Enough with the cosmic freight
The presumptuous expectations of Woodstock
Enough with the cosmic freight
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Here's an expanded version of my Sunday print column on the impending Woodstick anniversary. The bah-humbug 'tude reads a tad stronger than originally intended, but, hey, these things happen...
Brace yourselves for yet another round of Woodstock overload. Next weekend marks the 40th anniversary of that mythical music mudfest, so naturally we’re getting eight new books, a new TV documentary, a new Hollywood movie, and a newly remastered DVD of the old documentary that will enable aging baby boomers to mourn their lost youth in high definition.
I’m not sure what has made me recoil from this contrived celebration – perhaps it’s the leather fringe on the DVD packaging, supposedly reminiscent of those late ‘60s jackets worn by young boomers who wanted to look like Buffalo Bill – but, as a certified boomer, I simply want to say:
Enough about us.
Enough about how Woodstock was supposedly the apogee of flower power, the moment when young people showed how they would change the world and transform human consciousness. Enough already with the documentary footage of the festival organizers clutching their flowers and gushing about the cosmic utopian oneness.
The more complicated truth, omitted from the 1970 documentary, is that hundreds of kids ingested bad acid and required medical treatment in the "freakout tent," that the Grateful Dead was almost electrocuted on stage during a downpour, that stoned musicians traveling in helicopters vomited on the crowd, that two festival organizers wound up suing the other two (there were 80 lawsuits in all), that angry kids torched several concession stands (for the crime of selling food at prices deemed too high), that Warner Brothers racked up big capitalistic revenues ($50 million in just the first 10 years), and that many of the festival folks remain confused today about what they actually witnessed and what they picked up from the original documentary.
(I never got to Woodstock. I had a low-paying teenage summer job, and was convinced that the tickets were too expensive: Three days for $18. Some of my friends did attend, but they got stuck so far from the stage that they didn't hear any of the music until they bought the Warner Brothers album the following year.)
And enough already about the purported bliss of camping incommunicado for three days and nights in mud and rain. If kids today told their boomer parents that they intended to follow the Woodstock template, they’d never get out the door. Not unless they agreed to pack the GPS-equipped family SUV with SPF 50 (to guard against sunburn), 100 percent Deet bug spray (to fight Lyme disease), electrolyte-enhanced bottled water (for extra hydration), condoms (duh), a North Face tent (to ensure privacy), an EMS parka (to guard against raindrops), and a non-negotiable directive to check in via cellphone texting at the top of every hour.
Boomers are risk-averse as parents because they realize they haven’t changed the world. If anything, the world is more dangerous now than it was in 1969, when Woodstock’s public address announcer was intoning that "the man next to you is your brother." We’ve spent much of the past decade wondering, during our most paranoid moments, whether the man next to us is a bomber.
The cold undertow of middle age is probably enough to prompt some boomers to smile upon the Woodstock anniversary once again. But I say, let it go. It was all such a myth to begin with. Even the name is wrong. The festival was actually staged in Bethel, 45 miles from Woodstock - and only because the town fathers of Walkill nixed the deal for the original site. Which was fortutious, because the term Walkill Nation lacks the requisite crunchy-granola vibes. Worse yet, Joni Mitchell would have been forced to pen the lyric, “By the time we got to Walkill, we were half a million strong.”
Actually, Joni never got herself "to the garden" anyway. Stymied by the rotten travel conditions, she crafted her famous song about Woodstock in a Manhattan hotel room. She boasted that “we are stardust, we are golden,” and boomers loved that line. It airbrushed the evil underside of the ‘60s – most notably the Charles Manson murders, which occurred just six days before Woodstock.
Nobody in the ‘70 Woodstock documentary talked about Manson, or about the violent radicals who were applauding his work that week. Indeed, virtually all political content was deliberately excised from the film (which means that most boomers, seeing only the film, have come to believe that Woodstock was a totally apolitical event). In truth, there were constant tensions between the organizers, who wanted only to stage a music party, and various issue activists, who wanted to galvanize the crowd for political purposes.
The most priceless moment – which undercut the myth of the blissful monolithic counterculture - wasn’t even captured on screen. In the midst of a post-midnight set by The Who, famed celebrity radical Abbie Hoffman strode onto the stage (or perhaps he staggered, since at the time he was addled by LSD) and tried to make a political speech. In response, Who guitarist Pete Townsend raised his guitar and bonked Hoffman on the head.
Or maybe he jabbed Hoffman’s neck, nobody is quite sure even today. What’s indisputable is that Hoffman got the last word shortly thereafter, when he marketed the myth for political purposes during a highly-publicized federal trial. This was when he was in the dock as a defendant in the Chicago Seven case, charged with inciting riots at the '68 Democratic convention. When asked to name his place of residence, he testified: "I live in Woodstock Nation...It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind...It is a nation dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money."
I've long thought that the term Woodstock Nation was a bit presumputious, since it assumes that all American young people circa 1969 aspired to think and behave the same way. That's hardly the case. We could just as easily talk about Soldier Nation. In 1969, there were roughly just as many American young people (half a million) fighting in Vietnam. In fact, while the music played over those three days, 109 of those young people were killed in combat.
But back to Abbie's verbal coinage. He was asking boomers to shoulder quite a heavy load, this notion that Woodstock was supposed to be more than a party, that it somehow was supposed to define how boomers felt about themselves, politically and culturally...this notion that grooving to music in a meadow was somehow supposed to usher in a new transformative consciousness that would eradicate "competition," along with "property and money." (Yeah, right.) In the end, it's no surprise that the Woodstock legacy has managed only to inflate boomers’ expectations of themselves, and, sadly, to amplify many of life’s inevitable disappointments.
So enough about the utopia that never was, and all its cosmic freight. There’s only one way to get back to the garden: Stick to the music. Catch some rays and croon about us all floating in wooden ships on the water, very free. But slather on that SPF 50.