Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Relevance of Woodstock

By Monday, Aug. 18, 1969, many people had left the Woodstock Festival.

But those who remained got to see one of the legendary musicians of the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix, who performed more than a dozen songs, including his astonishing rendition of "The Star–Spangled Banner."

I don't exactly think it is what Francis Scott Key had in mind when he was writing the poem at the Battle of Fort McHenry that became the lyrics of the national anthem. Nor, do I think, was it what they had in mind when the tune was a popular British drinking song in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But, at Woodstock, it seemed appropriate.

It wasn't Hendrix's finale. He played his most popular songs — "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe" — before leaving the stage.

And when Hendrix concluded his set, Woodstock slipped into the history books, a symbol of a generation — and clearly a source of continuing debate four decades later.

Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald tries to take some of the luster from the memory of Woodstock by reminding people of what is not being celebrated — the infamous Altamont concert later that year and the Manson murders that occurred 40 years ago this month.

"Sometime in the future, when their grip on the levers of the media has loosened, somebody will write a real history of the 1960s and the political awakening of Baby Boomers that will acknowledge it was marked by arrogance, self–indulgence, irreponsibility and totalitarian impulses," Garvin writes.

"When it does, Woodstock and Altamont will be combined in a single chapter, for it was the delusions of one that led to the tragedy of the other."

Maybe there is some truth in that. But it seems to me an oversimplified, if not wishful, appraisal of someone who never really "got" what Woodstock was about.

Perhaps it is not the sort of thing you can put into words. It certainly isn't the sort of thing that can be boiled down to a few neat concepts.

But I have a hard time seeing a relationship between Altamont and Woodstock.

Maybe their relationship — if one exists — is like the masks of the laughing face and the weeping face popularly associated with the theater.

Two extremes. The truth lies somewhere in between.

But Woodstock and Altamont were not bookends. Altamont may well have represented the "end of the hippie movement," as some have suggested, but Woodstock was hardly the beginning.

For that matter, neither was completely representative of the young of that time. There was clearly a dark side, which could be seen in Altamont, and there was the idealistic side, a yearning for something better, which could be seen in Woodstock.

It reminds me of a line from Oliver Stone's movie about the man who was president when Woodstock occurred, "Nixon."

In the movie, Nixon — who became known for, among other things, chatting with presidential portraits during his tenure in the White House — is seen talking to a portrait of John F. Kennedy. "When they look at you, they see what they want to be," he says. "When they look at me, they see what they are."

Maybe that is the paradox — Woodstock was about what the children of the '60s wanted to be, Altamont was about the imperfect reality. Consequently, perhaps Woodstock's memory has become inflated out of proportion.

Such a tug–o–war was not unique to the 1960s, just more visible than it has been for most generations. Good and evil have always been engaged in a conflict. Sometimes it is just easier to see in the movies — it is a theme that was played out in six films in the "Star Wars" series, and I don't think it was ever really resolved.

Go back and watch the films of "Woodstock" and "Gimme Shelter," the documentary featuring footage from the Altamont concert. The former truly is a tribute to peace and love, the latter is the opposite.

But history tells us that the Vietnam War didn't end because half a million people sang along with Country Joe McDonald's "I–Feel–Like–I'm–Fixin'–To–Die Rag."

And a fine line has always divided love and hate.

Which brings me to the most important question I have seen asked in this wave of Woodstock nostalgia, although it is the one question that wasn't really asked at all, at least not in the words that keep running through my head. It was more implied — by USA Today: Does Woodstock still matter?

Some people say it doesn't. Some say it never did.

But co–founder Michael Lang says it did and it still does. "A lot of those seeds planted in the Woodstock era are beginning to flower. From the green movement to sustainable development and organic gardening, all these things seem to be coming back to us."

And it seems to me that Woodstock's spirit can be seen in subsequent charitable music festivals, such as George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh a couple of years later and Bob Geldof's Live Aid in 1985, even if it is not recognized as the inspiration.

Yes, Woodstock still matters. In ways that are seen and unseen.