissism. But the number of obese Americans has also increased. Today about a third of us have ample reason to keep our clothes on until the lights go out — suggesting an even wider-spread reversion to narcissistic comfort-seeking. “The Greeks thought of Narcissus as a slender youth,” wrote W. H. Auden, “but I think they were wrong. I see him as a middle-aged man with a corporation [i.e., a spare tire].” The slender youths who overpopulate the old photos and films of Woodstock — how few pudgy kids there were — have this in common with the middle-aged coronary candidates they’ve turned into: what Auden calls “the surrender to immediacy and the refusal to accept reality.” For the Christian eccentric Auden, this refusal is ultimately an emblem of world-renouncing grace. For volunteers at Woodstock’s bummer tent, it meant throngs of lost acid cosmonauts. For wage slaves in the 1990s — to get really crass about this — it means higher health-care premiums to clean up the mess when the pizza and potato chips have finally done their work. (Our annual potato-chip expenditure: $4.585 billion.)
“Everybody must get stoned,” Bob Dylan sang back in the Woodstock era; some of us willfully misinterpreted this perfectly straightforward song about the inevitability of martyrdom to mean he was advocating drug use! Well, everybody still hasn’t gotten stoned, even once, but give ’em time. After 13 straight years of declining drug use, the figures are creeping up once more, especially among teenagers. What drugs? The old Woodstock standbys, marijuana and LSD. How come? Because kids aren’t as scared of drugs as they used to be, say the researchers who did the interviews. Why not? Because the government’s not yammering at them every minute anymore, says the head of the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Who gets the blame? Bill Clinton, stupid.
The hippies who came back from Woodstock in 1969 might have had trouble finding all the dope they wanted in their hometowns. But that hasn’t been a problem for years, even in the most bucolic backwaters; comparing today’s drug scene to the late ’60s is like comparing a WalMart to a general store. Heroin on the streets of New York City has lately been more than 60 percent pure; in 1969 it ran as low as 2 percent. LSD, by comparison, is almost manageable: a typical dose is now 50 to 80 micrograms, still enough to land you in the locked ward, but small potatoes after the apocalyptic 250 to 500 and up of Woodstock days. Cocaine was for the smoking-jacketed rich; crack, the equal-opportunity soul-shredder, hadn’t been thought of. Neither had such paradigm-shifters as MDMA (Ecstasy), 2C-B (Nexus) and 5-MeO-DMT (Toad Slime); this last, veteran psychonaut Ram Dass has reported, once turned him into “a very large, black woman.” Just what the world needed: a P.C. hallucinogen. And every year or two a new article comes out announcing a major comeback for methamphetamine, which had pretty well rotted out Haight-Ashbury by the time of Woodstock. One of these years it’ll probably happen.
Even most hippies had the sense to be spooked by speed and heroin — though for some, this amped up the fascination — and today’s crack plague wouldn’t have been their idea of a good time. (For one thing, drug-related crime has made those affordable slum apartments too dangerous to live in. Bummer.) But marijuana is becoming trendy again, thanks in part to rappers and their “blunts” (Phillies cigars hollowed out and refilled) and to proselytizing by such white rockers as the Black Crowes. Ex-hippies are titillated by reports that today’s pot is fearsome stuff, 10 to 20 times stronger than back in their day; but High Times magazine recently published figures from the National Institute of Health’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project suggesting that it’s no stronger than it ever was. The Project also found that the much-touted, hand-tended domestic weed — the illicit analog to microbrewery beer — is actually feebler than stuff smuggled in from abroad. It’s the doper’s version of the perennial Yuppie dilemma: one wants to buy American, but . . .
The Woodstock-era enmity between jocks and heads, we’re happy to report, no longer exists: jocks are heads, even though we tend to find this out only after they check into Betty Ford. Politicians used to be right up there with priests and businessmen as hippie betes noires, but a couple of years back all of Washington was fessing up to having “experimented” with marijuana. Senators. A Supreme Court nominee. The president of the United States had already fessed up. And remember the old hippie fantasy: Wow, what if we could turn on the cops? Bingo. For years now, police officers have been raiding evidence lockers for goodies; more recently, they’ve been going into the drug business themselves, from shakedowns of small-time dealers to multimillion-dollar money-laundering schemes. What a field day for the heat!
But rock and roll has outperformed even sex and drugs. If you’ve cruised the radio dial lately in search of someplace to rest a weary ear, you don’t need us to tell you that loud electric music with a heavy beat has stomped out the competition. In 1969, Frank Sinatra (“My Way”), Perry Como (“Seattle”) and Sammy Davis Jr. (“I Gotta Be Me”) were still in there slugging it out with the Beatles, the Stones and the Archies. The No. 6 record that year was Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet”; even Red Skelton charted, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Today rock, soul and their high-tech offshoot, hip-hop, are inescapable. Country music? Middlebrow rock with pedal steel veneer: Reba McEntire could use the same sterile jackboot drum tracks as Aerosmith or Snoop Doggy Dogg. The recent duettings of Sinatra and the unplugging of Tony Bennett are retro curiosities, like the 80-year-old bluesmen who used to totter out to open shows for 25-year-old millionaires.
Then again, the music at Woodstock also seems like a retro curiosity. It’s mostly mediocre, sometimes unlistenable: an excruciatingly out-of-tune Crosby, Stills and Nash; a tinny, rickety-sounding Who; a John Sebastian stoned into terminal touchy-feelyness. Jimi Hendrix’s now canonical deconstruction of the national anthem is a trite piece of showbiz shtik, complete with aerial-dogfight sound effects that would have worked fine on a Spike Jones record and an interpolated “Taps.” In the late ’60s, some of the masters of American music were at the peak of their powers — or at least still had their good days. Miles Davis, Bill Monroe, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Ernest Tubb, Thelonious Monk . . . Except for Brown, none of them would have been deemed groovy enough for Woodstock — and Brown had put Aquarian noses out of joint by recording “Don’t Be a Dropout,” which urged inner-city kids to stay in school so they could make a decent living. Well, Woodstock wasn’t really about the music anyway, right? It was about the vibe. And sometimes about being so wasted you weren’t quite sure if that sound was a band playing or a helicopter bringing a band in. Whatever. Beautiful. Whew.
This was the archetypal wood-stock state of mind: the undiscriminating wonder of early childhood, recaptured through chemistry, with absolutely everything revealed to be as wonderful as everything else. It could get inconvenient: eventually you had to be able to manage tricky stuff like remembering that the little coin in your pocket with the things around the edge was actually worth more than the bigger coin that didn’t have the things. But vestiges of this nonjudgmental, nonhierarchical consciousness persist among the dainty souls who call quadraplegics “differently abled” or bend over backward not to be dismissive of “nondominant” viewpoints: that whites are congenital “ice people,” for instance, or that the Holocaust never happened. Some of this thinking is a perverse exfoliation of such ideals as equality of opportunity, freedom of inquiry and tolerance of dissent. Some of it is a mind-blown inability to tell true from false.
It was an Aquarian article of faith that this distinction was meaningless: when Bob Dylan sang of a princess and prince who “discuss what’s real and what is not,” we sneered right along. “Nothing is real,” sang John Lennon, “and nothing to get hung about.” Dada band names, whose only discernible subtext was the absurdity of naming your band, were conventional by the time of Woodstock: Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead. The very names were Zen koans, verbal feedback loops contrived to catapult you beyond logic. That was where the music and the drugs were supposed to take you, too: to timeless, orgasmic no-place described by religious mystics. Sex, drugs, rock and roll: it wasn’t always a joke.
But these days, it’s hard to take anything seriously: everything coming at us seems to have some ironic backspin on it. Even corporate America has gone whimsical and enigmatic. Brand names and trademarks now sound like bands that played Woodstock: Apple, Product 19, Shining Time Station, Mango Tango, Acura Vigor, Haagen-Dazs (sounds Scandinavian; means nothing), Industrial Light & Magic. Band names, meanwhile, have out-dada’d dada: Porno for Pyros isn’t just a band name that doesn’t mean anything; it’s a sendup of band names that don’t mean anything. David Letterman, the most-watched man on TV, radiates deliberately empty geniality, mirthless humor and, most of all, contempt for late-night TV. Retro style in film, fashion, architecture and design have put our culture in quotation marks; oldies stations prosper by looking over their shoulders; the once straightforward world of country music is now a hall of mirrors, echoing with innumerable songs about country music. (Imagine Hank Williams singing about how he’s got to hear some Roy Acuff.) We’ve watched so much TV news for so many years, we feel as if we’re floating in a boundless present where everything has equal weight and soon gets replaced by the next thing. Rwanda, Whitewater, Haiti, O.J., Bosnia. Hey, Woodstock ’94.
So it’s all come true. And with some extras we would never have guessed. Tiny little records you don’t have to get up and turn over. Being able to run movies right on your TV: you could watch “Woodstock” every night for a month if you felt like it. A computer right in the house, giving you a window into a vast, conceptual cyberspace that’s nowhere and everywhere. Coming soon: virtual reality. Sometimes it feels like “The Monkey’s Paw,” where they wish the mangled son back to life and then go Oops-y when something knocks at the door. But that’s cool. It was the most imaginative of us who bought into the Woodstock mind-set, whether we actually went or not. Some of us were damaged beyond hope, but others of us now write the movies and TV shows, run the record companies and radio stations and ad agencies. One of us — one of the less bent ones — is even the president. This is how he got to play saxophone with real jazz guys like Illinois Jacquet; that must have been a trip. Our sensibility is all over everything. So we’re happy, no?
48, Producer, New York, N.Y.
I was locked in the Telephone Building (Woodstock operations headquarters) the whole time, bunkered down for the weekend writing checks that weren’t necessarily good. Then they called us from the stage, quite concerned that because of the rain the wiring might electrocute 100,000 people. That made us pause. But none of us ever thought anything awful was going to happen. That was the beauty of being 22, especially in those days. None of us were cynics.
Wavy Gravy (Woodstock security team)
58, Singer, Laytonville, Calif.
I told a reporter we planned to use whipped cream and seltzer bottles for crowd control. I said to him, `Do you feel secure?’ He said, `I’m not sure.’ And I said, `See, it’s working.’ The only (security) incident that was reported to me was when these two cowboys squared off in front of the stage and 2 million people went `PEEAAACCE!’
47, Publisher, San Francisco.
My friend’s sister’s boyfriend needed people to flip hamburgers; (we’d) get in for free and make minimum wage. I thought that was great. We opened the food stand and the crowd rushed forward. At a certain point, we weren’t even charging for the burgers. We were just grilling them and handing them out as fast as we could. People were tipping me with joints. I had one behind each ear, one in each pocket, smoking them one after the other.
55, Singer, New York, N.Y.
I was not invited. thank you very much. I was headed for Williamstown, Mass., and thought we’d just stop by. And we were horrified. The mud, the throngs of people, the rain…We went on the Williamstown and I don’t think I suffered for having missed it. Woodstock is a mental attitude. If all the people who say they were at Woodstock were actually there, they wouldn’t have fit into the state, let alone the site. But in a way they were all there.
72, Sheriff, Monticello, N.Y.
It was just something that nobody would ever have expected. We figured on five or six thousand people. I was the town judge. I spent most of the time at the county courthouse, arraigning people, over 300 in all. Most we allowed to go home…Local people pitched in, bringing in food by helicopter and motorcycle.
46, Promoter, San Diego, Calif.
I was in college and everyone was expecting me to become a lawyer. I was on that track. But I wanted a career in music, and Woodstock had a major impact on that decision. I’m into the commerce side of the music business now, but I still care about people and politics. I drove a GTO then, I drive a Lexus now, but there’s still a chance I’ll leave the money and just go out and play my guitar and sing again.
43, Music Writer, Dallas, Texas.
My daughter just graduated from high school and they had a ’60’s dance at their high school. She wore my jeans from Woodstock, my shirt from Woodstock, all my Woodstock clothes and won the prize for the most outstanding costume…Woodstock ’94 is going to be full of Woodstock wannabes. There were circumstances like the rain and hardships and lack of food that caused people to band together. It could never happen again.