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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pilgrimage to Woodstock Nation

"I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band," wrote Joni Mitchell, who did not attend Woodstock, but wrote the best song about it based on what her boyfriend, Graham Nash, told her about it. I didn't attend Woodstock, either, but the next best thing is making the three-hour drive up to Bethel, New York, where Max Yasgur's old dairy farm now houses an arts center and museum devoted to a rock concert that took place over three days there forty years ago.

I got the idea during the foofarah over the anniversary of the concert last month, but checking the Bethel Woods Art Center Web-site I saw that there was a lot going on there that weekend, and I didn't want to fight crowds (not a very good attitude for a Woodstock fancier). So I went today, when nothing special was planned (last week was an alpaca festival). Foregoing the soulless New York State Thruway, which was shut down on that weekend forty years ago, I took a route with no Interstates, which led me up into the extreme northwest corner of New Jersey, clipping the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, and then into rural upstate New York. There's not much there, just the gently sloping dells of cow country. There aren't even fast food joints or strip malls, just itty-bitty towns with antique stores and roadside vegetable stands.

The museum is really an elaborate audio-visual display, as there aren't many artifacts to speak of. The layout takes you through events of the sixties, including some amusing films about fashion and suburban culture (I snorted at a commercial where a woman so loves her Dove detergent that she kisses the bottle). Then there's a film about the evolution of music through the sixties, from Frankie and Annette to Dylan going electric to Hendrix and The Who, with of course The Beatles as the prime movers and shakers. Finally there's a large area devoted to the show itself, with the whys and wherefores that it ended up in Bethel (some of this is gone over in Ang Lee's film Taking Woodstock).

The design of the space helps hide the fact that you're basically just watching a lot of short films. One of them, about transportation (the clogging of the roads and how acts were helicoptered in) is shown inside an actual bus, made to look like the ones the Merry Pranksters used to get there. Two different films show music from the concert, with one providing seating in denim-upholstered beanbag chairs. I passed on those, figuring I would never get up if I plopped down in one.

After touring the museum, I drove the short distance to the spot where the concert took place. There's a monument, and then a spot where you can look at the hill where forty years ago half a million people gathered, making it the third-largest city in New York and, at the time, the largest gathering of humanity for one purpose in the history of the species. After the concert, old hippies kept coming to the spot, and locals tried to keep them away, even going to the extreme of covering the field with manure. Then someone got the bright idea that these hippies were becoming yuppies, and where there's yuppie tourism there's money. This wonderful place is the result.

The CD I have is the original triple-album released as a soundtrack of the film. There are other versions, such as the new six-disc boxed set with at least one track by all thirty-six bands that played there, but I'm not such a completist that I need that. Besides, not all the bands were on top of their game. The Grateful Dead, for reasons of nature and electricity, played in the dark, and there is no Janis Joplin on this version.

Culling sixty hours of music down to about two is tough work, but I think they got a lot of good stuff there. The best are the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young set (it was only their second gig as a group), Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" (with an electrifying drum solo by seventeen-year-old Michael Shrieve), Joe Cocker's soulful cover of the Beatles "With a Little Help From My Friends," Sly and the Family Stone's funky set, and of course Jimi Hendrix closing the festival with a searing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (which bleeds into "Purple Haze").

To me, this was the greatest flowering of music of the century. Not all the biggest acts of the time were there--no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Doors or whatever band Eric Clapton was in at the time. But the lineup for those three days was nothing less than awe-inspiring. I mean, The Who performed Tommy in its entirety!

The record is also a fascinating and amusing time capsule of an era. A lot of stage announcements are included, most by Chip Monk, such as his warning folks not to take the brown acid, or leading the crowd in anti-rain chants. Arlo Guthrie talks to the crowd using language that seems ridiculously quaint now, such as "far out," "can you dig it," and "I was rapping to the fuzz." Monk has the most poignant message to the crowd, when he tells them, "This is a free concert, but that doesn't mean that anything goes. Take a look at the man next to you--he is your brother. And you damn well better treat him that way, or we're going to blow the whole thing."

Mitchell's song concludes, "By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song and celebration." For three days, amid thunderstorms and mud and shortages of food and sanitary facilities, the dream was alive, which was stunning considering the violence that had pocked America in the few years before it. Later that year, at Altamount, the dream would die, pretty much for good, but it's nice to hold onto when it lived.

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