Sun, Aug 09, 2009 - Page 13 News List

The enduring appeal of Woodstock

After the buzz wore off, the utopian communal aura of a Woodstock Nation gave way, almost immediately, to the reality of a Woodstock Market

By Jon Pareles  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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Baby boomers won’t let go of the Woodstock Festival. Why should we? It’s one of the few defining events of the late 1960s that had a clear happy ending.

On Aug. 15 to Aug. 17, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people, me among them, gathered in a lovely natural amphitheater in Bethel (not Woodstock), New York. We listened to some of the best rock musicians of the era, enjoyed other legal and illegal pleasures, endured rain and mud and exhaustion and hunger pangs, felt like a giant community and dispersed, all without catastrophe.

A year after the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, expectations about large gatherings of young people were so low that this was considered a surprise. Although the festival didn’t go exactly as planned, it was, as advertised, three days of peace and music. That made Woodstock an idyll, particularly in retrospect, even though it was declared a state disaster area at the time.

“Not withstanding their personality, their dress and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work,” Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, told the New York Times.

Yet for all the benign memories, Woodstock also set in motion other, more crass impulses. While its immediate aftermath was amazement and relief, the festival’s full legacy had as much to do with excess as with idealism. As the decades roll by, the festival seems more than ever like a fluke: a moment of muddy, disheveled, incredulous grace. It was as much an endpoint as a beginning, a holiday of naivete and dumb luck before the realities of capitalism resumed.

Woodstock’s young, left-of-center crowd — nice kids, including students, artists, workers and politicos, as well as full-fledged LSD-popping hippies — was quickly recognized as a potential army of consumers that mainstream merchants would not underestimate again. There was more to sell them than rolling papers and LPs.

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

A new, much expanded anthology of music recorded at the 1969 festival has been issued: the six-CD Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Rhino). Complete Woodstock performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and others have been released by Sony Legacy. Cable and public television channels have their Woodstock specials scheduled, and there’s yet another batch of commemorative books, including The Road to Woodstock (Ecco) by the festival’s instigator, Michael Lang, which includes tidbits like how much the bands were paid.

Taking Woodstock, a comedy directed by Ang Lee (李安), is due for release this month.

A summer package tour, Heroes of Woodstock, features musicians who appeared at Woodstock — including Jefferson Starship (playing Jefferson Airplane songs), Levon Helm from the Band, Tom Constanten from the Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, Canned Heat and Country Joe McDonald. It arrives at Bethel Woods on Saturday.

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