(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)
Nearly three years ago I was invited to a reception and screening of Woodstock, The Movie at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In attendance were many of the participants and it was a terrific evening of reminiscences by the likes of concert promoters, Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman, performers Country Joe McDonald and Michael Shrieve, personal relations delegate Wavy Gravy, and documentarians, photographer Henry Diltz and film editor/assistant director Thelma Schoonmaker.
The screening was exciting and each musical performance was greeted with waves of spontaneous applause, but, although most people seemed to react with a misty eyed nostalgia for the good old days, my own reaction was quite different. I had only been back into rock music for about a year and I was so consumed by what I was hearing, there was no room in my brain for missing what was gone. It was great to see the history, but I felt that rock is now as vital and alive as it has ever been. Potentially in a real renaissance.
Leaving the festival on August 16, 1969, we drove straight through to my grandmother's house in northern Massachusetts, arriving caked in mud. We'd tried to wash off in a gas station rest room along the way, to little avail. That was when we learned the extent of what was happening back at the festival, and it seemed to turn into a bigger news story as the hours passed. And this was before the days of the 24-hour news cycle.
After Woodstock, the anti-war movement took precedence in my life, as I tried to juggle college with un-civil activity. Woodstock had broken the dam for me and I began attending as many concerts as my meager income would allow. Living in Boston, a good college town, we always had someone coming through. That was when I first saw the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, The Moody Blues, Tom Rush, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Steve Miller Band, Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and more.
That December the notorious concert at Altamont Speedway Free Concert took place and was marred by bad planning, violence and even death. Showcased in the documentary, Gimme Shelter, it would be hyped as the death of the Hippie Era. It was hardly that, just as Woodstock wasn't the beginning of anything. Cultural shifts are more gradual and only represented by these events, not caused by them. The picture of a birthday cake seems appropriate here.
I was always surprised at how fast they put the documentary together, getting it out in March, 1970, just eight months after the event. I was working at a pizza shop on Charles Street at that time and I used to work until 11 PM every Friday and Saturday night, and when Woodstock opened at the Cheri Theatre in Boston, for the first three weeks, I would get off work and head right to the theatre to get in line for the midnight show. These shows were really like an extension of the festival itself with audiences dancing in the aisles, the management looking the other way as people broke out the joints and wine and turned the theatre into a great big party. I guess it was as close to the performances as I would get. What struck me watching the film recently was how contemporary it looks again. The Woodstock generation appears to have direct descendants in the current music scene. So much of the music I enjoy today could be folded into the playlists of the underground FM radio stations that sprang up in the late '60's through the '70's, like WBCN in Boston, so that, at my age, it feels like the completion of a circle.
I think that is why the whole 40th Anniversary thing has had more impact than any of the earlier anniversaries. People seem a little more open to it without all the envy and resentment that has accompanied previous Woodstock birthdays. It's distant enough in time as to have taken on a semi-mythic status. I guess in the future some subsequent legends of Woodstock will have a spaceship landing on Yasgur's farm and letting a whole generation of hippie aliens off to try to move the human race forward just a little step. I like to believe that we, at least, tried.