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Woodstock at 40: A Legacy of Ideals and Commerce

Aug. 19, 2009
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In August 1969, on a farm 50 miles from Woodstock, N.Y., 400,000 hippies—the largest concert audience ever—converged to celebrate and hear the music of their counterculture. Joan Baez's protest songs, Sly Stone's psychedelic soul, The Grateful Dead's LSD-soaked improvisations, Santana's Latin jazz-tinged rock, The Band's old America country-folk rock, Janis Joplin's white-girl soul and The Who's maximum R&B all acted as a freak magnet, drawing hippies from across the country to the small village of Bethel, N.Y., to Max Yasgur's farm.

Woodstock's stated objective, three days of peace, was inconsistent with the country's mood. Peace was a rare commodity in the late '60s: Student protests, political assassinations, racial strife and riots rocked the country seemingly daily. When promoters proposed the concert to the people of White Lake, N.Y., some villagers swore they would shoot the first hippie to cross city lines. Somehow, despite the bad vibes, brown acid and reactionary politics, Woodstock succeeded to the point that it became the banner counterculture event of the '60s. Its meaning, however, is ambiguous.

Although Woodstock was the largest and most poignantly timed rock festival (occurring just before the '60s flamed out with the tragic Altamont festival and Charles Manson's murder spree), ultra-hip rock cognoscenti like to say that the Monterey Pop Festival was more musically important. Occurring two summers earlier, Monterey featured significant performances by future rock legends. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin all enjoyed greater success due in some part to their Monterey appearances. Occurring at the beginning of the Summer of Love at the height of the psychedelic era, Monterey captured the essence of the hippie movement. Yet when we speak of the '60s, Monterey takes a back seat to Woodstock.

Like Monterey, Woodstock had big acts. Unlike Monterey, the music was almost incidental to the event. The music attracted the audience and the audience drew the attention. No way, the squares must have thought, can all those hippies gather without grave consequences. To their surprise, the hippies pulled off the impossible: 400,000 people lived together peacefully for three days. The hippies can be forgiven for believing that Woodstock's legacy truly was peace, love and music.

However, in hindsight, it appears that ambiguity itself is Woodstock's legacy. Represented by two different Woodstocks, Woodstock-the-event and Woodstock-the-ethos, we have a window into the essential friction that drives rock 'n' roll.No matter how much peace and love Woodstock-the-ethos grooved on, Woodstock-the-event was a concert engineered to make a buck. Rock 'n' roll, no matter what it may represent to either its truest believers or its biggest critics, is a capitalist art dependent on the modern managerial and legal structures of international corporations as well as the greed of record companies, promoters, managers, musicians, assorted charlatans and flimflam artists. These people understood that Woodstock-the-event existed to make money off of Woodstock-the-ethos.

Thus the ambiguity of Woodstock: Within Woodstock-the-ethos, the all-American penchant for making a buck flourished. Even in the face of impending financial disaster ("only" 186,000 tickets sold) the promoters found ways to make a killing. Didn't make it to Woodstock? See the movie! Buy the album! Buy another album!
Woodstock became another example of the collision of ideals and commerce that drives rock 'n' roll. They're still making bucks off of it via DVD sales, CD sales and myriad officially licensed Woodstock clothing and bric-a-brac sold at major retailers, all while maintaining the peace and love posture of Woodstock-the-ethos. Welcome to Woodstock-the-commodity.

In retrospect, the legacy of Woodstock's ambiguity grows. To the square establishment at the time, it was a shameful orgy of hippie self-indulgence. To hippies, it was righteous evidence of their lifestyle and ethic. To rock 'n' roll entrepreneurs, it was another capitalist orgy. This ambiguity now extends to generations: To baby boomers, it is the hallmark event of what they consider the greatest musical generation since Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven traded war stories in Vienna. To Generation X, it is a cudgel that insufferable boomers beat over their heads to prove their musical superiority. To the boomer's children, it is part of the forbidden past of their parents ("We had a great time, but don't try this yourself, son"). Politically, to conservatives it is the symbol of how degraded society becomes when morals are loosened; the Gomorrah of liberal values. To liberals, it is a hollow symbol of a progressively transformed society; a Potemkin village of liberal values.

Woodstock, unlike Monterey, was never rock's most musically important festival. However, Woodstock accomplished what rock does best: It transcended musical meaning. It represents America as it was then, is now and has always been: a country where ambiguity creates conflict with itself. Thankfully, this can now be expressed as rock 'n' roll.


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