If they could put two men on the moon, how hard could it be to hold a three-day Aquarian Exposition?
The summer of 1969 is iconic for a number of reasons, but the two events often viewed as the era's most momentous involve rock and a rocket ship. Forty years later, both episodes seem improbable, perhaps for good reason. Conspiracy theorists will tell you the moon landing was all staging, hoax and propaganda. As for Woodstock - the subject of radically opposite reports even at the time, and of contradictory interpretations ever since - well, nobody's really sure how it all went down.
On July 20, an Eagle landed at Tranquility Base, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin planted a U.S. flag and generally behaved like dazed tourists. "The surface is fine and powdery," Armstrong said. "It adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my foot." Sounds like a real trip.
Less than a month later, David Crosby landed by whirlybird at Yasgur's Farm in bucolic Bethel, N.Y., where he was overwhelmed. "You couldn't really wrap your mind around how many people were there," the ever-inhaling musician later recalled. "It had never happened before, and it was sort of like having aliens land."
In effect, Crosby and Armstrong (whose fellow spaceman was nicknamed Buzz) said the same thing: "Far out."
Crosby judged his performance with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young as "stoned and funny and fine." Yet the recollections of one of his bandmates differ wildly from Crosby's cozy account. "Woodstock was a bullshit gig, a piece of shit," Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough. "We played [expletive]awful. No one was into the music."
What they were into was having a high old time: When the bohemians and flower children were given mud, they made a mudslide. As a communal event, it was a success - hippies thriving in an area officially declared a disaster - but the harsh conditions weren't for everyone. "A bunch of dopes in the mud not even paying attention," said rock critic Richard Meltzer, who split on the first day.
One scene, lotsa reads. Many remember Abbie Hoffman being whacked in the head by the guitar-wielding Pete Townshend. Hoffman had hopped onstage during the Who's set to commandeer a microphone to say something about John Sinclair, the radical manager of Detroit rockers MC5, in jail for a dubious drug charge. In the just-released book The Road to Woodstock , by festival organizer Michael Lang, Townshend said his reaction to Hoffman was reflexive, and that what Hoffman was saying was legitimate. "The people at Woodstock really were a bunch of hypocrites claiming a cosmic revolution simply because they took over a field, broke down some fences, imbibed bad acid, and then tried to run out without paying the bands. All while John Sinclair rotted in jail after a trumped-up drug bust."
Townshend's bandmate Roger Daltrey, who wore curly hair and a tasselled white vest for the performance, looked at the events at Yasgur's more practically: "We did a two-and-a-half-hour set. … It made our career. We were a huge cult band, but Woodstock cemented us to the historical map of rock and roll."
The historical map of the festival itself was locked in place by the utopian ode Woodstock , written by Joni Mitchell, the Canadian songstress who wasn't there, having chosen to appear on Dick Cavett's talk show instead. How could the event's theme song be written by someone who wasn't there? How can an American flag ripple in the wind of a windless moon? Did the star-spangled anthem-writer Francis Scott Key make up the bits about bombs bursting in air?
So it's hard to say whether the people of Woodstock Nation were stardust and golden, or just muddy, hungry and stoned. An editorial in The New York Times described "maddened youths" in a "nightmare of mud and stagnation," and asked "What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"
In the same article, however, the "freakish-looking" festivalgoers were moderately praised for how they handled themselves. "[They]behaved astonishingly well, considering the disappointments and discomforts they encountered. They showed that there is real good under their fantastic exteriors, if it can just be aroused to some better purpose than the pursuit of LSD."
It's hard to gauge how pleasurable the festival was for those who attended. It's probably enough to say that some took the brown acid, and some didn't.
For those who capitalize, the mythology of Woodstock is certainly real enough. Whatever happened in Bethel did not stay in Bethel, that much is for sure. Commemorative CD products this summer come in the form of Rhino's expanded anthology of music recorded at the festival, the six-disc Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur'sFarm , which competes with Sony Legacy's series of Woodstock performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and others.
Books include The Road to Woodstock , a detailed account from ringleader Lang, who discloses behind-the-scene knowledge on how much the bands were paid and how much vendors were charged for booths ($300). The 1970 documentary Woodstock has been rereleased in a director's cut DVD, and, on Aug. 28, Ang Lee's comedy Taking Woodstock hits screens.
As for the event's ultimate legacy, the three days of peace and music in 1969 became the model for how not to run a large-scale rock festival. If the organizers wanted to build an Aquarian Exposition to end all Aquarian Expositions, they succeeded.
There's a theory that the moon landings did take place, but that the astronauts involved in space missions have been less than forthcoming about what they actually saw out there. With Woodstock, fact and fiction is as muddy as the site itself, with differing accounts adding to the whole hazy recollection, as if those present had decided they'd abide by Dylan's lyrics: "I'll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours."