Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reflections On Woodstock

It's been interesting to read all the different takes on the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The festival launched many bands into superstardom and has been both lionized and reviled from both the right and the left.

One of the things that people have forgotten is that one of the reasons that attendance was so high at the concert is that it was widely rumored that Bob Dylan, who was living in Woodstock at the time-- though the festival, despite the name, actually took place in Bethel, New York, which is 43 miles from Woodstock-- was going to perform. In fact, Dylan was, like the Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, invited, and like them, declined.

Still, some big name bands did show up. The Band, who were living in Woodstock and recording with Bob Dylan (sessions that were for years only available as bootlegs called the Basement Tapes-- they were finally legitimately released some time ago), did show up. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, having left their well-known respective groups, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies, performed one of their first gigs, prompting Stills' comment that they were "scared shitless." Crosby, Stills and Nash still record and perform today.

The Who, who were considered the headlining act, had just released Tommy, and played a 25 song set. Creedence Clearwater Revival, who were at the top of their hitmaking days, appeared as well. The Jefferson Airplane, two years out of the "Summer of Love," performed, opening with the incendiary call to revolution, "Volunteers." Hendrix' performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" has entered into rock lore (I saw the guitar he performed it with at the Experience Music Project, EMP, in Seattle a few years ago).

Other lesser-known acts became legend. Richie Havens, a fairly obscure folkie, was asked to extend his opener set because festival organizers were having trouble getting other acts to the stage because of the huge crowd-- and the fact that the roads were jammed for miles out. His performance, which stretched to three hours and was featured in the subsequent album and movie, made him a legend. The song he's best known for, his adaptation of the spiritual "Motherless Child" was played because he was running out of material to play.

Forty years later, I have some thoughts on it all.

I think that the music absolutely has stood the test of time. I still love hearing Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Hendrix, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Who, the Jefferson Airplane, Creedence and many of the other bands and musicians who performed.

One of the experiences that seemed common to the festival-goers (and musicians), drugs, have had a less happy history. Drugs have become entrenched in our society. They've ruined countless lives and made parts of our major cities, and parts of Mexico into free-fire zones, as people involved in the drug trade-- even the seemingly innocuous marijuana-- kill one another by the thousands. And of course, within a couple of years, several of the greatest performers at the festival-- Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Al Wilson (singer for Canned Heat) were dead of drug-related causes. Over time, the toll would become higher-- Tim Hardin and Jerry Garcia would eventually join that group. David Crosby is only alive because of a liver transplant.

And what about the ideals of peace and love? My last post was about the couple who were captured in the now-iconic photo. They're still together. Bobby Ecoline, one half of that couple, started a food pantry in Pine Bush, New York, where they live. I think that many of the people in that generation, the ones who took those ideals seriously, and weren't in it just for the sex and drugs (and there were plenty who were), have continued to practice those ideals. One of them is Richie Havens. He founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, a children's oceanographic museum in the Bronx, which is dedicated to teaching environmental issues to inner city kids.

Not everybody who performed at Woodstock have kept the ideals. My friend Carlo, who is the leader of Las Guitarras de Espana, a flamenco-influenced group, opened for the reconstituted Jefferson Airplane at a suburban Chicago summer festival some years ago. One of the things he noticed is that the members of the group, which was the most overtly political of all the acts at Woodstock, all arrived separately, each in their own limo. "Got the Revolution," huh?


GETkristiLOVE said...

So are you going to see the movie Taking Woodstock? I think it releases this week...

rozydesouza said...
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Churlita said...

That is pretty interesting. When I lived in San Francisco, I met Santana's drummer who went to Vietnam right after the show and lost both of his legs. He still seemed really positive.

Powderhornhockey said...

JY you comment about drugs is on the money, we have lost so many to the disease of Rx and self medicated drugs. In an interview Cher once said " I honestly have never seen the use of drugs improve mine or anyones life" That simple statement is one of the most intelligent things I've ever heard on the subject.

I get so angry at Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and so many gifted others, damn just damn.

Erik Donald France said...

Another great post, man! True about JA, but the kinda sucked once they became JStarship, getting ever worse as they went along ;->

The drugs thing doesn't make me angry so much as sad. Drugs and/or alcohol pretty much goes with the scene, though, at one time or another. Their social pervasiveness, though, is chilling.