What does the Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 1969 have to do with 2009? Well, depending on your point of view, almost everything… and almost nothing.
The original Woodstock Festival has been ballyhooed as the defining Baby Boomer cultural event: a watershed moment when the generation symbolically came together for rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion. It was an unprecedented amalgam of party and protest.
Since the original festival, several previous anniversary clones have attempted to recapture the superficial manifestations of Woodstock, the mega-concert, if not the authentic spirit. Previous reenactments, ambitious as some were, have failed to live up to history’s ideals.
As the 40th anniversary finally approaches August 15-17, 2009, we can think of Woodstock as existing on three levels: 1) the merchandizing event; 2) the media event; and, 3) the sociological event.
Woodstock, the merchandizing event, is jamming away full bore and with some success. Dozens of musical compilations, documentary movie re-masters, and retrospective books have appeared on Amazon.com since May. Boomers and lovers of Boomer culture can shop for director’s cuts of the eponymous film documentary, a new book about the story of Woodstock by one of its organizers, and new musical compilations from classic rock legends Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Johnny Winter. Late August promises unveiling of a major movie comedy event, yet to be congratulated or criticized by critics: Taking Woodstock, based on the Elliot Tiber book (and directed by Ang Lee of Brokeback Mountain fame).
Woodstock, the media event, has yet to engage fully, but reasonable expectations place the seminal rock concert as a lead story in some national media. For example, I would expect CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 to include Woodstock remembrances as a story in its newsmagazine line-up on August 14. Acknowledgements of the actual anniversary should appear on network news broadcasts. A weekly magazine and major newspapers might feature the story, including pundits trying to grapple with “what it all means.” While I don’t expect the anniversary to pass unacknowledged by media, I also am not expecting the event to carry as much media heft as the 40th anniversary of Americans landing on the moon.
Restaging the event is a nonstarter. Michael Lang, one of the original four promoters of the 1969 festival, announced in March 2009 that he was planning a 40th anniversary concert. Then on August 3, 2009 he cancelled the tribute concert stating lack of money and sponsors as his primary reasons. When you consider that this anniversary has been on the radar for at least a year by those who are launching merchandizing spin-offs, a major concert announced less than six months out and canceled less than two weeks out points to an obvious conclusion: Woodstock 2009 never had enough momentum to succeed. And, quite amazingly, a Heroes of Woodstock concert, organized by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts for August 15, had not sold out at the time of this post. This is a small concert venue by Woodstock standards.
Woodstock, the sociological event, is least likely to gain traction in 2009. By “sociological event,” I mean a collective reliving of what this event meant in the historical narrative of the last half of the 20th century — and what the 1969 festival means today in terms of the nation’s evolving values.
Woodstock was “three days of peace and music.” Mud and illegal drugs notwithstanding, it represented a rare moment when thousands of strangers congregated together, suspending fear and suspicion and feeling intrinsic connections with their peers, an unparalleled intermission of social harmony. Typical crowd behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact, suspended for three days, leading to everything from unabashed public nudity to strangers hugging and high-fiving. More important than actions were feelings: a sense that a generation had come into its own, an experience of optimism in spite of the divisive Vietnam War, a moment of idealism that innate human hostility and warring could be rocked into irrelevance.
It is unlikely that the spirit of Woodstock could have been recaptured again in 2009, whether or not an anniversary concert happened. Watershed events are rare and ephemeral for a reason. They come just once and change our nation, never to be repeated but in caricature or parody.
Most Boomers who attended (or claim they did) are now into their mid-fifties to mid-sixties. Aging has changed them across 40 more years of living. Their fervent sense of shared mission has dissolved with the years. Getting “back to the garden” now means growing vegetables in the backyard, maybe to reduce household expenses in a recessionary economy.
Yet, some of the values associated with Woodstock persist within the heart of this generation. These include a belief in the perfectibility of the human condition, yearning for a healthier planet unscathed by industrial and consumer waste, belief in inherent equality across races and cultures, and an atavistic love of rock ‘n’ roll music that remains forever youthful in spirit despite aging bodies.
Three days of peace and music have become frozen in time, thawing only partially every five or ten years to remind us of how much a nation needed to change in 1969 and how much a generation wanted to be a change agent. It was one tangible manifestation of our youthful location in history, whether we were in Bethel, New York, or not. Its powerful messages of liberation didn't stay local but traveled organically across the nation, from college campus to university town.
Only history can judge if the ideals of an “Aquarian Exposition” in August 1969 have become part of contemporary value consensus. But this is certain: to some Boomers today,Woodstock still beckons with the spirit of those three days.
“We are stardust wishing bombers into butterflies.”