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Columbia Journal

    Woodstock at 40- remembering it means not having been there

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Columbia Journal September 2009

    This 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 there”.

    I wasn’t at Woodstock. I could have been- I was 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:

    Given 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 was free.

    According to “The Road to Woodstock” by Michael Lang, 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.

    And it was hot. The result- the concert site quickly became a dust bowl with people queuing up for hours for water, food, and toilets.

    But there was a lot of drugs.

    The 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. My brother 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 home.

    While it wasn’t much fun, he was stoned a lot.

    My 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, though, the 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 Californi
    a 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.

    And 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 now?)

    In the movie, the rain and the mud became fun, the power outage a momentary pause, not hours of tedium.

    So 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.

    My brother 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 there.

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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