Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Woodstock Myths and Realities

For the past several weeks I’ve been planning to write something about Woodstock, simply because the theme seems obligatory at some point during the month of this 40th anniversary year. When I stumbled upon the article The backlash against Woodstock's 40th anniversary it seemed like a good start point.

Michael Lang’s article is mildly tinged with a cynical contempt for the overindulgent homilies to this symbolic moment in time. He begins in this manner:

Reaching the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival can only mean one thing: nostalgia. It’s been in plentiful supply during the past few months. Predictable retrospectives have been written. An obligatory Blu-ray DVD of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock has been released, with a multitude of extras and a hideously tacky dashiki cover. Even the director Ang Lee is capitalising on the occasion with his portrait of Elliot Tiber, a key figure in finding the festival site, in the forthcoming feature film Taking Woodstock. While those boxes of remembrance have all been ticked, an official 40th anniversary concert is off the agenda.

I myself bought into many of the hippie ideals of the time, but I wasn't blind to the manipulations that were taking place as well. The notion of city kids dropping out and living off the land in communes was a fantasy no one in their right minds could expect to work for raising families, but there were a few kernels of value within the ideals, such as living more simply, sharing, the importance of community among others. Unfortunately, in a broken world these ideals tend to deteriorate in the face of rank selfishness and irritating pettiness.

Lang points out that the commercialism surrounding the anniversary has been part of the Festival since the beginning. He also addresses the co-opting of the Flower people by political machinations.

In truth, the rebellious flower-power spirit so closely intertwined with the American pop culture of the 1960s was in its death throes by the time Woodstock happened. The youthful push towards liberal politics, social unity and higher states of consciousness reached a peak in 1967 with the Human Be-In, in San Francisco, which popularised hippie culture, giving rise to the so-called Summer of Love later in the year. Subsequently, the term “counterculture” became a part of the national idiom, but the hippie movement’s rapid growth also signalled its dilution. In 1968, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the ensuing chaos at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, left political reformists floundering. The slaying of Martin Luther King Jr further polarised the civil-rights movement between nonviolent protesters and the growing “by any means necessary” contingent. Meanwhile, the nationwide unrest over the escalating Vietnam conflict grew ever more pronounced. Perhaps most damning for the hippie populace, however, was Nixon’s victory in the 1968 presidential election — something he achieved, in part, by appealing to that “silent majority” of the electorate who viewed the counterculture as an ugly blot on the American landscape.

The article is worth reading only as a balancing act against the nostalgic hype, though frankly it (the hype) has been much less than I expected actually. Forty years is about the right amount of time for nostalgia to come to fruition. Barbie and Slinky each made a brief comeback at forty.

For an alternate view of how the rock festival scene played out, check out the film Gimme Shelter, a documentary which follows the Rolling Stones who went on tour in late 1969, culminating in the ugly out-of-control free concert at Altamont Speedway in Oakland. Not pretty. And the Isle of Wight festival that followed was even more harrowing.

Hopefully idealism among youth will not be a passing fancy. I'll be more disappointed if we find our young people to be cynics from the getgo, attracted more to apathy than to dreams of a better future for those generations to come.

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