As we approach the real 30th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival this weekend (I’ll do a show about it on Friday), I’ve been thinking about last month’s concert, which co-opted the original’s name and location, but fell miserably short of the feeling and spirit of that August weekend three decades ago in upstate New York.
Unlike a few million others, I’m one of the rare people my age who will actually admit that I was not at the original Woodstock. So I didn’t experience the “three days of peace and love” first hand. All I know about that concert is what I have read and heard from people who were there, in the crowd and on the stage, and from Joel Makower’s terrific — but unfortunately now out-of-print — book on the oral history of Woodstock.
Last month’s concert was billed as “another three days of peace and love.” Even before the arson, rapes, and looting that ruined the end of the concert, it was easy to see that the three intervening decades have diminished the value of the original event while desperately trying to exploit its myth.
Can we now agree that no one will ever be able to recreate the coincidences that conspired to make the first Woodstock Festival a milepost in American popular history, and that concert promoters should stop trying?
This is not to say that there shouldn’t be big music festivals anymore. And you won’t see me putting down the acts that performed at this year’s concert, because I know very well that the roster at the original Woodstock included Sha-Na-Na.
No, I won’t comment on the quality of today’s music, teenagers, or the condition of the country. But I must point out the idiocy of trying to reclaim the tenor of those times via a modern-day event that, at its best, was about commerce and commercialism, not peace and love.
At Woodstock 1969, there were tents set up to help people experiencing bad acid trips.
At Woodstock 1999, there were tents torn down by people unwilling to pay $14 for a bottle of water.
At Woodstock 1969, Country Joe McDonald’s “Fish Cheer” was shocking because it included the F word.
At Woodstock 1999, several cable channels base their programming entirely on the F word.
At Woodstock 1969, the crowd desperately wanted to stop the rain with a chant.
At Woodstock 1999, the crowd had to pay to get into a tent called The Rain Room and cool off.
At Woodstock 1969, Wavy Gravy was a counterculture hero.
At Woodstock 1999, Wavy Gravy is an ice cream flavor.
At Woodstock 1969, Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner on his guitar.
At Woodstock 1999, you can buy Hendrix CDs through the Amazon banner ad on the official website.
August 1969 was a completely different era, and not just chronologically. The generation gap was much wider, the nation had been at war for a full decade, the country was tearing itself up internally, and the protests in the music were about much more important causes.
Quick, name a cause that America’s youth rally behind now.
In 1969 America, many young people felt disenfranchised and disconnected from the establishment.
In 1999 America, many young people fear being disconnected from AOL and losing their place in the Limp Bizkit chat room.
In 1969 America, “the man” was the enemy.
In 1999 America, “you’re the man” is a compliment.
In 1969 America, the civil rights movement was trying to get over the assassination of Martin Luther King.
In 1999 America, the civil rights movement is trying to get over Al Sharpton.
In 1969 America, young men feared being drafted after high school and killed in the Vietnam War.
In 1999 America, young men and women fear being killed while they’re still in their high schools.
Okay, so some things haven’t changed.
Would we be a better country if we could return to the days that made the original Woodstock an oasis of joy in a summer of bitterness? Of course not. So let’s not pretend that we should.
Let’s also stop pretending that “the Woodstock nation” still lives. Because the truth is that the citizens of the original Woodstock nation are the ones who last month didn’t want their grandchildren going to an event like this!