Woodstock at 50: Liner Notes

I have a new column up today at the Federalist, “Not Sorry, Boomers: Woodstock Was A Bad Trip,” just in time for the 50th anniversary of the big event. It marries the “Woodstock was a mess” genre with the “Musicians badmouth Woodstock” subgenre that usually only appears in the music press. I thought the rockers who were there made good witnesses for the prosecution, as it were.

This is one where a lot got left out for space. The hyperlinks in the column itself contain a wealth of granular detail about the festival and its shortcomings. But there was even more that had to be excluded completely.

For example, there is the question of the sound system. It ostensibly represented the state of the art for rock concerts… but the state of the art in 1969 was nowhere near what it would become over the next two decades. It’s entirely possible that it was inadequate for the vast crowd that ultimately arrived. It’s also possible that it did not perform particularly well in the bad weather which recurred through most of the weekend.

As for the weather, the column focuses on the rain, but the sun also was a problem when it came out. People high on LSD would “lie down on their backs and just stare” at the sun, burning their eyeballs in the process.

I was unable to dip into the genre of essays by Woodstock attendees giving the experience mixed-to-bad reviews, including Hendrick Hertzberg — who Obi-Wan Kenobi will tell you is a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. This All Things Considered segment went by the wayside as well.

In addition, outside the Grateful Dead, I skipped assessments of the performances themselves, largely because even members of the same band would have differing opinions about them. John Fogerty refused permission to use CCR’s performance in the documentary because he felt their set was subpar — but this opinion may have been colored by his overall opinion of the event. His bandmate Stu Cook liked the set — but this opinion may have been colored by regret over the commercial boost bands featured in the film ultimately received. Now that the complete tapes are out in the wild, people can decide for themselves; my focus was more on the overall event and its meaning.

The piece also comes off more curmudgeonly than I actually am about the music and musicians of the period. For example, I get at least guilty pleasure out of the CS&N debut album and the CSNY follow-up (which contains their version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”). But I am not a fan of the sort of Aquarian, Woodstock-style hubris found in a song like “Wooden Ships,” which spawned answer songs from both Jackson Browne and Neil Young.

The curmudgeonly tone is underscored by my failure to note that there were no reports of violence at Woodstock. That is to the festivals credit and the promoters made decisions, including asking musicians to play longer, or perform in somewhat dangerous weather, with the idea of keeping the crowd peaceful. And yet I cannot help but think Woodstock benefits in a weird way by comparison with the Altamont free concert, which is kind of a low bar.

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