Sunday, August 16, 2009

Memories of Woodstock

If you were at the original Woodstock festival 40 years ago today, you were treated to some of the era's biggest psychedelic and guitar rock performers — Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, the Who, Jefferson Airplane.

That's a pretty memorable lineup.

After 40 years, though, writes Katie Hawkins–Gaar for, memories can be hazy. I'll give you that one.

Hawkins–Gaar reports that some of the participants at Woodstock don't remember certain points from the festival.

They might not remember some of the finer points about their journey to Woodstock. But if some of those details aren't clear anymore, they must remember how awe–inspiring it was to see all that talent assembled in a single place on a single day. And they must have known that the world was watching, even if the New York Thruway was closed. (Well, actually, I've heard that Arlo Guthrie got that one wrong.)

And, surely, they saw the sea of people on that hillside — and they knew this was no ordinary music festival, even though there were many of them that summer.

Woodstock was special. It was unique. It was, seemingly, the proof the pacifists wanted to support their claims that people of all races could come together in peace and harmony.

And it did work — for a few days. I rather doubt it would have succeeded on a long–term basis.

In its way, Woodstock was the "yes, we can" moment for the Baby Boomers. It wasn't about politics or economics. It was about courtesy.

But I sometimes wonder if the patience displayed by the attendees at Woodstock held up — strained though it must have been by the conditions — because they all knew it was a short–term solution.

Well, be that as it may, I have to confess that I enjoyed reading Gail Collins' reflections on her experience at Woodstock in yesterday's New York Times. She began by saying that the reminiscences of that weekend 40 years ago are "beginning to make me feel like Frank Buckles, the 108–year–old last surviving veteran of World War I."

She told an amusing story about having to look for food for herself, her brother and six companions because she "left the picnic basket behind on the front porch."

Then she made this observation: "The lesson I took away from it is that whenever anybody asks you to do something off the wall, you should really try to do it — unless it involves being unethical or a two–plane connection. You might not enjoy it while it's going on, but somewhere down the line the anecdotes will always come in handy."

She acknowledges, though, that "[w]hen I was actually at Woodstock, it never occurred to me anybody was going to want to discuss it 40 years down the road."

But they do, and Collins shares an insight with today's young folks. "The Woodstock–mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby–boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did, and that when they are old themselves there will probably still be some 108–year–old telling them how everybody slept in the mud but that it was worth it because Janis Joplin sounded so awesome and the people were all mellow," she writes.

"Current younger generation, I know you would be equally good–natured if you found yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the world with 400,000 other people and a bunch of bands. But it will never happen because although you will have many, many fine adventures of your own, you will never be cut off."

I guess that's the flip side of modern technology. Cell phones and GPS are great if you're stranded somewhere, but they make it darn near impossible to duplicate the Woodstock experience.

Which leads me to an inescapable conclusion. No matter how many commemorative concerts they have held or will hold in rural New York, there will never be another Woodstock. It belongs to the Baby Boomers.

But that's OK. It's like the wistful way my grandparents used to speak of gathering the family around the radio to listen to Jack Benny or Amos 'n' Andy — or President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats — in the 1930s. TV didn't exist yet, and when it came along, it changed the nature of home entertainment.

It was like that with Woodstock. It was a defining moment for a generation that is justifiably proud of what happened 40 years ago this weekend. Today's generation — and future generations, for that matter — will have massive shared experiences, too, but they will be different. That is what will make those experiences unique and memorable.

And something worth talking about 40 years later.