I have a whole lot of thoughts about the Olympics (among them, if ski jumping is amazing, which it is, then snowboard big air (which is ski jumping with a snowboard where you turn corkscrews in the air while you drop) is unbelievable) but that can wait for another post. Instead I want to talk about one of the major cultural touchstones of the 20th century: Woodstock.
I was only eight at the time of Woodstock; not being in a hippie family with a bus but instead a somewhat conservative Roman Catholic family in Florida, there would have been no way I would have gone. I strongly suspect that my older brother would have wanted to go, had he the means, but he didn’t. My exposure to the festival came from the documentary, as I supposed most people’s did. TCM showed the documentary as part of their “31 Days of Oscar” programming so I took the opportunity to DVR it.
The first time I watched it recently, I watched solely for the music. One of the numbers, Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” is on my “Music that’s not better than sex but comes really close” list. It showcases, among other things, The. Best. Drum. Solo. In. The. Entire. History. Of. Rock. And. Roll by Michael Shrieve. (Railfan’s opinion when he watched it with me recently was a simple “Damn.”)
The most recent time I watched it I paid attention to what I think of as the “sociological” content, perhaps because I was watching with Railfan, who had never seen it. Perhaps because I am older, and allegedly more responsible, I came away with a much different impression than before.
Firstly, the guys who put this on were idiots. While estimates of crowd size varied throughout the documentary, it is clear that the facilities they had planned were insufficient even for the 200,000 that they said they expected, and given that they got at least twice that many, the conditions were ripe for a major disaster (even more than they got). Too little food, water, and toilets could have resulted in rioting. I wonder how many people went home bringing disease with them — and I don’t mean STDs.
The pictures of young people standing barefoot in mud makes me feel itchy, and I’m not even a neat freak. I don’t want to think what people did when they couldn’t get to port-o-potties. And the impact on that lake, yuk.
Even security was terrible. A random guy ran up on stage during Canned Heat’s set, and the band just let him be. During the thunderstorm, the announcer implored people to get off the speaker towers. But, really, why had they been allowed to get up on there to begin with?
I understand that Woodstock was pretty much the first of its kind, but I still think they could have seen that the crowds would be unreal. (Given that lineup? Wow. Even given that some of the acts were not well known at that time — it was only the second time Crosby, Stills, and Nash had performed in public — just the sheer number of acts would be an attraction.) I entirely sympathize with the young woman who freaked out because “there is just too many people” and she, like everyone else, was simply stuck.
Secondly, if I had been one of Max Yasgur’s neighbors, I would have been on the phone to my lawyer the day after the festival ended. These people suffered actual economic damage, as can be seen by the interview with the man working on his car. In a rural farming community, such losses could have a significant impact on farmers’ financial well-being.
Thirdly, everyone talks about how great the kids were, but what about the adults? With the exception of one man who was appalled by the whole thing (and I think he may have had a point), the adults spoke of how well the kids behaved, and, for example, brought them food when they heard they the kids had none. Even the angry farmer, when three young women came up to see if they could use the farmer, did not react with anger towards them. His wife explained, in a very upset tone, that they hadn’t had phone service for a day, but neither of them told the young women to get the hell off their lawn.
Finally, I was struck by how white the festival was. Yes, they showed the occasional person with black or brown skin, but taking out the performers, the festival was really about young white people (presumably mostly middle class or better).
Woodstock could never happen again; we’re too jaded, too divided. Still, it was pretty amazing it happened once. I’m glad it did.