Pot, Skinny-Dipping, and Freedom Rock

Woodstock and the Year of the Outdoor Music Festival (Part 2)

by Rob Kirkpatrick

4 August 2009


A Microcosmic Disaster Area

The crowding, conditions, and ad hoc planning at the Woodstock festival had created its own microcosmic disaster area. “I can always tell who was really there,” Barry Melton said later. “When they tell me it was great, I know they saw the movie and they weren’t at the gig.” A sullen Joplin said soon after her performance, “I can’t relate to a quarter of a million people.” Garcia recalled, “As a personal experience, Woodstock was a bummer. It was terrible to play at . . .” He would later say, “Playing for four hundred thousand people is really peculiar. . . . We didn’t enjoy it, playing there . . .”  Pete Townshend said simply, “Woodstock was horrible.” 

Although admitting that the “great bulk of freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well,” a New York Times editorial sensationally declared the whole thing A NIGHTMARE IN THE CATSKILLS. The editorial went on to ask, “What kind of culture can produce so colossal a mess?”

As the festival attendees left Yasgur’s farm, leaving behind garbage strewn across the rustic landscape, it was up to the media and the rest of the country to deliberate on the cultural significance of the festival.

In one sense, Woodstock had been a success for what didn’t happen—more than 400,000 young people had congregated and it did not lead to mass rioting or destruction. The world did not end. The biggest success of the festival was proving that it could be done at all. As one festivalgoer said: “It was like balling for the first time. Once you’ve done it, you want to do it again and again, because it’s so great.” Rolling Stone commented: “And they will do it again, the threads of youthful dissidence in Paris and Prague and Fort Lauderdale and Berkeley and Chicago and London criss-crossing ever more closely until the map of the world we live in is viable for and visible to all of those that are part of it and all of those buried under it.” 

Many Sullivan County residents even praised the young crowd for acting politely and peacefully. One farmer complained it had been “a shitty mess.” Another man bemoaned that fifteen-year-old girls had slept outside in the fields.

Three people had died at Woodstock: One person overdosed on heroin, another was run over by a tractor, and another died of a ruptured appendix. Hundreds had died in Hurricane Camille. Many thousands more American soldiers were dying in Vietnam. But to many members of the older generation, the fact that a mass gathering of kids could have a Saturnalian weekend in the woods was more threatening than the lack of emergency preparedness for a storm or the drafting of young men to die in a war on the other side of the globe.

* * *

The subculture that Abbie Hoffman would dub “Woodstock Nation” in his 1969 book of the same name would die almost as soon as it was born. Ironically, while the crowding and traffic jams created by Woodstock had ruined many a vacation for tourists with poor timing that third weekend in August, Woodstock Nation spawned tourists of its own who flocked to its namesake town as if making a pilgrimage to the counterculture mecca. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan remembers: “At one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. . . . I wanted to set fire to these people. These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues . . .” 

Van Morrison later told Richard Williams for Melody Maker magazine, “When I first went, people were moving there to get away from the scene. Then Woodstock itself started being the scene.”  In the weeks following Woodstock, Van Morrison was working on his follow-up to the classic Astral Weeks. Moondance would become an instant classic, the embodiment of his mystical version of “Caledonia soul,” with songs like “And It Stoned Me,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” and the title track. Soon afterward, Morrison and his wife Janet Planet would pack up and move to California, leaving the Woodstock “scene” behind.

Meanwhile, Madison Avenue observed the whole Woodstock “thing” as an emerging trend and sought to co-opt it. One ad for the Shortline bus line in New York State quoted drivers “rap[ping] about the kids they took to the Woodstock Festival.” One driver said, “I don’t understand why they wear long hair but now I don’t care. It’s a free country. And they’re the most no-griping, no-complaining, patient and generous, respectful bunch of kids I ever met. Come on, kids, and ride with me. It’s a pleasure driving with you.”  The headline of a United Van Lines depicting four shaggy young vagabonds played with cultural fears under the clever headline, SOME PEOPLE (EVEN) UNITED CAN’T HELP, but then explained in smaller copy: “If you can pack your possessions on the back of a bike, you won’t have much use for our services.” A new store called The Gap—named after the “generation gap”—opened on a San Francisco street corner in 1969 as a retail store aimed at the counterculture, selling records and blue jeans. The Woodstock Generation was on its way toward becoming the Pepsi Generation.

Yet the legacy of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival would remain. As Michael Lang told NBC’s Gabe Pressman during the three-day happening: “You have this culture and this generation, away from the old culture and the older generation. You see how they function on their own, without cops, without guns, without clubs, without hassles, everybody pulls together and everybody helps each other, and it works. It’s been working since we got here, and it’s going to continue working. No matter what happens when they go back to the cities, this thing is happening and it proves it can happen.”

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