Site of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, seen from just in front of the monument off Hurd Road in Bethel, NY. (Photo by me)
I was almost 12 years old in August of 1969. My recollection of the Woodstock music festival is enhanced by television and movies, and I'm not sure how much I remember and how much I learned over the years. I had a nice record collection as a kid, but almost none of the artists who appeared at Woodstock. The music of my childhood was limited to what was played on Top 40 radio, and almost none of the music of Woodstock was Top 40 stuff.
I was in Saratoga Springs, New York for a Dave Matthews concert over the weekend. The return included a side trip to Bethel, the site of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The town of Woodstock is about an hour away, but it's too boring to tell you why it was called Woodstock. Just go with it.
The photo above shows the site of the concert. The stage was where the gravel area is to the left, and the hoards of people stood on the grass area to the right, up the hill. Beyond that is the site of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which is a fancy name for an amphitheater. Inside the Center is the Woodstock museum, which is a fancy name for something that makes money off history.
The Center and amphitheater are fairly new. The museum was built 2 years ago, and the amphitheater about 5 years ago. It's a beautiful place, but it's difficult to get to. Although not nearly as difficult as it was 41 years ago when nearly a half-million people descended on this little town (population 2,700 in 1969) to spend three days taking drugs and listening to music.
The organizers expected about 150,000 so to say they underestimated is an understatement. In addition to running out of food, they didn't have nearly enough toilets; it rained like Hell twice; the New York Thruway was closed, (trapping travelers on the road and causing even more potential attendees to turn around) the locals were stuck in their houses for three days, cars were parked all over the streets and after the concert the field was stewn with trash. Otherwise, it was a great weekend. Some of the music was great, but most of it was poorly performed, and the artists who went on at night could not be seen because of the lack of lighting and occasional power outages.
All of those things are dulled by time, and the subsequent film made it seem like an adventure, which I suppose it was. Take yourself back 41 years and leave your cell phone, WiFi Internet connection and e-mail at home. It seems charming in the hindsight of history, but many of those who were there were miserable. Imagine if the promoters hadn't filmed the concert (which they almost didn't) or recorded the music for posterity. All we would have are faded memories and the healing power of time. Fortunately for the folks who still own the production rights, they did film it and record the music, otherwise how would anyone continue to make money off it?
We like to look back on misery and glamorize it. The 1960s were violent and politically turbulent times. What we like even more is trying to duplicate something and make money off it. Subsequent festivals (Altamont comes to mind) tried but failed to revive the feeling. But we quickly learn that feelings cannot be revived, and sometimes, things that happen once do so for a reason, and the serendipity of the event is its charm.
Movie sequels are often grim reminders of how good the original was, reunited bands make us long for our youth and television programs often last longer than they should because people want to milk money out of something that was once good - or something historic that we remember differently than the actual experience. That's part of the odd experience of places like the Holocaust Museum, war memorials, battle sites and those bouquets and crosses people put on the side of the road where a loved one died in an automobile crash. We're funny with the way we remember misery.
Perhaps more of our historical sites and commemorative places glorify misery than happiness. That's strange, isn't it?