Forty-five years ago today, thousands and thousands of people embarked on a track back to civilization, leaving behind the euphoria of an event that would become an indelible cultural milestone. A few days prior, they walked onto a virgin farm field that looked something like this:
Within hours, it eventually became swollen with lumpen humanity, until it resembled this:
And when the thing was done, the remains of Max Yasgur’s farm looked a lot like the Vietnam war scenarios everyone was becoming inured to on their nightly news:
The miracle of Woodstock is that the reckless hype that caused nearly half a million people to flock to a small upstate farm didn’t result in a mass calamity; it was the spiritual high point of a generation, the fable that would get twisted and recycled for sinister purposes for decades. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, was it the way the future was meant to feel, or just a shitload of hippies standing in a field?
It’s important to distinguish Woodstock, the business, from Woodstock, the August 15 to 18 musical event: Woodstock Inc. is a case study for business school, all about the importance of knowing what one is getting into prior to investment, and also about how owning the intellectual property rights to a bona fide cultural moment is worth more than any amount of tickets to the gig. Woodstock the musical event, though, is a lesser-appreciated thing. For one, it was hard for anyone in attendance to actually witness the musical alchemy on the stage: amidst a sprawling 600-acre site, we’re talking about a tiny stage with an inadequate sound system and no jumbotrons.
For the majority of Woodstock attendees, even those not wasted out of their gourd, it was probably difficult to tell Ravi Shankar from the Who when they were both just little specks in the distance playing music that could barely be heard above the din of the teeming humanity of nearly half a million people.
The amateur investors of Woodstock Inc. wisely decided, after having lost their shirts with the festival’s insanity, to recoup with a theatrical film and an accompanying soundtrack album. It is hard to say what Woodstock’s legacy would truly be if it weren’t for the film, which both accurately captured the melee of the event and created mythic imagery of the performances and the atmosphere, allowing midnight moviegoers to bask in the generational camaraderie of Woodstock without having committed themselves to the unthinkable hardships that came with actually going to the festival.
Contemporary reviews of the festival, when they weren’t bitching about the traffic and moaning about kids these days, tended to be iffy about the performances themselves — and rightfully so, as the chaos of the event put a lot of famous performers off their A-game. But it’s important to remember that for every indulgent or lame performance, there was at least one equally transcendent set. Maybe it was just the times, when the sheer volume of classic touring acts was just insane. Whatever the case — in honor of the festival’s 45th anniversary and in the spirit of ongoing Vanyaland series New Ordered, here’s your humble author’s nominations for the five worst and five best Woodstock sets:
5. Jimi Hendrix
It wasn’t really Hendrix’s fault, inasmuch as anything was his fault during his short tenure as rock’s greatest instrumentalist, that this show was a mess for him. Any rock performer knows that “headlining” means going on last, and “going on last” means often starting way too late after everyone has already left for the night. And so poor Jimi had to start his set in the morning hours, after a reported 90 percent of the audience had left. No wonder he played the tune about the twilight’s last gleaming on his guitar. Still, though, did he have to play a two-hour-plus meandering set?
The funniest part, to me, about the legendary Hendrix Woodstock set is the participation of guitarist/vocalist Larry Lee. Lee played second guitar in Hendrix’s Woodstock band, and it would be Lee’s only performance with Hendrix. He played throughout the lengthy set, and even sang lead vocals for two songs, one of which was one of his own originals. Yet any audio recording has Lee scrubbed from the mix — supposedly Lee was out-of-tune, or at least more out-of-tune than Hendrix. Even worse for Lee, no footage has ever been released of those two songs. It’s as if his participation in this landmark musical event has been erased from all memory. Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”, a woozy semi-improvisation edited for the Woodstock film from a half-hour-plus dicking-around jammy-jam, eventually became the symbolic representation of the festival somehow; but in terms of what happened on the stage at Bethel that morning in 1969, it was by all accounts pretty subpar, especially for Hendrix.
4. Jefferson Airplane
“Morning maniac music” is how Grace Slick introduces the band, but it’s more tired and hungover; like a lot of bands playing Woodstock, they probably would have been charming and energetic six hours earlier, but they got paid a king’s ransom to play a show, so play a show they shall. Nowadays the band would probably have slammed a case of Red Bull and vodkas and powered through their show at twice the tempo, but here the Airplane just seem kind of tired and lost.
3. Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker and his band took the stage after Jefferson Airplane’s crash and burn; the entire band, save Cocker, were all tripping balls. Cocker’s performance, then, was one of the most brazen pantomimes ever attempted, a straight fellow doing an elaborate caricature of what he imagines tripping balls must feel like and look like. Disassembling songs into little shrieking pieces, splitting words and phrases into a thousand tiny stretched out fragments of nonsense, time and space and emotion are crushed into nothingness, with a gyrating man in a tie-dye t-shirt sending everyone into a void of meaningless waste; I’m guessing Ian Curtis was studying reels of Cocker’s desperate chicken dance here throughout his adolescence.
Woodstock was Mountain’s fourth show; they had only been a band for a few months. Within a year, they’d have a hit album and single; by 1972, they’d be all done. Woodstock caught the band in a strange infancy, before they’d solidified the proto-metal melt that would make parts of 1970’s Climbing! album so rad. As such, then, the band, with a sweet time slot in front of an audience beyond their wildest imaginations, was a total snooze, with plodding drums by N.D. Smart (soon to be replaced by the inimitable Corky Laing) and a lack of tuneage. In the summer of ‘69, a lot of dudes had bands and they tried real hard, as the song says; Mountain’s sluggish plod really gave no indication that they were just about to rise above the ten zillion similarly-plodding heavy groups with their distinctive fat-ass cowbell riff-rock.
1. Grateful Dead
There isn’t any good reason, really, for why the Dead bombed Woodstock so badly. They had a decent slot, they played in front of a gazillion people, and it really should have been their moment to connect with an audience and blow everything away. They would eventually, by dint of sheer determination, find themselves in the ’90s on of the top-grossing live bands of all time; but after Woodstock, it was clear that they had blown a major opportunity. No one knew it better than Jerry Garcia himself, of course, who was both an insightful critic of his own art and his own worst enemy, right to the end. Here, in a 1971 interview, after the massive success of the Woodstock film, he lays it all out.
Interviewer: Why weren’t the Grateful Dead in the Woodstock movie?
Jerry: Well, we played such a bad set at Woodstock. The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night. Like we knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn’t see one of them. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse. On top of that, it was raining or wet, so that every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.
5. Arlo Guthrie
Woodstock, with its harsh conditions and ridiculous scheduling, made mincemeat of some of rock’s most legendary figures; perversely, it gave a benign clown like Arlo Guthrie a perfect podium for his own brand of meandering awesomeness. Some pre-rock troubadours knew how to tell a story, guitar in hand, just because it cracked them up and for no other reason — luckily this one had an audience and made it onto tape. Guthrie would later remark that he might have comported himself differently if he’d known that his kids would still be able to mock him, decades and decades later, for his stoned ramblings about “rapping with the fuzz” and “can you dig it” and “the New York State thruway is closed, man”; thank god that he didn’t, because his particular style of bemused incredulousness is genius.
4. Country Joe & The Fish
There really is no modern equivalent to Country Joe McDonald, not in any real sense; his acid rock band, Country Joe & The Fish, were juvenile acid rock of the best variety, and all of his work was pointed and mocking and relentless. His performance of “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag” at Woodstock, then, was peak Country Joe, as it were, a searing zenith of dripping contempt, total nihilism, and potent chortle at the void that was the times as they were. McDonald’s involvement in the Youth International Movement, or the Yippies, inspired the chorus of the tune; and indeed, the gallows humor of “Rag” fits in with the mission of the Yippies. Yippie co-founder Paul Krassner once noted that “there was a linear connection between putting kids in prison for smoking pot in this country and burning them to death with napalm on the other side of the planet;” it was this dark death joke that McDonald felt compelled to spread to a wide audience.
3. Sly & The Family Stone
Woodstock, for both performers and audience alike, was in many ways a celebration of a certain grubby aesthetic; dirty and dressed down seemed to be the dress code. Luckily no one informed Sly and his crew, who managed to class the whole event up with their mere presence. Stone at Woodstock was commanding in every sense of the word: not only did his band’s high energy funk blow an atomic hole through the general lethargy of the event’s mood, but almost every song was a literal command: “Sing A Simple Song,” “Dance To The Music,” “Stand!”. “I Want To Take You Higher” was, perhaps, the spiritual zenith of the entire event, a moment of frenzied rapture that vaporized the jaded cynicism of its time. The fame the band garnered, in part, from their festival appearance and the spotlight of the film would destroy them, but for that set in a field in 1969, they were perhaps the most perfect band on the planet.
Michael Shrieve had just turned 20 when he walked onto the Woodstock stage, in front of nearly half a million people, sat behind his drum kit and propelled one of rock n’ roll’s greatest sets ever. The look on Shrieve’s face throughout “Soul Sacrifice” is one of punished exuberance; he often appears nearly in tears as fills and volleys flow from his hands like an unending torrent. The sheer force of Santana’s performance that day — sweaty, propulsive and filled with communal euphoria– was in a sense the most powerful display of the best aspects of the event’s legacy.
1. Ritchie Havens
To watch the famous clip of Ritchie Havens belting “Freedom” while frantically strumming is to see an inventive performer desperately stalling for time. Even though the musical portion of Woodstock had just begun, the disaster that was the planning and execution was already in full swing, meaning that the show was hours and hours late even at the start, with no one left to go on after Havens. Havens made a career both before and after Woodstock using his masterful voice to sell anything, meaning that when he just started belting “freedom” over and over, with no real song attached to it, he was creating hippie iconography out of literal thin air. Luckily for us it was all captured on film: the nerves, the energy, the desperate artistry and a commanding cry that was never really bested for the rest of the event.