By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolution of 1969

The year 1969 began with an ending, an epitaph accidentally designed as a celebration. It was 30 January that year when, on the rooftop of the Apple Building at 3 Savile Row in London, actual observers and passers-by either witnessed or heard the celebrated rooftop concert marking the last public performance of the Beatles.

It was more than a goodbye from the band whose sound and style changed everything in popular culture. The concert was a pre-valedictory for the ’60s as an era. In the song “I’ve Got a Feeling”, John Lennon captured the sense of a door closing, of exhaustion and finality settling in:

Everybody had a good year

Everybody had a good time

Everybody had a wet dream

Everybody saw the sun shine …

Everybody had a good year

Everybody let their hair down

Everybody pulled their socks up

Everybody put their foot down

Between that cold January day in London and another chilly day 11 months later at a speedway in northern California, rock ‘n’ roll culture would celebrate once more, at a musical bacchanal on a dairy farm in upstate New York.

In an era rife with symbols, the mandala was everywhere. That Taoist symbol of interlocking teardrops symbolizing interdependence and balance was as much a semiotic marker as the peace sign or the feline logo of the Black Panthers. The yin-yang attributes of the mandala had parallels in rock culture: The heady possibilities of Woodstock (held in New York in August) gave way to the spasmodic violence at Altamont (on the opposite end of the country, in California, in December).

By the Time We Got to Woodstock, Bruce Pollock’s new cultural biography of the Woodstock era, manages to be both panoramic and focused, scholarly yet streetwise in its analysis of one of rock culture’s most turbulent years.

Pollock had his work cut out for him. In 2009, a year destined to be crowded with Woodstockiana (musical celebrations from New York state to Washington state; Ang Lee’s new and well-regarded film Taking Woodstock; re-releases of music performed at that festival), Pollock has smartly chosen to view Woodstock in its wider context, not as be-all and end-all of rock culture, but as a window on that culture.

In August 1969, about 400,000 people gathered on dairy farmer Max Yasgur’s field in Bethel, New York, “most of whom”, Pollock notes, “had to park their cars along the side of the road ands walk the remaining one or two or ten miles to Yasgur’s farm with their food, their gear, and the life’s possessions on their backs, like the poor evicted souls fleeing the pogroms of Anatevka in the last scene of Fiddler on the Roof.

Rather than use this year’s even-numbered anniversary as another chance to apotheosize the festival itself, Pollock sees Woodstock as an index to where the culture had already been going, and where, given enormous social, political and economic forces at work in America, it was already destined to go.

The book’s title is more than just a canny appropriation of a Joni Mitchell lyric; Years later, “American Pie”, Don McLean’s musical Rosetta Stone of the ‘60s, made Altamont “the day the music died”. In fact, by the time Woodstock happened, the bloom was already off the rose. Pollock convincingly makes the case that it wasn’t the music that died so much as it was one version of the music’s mystique and lifestyle, one of its incarnations, one rock ‘n’ roll business model that was dying well before then.

Pollock brings experience to his subject. A record producer at BMG Entertainment, and a Deems-Taylor award winner, he’s interviewed hundreds of musicians; as such he’s eminently qualified to weigh in on when rock music’s future diverged from its experimental, more wide-open past. For that reason, his book would work better as an oral history than as a book advancing its own pointed personal narrative. Some of the more illuminating observations have less to do with Pollock than with the people he’s interviewed down the years.

Pollock’s biography has a breadth that borders on sprawl. But his recall, rambling and imprecise and subjective as only a personal remembrance can be, has value in making sense of how 1969 figured in the overall arc of the ‘60s. There’s a lot for Pollock to get his arms around; he summons a rhetorical passion that works well as a stylistic reflection of the era’s own chaos and disorder.

For Pollock, the “great rock n’ roll revolution” he documents wasn’t just in the culture, but also in the rock music biz, the music industry about to witness a tectonic shift in style, technology and its very foundations as a business. The changes ushered in in 1969 didn’t neatly respect the dictates of the calendar. Many of the changes that announced themselves in ’69 actually took root the year before.

Prior to this season of political retribution, turmoil on the streets, men on the moon, acid in the drinking water, and escalating war overseas, the nascent Baby Boom generation had turned the power of its numbers and the potency of its idealism into an unmatched alliance between the popular and the revolutionary, the elite and the mainstream… [T]he musicians and bands of 1965-1968… were the only artists who consistently stood atop the mountain, commandeered the stages at the most important rallies, and issued all the crucial manifestos. In 1969, they all came tumbling down, seemingly at once.

In 1969, it seems, breaking up was not so hard to do:

Nineteen sixty-nine was the year in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney couldn’t stand to be in the same recording studio with each other… Janis Joplin left the protection of Big Brother to fend for herself as a reigning rock goddess in a fickle world. Frank Zappa left the Mothers of Invention. Jimi Hendrix left the Experience. The Famous Flames left James Brown. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown after a bitter lawsuit. Jim Morrison left his pants on a stage in Miami. And Simon wasn’t any too thrilled with Garfunkel.

One of the book’s chapters, “The Joy of Segues”, is instrumental in establishing a Before and After for rock music, a dividing line between the laissez-faire aspects of its own creative tendencies, and a more regimented, radio-friendly approach to music programming. As rock became as much commodity as cultural phenomenon, Pollock notes, radio programmers once enamored of FM-style programming — station playlists that allowed for individuality and unorthodox choices; program segments devoted to a single artist; a free-form sensibility that dovetailed with the times — gave way to programming whose emphasis of quantity over quality sounded a death knell for the hit single.

While the hit single never did die out entirely, by the end of the 1960s AM radio was a severely wounded white buffalo staggering through the hinterlands, its whole oeuvre called into question by critics cramming for term papers in league with record executives looking for a bigger slice of the profits to be derived from album sales…

… [Six hundred and seventy] singles made the Billboard chart in 1969 for at least a week, and while that was down from 1966’s peak of 743, the next decade would barely average 500. With FM stations continuing to siphon off the album market of sophisticated college students, more and more the single was regarded as the lowest of common denominators, the gateway drug, as it were, for lusty adolescents fiddling with their first radio.

By year’s end, the future was arriving in other ways, Pollock notes.

As the ‘60s wound down, major groups and musicians creating some of the period’s best music changed, broke up, re-formed and ricocheted in other directions: the Byrds begat the Flying Burrito Brothers; Cream begat Blind Faith; the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band lost a member named Jackson Browne, intent on pursuing a solo career. These were the seeds of the future sharing the soil of the scene in the present.

And other talents whose sound and style didn’t gain popular traction right then were incubating for the next revolution, years down the road: MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges set the table for punk rock’s storming of the parapets. Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” gave way to the reggae of Bob Marley. The willfully abrasive poetry of The Last Poets was attitudinal antecedent to rap and hip-hop.

There are times it’s clear this book needed another pass through the editor’s desk. Pollock can be overly fond of elbow-in-the-ribs puns (he mentions “the horny Chicago” to describe that horn-laden band from the Windy City) and silly word games like weaving song titles into a sentence.

Other matters are harder to understand, given the breadth of Pollock’s experience. Teo Macero, Miles Davis’ producer on the epochal “Bitches’ Brew”, is identified as “Teo Mateo”; Motown founder Berry Gordy is mentioned at length on a first-name basis; the name of Electric Flag singer Nick Gravenites is misspelled; and blues fans will be a little chagrined to find mentions of “Howling Wolf” — an error of an absent apostrophe (Howlin’ Wolf is correct and has been for at least 50 years) that just shouldn’t happen.

But mostly, Pollock’s book succeeds on the depth of its author’s knowledge of the history of a seismic year in pop culture, and the energy of his perspective. In retrospect, 1969 was the year the monolith of rock music splintered into shards and fragments of subgenre, other musical forms we’re hearing the descendants of today.

The year 1969 may well have been when the ‘60s truly became The ‘60s, that cultural signpost we recognize today, the time when the era’s positives and negatives of the era were distilled like never before. As John Lennon suggested on that London rooftop when the year started, everybody partied, everybody made a statement, everybody drew their line in the sand. Everybody contributed to a romantic relationship that ended inventively and savagely, to a wet dream that ended.

Like the legendary festival it documents as part of the journey rather than a destination, Pollock’s book effectively lashes the strands of this fractious era together. That Dickensian metaphor for contrasts obtains: 1969 was the best and worst of times. Pollock’s book is its worthy, comprehensive postmortem.

RATING 6 / 10