I’ve shied away from discussion of the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. Largely this is because the topic has become ubiquitous throughout the media so there are plenty of other articles that you can read. And partly it is because, as much as I enjoy talking about the music of that period and the social forces that shaped it, and therefore tend to use the music I grew up with as a way into the music I hear today, I still prefer to keep the focus here on just that, the music I am listening to today. It’s a not a hard and fast edict, but it’s a general rule I’ve adhered to since starting this blog.
Still, sometimes a blogger’s just gotta do what a blogger’s gotta do. So here goes….
I was born in 1960 and thus “the sixties”, the cultural event or however you want to describe it, was really something that happened to people older than me. It has always felt like it belonged to big brothers and older cousins and that we — people my age — were witnesses rather than participants in the moment. It was like watching the big kids at school smoke behind the washroom: you knew they were there, and you thought it was kind of interesting, that it was bad and therefore good, and you knew you would probably have a go at it yourself one day, but you also knew that now wasn’t the time.
In this sense, the 70s felt like a bit of a letdown. There was always a palpable sense that we had missed the excitement, the fun, the change. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have our own fun and excitement only that, even at that very close remove, the “sixties” was clearly understood to have been something momentous, world changing. Can there be any denying of that?
Sure, the change had its roots in postwar reconstruction; that is, it went much back further than the sixties. And musically the fifties were just important, when Elvis and others began to stir things up with his gyrations and his popularisation of black music. The sixties, Woodstock itself, was the culmination of change, the endpoint of a particular sort of change, rather than a catalyst in its own right.
Still, as I say, at that close remove, the 70s, we felt like we had missed something big. But we also knew that what we had missed had not been an unalloyed, unblemished flowering of peace and love and community. We were not naive enough to swallow whole the mythology that was already growing up around Woodstock and other events as some sort of counterculture nirvana.
That’s why it is strange to read something like Clive Hamilton’s piece that appears to swallow that view. He writes,”The original Woodstock festival was imbued with a sense of harmony and tolerance and was everywhere seen as a ‘victory of peace and love’. When the number of young people turning up exceeded expectations, the organisers threw open the gates to make it a free concert.”
Well maybe. But his further attempts to compare the original Woodstock with the 1999 rerun so that he can make a point about the rise of individualism and the corrupting influence of the market, too conveniently overlooks the fact — that we all knew back then — that Woodstock itself was a marketing event.
We knew they sold tickets and that as organisers they were out to make a buck. (And why not?) And we knew that throwing open the gates for free was more a concession to reality — the threat of riot — than it was an enactment of community values.
We know, too, the bands were paid and that some of them, in particular The Grateful Dead and The Who, refused to go on before their cheques cleared. We know Hendrix demanded fifty thousand dollars for performing, though the organisers had only budgeted on paying $15,000 for the big acts.
We’ve known all this for a while. Why at this late stage pretend otherwise?
Portraying Woodstock ’69 as some sort of standard of anti-market behaviour to which we have all failed to live up to seems misplaced. I’d suggest we were neither as pure then nor as corrupted now as Hamilton suggests. (Jeff Sparrow has more here.)
Let’s also remember that a lot of the so-called anti-establishment behaviour associated with the sixties was in fact dreamed up on Madison Avenue. Thomas Franks’ book, The Conquest of Cool, documents the phenomena well. As does the brilliant show Mad Men in its own way. As Amanda Marcotte notes:
Mad Men actively runs against the stale narratives that posit the 1960s as driven by young hippies going against their parents’ staid lifestyles after being disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the battles over civil rights. Instead, the show tells a story of how the changes of the 1960s emerged gradually from various historical shifts. Progress wasn’t solely affected by the demands of Ivy League educated youth and a few civil-rights leaders. The rebellion of the 1960s was only made possible because of economic changes and other cultural developments that happened in the early — and less romanticized — part of the decade….
Season two dropped huge hints that the show will indeed continue in this direction. Sterling Cooper has hired two youthful ad executives, who have joined up with lone female copywriter Peggy. The three are supposed to speak to this new youth demographic in the language they understand, the language of cool. Peggy and the young executives pride themselves on being plugged into what’s hip even as they’re ensconced in Madison Avenue high rises. They go to Dylan concerts, get hip haircuts, and one of the young men is openly homosexual. But they’re there not for political reasons but because they’re infatuated with the idea of cool, and their infatuation works its way into their ad copy.
In the most tantalizing scene alluding to this theme, the young copywriters pitch a campaign for Martinson coffee that involves calypso music, breaking from the heavy-handed pitches of the past. The campaign confuses the coffee executives, who don’t understand that an ad can merely evoke a sense of “cool” rather than make a hard sell. One of the copywriters announces to the Martinson executives that the younger generation “doesn’t want to be told what to do” and that they just want to “feel.” For a brief moment, we begin to see how Madison Avenue sucked up the minor rumblings of a youth culture, refined them, and fed them back to the public — creating as much as co-opting the counterculture.
Still, does anyone doubt that “the sixties” and everything Woodstock allegedly represents has had an unnerving effect on conservatives and the kind of life they imagine they want?
Even this week, The Australian ran a piece that rehearsed and rehashed the angst and sheer terror memories of the event brings out in some people. As Jason Wilson noted on Twitter, the article reads like “a direct transcription of really angry internal monologue with no referent”. For example:
The world-philosophy of the Woodstockers was surely too eclectic to systematise. But at a pinch it could be described as a disorderly blend of 19th-century Transcendentalist spiritualism with the posturing self-discovery of the 1950s Beats, expressed in a painfully self-conscious argot culled from the private languages of the 40s jazz hipsters. All garnished with a light sprinkling of Karl Marx and Wilhelm Reich.
Guy Rundle (paywalled) captures the humourlessness and sheer silliness of this sort of thing in his response to the article, noting that “it [was] almost inevitable that News Ltd’s, David ‘Dr No’ Burchell would be wheeled out to do moan and groan like Eeyore about people remembering a spectacle that seems to have been kinda fun at the time.”
And it is that inevitability — forty years on — of conservatives to still be moaning about Woodstock, to still define themselves against what they imagine was going on, that speaks most eloquently of Woodstock’s power.
If it was as big a failure — musically and culturally — as conservative critics like to pretend, then why does it haunt them so?
Jeff Sparrow might be right to say this:
Culturally, the New Left might have triumphed (the music’s on every station) but politically it was defeated. In the US, the sixties ended with the ascent of Richard Nixon; here, the era closed with the election of Malcolm Fraser.
But that kinda sells short how important that cultural triumph was. In fact, it sells short the political victory embedded in the cultural victory too, from civil rights to the anti-war movement to woman’s rights and on and on.
So, yeah, people my age were too young to really be part of the so-called Woodstock generation, but we lived in its afterglow and I’m glad we did. The likes of David Burchell might dismiss it as “three wearisome, mud-soaked days of musical chaos”, but talk about protesteth too much!
We used to love watching the movie, listening to the music and I still get a kick out of it. Sure, there are some dud performances, but so what?
Not that I dig it out that often these days — I’m sure not many of us wallow in that sort of nostalgia — but it is nice to know it’s there, that it happened, that it (or that period) changed things: so much so that some conservatives are still railing against it.
ELSEWHERE: Another response at LP.