Musician Brian Eno allegedly once remarked that while not many people purchased the first album by the Velvet Underground, everyone who did buy it ended up starting a band.
It can similarly be said that while a relatively small sliver of America’s hippie population attended Woodstock in the summer of 1969, everyone who did attend has either written a book or produced a documentary about it.
Recently, PBS cranked out another dutiful hagiography in honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary, which starts Friday. The documentary accomplished what all remembrances of Woodstock seek to do – declare victory for the hippie ethos and lionize the attendees who did little more than actually survive the challenges of their own making.
Those who mock millennials for their self-absorption have clearly forgotten the hippies’ bottomless well of unearned self-regard.
Perhaps no one is more responsible for keeping the Woodstock myth alive than organizer Michael Lang, who, in his autobiography, Marching to Woodstock, described Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” thusly:
As Jimi builds the song, adding feedback and distortion, I am carried away just as is everyone around me. I realize the national anthem will never been the same. Jimi has plugged into our collective experience: all the emotional turmoil and confusion we have felt as young Americans growing up in the sixties pours from the sound towers. His song takes us to the battlefield, where we feel the rockets and bombs exploding around us; to demonstrations and marches, confronting police and angry citizens. It’s a powerful rebuke of the war, of racial and social inequity, and a wake-up call to fix the things that are broken in our society.
Or, it was a guy playing the guitar early on a Monday morning.
(Of note, Woodstock co-founder Bob Spitz has said Lang left the show after a Sunday night performance by The Band, meaning it’s extremely unlikely Lang was even there for the Hendrix performance. According to most estimates, up to 90 percent of the crowd had left by Monday morning.)
This is the conceit of the hippie generation: that their culture of free love and chemical consciousness actually led America out of the Vietnam War, as if Jimi Hendrix produced the first copy of the Pentagon Papers on stage from his afro.
This is, of course, the history we get when the hippies get to write it; it is just assumed that bohemian values were vindicated at every turn.
But these stories reflect what we can demonstrate actually happened. Less clear is whether we would have been better off had an entire generation not deluded themselves into believing dropping acid somehow effected change in the world.
Presumably, America would have been fine without the hippies – think of all the college degrees that would have been earned and all the brain cells that would have remained alive.
In Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” Guinn details the streets of San Francisco during the 1967 “Summer of Love,” where teenage girls were routinely pumped with LSD and dragged off to communes. Manson himself had trouble keeping some of his “family” members in the fold, as he was constantly competing with other cult leaders for the top recruits. (Imagine a popular figure rising to power by mistreating women and warning of impending racial conflict: inconceivable in 2019, right?)
In the mythology now told by hippie historians, even Woodstock’s massive failures were simply obstacles to be overcome by love and understanding. When hundreds of thousands of people trampled the barely existent gates to gain free entry, it was the public standing up against corporatism. When thousands of people ended up in the medical tents from dehydration, hunger, and bad drugs, the volunteers caring for them demonstrated a triumph of humanity. When the festival ended and the field was saturated with mountains of rain-soaked tents, blankets, and garbage, it was proof of the philanthropy of those who stayed to help clean up.
But some facts about Woodstock are too hard to spin. Three people died during the festival. A Saturday night riot by an anarchist group contending the festival was committing “crimes against the people” for selling hot dogs for 35 cents left 12 of the 16 food stands burned to the ground. The PBS documentary notes that during a rainstorm, an exposed power cable could easily have electrocuted the entire crowd. Love can be a strong force, but it is unlikely to prevent the electrocution of 500,000 people.
In the half-century since America’s most famous music festival, actual drugs have been supplanted by the drug of nostalgia. As we all know, the winners get to write the history – it’s just unclear what the Woodstock attendees actually “won,” other than a few extra shots of penicillin.