History of the Woodstock Festival - part 5

History of the Woodstock Festival - part 5
Authored By Johnny Blogger

As volunteers started cleaning up the media swung into gear, quickly painting it as a 'nightmare' in the New York Times. They called the fans 'lemmings' and asked what sort of culture could create such a colossal mess?

But the trouble with taking that angle was this: it didn't sell. People felt good about Woodstock, not bad. Monticello's police chief praised the kids as most courteous, considerate and well behaved. The day after festival, the Times softened its stance and praised the communal spirit. Almost overnight, Woodstock became more than just another festival that came and went. It became emblematic of something. Significantly, with the exception of Rolling Stone, it was the event itself, the people and conditions that attracted the most discussion.

Some saw it as a modern day quasi-religious event with the crowd as seekers and the musicians some kind of prophets. Only rock music could have drawn all these people together like this, so you could see their point but already, in some ways, these cultural observers were reading too much into it. This wasn't A Movement nor some sort of new religion. It was all much more disparate than that. Mostly people wanted to hang out with like-minds, have some fun, hear some music and then go back to their lives.
The alternative lifestyle isn't called alternative for nothing - few wanted to or could live like that. Most wanted to get a satisfying job and earn a living. The Hog Farm lifestyle wasn't for everyone.

So in the days and weeks and months that followed, while many sought to answer the question 'What Did Woodstock Mean?' there was no answer because while it was inspiring and exciting, in and of itself, it was 400,000 different things and not one unified cultural ball of wax which could be shaped by the collective mind into anything other than, perhaps, increased record sales.

After the event, the promoters claimed to have lost $1.3 million. There was some cynicism at this. And anyway, there was so much media interest in Woodstock, the movie and record sales would wipe out any debt. In fact, the bread heads were already drooling with the smell of lush green. Astute people knew that there was major financial killing to be made here. Dylan's owlish manager Albert Grossman even wanted to buy into Woodstock Ventures and take part of the debt on, against future earnings. He wasn't doing that for no reason, clearly, he felt there was serious money about to wash out of the record stores and cinemas.

The film, made by Michael Wadleigh and Bob Maurice and was an absolute triumph. Wadleigh had a $100,000 contract with Warners. The film went on to gross over $17 million back when 17 million was a lot of money and not a bankers' lunch change. It opened in March 1970 and set house records. Tickets were $5.00 as though it was a gig. Well, it was 3 hours long, so it kind of was.

Wadleigh's 25-man crew had captured so much great music, but also the festival atmosphere and, more than anything else, the people. And it did so in an uncritical style, letting the people speak. It was a fly-on-the-wall style that would become the default for such documentaries. The images of the bands were so powerful and strong that many became totally defined by Woodstock and to this day, live on in the popular imagination, as they were that weekend.

Of course, the Grateful Dead, ever protective of their work and unhappy with their performance, wouldn't allow Wadleigh to use footage of them in the movie, or on the record. That was onery to the point of silliness partly because the Dead were a fine live band as the bootleg of their performance at Woodstock shows, but mostly because it was an entirely sympathetic platform for their work.

The two albums - a triple and a double - also confirm the high quality of the music. Both made the top ten album charts in USA. On the cover of the first record, in an image that became iconic, not just of the festival, but of the late 60s as a culture, a couple embrace, wrapped in a muddy blanket. That couple are still together today - which, in a way, is part of Woodstock's beautiful legacy.

Looking at it now, the movie evokes warm feelings of nostalgia, but also of sadness that all the hope was dashed on the rocks of reality. You don't need a lot of romance in your soul to see why Woodstock was and is such a brilliant thing to believe in.

Meanwhile back in the business world, Woodstock Ventures ended soon after the festival with Mikey and Artie parting ways with Joel and John. They were always strange bedfellows and tensions had apparently existed from the start. Roberts and Rosenman took $31.250 each to leave Woodstock Ventures, which seems like a cheap pay-off for Artie and Mikey.

And what of Max Yasgur? Well, you might remember him from the movie. He seemed like an old dude but was, in fact, just 49. He was minor celebrity in and around Bethel for the following few years. A testimonial dinner was given for him by friends in Bethel. Woodstock had helped resture the local economy. He did the chat shows and was unstinting in support of what happened at Woodstock and of the people who made it happen. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in February 1973 just 53-years old. Time magazine called him 'the patron saint of the counterculture'.

Woodstock would live on at a million rock nights at cinemas all over the world. I first saw it at the Haymarket in Newcastle in the middle of the night, sandwiched between Pink Floyd at Pompeii and The Song Remains The Same. It still speaks to people today of all ages. I think it's because it lacks cynicism, which is now deeply embedded in us. We're so busy being post-modern and ironic that we've forgotten to believe in anything. At Woodstock people believe in something. Not all in the same thing and not all to the same degree but they are willing and open travellers on the path to enlightenment, they are active in their own quest and not mere bystanders as life passes them by. That is inspiring.

And maybe most important of all, man, the music is so wonderful. My personal favouties are Santana and Mountain and The Who but I'm not sure anyone turned in a less than great set of music. When you think what they were battling against and the limit of techology, that was an astonishing achievement, forged by road-hardened professionals who know how to rock 'n roll.

Interestingly, Woodstock doesn't yield any of its power to the jaundiced 21st century eye. To be dismissive of its spirit is too difficult and too much of an act of misery to sustain itself as a viewpoint. It's like trying to tell someone that the sun shining is awful, or that flowers are a bad thing. When I was younger and more impressionable, I thought the Woodstock generation were my people. A lost army of long hairs and freaks. I know now, that is hopelessly romantic, but I'm not the only to have felt that watching the movie. And even now, as I watch the low sun shining on an army of lean tanned men, stripped to the waist building the stage out of plywood and tree trunks with their barehands, as CSN's 'Long Time Gone' plays, and Michael Lang rides his horse around the site, I'm a believer all over again.

Woodstock is a flower that refuses to wilt and die and it's one that we should all take pleasure in watering with our dreams.

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