Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock: It was 40 years ago today

“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” Michael Herr told us in “Dispatches.” His point, found at the end of his luminous, correspondent’s-eye view of one tour of duty in the Vietnam War, is one that students of war and of media have come back to time and time again: Ferried into peoples’ homes night after night via the evening news; the subject of studies and subcommittees; the flashpoint of protests and policies, the Vietnam War was such a total national experience as to be ubiquitous and utterly inescapable. You were “in country” whether you were physically “in country” or not.

Not for nothing was Vietnam called America’s rock and roll war: the war gained its foothold in the national experience about the same time that rock music was gaining prominence and legitimacy in the lives of everyday people; the war’s climax in the years 1968 and 1969 roughly dovetailed with the creative high point of rock’s visionaries. After 1969, rock underwent serious renovation.

But not before Woodstock went down.

It was 40 years ago today when thousands converged on a field at a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., for an event modestly billed as “3 days of peace & music.” What took place from Aug. 15-18, 1969, was a watershed for the culture, the best sort of watershed: the accidental kind, with no deep-pocketed corporate tie-ins, no booths for cellular phone companies, no noisy warnings about coolers and alcohol not being permitted.

Woodstock was an impromptu experiment in social engineering that succeeded beyond expectation. They anticipated maybe 100,000 people would show up; they ultimately got at least 400,000. Joni Mitchell’s poignant tribute to the event said the number of concertgoers those three days came to “half a million strong.”

And Woodstock disproved the prevailing notion that those unwashed masses breathing free couldn't act responsibly, even charitably, as an instant society. Woodstock proved that things didn’t have to fall apart, that the violence that visited so much of the nation in those turbulent days and years didn’t have to happen everywhere. That rage, that violence could be postponed, at least three and a half months. At least until the deal went down at Altamont.

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Today on Sirius XM’s Woodstock Channel, created by Sirius to mark the 40th anniversary of that gathering of the tribes, a voice on one of the on-air promos said “you didn’t have to be at Woodstock to be at Woodstock.” And it’s true.

Like any enriching experience, there’s something to be imparted beyond the actual, literal experience itself. If it’s anything important, with residual social value, it’s possible to learn from the experience and from the things outside the experience that reflect on it.

You don’t have to watch the rock falling into the water to recognize its after-effects; the ripples from that stone’s splash will last longer than the splash itself, and be observed by more people than the ones who watched the rock originally.

Woodstock was the splash that’s still sending ripples across the water of our culture. Forty years after the event, a flurry of new albums are out with remastered updates of the original music. Ang Lee’s new film “Taking Woodstock” looks at the genesis of the festival from different perspectives.

And bet your mortgage: the good burghers of Bethel will be besieged all weekend long by visitors from around the country and the world hoping to brush up against the magic of that summer, sniffing the air in that open field for just a hint of the patchouli and pot smoke that wafted into the American air, and stayed there for forty years.

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Woodstock was the bomb and everybody knew it. Even a skinny, nappy-headed 14-year-old black boy in Denver, a kid desperate to gain some sense of himself and his world, knew it when he read about it in The Denver Post the day after it started. Woodstock was the place to be.

The old man, of course, wouldn’t hear of it. Not for a minute. Out of the Army less than two years, the major was still very much in military mode, right down to the way his three children were raised. Woodstock? Too many un-American hippies there to be anything good. Out of the question.

And ultimately, it didn’t matter. The skinny kid in Denver didn’t make it to the mud flats at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 3,000 miles away. But Woodstock the Experience came to him: less than a year later, when he heard the movie soundtrack for the first time; four years later, when he moved to Boulder, Colorado’s counterculture ground zero, to start college and pursue a parallel career in psychoactive discovery; forty years later, when he attended the final Oracle Gathering, three days of peace & music, environmental awareness and multicultural embrace, in a field in Randle, Wash.

And Woodstock the Experience came to him whenever he heard the music from that moment in American time, and he knew the lyrics and the melodies and even the guitar riffs like he knew his own name.

For him and for millions of others, it was true then and now and forever:

Woodstock, Woodstock, Woodstock, we’ve all been there.
Image credit: Woodstock poster: © 1969 Arnold Skolnick. "Taking Woodstock" poster: © 2009 Focus Features.

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