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.