August marks the 50th anniversary of The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Max Feldman explores how a bunch of hippie capitalists managed to seize the zeitgeist and define a generation.
Woodstock (or The Woodstock Music and Art Fair to give it its proper name) occupies a venerable place in the collective cultural unconscious. As memories of the 1960s have increasingly been replaced by an idealised version that bears as much relation to reality as The Other Boleyn Girl, Woodstock has become the cornerstone for this pleasant semi-fiction. In many ways the cultural impression of three days of peace, love and catastrophically underprepared toilet facilities has grown to become one of the defining moments of the late 20th century. Whilst Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was held up by cultural commentators as the moment that would resonate through eternity, for better or worse when it comes to people’s imaginings of the decade, it doesn’t hold a candle to 500,000 mud-splattered hippies.
In the wake of the ecstatically successful Monterey Festival, the concept of festivals lost their original connotations of communal celebration and became increasingly co-opted as a marketing tool. Most cities had their own rock festivals where proliferating large crowds endured increasingly appalling conditions and, by 1969, large scale gatherings of the counterculture were greeted with cynicism from the intelligentsia and outright fear from conservative America. This progressingly depressing situation culminated with the Newport Pop Festival, which unfortunately coincided with a concerted police campaign to stamp out the distribution of marijuana in the Los Angeles area. Rather than be cowed, the audience took their amusement from a particularly virulent cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and an impure chemical hybrid with the ominous designation of “Orange Acid”. Rather than peace and love, the combination inspired incoherent violence against the police, each other and anyone unlucky enough to be in the general vicinity. As local government officials began drafting ordinances to prevent future outbreaks of violence it was generally assumed that “there would never be another Monterey.”
It was in this uncertain atmosphere that the first whispers of a new gargantuan festival that would overshadow all that had come before began to circulate in hip circles. It was scheduled for August, in the scenic upstate New York town of Woodstock; a site chosen for no other reason than the fact that Bob Dylan lived there. When approached by the festival organisers, the people of Woodstock decided that playing host to 200,000 unwashed hippies perhaps wasn’t quite their cup of tea and it was only in July that Max Yasgur, a farmer from the neighbouring town of Bethel agreed to rent his land to the festival promoters. These same promoters weren’t going to let the little problem of the Woodstock Festival not being held anywhere near Woodstock get in the way of a specious Bob Dylan connection and so a chance to make any number of Bethel-Bethlehem related puns were sadly lost forever. Once a location was fixed the organisers, hippie capitalists all, sold the recording rights to Atlantic Records, whose boss, Ahmet Ertegun managed to secure the film rights for Warner Brothers, Atlantic’s parent company. It was this movie that helped to truly cement the legacy of the Festival, but in many ways it was also a telling stepping stone from the counter-cultural happening it was intended to be and the corporate symbol its legacy eventually became.
In the earlier stages of planning the organisers: Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld had (grossly under)estimated that a maximum of 200,000 (though told the Bethel township they were only expecting 50,000) people would probably turn up and managed to sell 186,000 advance tickets for $18 and offered tickets on the door for $24 (equivalent to $120.00 and $150.00 respectively) and certainly had no interest in running Woodstock as anything less than 100% for profit. Unfortunately for them, the late change of venue to Bethel left them in a situation where the festival promoters didn’t have enough time to properly build both the stage and the security fence. Realising that any problems with the stage would kill the festival dead they focused their attention on it, spending the bare minimum energy on the fences. As a result when thousands of hippies showed up disinclined to pay, the phrase “the fences of Woodstock” swiftly became an oxymoron. Aware that they stood to make up lost cash from the subsequent box-office revenue of Woodstock (on which a young Martin Scorsese served as Assistant Director) the organisers were forced to declare the event ‘a free festival’. Word soon spread and soon New York’s motorways were choked with multi-coloured Volkswagens (the famous announcement that “the New York State Thruway is closed, man” wasn’t quite accurate, but it wasn’t far off). Eventually 400,000 to 500,000 had packed into the site and considering that the entire festival was acutely lacking food, water and sanitation (shortages of everything except drugs really), the stage should have been set for carnage that made the Newport Pop Festival look like Ascot’s Ladies Day, but miraculously it really was three days of peace and love. There were only two deaths recorded, one likely a heroin overdose while the other a slightly more bizarre incident where a sleeping reveller was run over by a tractor.
The success of Woodstock helped the concept of the music festival to the level of cultural ubiquity that (at least in our own fair isles) has slowly ghettoised into a boutique bourgeois nightmare. The desire to grab hold of some part of the ephemeral ‘festival experience’ that was initially laid down in the sixties has pulled in a huge-cross section of society (or at least, the parts of society that can afford the huge up price of admission) that one would normally dive under a truck to avoid. Gurning bankers slathered in face- paint and mainlining cocaine mixing with vomiting teenagers in garish animal costumes; drunk on both freedom from adult supervision and herculean amounts of cheap cider has become a large part of the cultural heritage that Woodstock has inadvertently inspired. However as the years go by, the memory of the Festival and what it represented in its contemporary culture will continue to stand tall over any festival that came after. In this particular case you didn’t just have to be there, man.