While most Canadians are still stuck at home, we can still dream about the cultural destinations we once embarked on pre-pandemic ... and will soon experience again. Here, Globe Arts writers reflect on their favourite international cultural memories, and what the requisite domestic equivalent might be.
I was alive when the Woodstock Music and Art Fair happened on Aug. 15, 16 and 17 in 1969, but it wasn’t my scene. I was six years old – hip to The Flintstones, not so much to Sly and the Family Stone. We all have our eras.
Which isn’t to say I’m unfamiliar with the three days of peace, music and Sha Na Na. On the contrary, it’s kind of an obsession. If I didn’t take the brown acid in ’69, I’ve certainly drank the Kool-Aid since, enviously buying into the myth of a generation-defining event and wrapping myself in the rapture of the Aquarian utopia. Give me the hippie, the dippie, and even the John Sebastian.
I‘ve read the books, bought the box sets and watched the films. Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock in particular portrays a counterculture lovingly. Jimi Hendrix’s violent Star-Spangled Banner is a late-film anti-anthem, shown against scenes of a deserted field filled with trash and poignantly orphaned sandals.
By the time I got to the Woodstock Festival site in 2013 (at age 50, on a sort of midlife pilgrimage), the garbage had been cleaned up and the mud was gone. The concert site was marked with a simple plaque as if it were a former battleground (which is what it was, in many ways). The grassy natural bowl was empty – fillable by whatever romanticism floats your wooden ship.
The festival took place 90 minutes away from the actual Catskills town of Woodstock, on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., now home to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. In addition to the world’s most famous cow pasture, there’s a museum and a modern concert amphitheatre onsite. There’s not much happening in sleepy Bethel otherwise.
The action, such as it is, is back in Woodstock, a town of 6,000 or so throwbacks, artisans and young, well-heeled Brooklyn escapees. On my visit, I booked myself into a genteel bed and breakfast, where the innkeeper had enough autographed photos of Paul Kantner on the walls to suggest her relationship with the Jefferson Airplane co-founder might have been extra groovy.
Despite famously not wanting anything to do with the original festival in 1969, the namesake town has embraced the historically significant event as its own now, raking in tourist dollars with no shame. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the festival number 19 on its list of 50 moments that changed the history of rock ‘n’ roll – presumably based on how to monetize an epically mismanaged music festival after the fact.
There’s been a lot of revisionism when it comes to the original Woodstock. The 180-degree turnabout happened within days of the festival’s completion, and you don’t need to be Wavy Gravy to guess which way the wind changed.
“What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” a New York Times editorial asked on the Monday after a mud-field fiasco that featured music from Richie Havens, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Joan Baez, alongside so many other all-stars of the era.
One day later, however, the same newspaper decided the event had been a “phenomenon of innocence” that had prevailed over the rain, the lack of food and water, the overwhelmed porta-potties and the idiots who perilously scaled the speaker scaffolding.
Official estimates at the time approximated the crowd – a “ripped army of mud people,” according to the Band’s Robbie Robertson – at 350,000. Later, Joni Mitchell, in her immortalizing song Woodstock (released in 1970, first – and most famously – by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and later by Mitchell herself), rounded up the attendance to “half a million strong.” Guess which figure is generally accepted today?
But here’s another figure: The current viral pandemic has killed more people in the United States than had descended upon Yasgur’s farm on that far-out summer weekend. To take part in something like Woodstock, as chaotic as it was, is something many of us long for now. That kind of shoulder-to-shoulder community has been mostly lost during the isolation of the COVID-19 crisis.
The plaque overlooking the original concert grounds simply lists dates and performers. There is no lionization. Looking at the field that once held hundreds of thousands of the unwashed, it’s hard not to respect the humanity and the history. For all its failings, the show at Woodstock was a winning exhibition of perseverance.
For anyone who wasn’t there in 1969, Rhino’s 10-CD Woodstock: Back to the Garden compilation from 2019 is a vibrant time capsule. Plenty of music, but it’s the many P.A. announcements made by master of ceremonies Chip Monck and one of the festival’s producers, John Morris, that is the box set’s charm.
Monck and Morris were the Woodstock whisperers. Their even-keeled warnings, bulletins and messages tell the most real and soulful version of what went down there, in real time:
“It seems there are a few cars blocking the road.”
“It’s a free concert from now on.”
“Somebody, somewhere, is giving out some flat blue acid.”
“This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place.”
“Isn’t the rain beautiful?”
Beautiful or not, the rain is something people remember about Woodstock. On Sunday afternoon, after Joe Cocker’s career-making set, a thunderstorm interrupted the proceedings for hours. “If you think really hard enough,” Morris implored in response, “maybe we can stop this rain!”
That’s the optimism of psychoactive drugs, not a phenomenon of innocence.
When the chants of “no rain” predictably failed to affect local meteorological conditions, Morris turned realist. “That’s it,” he said. “We’ve got to ride this out.”
Woodstock Nation did just that – rode it out. A galvanized community endured not only the calamity in the Catskills that August weekend, but the divisive generational clash between the establishment and the freaks of the era.
During a break in the set by the doo-wop revivalists Sha Na Na, Monck checked the audio equipment. “Test, test, test-test-test,” he said. Woodstock gets a passing grade, one has to think.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, there will be no Woodstock-style events in Canada any time soon. Festivals in the Aquarian Age spirit, be it the Mariposa Folk Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival or the Stan Rogers Folk Festival, have been cancelled two summers running.
Things have opened up south of the border, however. The recent four-day Lollapalooza festival in Chicago drew massive jam-packed crowds, risking an outbreak of the Delta variant – and exposure to Limp Bizkit.
A mega-concert in New York’s Central Park is set for Aug. 21, to be broadcast on CNN. Headliners include Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Hudson, Paul Simon and Woodstock alumnus Carlos Santana. “This is something for the ages,” the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said while announcing the concert.
We shouldn’t complain if it doesn’t go smoothly. Think of it as just one more test-test-test.
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