Early this week marked the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It was, by all accounts, the defining cultural event of an entire generation. It was also, in many ways, much more than that. It was at once a cultural crescendo and a heavy, ideological tombstone — the final punctuation mark on a decade of revolution and activism. It was the culmination of a generation’s revolt against war; it was a celebration of the successfully-waged sexual revolution.
And above all — though it’s taken forty years to see it with any sense of perspective — Woodstock was a muddy, poorly-organized, impossible-to-control mess. Nearly instantly, it spiraled into anarchy, and it’s a wonder that there were only two fatalities.
History has been kind to Woodstock. It has been immortalized as the ultimate concert experience. Like all things of legend, the festival has developed its own mythology, derived from equal parts rumor and revelation. Today, even the actual attendance remains in question. (The official figure is somewhere in the ballpark of 300,000. Most unofficial estimates have it nearer 500,000.)
Last fall, I had the privilege of speaking with the legendary Richie Havens, who was the first artist to grace Woodstock’s stage. (Richie, by the way, would tell you that the attendance probably exceeded 650,000 over the three days.) Havens was scheduled to be the fourth artist on the bill. However, when it came time to get the musicians from the hotel to the venue (where hundreds of thousands of fans were already waiting), the roads were completely blocked by parked cars.
“I was anxious to be over where it was happening,” Havens told me. “Nothing was happening at the hotel. They were running around, trying to figure out how to get all the bands there. A farmer down the road came and offered them his helicopter, which was a glass bubble helicopter — almost not enough room to carry [an artist and the instruments]. Since I had the least instruments, that’s why they came to me first.”
“When they offered the role of going on first, it was a very tenuous line there. Anything could happen! We didn’t know what kind of eruption was gonna take place when the music hit the stage.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually the promoter lured Richie onstage.
“So I went out and I sang my 40-minute set, and walked off stage. And they said ‘Richie, could you sing four more?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
Seven encores later, Richie had sung every song he knew, and he was asked to get back up there and buy a little more time. For his last encore, he improvised “Freedom,” — a riff on the old Negro spiritual “Motherless Child” — which would become one of his signature songs and a highlight of the Woodstock film.
Perhaps the most remarkable things about Woodstock was the absence of the decade’s largest acts. The Beatles weren’t there, The Rolling Stones weren’t there, and neither was Bob Dylan. All three acts were invited, and all three declined. (Here’s something that’s fun to think about: Imagine a concert with only the acts that declined or refused to play Woodstock. Add to The Beatles, Stones and Dylan such iconic acts as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jethro Tull, Tommy James & The Shondells, The Byrds, The Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell, Iron Butterfly and a handful more.)
As a culture, we love anniversaries. They are the easiest form of nostalgia. (They also help to fill the 24-hour news cycle.) Even forty years removed, it’s hard to say what lasting cultural relevance Woodstock will hold. I asked Richie.
“Well, I would tell anybody in the world, if you want to see the best exhibit of our near-past history — which includes us — you’ve gotta go to this place. The story wasn’t just the music… The backdrop to it is our history, that we were living.”
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 08/20/09