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Woodstock: Moment or movement?

Woodstock: Moment or movement?

Commentary: The festival validated egalitarian long-hair generosity, but did it last?
Woodstock: Moment or movement?
A scene from the documentary “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation.”
Photographer: photo provided

The film “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation” Friday at Music Haven told how amateurs fumbled into a mythic hippie apotheosis/logistical disaster. Music was just part of a shared warm feeling that “My Generation” (thanks, The Who) claims as uniquely ours.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t there. The closest I got to Woodstock was seeing the movie in Tokyo where director Michael Wadleigh yelled at the screen as at the show: “Go SLY!” It scared the audience, including kids, especially Joe Cocker.

Woodstock weekend, I was traveling home from Istanbul; meanwhile my brother Jim went to see NRBQ at the Aerodrome instead of Woodstock. It changed his life: He plays on their records and a dozen ‘Q shows a year; they sell his album “The Floating Zone” on their site. But I digress.

Woodstock revisionism hit me as artists shredded the myth in interviews over the decades.

Graham Nash grumbled that if everybody who told him they’d seen CS&Him at Woodstock had actually been there, the audience would have numbered in the millions.

Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) said money men looked at the crowd, saw only dollar signs and ruined the music business.

Felix Cavaliere said his band the Rascals didn’t play Woodstock to protest the scarcity of black artists.

If Woodstock made big stars — Cocker, CS&N(Y), Sly, Santana — acts left out of the 1970 movie struggled, including Bert Sommer, who played Albany bars thereafter, and Quill, a cool Boston band, gone that same year.

The new film persuasively shows a compelling chemistry of music, mood and meaning, reflecting good vibes; also noting how Hendrix (a veteran, like Country Joe McDonald) exploded the national anthem into anti-war wails. 

Both the new film and nostalgic attendees who spoke from the stage as we waited for darkness honored Woodstock’s generous cooperative spirit in response to shortages of everything. A guy in a silver full-Arlo told of being dropped off without shoes or money and how strangers took care of him.

Woodstock validated egalitarian long-hair generosity, but did it last?

As Jon Pareles lamented in Monday’s NY Times, “Things would never be that loose again.” And Hua Hsu mused in the New Yorker, “Maybe it was just a glorious accident.”

Some who attended never left, geographically, or living that spirit. Others may condescend to them now as hairy relics. That utopian optimism arguably makes our world better; but the Woodstock generation overall hasn’t performed as well as our musicians: 

After the movie Friday. I saw David Crosby sing “Long Time Gone” beautifully on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Joan Baez just released an anti-racism song and Santana plays SPAC (again) Aug. 23. Sad digression: After the Neville Brothers opened triumphantly for Santana at SPAC around 1985, Art Neville told me they’d join in Santana’s set. “It’s gonna be serious!” It was: WAY better than Santana without the Nevilles. Now, two Nevilles have boarded the tourbus to the sky: Charles last year and Art last month.

Also sadly, when (my) Woodstock generation got to run things, we produced three faulty presidents. Instead of launching a ’Nam re-run, Bush should have listened to Hendrix. Those guys, and alarming polls showing boomers edging rightward politically into “I-got-mine/get-off-my-lawn” selfishness, suggest Woodstock was perhaps more moment than movement. 

The (symbolic?) recent collapse of Woodstock 50 underlined how fragile and unlikely the original was; also that its “organizers” couldn’t run a two-car picnic.

That said, the film “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation” and happy memories attendees recalled Friday evoked a moment that may have lasted longer than we might cynically fear.

Someone holds a door for you, jump-starts your stalled car, volunteers in a school or food pantry or hands a buck to a panhandler; that’s Woodstock. A crowd loses its mind at a show and jumps around; that’s Woodstock, too. In helping others and sharing joy in music, freak flags still fly.

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