NEW YORK — The mythology of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair overtook its reality years ago.
Mountain’s Leslie West jokes, “If you count all the people now that say they were there, there had to be 10 million people there, not just 400,000.”
The magic of those three days of peace, love and music from the biggest and brightest stars of the time can never be recaptured because it was something unique.
All the massive festivals that have followed, all the attempts to link music with politics, all the plans to create “the next Woodstock” fall a little short because they lack the element of surprise.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Martin Perry, a business consultant from Massapequa, N.Y., who went to Woodstock more for the experience than the music. “Who could have expected all of that ahead of time?”
Perry says he attended other festivals shortly after Woodstock hoping for a repeat performance and was disappointed. “People were not as friendly,” he says. “The experience was much more brutal. Woodstock was really a singular moment.”
That may be why people get nervous about anything that might tarnish the Woodstock legacy.
Woodstock promoter Michael Lang recently dropped plans to celebrate the original festival’s 40th anniversary this year with a free concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, after he wasn’t able to find enough sponsors. (Considering the problems of Woodstock ‘99 in Rome, N.Y., which reportedly lost more than $10 million and ended in riots, fires and looting after four days of blistering heat and $4-a-bottle waters, the Woodstock plan of regular anniversary festivals every five years has been put on hold since 1999.)
It is a testament, actually, to how cherished the Woodstock Experience still is that so many are still eager to tap into that “singular moment.”
A walk through any bookstore this summer will find more than a dozen new books about the event. There will be a new Ang Lee movie, “Taking Woodstock,” about preparations for the festival, as well as a new VH1 documentary “Woodstock: Now and Then” from Barbara Kopple.
And, of course, there’s the music. Sony Legacy has a new 10-CD boxed set called “The Woodstock Experience,” while Rhino Records is offering the six-CD “Woodstock — 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm,” which will include 38 previously unreleased tracks and the entire festival set list.
But it doesn’t stop there. You could put your Woodstock coffee mug on some Woodstock coasters made from the vinyl albums of Woodstock artists, while you fold some Woodstock psychedelic origami and put together a thousand-piece Woodstock puzzle, while wearing some Woodstock T-shirts, naturally.
Cocooning in that moment becomes important, since it didn’t last very long. What Woodstock succeeded in creating was idyllic, but it was also short-lived.
“It was a high point,” says Jim Henke, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. “For a moment, it was the center of pop culture. It showed a huge number of young people rebelling against the social norms of the time, and it showed the hippie movement to be as big as it was. And it all went off pretty smoothly. Then came Altamont, and that sent almost the opposite message.”
The violence at the Altamont concert, along with the substance-abuse deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison shortly after that, quickly overturned the “sex and drugs and rock and roll” idealism that Woodstock had built. Reality had overtaken the myth.
Slowly but surely, the balance began to shift again. Henke says all the attention that the anniversaries bring to the original Woodstock add to its importance, as does the recently rereleased “Woodstock” documentary.
“For many people, when that movie came out, that was the introduction for many people to that ethos, that lifestyle,” he says. “It all helps spread the word.”
And for artists like Mountain’s West, who became a star after performing at the festival and plans to return this week to play the 40th anniversary show at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Woodstock’s positive aspects will always outweigh whatever negatives that followed it.
“I’m really looking forward to the show,” says West, who plans to wed his fiancee, Jenni Maurer, onstage at the end of the band’s Woodstock set. “It’s such a beautiful place.”
West, like a lot of people whose lives were changed by the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, see the potential.
For three days, 40 years ago, 400,000 people joined together to show that the hippie ideals of peace and love and mutual respect could not only work, but could lead to an unforgettably good time. Since then, we have seen numerous examples of how this could break down. But it happened once. Maybe it could happen again.
Maybe that is the true legacy of Woodstock.