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Woodstock Revisited

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What started off as a whim turned into an experience. There are not too many concert movies that are successful at evoking a time and place. Modern ones especially are geared towards packaging a “star’s” songs for digestion of the home crowd. Aside from the obligatory adulating crowd shots, tight shirted girls predominant, little is offered to genuinely recreate the concert feel.

It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I inserted the disc that I had just taken out from my library into my player. Could this stand up to the test of time? Woodstock was another place and time and who knew whether or not it could stand up to almost thirty year old memories of watching it in second run movie palaces. I haven’t even smoked a joint in eleven years for Christ’s sake.

Now I was too young to have been there, in all senses of the word. In 1969 I would have been eight years old, and by the time I first saw the movie it was eight years after the fact. Some of the performers were dead, or their careers were over or even worse they continued to perform but the bloom had worn off and they just sounded like caricatures of what they had once been. But I was young and idealistic and thought the whole sixties culture wonderful.

In 1977 Toronto, where I lived, was stuck in terminal musical blandness. Corporate rock, and disco predominated. Punk was still a year or two in the future(Toronto was always a couple of years behind New York and London)so the only hope of escape was into the past. With a brother four years older I had been listening to the music of the era since the mid sixties.(Some of the few decent memories I have of childhood revolve around music: my aunt giving my brother Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol.1 in the summer of 1967, watching the Beatle’s Help and A Hard Day’s Night on T.V. and seeing Yellow Submarine in the theatres, and buying my first recordSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)

My brother owned the sound track to Woodstock so I had heard a majority of the music and memorized most of the stage announcements(how could you forget the warnings about the brown acid)but nothing could have prepared me for my first watching of the movie. Although the music was wonderful and some of the performances spectacular(and some ridiculous: John Sebastian still makes me cringe and Sha Na Na in their gold lame looked too much like fore runners of the Village People, which on second thought after re watching it and remembering they were from San Francisco you gotta’ wonder)that weren’t what had made the memories indelible.

First was the feeling of “happening” that was so adeptly captured by the movie makers. You could tell from the opening comments of the local farmer to the last notes of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner that this had been more then just a concert. There was the impression that people had come to express a commitment to something beyond the music. Sure there will always be those who are just there for the party, but the majority had come to express solidarity for an alternative way of life to that of their parents.

One could be cynical and say it was only because the majority of these people were the children of the well off middle class that the very values they were protesting had given them the privileges to be able to reject them. But that could be said of any group of people seeking to change what they don’t like about their world. Were not Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others high ranking officers in the British Army and even at the onset of the revolutionary war still toasting the King of England in the officer’s mess?

Part of the joy and charm of watching the movie again was the naiveté, the sincere belief that they would be able to change the world for the better. To eyes jaded by years of media manipulation, abuse of power, and the politics of greed the proponents of a better world being possible simply through the power of love may seem may seem hopelessly romantic. But as Elvis Costello said years latter “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding”. Sometimes simple is not simplistic.

As a sixteen year old who didn’t fit into any discernable clique at high school, nothing was so attractive as feeling here was a place you would be accepted. It was irrelevant that the era had long since been swallowed up by the market place, that Woodstock actually had been the beginning of the end. With the revelation that popular music was reaching so many people, and the “counter culture” was so popular, those willing to exploit it for profit weren’t far behind.

But sitting in a dingy second run theatre with pot smoke swirling around my head it was all a revelation. I didn’t have to try and fit in. Here were at least 300,000 examples of people who didn’t seem to care. From the skinny dippers, to the extravagantly dressed gypsy hippies they exuded a freedom of spirit seemingly absent from the grey world around me.

And the music. Ah the music was glorious. People who I had only heard on record made real in larger then life form. The intensity of Ritchie Havens; Joe Cocker passionately rasping out Little Help From My Friends; a laid back Country Joe MacDonald leading the Fish cheer(give me an F….)and getting the throng to sing along with the I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag; the street thug energy of The Who; Crosby, Stills, and Nash when their voices still were sweet; and it all ending with the pyrotechnic guitar crying of Jimi Hendrix’s now iconic Star Spangled Banner.

So would this stand up to my nostalgic memories, or like so many other past joys would it just end up leaving me disgruntled and upset? No, emphatically no! This one slim two sided shining disc brought it all back. From the first chord played to the last piece of garbage picked up I was enthralled all over again.

Partially, I’m sure, it was the fascination to see everybody so young again and at the height of their capabilities. But that was tinged with sadness. Looking closely you could see the beginnings of the end for some, the signs of drug and alcohol abuse just starting to show, and having the benefit of knowing what’s in store you mourn the loss of what was so vital.

There were some added treasures. This being an extended director’s cut there were performances that didn’t make into the theatrical release. I literally gasped in surprise to see Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane perform. Of all the bands from that time period they were one of the few who I had never had a chance to see play.(I know they performed at Altamont, and are in the film, but I’ve never had the heart to watch that movie for a lot of reasons) They performed a heart rending edition of Saturday Afternoon and to listen to the interplay of Slick’s, Paul Kantner, and Marty Bolan’s vocals was to fully appreciate harmonies again. Their voices soared and spiralled around each other like birds in flight.

In the midst of all the anger about issues and conflicts that are expressed from all points on the political spectrum it was uplifting to see such uncomplicated optimism. To hear ideas expressed that were untainted by hidden agendas, to see people at least trying to show that it is possible to live with compassion and in harmony was like a balm for the spirit. After all these years and everything that has happened this movie of an event I didn’t even attend still has the power to move me beyond anything I have come across since.

Peace and Love everybody.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Marty Thau

    Captures the essence of it all. I was there and it was just as Gypsyman describes here.


    “One could be cynical and say … that the very values they were protesting had given them the privileges to be able to reject them”

    Nicely put.

    BTW, it’s MArty Balin, not Bolan, Bolan’s T-Rex.

  • You’ll see more of Marty Balin performing in Woodstock than you will in Gimme Shelter. Balin gets punched out by a Hells Angel during an aborted try at “The Other Side Of This Life” in Gimme Shelter.

    Website Address here

    Well friends? It?s been almost a year since a core group of preservation activists, under the banner of the Woodstock Preservation Alliance, wrapped up their challenge to the development plans of the Bethel Woods – Center for the Arts, to place permanent structures on and around the original historic site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, in the small Catskills town of Bethel, New York. The challenge to the project managers – the Gerry Foundation, took many forms – from petitions to formal advocacy at State and Federal levels. The persistent lobbying for a public voice in the planning of this world-class performing arts center realized a 90 percent reduction in the proposed Core Complex on the plateau above the famed festival bowl amphitheatre. With such a reduction, and given that compromises are more often the rule than the exception in contemporary historic preservation battles, we preservationists were satisfied that within the Bethel Woods complex the original 38-acre Woodstock Festival site has largely been left as it was in 1969 for future generations to appreciate. Opposed to the original vision for Bethel Woods, the revised plans for the festival site ensured that the former ?Yasgur?s Farm? – known worldwide from the 1970 Academy Award winning documentary WOODSTOCK – would remain in its original state as much as possible, for generations to come.

    As testimony to the efforts made to preserve this piece of global history, a new website has been constructed that chronicles several years of a tireless labor of love. This premier website may be one of the best sources of Woodstock information for the interested public and students alike. The website is not only about Woodstock 1969, but also serves as a template for other grassroots historic preservation movements. A multitude of information, photos, video, audio and more, abound on this website. Unlike other Woodstock ?tribute? websites, the Woodstock Preservation Archives serves to ensure that the struggle to preserve the festival site is not lost as Bethel Woods rises in the Catskills, and also to inspire others to speak up for what they believe in, regardless of the barriers that face them. Although truthful in our struggle to impact the development plans by the Gerry Foundation, it is respectful of the Bethel Woods? desire to bring back music and the arts to this land, and allows visitors to make up their own minds as to whether Bethel Woods serves as an ?End or New Beginning? for the original Woodstock Festival site.

    We welcome everyone to our new website. It’s fun, interesting and informative, and in the spirit of the original Woodstock advertisement catchphrase, the Woodstock Preservation Archives provides ?Hundreds of Acres to Roam On.?

    From: (Former) Woodstock Preservation Alliance
    ?Dedicated to the Historic Preservation of the Site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair?

  • Jamie

    On the performances on the Woodstock movie. There is much footage which was never shown. Ended up on the floor, so to speak. There are a few DVDs, tapes out there to be had, with performances not seen on the original movie. One is a 3-disc set which is from Brazil. THe VHS, I believe, is called Lost Performances.

  • brendan

    As a much older person now,I finally realised an opportunity to get over to visit the Festival Site,after,quite literally,a lifetime of the influence of that heady cultural passing….Many Many miles and situations prevented me from doing so during the course of the years,but better late than never!Needless to say-I am so glad to have stood upon the spot and taken it in…there is unquestionably a feeling of something very strong when you are there.On the Other Hand,it was a bit annoying watching youthful security employees burning up gas for no obvious reason beyond boredom as they cruised around the fenced upper facility called the “Bethel Performing Whatever…”.Yet another example of Greed,and personal ego on the part of this so called Gerry Foundation.It,in my opinion,has committed a sort of American Cultural Treason by building that godawful facility on the top of the hill.Why the F–K could’nt You have built it further over and out of sight? You Did have the money to make that happen…Didn’t You????.Typical Ugly American business-and don’t forget those cretinous lawyers as well!I am saying this only after reading up on the legal wrangling,since my recent vist.Pitiful Bullshit it is-that area should be on the National Historic Register…except for incredible short sightedness in pursuit of shallow visions, the facility now seemingly represents an American Blight…..Sad…..