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Back to the garden again

Three days of music, mud and social harmony: Some of the festival's masterminds reappraise its meaning.

August 09, 2009|Reed Johnson

The song, written by Joni Mitchell -- who wasn't there in person but somehow managed to grasp the essence of those three muggy, ineffable days in August 1969 while hunkered down in David Geffen's New York apartment watching TV -- said we had to get back to the garden. But what exactly was the garden?

In a literal sense, of course, it was Max Yasgur's bucolic dairy farm in Bethel, in upstate New York, where the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place in a torrent of almost preternaturally inspired musicianship and gusting rains.

But for a number of those who invented Woodstock, or were present at the inception to document it, the Eden-like quality of the event had more to do with the idea of young people taking control over their lives, wresting their destinies away from the powers that were (parents, politicians, the draft board). It had to do with the still-relative newness of rock 'n' roll, the raw, naked power of an art form still striving for recognition and respect. Music, at that time, was youth's lingua franca in the way that the Internet, cellphones and video games are today, and John, Paul, Mick and Bob were as famous as, well, Biz Stone or what's-his-name who just won "American Idol."

"It was before the music business became the music industry and there was a lot more room for bands to find their feet," says Michael Lang, the promoter who masterminded the festival into being.

Mostly, Lang and others assert, the freshness and vitality of Woodstock had to do with the performers' creative energy and the generous, cooperative spirit of social harmony that prevailed over that long, muddy weekend, despite the 20 miles of stalled traffic and the bum acid trips.

"For a moment, everybody was peaceful. Everybody looked out for each other," says Baron Wolman, one of four photographers whose seminal images of Woodstock will be on display this month and in September at Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles (Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz and Lisa Law are the other contributors).

Of the hundreds of images he took that weekend, Wolman says, one of his favorites shows law enforcement officials working together with the tie-dyed crowd to evacuate people needing medical help. "This was a manifestation of the coda of the '60s generation and the counterculture and people who felt it was time for a change, politically and socially," he says. "Look, it wasn't perfect. It was difficult. It was hot, it was humid, it was muddy. There wasn't enough food, there weren't enough porta-potties. Nevertheless, nevertheless. . . ."

Four decades old next weekend, Woodstock already has been analyzed and commemorated endlessly, canonized by pop culture historians, even sequel-ized and reenacted a couple of times, as if it were the Second Battle of Bull Run. Its stature as an official creation myth of the 1960s counterculture is a fait accompli.

But even at this late date, and with our nation preoccupied with more pressing matters (what did Michael Jackson's doctor know and when did he know it?), there's still occasion to reflect on Woodstock's complicated legacy, as the latest wave of backward-glancing books, documentaries and exhibitions attests. Yet another take on the legend will be represented in Ang Lee's new feature film, "Taking Woodstock," opening this month, based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, who as a young man helped steer the festival to his town of Bethel.

Heading for Woodstock

Lang was an ambitious 24-year-old promoter from Brooklyn when he and a small group of associates conceived the idea of staging an outdoor music festival. A haunter of New York nightclubs and former owner of a Miami head shop, he had big ideas and chutzpah to burn, as he writes with Holly George-Warren in his just-published memoir, "The Road to Woodstock." Lang also elaborates on his odyssey in a new documentary, "Woodstock: Now and Then," directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, which Lang executive produced; it's scheduled to air this month on the VH1 and History cable channels.

For Lang, one of Woodstock's principal messages was that young people were capable of putting on and managing a large-scale cultural event themselves. In the weeks leading to Woodstock, Lang says, he and the other promoters held intense discussions about how overtly political (or not) the festival should be. Lang's contingent thought the political themes, notably opposition to the Vietnam War, would emerge more or less naturally, as in fact they did. "We had big debates with the underground press and the counterculture press. We managed to convince everybody except Abbie Hoffman," he says, adding a chuckle.

In the end, the festival spoke on behalf of young people's concerns simply by communicating that "We're in charge, this is how it's going to be," Lang says. "The event was the political statement."

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