Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock: The 40th Anniversary

As we’ve written over the past two weeks, this weekend represents the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in Bethel, NY. And, this year, the anniversary of the event has found its way into a wide array of merchandising tactics—re-releases of the documentary on DVD and Blu-Ray; re-releases of music from the event, including “lost” recordings; two books, one by a founder of the event and another by a notable disc jockey from the time; and a feature film by Ang Lee debuting later this month. Retailers have incorporated the theme and late 1960’s look into fashion and merchandising.

Yet, reflections back on the event show a gap between perception and reality. To those who attended the event, it appears that the three days were truly a celebration of peace, love and happiness. To more dispassionate observers, the mud, unsanitary conditions, lack of food, massive traffic jams and less-than-stellar performances by the various music acts are recalled.

Here then are a few perception-reality notes from this event which gave birth to the term, “The Woodstock Nation.”

Perception: Over 500,000 people attended the event, paying $18 for a three-day ticket.

Reality: Estimates for actual attendance range from 350,000-450,000. And, once concert-goers began climbing temporary fencing and finding ways into the concert grounds, Woodstock became a free festival. Interestingly, in today’s dollars, that $18 ticket would actually be $106—far less than the $250 being charged for this summer’s Bonnaroo Festival or the highest priced ticket at premium rock concerts these days.

Perception: Woodstock represented the best music of the late 1960’s, with defining performances by artists like The Who, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and others.

Reality: The majority of the performances were less than stellar, as noted by no less than those who performed. Roger Daltrey of The Who called their performance “the worst we ever did.” Jimi Hendrix’s band was so tired from being up all night, waiting to perform, that they were lethargic during the two-hour set. And, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were both jolted with electricity from their microphones while on stage.

Perception: The three days of close togetherness by the hundreds of thousands in attendance was violence free—a communal atmosphere where everyone got along.

Reality: Woodstock was a celebration of youth bonding together and proving that a community could be birthed, devoid of disagreement escalating to violence. Of the 109 arrests at the festival, all but four were for drug-related activities.

Much has changed in the 40 years since this major event of 1969. Concert films like the Woodstock documentary are a thing of the past. Who needs them given the ability to go on YouTube and find bootleg video clips from concerts? Buying albums is passé—we download the music we want now and take it with us, wherever we go. AM Radio, the driver of interest in music in ’69, is now full of talk shows, replaced by satellite radio in our automobiles—satellite radio which will feature a “Woodstock Channel” this weekend.

And, what of the performers? Sadly, many have died, usually from drug-related consequences (Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Tim Hardin, Keith Moon of The Who, to name a few), some live in relative obscurity, and others are still plugging away…and finding success in a business which has changed dramatically.

As a sign-off to this 40th anniversary celebration this weekend, we leave you with this from Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock, by Pete Fornatale.

“Twenty seven days after ‘Tranquility Base,’ on an untranquil sea of mud, there was a walk in space that 400,000 long-haired pilgrims in and out of sweatshirts called ‘the greatest weekend since the creation.’ It came to be known as the “Woodstock Nation.’ In search of rock, acid rock, acid, pot, peace and just being together, 400,000 Americans between 15 and 25 flocked to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York for a weekend with Sly and the Family Stone; Country Joe and the Fish; Janis Joplin; the Jefferson Airplane; Santana; Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Who; Joan Baez; and Arlo Guthrie, among others.

The festival was declared a disaster area, and if there had been a riot, the commission that would have investigated it would have probably blamed negligent planning by the promoters; lack of water, food, medical and sanitary facilities; and stormy weather. It would also have cited the abundance of marijuana, some hard drugs, communal living, and the exploitation of thousands of turned-away ticket holders who never got their $18 back. Yet, there was no violence and relatively little illness for a population of this size. Three people died, two were born, and in a rare happening, even the police got rave notices. There was some paranoia. The establishment was blamed by some for having seeded the clouds causing the downpour. Some critics of the festival called it an orgy organized by the communists. And the promoters ended up suing each other.”

This weekend we celebrate a festival which has been given iconic status in the history of U.S. popular culture.

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