I think I was thirteen the first time I saw the film Woodstock. I’d just started high school in Armonk, New York at a well funded, progressive, high performing public school where many Woodstock attendees (or alleged attendees) taught. While fueled by their stories and my fixation on the music of that era, I over-idealized Woodstock as immeasurably important, while also feeling despondent that no such similar event in my lifetime could replicate it.
Now when I watch the film Woodstock and see those faces in the crowd, I don’t enviously watch pilgrims of peace and love, striving to create a utopian existence through music. I see a bunch of white kids who, at the mere jingling of Volvo car keys, would later abandon their love beads for lives of materialistic suburban conformity in Reagan’s America. Sure, sure – I know some continued that near-impossible task of taking social justice and idealism into adulthood. But for the most part, Woodstock was just a forum for the timeless holy trinity of youth: get high, get laid, have fun.
One of the most iconic and compelling moments in the film Woodstock is Jimi Hendrix’s 'Star Spangled Banner'. The anthem, distorted and interspersed with bomb-like sound effects, shocks and mesmerizes. Hendrix played in the morning on the last day of the festival. He was supposed to close the festival the night before but amid the shoddy administration of the event, he was delayed. As the camera pans behind Hendrix, we see that most everyone has gone home.
The camera then tightly zooms in on Hendrix’s hands. As he plays his not-so-subtle version of protest, you gravitate away from the anti-war statement being made and find yourself simply amazed that a human being could do what he did with an electric guitar.
After the 'Star Spangled Banner', Hendrix launches into a hasty version of 'Purple Haze' which then morphs into the pondering and beautifully melancholic instrumental, 'Villanova Junction'. As this somewhat somber song continues, the camera pans across what is left of Max Yasgur’s farm and it is a muddy, polluted expanse of garbage and debris. This epic-length film now concludes its kaleidoscopic images of music, youth and beauty with the harrowing sight of acres upon acres of garbage under a slate-grey sky. The image is a fitting bridge between the chaos of the sixties and the oncoming malaise of the seventies which sadly would begin with Hendrix’s overdose and death.
My generation would have its own Woodstock after all. We are a generation motivated and controlled almost exclusively by commercial possibilities and the commercial possibilities of a return to Woodstock were too strong to hold back. Despite a glint of youthful excitement, I elected not to go. After all, you don’t go to sit in the mud of Yasgur’s farm when you’re an accountant. Also, the thought of my generation’s toxic nihilistic brand of music felt inordinately out of place with what Woodstock was allegedly supposed to be. Unfortunately, the 1999 version event turned into a riotous meltdown once the masses of attendees came to the late realization that they’d been thoroughly fleeced by promoters and marketers under the banner of fabricated hippie nostalgia.
Now as we look back on this 40th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival, we could probably use some of that intangible magic that its attendees proclaim. Since the 1999 Woodstock fiasco, something noxious, divisive, apathetic and uncivil has poisoned America’s culture. Reactionary, anti-intellectual vitriol has replaced calm dialogue. I suppose that’s why I pine for this event even though it occurred before I was born. It was free and brimming with optimism. It rained and everyone danced. It was a pocket of peaceful coexistence where young people behaved themselves while old people and law enforcement complemented them for it.