Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Taking Woodstock


A little over 40 years ago 50 million people gathered in a cow pasture about 90 miles northwest of New York City for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Or at least that’s how it seems, when you consider all the people who claim to have been there. I was one of the 500,000 who actually was there, for the whole thing. There has been a lot of discussion about Woodstock during the 40th anniversary, and a new movie, Taking Woodstock, which we just saw.

I find I’m not capable of writing a simple review of the film. There is just no way I could bring even a hint of objectivity to such an essay. To me, the film and the event—having been there, having seen it—are inextricable. So if you are much older or younger than me, you may see an entirely different movie than the one I saw. My opinion? A remarkable film. I was teary-eyed with Boomer nostalgia through much of it. They did such a good job of recreating the look and feel of the place, it’s almost as if they took cameras back in time. For what it’s worth (“Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”) I really think it was a good film from any perspective, recreating an era and telling a good story, one of 500,000 stories that could have been told, but definitely one of the more interesting ones.

So what is my story? I’ll get to that. But there are a few other things first …

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Recently Bill Maher had a little schtick during the New Rules segment of his show, delivered in his patented snarky manner:

NEW RULE: Somebody who went to Woodstock has to admit that it sucked. Wow, you got to see Country Joe and the Fish, Sha Na Na, and Arlo Guthrie in one weekend? And you caught e. coli from having sex in the mud? I am so jealous. Let’s look at the legacy of Woodstock. Tim Hardin, heroin overdose. Janis Joplin, heroin overdose. Jimi Hendrix, choked on his own vomit. I can only think of one place I’d rather be less than Woodstock: Woodstock ’99.

You’re a very funny man, Bill, and I’m a big fan. I laughed. And you know something? Though I’m not going to be the one who “admits” that Woodstock sucked, you have made some very valid points. All you have to do is look at the footage of the place to realize that it was a disaster in many ways. We were miserable some of the time; wet, hungry, in real danger of e. coli if people didn’t stop shitting in the lakes. (Most of us didn’t have any other place to shit.) One more day and it could have been really, really ugly.

But when I say you made some points, I don’t think you realize that some of them were not the points you intended to make. For instance: So far as I know, nobody has yet stepped forward to say Woodstock sucked. Why is that? Out of 500,000 wet, muddy, hungry sufferers, don’t you think at least a small minority would have stepped forward by now, 40 years later, to say it sucked, if it in fact did suck?

You say that Woodstock is the next-to-last place on Earth you’d want to be. And I say you are either a liar, just saying that for an easy sarcastic laugh, or you don’t know yourself very well. You were thirteen when Woodstock happened, in the seventh grade, too young to just pick up and go, even though it was only about 80 miles up the road from your home in New Jersey. (I’ve done some research on you, Bill.) If you had been even seventeen, my man, you would have gone. The moment you heard that chicks were bathing naked in the lake, you would have slogged through 80 miles of mud, e. coli, and Sha Na Na just to be there, and been happy for the privilege. Don’t deny it, dude, I know you hang out at the Playboy Mansion, and nobody goes there for Hef’s company.

Aside from that, it was clear to everyone who was there and everyone of my generation who watched the coverage on TV that this was the place to be. This was the center of the counter-cultural universe. Anyone with an ounce of awareness, given the chance to go, would have gone. You just happened to have been born at the ass-end of the Boomer generation, you missed out by just a few years, and now you’re telling yourself you would have hated it because you are jealous. You may not even know it, but you are.

We were young, okay? Privation and inconvenience, dampness, mud, and lack of toilet facilities aren’t such a big deal when you’re twenty, especially if there’s good music just down the road, and good dope everywhere. You’re 53 now, and I’m 62. Recreating the experience today would probably kill me, and would certainly be as unpleasant for you as you imagine it was for everyone. But if you had been twenty, my friend, if you had been twenty in 1969, if you are half the man I think you are, you would have found a way to be there, and you would have loved every fucking minute of it! Just like I did. I think that, on some level, you know that. So get over it, okay?

It was your misfortune to be born on the cusp of the generational change, from us obnoxious Baby Boomers to the let-down generation, Gen X. (Actually, I just learned that you unfortunate in-betweeners, born from 1954 to 1965, are called Generation Jones. It seems to come from the term “jones,” meaning a yearning or craving.) What you were yearning for was to be born a few years earlier, to be a part of the most privileged and spoiled generation in the history of America.

I will be the first to admit that we Boomers are gigantic pains in the ass. Time and again we have remade society in our image, for our convenience, and we will do it until we’re in the grave. This is not always a bad thing: We were a major force in the Civil Rights movement, and the females among us pretty much invented second wave feminism. But we also spawned the Me Generation by spoiling our kids even more rotten than we were spoiled. You poor Jones and X and Y-gen schmucks are now faced with the task of taking care of us in our old age, and the price is going to be enormous. I wouldn’t want to be in your generation for anything. No wonder you’re pissed off, no wonder you take it out in bitter tirades against something your generation never had, never could have had, something that will never be seen again.

Another thing I recognize is that the Woodstock Nation, in its purest form, only lasted 111 days, from August 18th to December 6th, when Hell’s Angels beat a man to death in front of the stage at the Altamont Free Concert. That remarkable sense of community we had in that muddy field in New York couldn’t be sustained. Soon, the Haight-Ashbury—my home for several years—was awash in drugs, and our musical heroes were killing themselves as fast as they could shoot up. The war went on, the Weathermen started bombing things … it all went to Hell. So sad. But we did make some improvements in the world. We did leave a legacy.

You say that the only place worse than Woodstock was Woodstock ’99, and that reveals something else. Your generation, and the ones that followed, are the ones responsible for that monumental clusterfuck. That was your nation. People didn’t bring enough food to Woodstock ’99? No problem, you could buy a warm Coke for $4, a slice of rubber pizza for $12. The whole terrible, commercialized, packaged, shit-music thing was pretty much a production of MTV (debuted in 1981, when you were 25, a clear Jones Generation invention), the single most important factor in the degeneration of Rock into the sad thing it is today. A band called Limp Bizkit sang a sweet little song called “Break Stuff,” and the 200,000 people responded by burning everything in sight, raping four women, vandalizing, pillaging, and … well … breaking stuff. Say what you will about Arlo Guthrie and Country Joe, they never urged a boozed-up audience to riot.

There were ATMs at Woodstock ’99, and still the toilets overflowed.

My generation invented rock and roll. What did your generation give the world? Punk. My generation included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. What did your generation give us? The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, and the Butthole Surfers. They say you are what you eat. You are also what you listen to, and those names say it all.

We had our tragic deaths, no question. I won’t try to blame your generation for gangsta rock, but take a look at some of today’s musicians: 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Big L, Proof, Freaky Tah, Soulja Slim, Mac Dre, Yaki Kadafi, Scott La Rock, Jam-Master Jay, Stretch, Bugz, E-Moneybags, Charizma, VL Mike, Half a Mill, Fat Pat Dollah, Camoflauge, DJ Uncle Al, Big Hawk, Seagram.

I have only heard of a couple of these people—most of whom sound like they should be characters in a parody Looney Tunes cartoon—but all of them were well-known to those who enjoy rap music, and you know what they all died of? Lead poisoning. Shot to death by rival “artists.” Say what you will about Sha Na Na, they never went gunning for the Jackson Five.

Another thing I won’t pretend to be is knowledgeable about today’s music. I gave up on pop songs a couple decades ago. But what I do overhear is usually either violent, monotonous to the point of psychosis, or over-engineered treacle. My generation wasn’t responsible for that.

Enough of that, Bill. I doubt you would admit to jealousy, and who gives a shit, anyway? The fact is, Woodstock did not suck, not even a little bit.

Eat your fucking heart out.

I’ve told my Woodstock story many times, to the point that some of those near and dear to me are probably tired of hearing it. There is an account of it in my book, The John Varley Reader. But I must make one more brief trip down the muddy Woodstock memory lane because of a resonance I felt in this new movie that I am ostensibly reviewing here, Taking Woodstock. The story centers around the experiences of Elliot Tiber, and in most ways our experiences couldn’t have been more different, but in one way …

We ended up at Woodstock—my girlfriend, her infant son and I—because we were fleeing New York City in a 1955 Buick with only a little gas in the tank. We were fleeing because we were unable to find an apartment. It wasn’t a matter of finding one in our price range, it was finding one at all. The housing market was tight. People read the obits in the Village Voice and the other papers, and scrambled to be the first at the apartment of the deceased. We decided the Big Apple was too rich for our blood, and headed up the Thruway. We were aware there was some sort of festival happening, but we didn’t know where it was.

Where it was was where we turned off the Thruway looking for gas. We burned up what little was in the tank idling on a road that was totally gridlocked. Finally, I had to turn off into a field where a lot of other cars were parked, and that was that. No gas anywhere, no cars moving. We were locked in for the duration. We were lucky to have some food in the car, and water, and cigarettes.

My girlfriend was on crutches, unable to walk very far, and certainly not in the mud. Her son was about 18 months old, just getting toilet trained, thank heaven; no dirty diapers to worry about. But I couldn’t just leave them and hare off to the stage, which was about three or four miles away. Didn’t seem right. So my Woodstock Festival was spent in that muddy field, grooving with the other people around us.

Except one day when I made a pilgrimage to a little store where there was a line about two hours long to get cans of tomato soup, beans, some powdered milk, things like that. They had sold out several times but managed to get fresh supplies in now and then. (They didn’t gouge, like some area residents. They sold the food for what they had sold it for before the invasion.) That expedition took me close to the stage, and I detoured to the top of the hill and spent a short time there, looking down at the vast sea of people and the tiny stage far in the distance. I could hear the music for the first time. I don’t even remember who was playing. Then I left. That was my Woodstock Concert. And you know what? I don’t regret it. The music was only part of the experience, and for me, the lesser part. I will use a trite word here and say it was the vibe! Everyone was so happy, so cool, so friendly, so sharing, so … well, stoned, many of them, and me too, a lot of the time.

Elliot Tiber’s experience was vastly different from mine. He was there before the beginning, deeply involved in bringing the festival to the area when the original venue chickened out. He worked with all the people who organized the thing. He was in the center of things, and I was far, far out on the periphery.

But he only got to the actual music once, and it was from the top of the hill. There, he listened to some music, dropped acid with some people in a VW van, and then never went there again. And the movie reflects that. There’s not much of the concert shown. So, in a strange way, I feel that the movie was showing my Woodstock. I know this might be a problem for people who went to the movie expecting to see a lot of recreations of the performances of the stars who played, but this lack of focus on the music endeared the movie to me. Like I said way back up there at the beginning, it is impossible for me to write an unbiased review of it. I flat-out loved this movie. I want to see it again, right now. I’ll buy the DVD.