Woodstock was the beginning, and it was an end.
August 15 marks 40 years since the gathering of the tribes known as the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair. It remains the most famous event in pop music history, a weekend that came to define a generation. Its mythology runs so deep, in fact, that long ago it became almost impossible to assess what really happened during those “three days of peace and music” (which actually spilled over into a fourth) in 1969.
How many people attended? Estimates range from 300,000 up to almost a million. Some of the biggest bands that played, including the Grateful Dead and the Band, didn’t appear in the hugely successful documentary or soundtrack. And, most crucially and most impossible to determine, what was it really like? For everyone who says Woodstock was a transcendent, glorious experience, there’s someone else who describes it as a muddy, disorganized nightmare.
But why does Woodstock still carry such weight in our culture? It wasn’t the first major rock festival; the 1967 Monterey Pop event came two years earlier. Nor was it the biggest, an honor which is usually given to 1973’s Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. Those who were on the front lines at Woodstock, though, insist there was something different about this one.
“There had been festivals in Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami,” says Tom Constanten, who was the Grateful Dead’s keyboard player at the time, “but Woodstock was lightning in a bottle. It created a sense of community, made connections between people who had felt sort of alone and defenseless.
Indeed, looking back from a 21st-century vantage point, the most impressive thing about Woodstock may be the fact that it never went totally off the rails. The crowd got in and stayed, the bands all played. No matter how wet, muddy, and miserable some people may have been, it didn’t descend into anarchy or disaster. Perhaps it was the very things that made for the worst conditions that also gave the festival its place in history.
Woodstock’s location also contributed to its legacy. As hard as it was to find a spot for the gathering — the town that gave the event its name refused to host it, and several other nearby hamlets also passed before Max Yasgur agreed to the use of his farm in Bethel, N.Y. — the reality was that this would be the first rock festival in close proximity to the country’s media capital: New York City. It was one thing to gawk at San Francisco’s Summer of Love from several time zones away, quite another when reporters and editors saw their own kids venturing into Sullivan County for a weekend-long freak show.
After the fact, the vehicle that seared Woodstock into the world’s consciousness was the Oscar-winning documentary, which somehow gave a shape and even some kind of logic to the weekend. The movie gave the thunderstorms an epic grandeur, and captured the crackling exhilaration of a massive group of strangers finding a way to persevere together. The filmmakers also placed a few shockingly good bets; some of the unforgettable highlights come from artists who were relative unknowns at the time, including Santana and Joe Cocker. Whether lucky improvisation or brilliant strategy, the public’s perception of Woodstock ultimately resulted in a transformation of the rock ‘n’ roll business. As much as the “Aquarian Exposition” was constructed on anti-capitalist ideals (so much so that festival veterans the Who and the Grateful Dead insisted on payment, in full and in cash, before they would go onstage), there was no longer any way around the size of the rock community. In that one weekend, the music and its followers became victims of their own success, and went from counterculture to subculture, from underground to mass market.
Woodstock was the tipping point, the end of rock’s innocence, and the beginning of the rock industry of the 1970s. In the months that followed, the Rolling Stones revealed the violent underside of a large-scale gathering, when a group of Hell’s Angels killed an audience member brandishing a gun at the Altamont festival. A few months after that, the Beatles announced their break-up. Before the end of 1970, John Lennon would sing, “The dream is over.”
Woodstock: Over The Years