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Last Chance: Final Thoughts on Woodstock

August 16, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The Altamont Factor: The first major attempt to hold another Woodstock-like celebration was at a race track in Altamont, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1969, and it ended in ugly violence, including the stabbing death of a young fan near the stage as the Rolling Stones were performing. The horror of a similar outbreak surfaced late Saturday night when a medical worker stopped in the press tent and told a reporter that a girl had been stomped to death in the mosh pit in front of the stage. The report proved false, but the possibility of tragedy caused a certain unease during the entire weekend.

The Rumor Mill, Part I: If there are 250,000 people at a festival, there's a chance for 250,000 rumors. The first one, invariably, will involve some surprise act coming to the show--normally an indication of who the fans really most want to see. Rumors of everyone from U2 to the Rolling Stones were common, but most frequently cited was Pearl Jam. A late entry Sunday was Guns N' Roses, but that may have been prompted by news that GNR guitarist Slash would be joining Paul Rodgers' rock revue on the smaller stage.

The Rumor Mill, Part II: The second most common musical rumor is that someone is going to give a surprise performance at some other site nearby. The alternative this time was the original Woodstock grounds in Bethel, about 60 miles southwest. Pearl Jam again was the subject of most of these rumors, though Neil Young was also mentioned frequently. The idea in Young's case was that the veteran rocker, who turned down an offer to appear at Woodstock '94 because he "didn't believe in it," was going to appear as part of the free Bethel concert. He didn't, but Melanie and Arlo Guthrie did.

The Rumor Mill, Part III: There is a certain crowd intoxication in knowing you could be part of history by setting an attendance record. Once the crowd begins taking shape and the bodies stretch as far as the eye can see, the imagination begins running wild. Before there were even 100,000 people on the grounds, people began measuring the crowd at 300,000, then 500,000, and a million wasn't far behind.

The Rain Factor: Besides the music itself, what most people will remember is roughing it. City-dwellers aren't used to sleeping on dirt and walking to portable toilets in the middle of the night, trying to step around thousands of bodies and tents.

But nothing brings out the sense of adventure more than rain. Some fans will probably never even attempt to clean their mud-caked shoes; they'll just keep them as their own part of history. You can even imagine their showing up some day at a rock 'n' roll memorabilia sale, billed as genuine Woodstock '94 boots, complete with statement of authenticity.

The Wild Card: You never know what will emerge to give a festival its individuality. The wild card this time: mud. Most striking were the fans who covered themselves with the goo. Several artists saluted these Mud People from the stage. "Hi, Woodstock," Peter Gabriel told the audience Sunday night. "This is your festival. This is your mud."

Some fans used the mud to write their names or other messages on one of the stage walls. And there was the inevitable flinging. During Green Day's show on the south stage, fans began good-naturedly throwing mud. Unable to resist, the group's lead singer Billy Joe started throwing gobs of it back. On Sunday morning a local couple even got married in the mud. What about a honeymoon? "This was our honeymoon," bride Linda Brandt, 30, told a reporter.

It's the Music, Stupid: Despite everything else going on, the reason for the festival is the music, and everyone walks away with favorite moments. For me, it was Nine Inch Nails on Saturday night. The band, whose industrial-rock sound is relentless and stark, came out covered with mud, in a salute to the most radical members of the audience, and put on a performance as triumphant as any of the legendary acts at Woodstock '69.

Don't Forget a Camera: It's not cool in the rock world to be overly sentimental, but you could have made a fortune here by selling cameras. As the weekend drew to a close, fans began looking for souvenirs to take home, and what better than a picture of yourself at the site? Newspaper photographers were frequently asked if they would take a photo and send it to the fans. Even some journalists, many of whom came here quite cynical of the whole reunion concept, were seen standing next to a Woodstock poster or stage, posing for a souvenir snapshot.

Looking Back: As time goes on, most of the young fans will look back on the experience with affection. For all the talk about anger and alienation in today's young rock crowd, they appeared just as eager as their earlier counterparts to help each other and make this weekend a success.

There will never be another Woodstock, just as there will never be another Beatles. There are unique social and cultural elements that create touchstones in our lives. This weekend didn't disprove the old adage that you can't go home again. Still, it gave a new generation of fans a chance to see the old place.

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