Deconstructing the myths of counterculture’s high-water mark

In Taking Woodstock Ang Lee’s ode to the landmark music festival that has served for 40 years as shorthand for peace love and good ol’ fashioned youthful rebellion the case is once again made that Woodstock was a high-water mark for youth culture. A free concert attended by almost 500000 hippies freaks and open-minded fellow travellers the fest proved to the world that a group of weirdos could accomplish something grand peaceful and maybe even transcendent.

There’s no denying Woodstock’s impact but nothing’s as perfect as we like to think. Forty years after the fest it’s about time to start examining the mythology that’s built up around the three-day love-in.

It wasn’t about the money

Of course it was. As Demetri Martin’s character says in Lee’s film “It’s all about commerce.” In the beginning Woodstock wasn’t a free concert. Tickets cost $18 each roughly $105 adjusting for inflation and the only reason the festival became free was that the organizers couldn’t pull together the ticket booths and fencing in time. Combine that with the fact that far larger crowds than expected were on their way and the organizers really didn’t have much choice.

Granted this one’s fairly well-known but it’s still worth mentioning. Like Woodstock ’94 and ’99 like Coachella and Sasquatch and Bonnaroo Woodstock was supposed to be a profit-making venture. And thanks to music licensing and a film deal with Warner Bros. (a move that’d likely earn eye-rolls from the modern D.I.Y. counterculture) it’s earned plenty over the years.

In fact one of the few genuinely free festivals of the era was held only four months later at the Altamont Speedway in California and we all know that one didn’t go so well.

The music defined an era

Again there’s no denying that some hugely talented acts were at Woodstock. Creedence Clearwater Revival possibly the greatest rock ’n’ roll band ever was there. They played at 3 a.m. though and frontman John Fogerty famously complained that everyone was asleep except one guy half-a-mile away.

The Who the prototypical art-rock band was there too. The sound was so terrible that singer Roger Daltry called it the worst show the band had ever played. The Grateful Dead’s set was plagued with technical problems as were many others given the wet and muddy conditions. Many of the songs that eventually saw release on the Woodstock soundtrack albums were edited down into more listenable sections cutting out some of the go-nowhere noodlings that wouldn’t work on record and adding to the fest’s mystique.

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the acts at Woodstock weren’t exactly big names. It’s a bit of a cheap shot to single out Sha Na Na who played the second-last set of the fest just before Jimmy Hendrix when names like Quill Keef Hartley Tim Hardin and Ten Years After draw the same blank stares. A lot of big names weren’t at Woodstock either — no Zeppelin no Doors no Dylan and of course no Stones or Beatles. Joni Mitchell reportedly blew off the fest to go on The Dick Cavett Show .

The fact is as far as the music that defined the era Woodstock doesn’t do a much better job than say the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 — the one where Dylan went electric. It might be picking nits but when you’re talking cultural landmarks nits matter.

You could even argue that the main reason Woodstock is as well-remembered as it is musically is because of Warner’s documentary and the soundtrack that came with it. The genuine event was marketed right back to the boomers — a countercultural ideal made more palatable by the marketing arm of a multinational conglomerate. If that’s the case Woodstock is the watershed moment if not necessarily the origin of the development of rebellion as a lifestyle accessory a commodity that can be bought and sold. That’s where the Woodstock myth starts to get dangerous.

It’ll never happen again

Here’s where things get interesting. As a mass countercultural moment Woodstock seems pretty unique. Even four months after the fest Altamont — despite being only a single-day event with fewer attendees — couldn’t replicate the Woodstock spirit ending in three accidental deaths and one homicide. (Reports vary but it’s generally agreed that Woodstock had either two or three deaths all accidental including one heroin overdose.)

Concerts on the scale of Woodstock have happened since though. For example there was the US Festival put on by Apple Computers’ Steve Wozniak in 1982 and ’83. The ’83 concert which took place over three days on Memorial Day weekend had an overall attendance of 670000 including 375000 on a single day to see the likes of Quiet Riot Scorpions and Judas Priest. Yes it was for-profit but so was Woodstock — and Wozniak lost about $20 million between the two festivals which is as much of an act of charity as any on the part of Woodstock’s organizers.

That was a quarter-century ago though and these days the US Festival is better remembered as a Simpsons punchline than a cultural touchstone. Lollapalooza the travelling festival founded by Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell seems like another decent option given its generation-defining ambitions and its anything-goes cultural approach including freak shows and open-mic poetry. But Lollapalooza made its pilgrimage to fans not the other way around so it never had the same single-weekend impact.

So where’s the modern Woodstock? Well that’s trickier. In the late ’60s and even in the ’80s the festival circuit wasn’t what it is today. Back then it made sense for an event like Woodstock to draw half-a-million flower children for one weekend even if no one had predicted it would be quite so many. These days you have Sasquatch Coachella Bonnaroo and the Pitchfork Festival to name a few splitting up the indie-music demographic and drawing hundreds of thousands of fans between them. With so many options it’s no wonder that no single event stands out.

It’s also worth wondering what’s actually considered counterculture these days. Calgary one of Canada’s most conservative cities has an annual family-oriented event where thousands of people get together to listen to everything from unsigned hip hop artists to folk veterans to aging first-wave punks where long hair and Hula Hoop dancing are considered normal and drug enforcement is lax. It also has a week-long festival where the city’s venues host the cutting edge in independent music from around the world — a solid week where the downtown core becomes a feast of under-explored talent. If a city of one million in the heart of big “C” conservatism can boast that what’s there to rebel against?

And again remember that most of the acts at Woodstock especially the bigger names were all on major record labels. Indie labels as we know them today hardly existed before the punk movement. If an event like Woodstock came together today it’d hardly seem “underground” — it’d basically be Virgin Fest. Genuine fringe concerts are things like Shambhala an event in B.C. that draws 10000 people for three days of literally non-stop dance music (and quite a bit of drug use too). They’re things like The Gathering of the Juggalos an event by and for fans of Insane Clown Posse. In other words they’re events that cause people to give you the side-eye when you mention that you’re attending.

Time to start looking elsewhere

With a counterculture that’s been split into countless factions both by big-business marketing and by evolving ideologies it’s unlikely we’ll ever get another concert that’s as well attended and is deemed as significant as Woodstock — that myth has already been made. The more we look at the concert as the height of a cultural charge though the more we do exactly what the people who attended Woodstock were trying to avoid namely buying into the previous generation’s standards. If we want to look for the next defining moment it’s time to start looking beyond concerts.

What about Burning Man which draws 50000 people a year to the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for a celebration of radical self-expression and communal living? The scale may be smaller than Woodstock but the statement’s just as clear and if anything it’s even further divorced from mainstream notions and commercialization.

If that’s too small in scale how about Obama’s inauguration? Estimates put the attendance at between 1 and 1.4 million attendees. The pre-concert alone (there’s that music thing again) had 400000 people. Sure rallying behind the most powerful authority figure in the free world doesn’t have the same instant-cool cachet as getting stoned and listening to The Who but there’s something to be said for working within the system too.

What about something more abstract? These days people with alternative perspectives don’t need to gather in any particular place. That’s what social media is for — connecting like-minded people from around the globe. Sure it’s often frivolous but every once in a while something like the tweeting of the Iranian election happens and suddenly the importance of the new media comes to light. The ability to talk to sympathize with and spread the message of someone half a world away all in the space of an instant — that’s at least as significant as half a million people just getting along for three days.

Why this all matters

None of this is to belittle Woodstock. Every culture needs its myths and Woodstock is actually quite a good one as far as these things go. For the baby boomers (the ones who were there and the ones who just say they were) it’s a crystallization of ideals that never quite panned out otherwise. For the generations that’ve followed it’s a concrete reminder of the power of youth to buck the system and to scare their parents which is arguably valuable in and of itself.

The danger though is in seeing Woodstock as a limit the apex of a movement that will never be reached again. Naturally that’s how the boomers want to portray it — it’s their myth. It’ll continue to be shown that way in movies like Lee’s Taking Woodstock and in publications like Rolling Stone and that’s their prerogative. In the us-versus-them language of the ’60s though Woodstock is now the establishment. It’s 10 years older than the 30-year-olds the hippies weren’t supposed to trust. To use it as a measure of rebellion as a definition of countercultural heights is to let them define the terms and that’s the exact opposite of the way it should be. Forty years ago no one thought a rock concert could change the world. It’s time to remember that other things can too.