August, the 40th anniversary of 1969’s Woodstock Festival has seen more
than a few media retrospectives. For the most part, they bring to mind
the ‘60s cliché: “If you remember the ‘60s, you probably weren’t
I wasn’t at Woodstock. I could have been-
visiting my parents that weekend in New Jersey, about 200 km from the
concert site, and chose not to tag along with my younger brother, who
did go. When he got back, here’s what he described:
the big crowd of concertgoers, what should have been a two or three
hour drive took many hours in the slowly-moving traffic. Eventually, he
and his friend abandoned their car about 10 miles away to walk to the
site. They didn’t have tickets, but the good news was that no one at
the site was even trying to collect tickets- effectively, the concert
According to “The Road to Woodstock” by
Woodstock organizer, 160,000 tickets were sold, but the festival
organizers neglected to arrange for ticket booths on site. That was
just one of the symptoms of inadequate organization- partly because no
one expected such a large crowd and partly because there simply weren’t
many precedents for putting on mega-rock concerts. There wasn’t enough
food or water for the large crowd, nor enough toilets. The sound system
was inadequate- most of the crowd (including my brother) couldn’t hear
the music very well and were too far away to even see the stage.
it was hot. The result- the concert site quickly became a dust bowl
with people queuing up for hours for water, food, and toilets.
there was a lot of drugs.
next day, it rained. Power to the stage was turned off for hours for
fear of electrocuting performers and audience. The dust turned to mud.
But there was a lot of drugs.
Eventually, it ended.
and his friend hiked back to their car, joining what was New York
State’s largest traffic jam, taking about twelve hours to drive back
While it wasn’t much fun, he was stoned a lot.
brother did not know that what he had experienced was soon to become a
legend. Neither did the media. The New York Times, for instance,
described the festival as a ‘colossal mess’. The paper noted, however,
that the concertgoers ‘behaved astonishingly well’- particularly
noteworthy was that- in what was, for a weekend at least, New York
State’s ‘second largest city’- no one was murdered. (Two died, however-
one of a drug overdose, the second was accidentally run over while
sleeping in a local farmer’s field).
After the fact,
event was quickly mythologized. Joni Mitchell- who like me, wasn’t
there- wrote a song about it. “It was stardust, it was golden”. Her
metaphors were based on the experience of her then-boyfriend David
Crosby- who as a musician was helicoptered in and out, avoiding the
dust, mud, lineups, and traffic jams that my brother reported. (Though
like my brother, he was probably stoned most of the time). The
following December saw the Altamont Festival- a free concert in
put on by the Rolling Stones, where the Hells Angels, hired to provide
security, beat a man to death with pool cues. That concert became
viewed as a sort of anti-Woodstock; if Altamont was a vision of hell,
Woodstock had to have been (despite everything) a vision of heaven.
the following year, Woodstock- the movie, was released. The film
receipts made the money-losing festival ultimately profitable. And the
magic of film editing selectively altered the experience of being
there. Unlike the actual Woodstock audience, moviegoers could see and
hear a selection of the performances- boosting the career of those
bands who allowed footage of their performances to be included in the
film. (Blood, Sweat, and Tears were festival headliners- they rejected
the moviemakers’ offer of $7500 to be in the film. Who remembers them
In the movie, the rain and the mud became fun,
the power outage a momentary pause, not hours of tedium.
in the end, what was remembered- even by the people who attended
Woodstock- wasn’t the ‘colossal mess’ of the actual event, it was the
selected images of the event shown in the movie.
Barry died of a drug overdose a few years after Woodstock, so I can’t
check back to see how he remembers the festival 40 years later. But I
wouldn’t be surprised if, like most of this summer’s media
retrospectives, he remembered the stardust/golden mythologizing of song
and movie more vividly than what he recounted immediately after being