In his 2005 memoir “Searching for the Sound,” Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead outlined his observations on the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair not as one of its participants but as an outsider.
“As I watched TV the next night, the main thrust of the reporting focused on the impact of the festival on the local area: a tremendous influx of people, clogged roads — and garbage,” Lesh wrote about reporting on the festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary Aug. 15 to 18. “I’ve rarely seen Walter Cronkite so indignant as when he described the ‘tons and tons’ left behind, while the screen showed the trash-filled mud slopes of the main amphitheater.
“Crosby, Stills and Nash, on the other hand, were ecstatic, celebrating the festival as the most loving, peaceful and significant gathering yet of a new generation.”
Last weekend, just before David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash began a concert at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion with one of their Woodstock folk anthems, “Helplessly Hoping,” the generational shift was considerable. In a sea of gray-hairs and no-hairs and the occasional well-worn tie-dyed shirt, a pair of 20-somethings took their seats beside me. Both introduced themselves as students of the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and admitted being taken with the group harmonies they heard on their parents’ CSN albums.
After a patron behind us jokingly asked the students whether they had to be carded upon entry to the venue, I asked my neighbors if they had heard of Woodstock.
“You mean the movie with all the hippies?” one replied.
Yeah. That one.
Ask anyone — an elder, a contemporary, a curious youth, even — and it’s very likely they have at last heard of Woodstock. The passions rise a bit with the age brackets, though.
To some, it was indeed a generational summit, a mammoth chapter in pop and social history during the final months of the ‘60s. To others, maybe the late Cronkite and most certainly my poor father, who viewed such massively attended rock ‘n’ roll events as a sure sign of the apocalypse, Woodstock was very much a garbage dump.
But with the arrival of Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, there is no question that the 3 1/2-day festival, documented as it has been on recordings and films, remains one of the most compelling and complete time capsules of late-‘60s pop culture, the music that gave it life, the drugs that helped bring about its inevitable demise, and the social backdrops of war and generational unrest.
“Three days of peace and music.” Being 10 at the time, I wasn’t there. But that advertised billing for the festival certainly seems a simplification in retrospect. This was an age when sound systems were almost prehistoric, when there were no video screens to provide at least a glimpse of stage activity to those sitting in the farthest recesses of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. And when it rained, which it did in torrents, attendees had no choice but to become creatures of the mud. The vibe, though, seemed to prevail.
Pop festivals were common in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But the size of Woodstock’s crowd — widely thought to be almost 500,000 — was a staggering generational statement unto itself.
“I’ve just got to say that you people have got to be the strongest bunch of people I ever saw,” Stephen Stills said during CSN’s Woodstock set, which was only the group’s second public performance. “Three days, man. Three days.”
From the acoustic percussive urgency of Richie Havens, who kicked off Woodstock about 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, to the final electric strains of Jimi Hendrix just before noon Monday, Aug. 18, Woodstock made national headlines for the music, the garbage and the staggering numbers that turned out to witness it all.
From the Woodstock film, which became an Oscar-winning documentary in 1970, all kinds of highlights remain arresting 40 years on. Among them:
—The split-screen images of The Who’s Pete Townshend in midair pounding out the “Tommy” finale of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
—Havens making up on the spot a chant-style variation on “Motherless Child” called “Freedom.”
—A young band called Santana introducing itself to the world with the Latin-rock manifesto “Soul Sacrifice.”
—Stage announcements warning that “the brown acid is not specifically too good.”
—Sly and the Family Stone turning the festival into a psychedelic funk party with “Dance to the Music.”
—Hendrix retooling “The Star-Spangled Banner” into elegant guitar noise for a new generation. (Oh, did my dad despise that one.)
Now with anniversary CDs and DVDs out this summer that dig further into the 120 hours of Woodstock performances, there are new delights to behold by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Incredible String Band and, for the first time, the Grateful Dead.
For some, though, the lasting importance of Woodstock clearly went beyond what transpired onstage.
“I sat there onstage and thought, ‘You know what? This is the freedom my generation has been dreaming about since the ‘50s,’” Havens said while in Lexington, Ky., last year for a performance on “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.”
“All along we were trying to get a voice. And as I started singing during that long intro, that word came out: freedom. So I just kept singing it. And all of a sudden that song came out. I just went, ‘Wow.’”