Moving Pictures September 2009

Woodstock Nation

Revisiting the 1969 mass freak-out, and the documentary that captured it all
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Barry Z. Levine/Getty Images

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon upstate New York’s mountains green? And did the fascist pigs seed the rain clouds over the festival site, causing them to unbosom upon the heads of the beautiful people? And was Jerusalem builded there, if only for 72 hours? Pretty much, apparently. No one was killed, at least not on purpose; and who knows—some scraping enlightenments may even have been attained. Peace on Earth. A different America, squatting BlackBerry-less in the mud—and smiling! Like you, perhaps, I was in diapers at the time, which means that I view the events recorded in the movie Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music as through an electric fence of skepticism, generational disenchantment, blah blah. Nonetheless: what a scene. What a mind-blower.




James Parker contrasts serene footage from the 1969 festival with mayhem from the 1999 anniversary show


August marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, or “Aquarian Exposition"—the famous festival/happening attended (or overwhelmed) by some 400,000 people, which took place on 600 acres of farmland in Sullivan County, New York. To celebrate, we have an expanded DVD rerelease of the original 1970 documentary, directed by Michael Wadleigh, as well as Ang Lee’s period piece Taking Woodstock and a little outbreak of books. The occasion would be as appropriately honored with a 50-mile traffic jam or an Internet crash: on every front, cultural and material, Woodstock was too much. Mass electrocution was averted only by an act of God. (Lee’s protagonist, on his way up to the stage, puts his hand on a metal stair rail and snatches it back with a hiss: thanks to an unholy marriage of rainwater and guerrilla wiring, the entire structure is live.)

The kids at Woodstock were either the first generation to taste true liberty, or the last generation able to police itself—we’re still working that one out. Wadleigh’s Woodstock begins with a kind of remote and Edenic eeriness: cool pulses of keyboard—the sound of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Long Time Gone”—as the camera roams the hazy pastures of Max Yasgur’s farm. We see the blameless cows, the soon-to-be-defiled meadows and lake, and then the paradise-dwellers themselves—the hippies, tanned and shirtless, chakras ablaze, starting to set the place up. In an instant, the scope of the dietary disaster that has since overtaken us is revealed. No high-fructose corn syrup in 1969, baby: the men are as lean as jaguars, the women firm-fleshed and passionate-looking. And no protein shakes, either—none of the congested muscularity of your 21st-century gym jockey.

Then night falls, and we get the first taste of the mayhem to come. Dancers, madly dancing; silhouetted druidic gestures; pale ass-cleft of hippie maiden, vibrant in the dusk. CSN’s “Wooden Ships” kicks in: “Silver people on the shoreline, let us be / Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy …” Magic!

In addition to cataloguing a mass freak-out, Woodstock stands as a monument to the spirit of ’60s documentarianism. The Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, had a bid in to make the film, but were narrowly beaten out by Wadleigh, who had dazzled the festival promoters with split-screen footage of an Aretha Franklin performance. (The brothers went on, of course, to make Woodstock’s dark twin, the Altamont movie, Gimme Shelter.) The idea of cinema verité still had a bit of buzz on it, and Wadleigh was fresh from working on Merv Griffin’s innovative out-and-about TV special, Sidewalks of New England. He and his crew were adepts in the new recording technology—the shotgun mikes, the sparkling Nagra sound equipment, and the handheld, quick-load Eclair NPR cameras that would effect the McLuhan-esque transmutation of Woodstock into Woodstock.

Once in position at the festival, they filmed everything: they filmed themselves filming, they caught the enormity upon enormity of the crowd, and they captured the touch of panic in the eyes of the performers. They came away with endless footage, 160 hours in total; the helicopters that came thumping in with musicians on board (because all the roads were choked) were also loaded with cases of raw stock for the cameras. Onstage, the cameramen scuttled and skidded around at knee height to get those fawning, swooning rock-star shots; out in the campgrounds, Wadleigh’s interviewers prodded the people with straight-man questions.

As a style, it was binocular, to say the least, and not for the purist. As Al Maysles averred in Dale Bell’s 1999 book, Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation,

Just as you go to church and God is your guide, in documentary filmmaking the controlling element—the guiding hand, if you will—is reality. And we leave that powerful force to give us what we get, so we don’t ask anything of anybody and certainly don’t interview them.

But what we’d have lost, without those interviews! The blunt anthropology of Al Wertheimer enquiring, “You bring your own coals to Newcastle?” of the young man, girlfriend at his side, who has announced that he has come to the festival because “there’s gonna be a lot of ballin’.” And the strange contagion of benignity that seems to grip the local burghers, their dazed regard for the kids best expressed by the chief of police: “We think the people of this country should be proud of these kids … their inner workings, their inner selves, their self-demeanor cannot be questioned. They can’t be questioned as good American citizens!” (Note here the chief’s jazzy mashup of New Age jargon and patriotic bluster. TrèsWoodstock.) Best of all is the progressive dissolution of one of the festival organizers, Artie Kornfeld, wet-eyed and helplessly grinning, whose head—by Sunday morning—appears to have been dunked in a bucket marked NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. “Financially, this is a disaster!” But he looks so happy …? “You have to understand, the turnabout that I’ve gone through in the last three days, in the last 3 million years … [Faintly adjusts the flower in his hand.] I meaning us, all of us …”

And then there was the music. Richie Havens, his top teeth gone, was the first to play, hunched with a deadly humility over his guitar: his “Freedom,” improvised on the spot, was pure suffering inspiration, pure duende. The Who walloped their way through a 3:30 a.m. set—impressive at the time, no doubt, though viewed today, the performance seems coarse and bombastic. Jefferson Airplane, staggering onstage a few hours later, were shakily magnificent. “Good morning, people!” yelled Grace Slick. What was the color of her eyes, in that tribal dawn? It was near-death-experience blue. Santana … Sly Stone … Sha Na Na, whose glam-revivalist take on ’50s rock and roll turned out to be the most futuristic thing there. And finally Hendrix, drug-jumpy but soothed with Valium, before a dwindled crowd, snaking onstage to give the worst performance of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” on record before conjuring ex nihilo—out of some shreds of feedback—the pop-art masterpiece that was his “Star-Spangled Banner”: Francis Scott Key reimagined as a muezzin with his finger in the wall socket.

Did I say that Wadleigh and his crew filmed everything? Not quite. No cameras seem to have been present, for example, near Hurd Road, on the east side of the site, on Saturday afternoon, when the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers charged the Food for Love concession stands in a fit of anarcho pique and burned 12 of them to the ground. (At issue—as reported in Bob Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylonwere the stinking-capitalist profits allegedly being made by Food for Love, and the horse meat allegedly in its hamburgers.) The Maysles Brothers, with their nose for a good bummer, would have sniffed that scene out and made it a centerpiece. Nor did Wadleigh record the Grateful Dead demanding an enormous cash payment up front, or Pete Townshend beaning Abbie Hoffman with his guitar.

But these were sideshows, after all. The story of Woodstock, slice it how you will, is anti-Darwinian; nature suspended her processes of selection, and everyone more or less lovingly muddled through. Such menaces as there were seem to have been collective—the dodgy brown acid, the lack of sanitation, the rain that left concertgoers huddled under (packaged in?) sheets of clear plastic. When Sri Swami Satchidananda, ochre-robed, inaugurated the proceedings on August 15, he proclaimed the imminent oneness of everything: “America is becoming a whole!”

Well, he was wrong about that, wasn’t he? The intervening 40 years have certainly not improved or united us, and for Woodstock Nation, several species of doom were just around the corner. Hendrix would soon be dead. Altamont was four months away, when the Maysleses would have their hour of vision: they would record the scowling Hells Angels; the flying pool cues; the heads turning, all day, at the murmured circulation of bad news; the steady inexorable worsening of everything.

But Wadleigh had his vision too, and it was no dippier or more sentimental than the Maysles Brothers’. Look again at the wallowing happy people, lotus-eating in squalor. Listen to the amazed and rattled townsfolk, the chief of police with his “inner selves,” and enjoy the light music of collapsing hierarchies. The screen splits, and splits again; one thing ironizes or illuminates another. Woodstock plays cyclical social strife, the grating of the generations, as the grandest human comedy. Which, in the end, it may well be.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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