Hippie dippy

Can we please stop mythologizing Woodstock?

Can we please stop mythologizing Woodstock?

A naked woman stands up in the crowd during the 1969 Woodstock festival in Bethel, N.Y. ((Archive Photos/Getty Images))

This weekend, we can expect round-the-clock coverage of Woodstock’s 40th anniversary — or as I like to call it, the 10th anniversary of its 30th anniversary. (Maybe you prefer the 20th anniversary of the 20th anniversary.)

Year after year, boomers are compelled to celebrate Woodstock as an earth-shaking episode on the level of the Second World War.

Cue the superannuated hippies! Roll the archival tape of wasted, hairy people sliding through the mud! Someone please call one of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead! We’re in the dog days of August and this is a feel-good story news channels can use to kill significant time. Weren’t those flower children cute? And so idealistic!

The boomers are always happy to open their scrapbooks and share those misty, water-coloured memories. Let’s face it: no generation has enjoyed the same kind of cultural hegemony. Year after year, they’re compelled to celebrate Woodstock — without much media resistance — as an earth-shaking episode on the level of the Second World War.

Yes, the scale of the event was unprecedented. Almost half a million kids made their way to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y., drawn by the lure of free love, cheap weed and, er, relatively inexpensive tickets ($18 US in advance for a three-day pass, $24 at the gate). Most of hippiedom’s pied pipers were there, including Janis Joplin, The Band, Sly Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The long weekend resulted in two births, two deaths, four miscarriages, innumerable drug freakouts and a truly legendary traffic jam. Logistically speaking, Woodstock made the Beatles at Shea Stadium look like a Jane Austen tea party.

Some of the performances have stood up well, especially Jimi Hendrix’s magical rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner and The Who’s scorching set, which drew heavily on the recently released Tommy. The mythologizing of the festival started almost immediately, when Joni Mitchell sang about getting "back to the garden" in her 1970 song Woodstock. Clearly, she saw the event in almost Biblical terms, as a return to the innocence of Eden. When I watch the old footage, I’m immune to its alleged deeper meaning — I just see stoned, middle-class, primarily white kids trying to indulge their senses, and not always having fun doing so.

Musician Jimi Hendrix performed a scorching set at Woodstock. ((Warner Music Canada/Associated Press))

What rankles me about the Woodstock nostalgia is the generational smugness, an almost pathological narcissism that comes out whenever the festival is discussed. Here’s a news flash for ex-hippies: the ’60s weren’t the only time when people protested war, flirted with anti-materialistic philosophies, listened to rock music or worked hard to save the environment.

And yet those "3 days of peace and music" will never go away. Each anniversary spawns some sort of tribute concert — the 1999 edition, in which Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit basically incited the crowd to riot, was especially misguided. This year, you can indulge your inner rebel by purchasing a six-CD box set called 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm, or a 40th anniversary edition of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock doc, which comes with an iron-on patch and a reproduction of an original ticket. It’s just like you’re there — except, of course, you’re holding a useless piece of cardboard, and instead of tripping out with a gazillion other truth-seekers in the middle of nature, you’re watching the spectacle unfold on your home theatre with the AC cranked.

If you wipe away the sentimentality, you could argue that the real legacy of Woodstock — and that of its precursor, 1967’s Monterey Pop — is the commercialization of outdoor mega-rock festivals. Woodstock itself was a financial disaster, but other promoters were obviously watching, trying to figure out how to turn a profit from such a massive gathering. 

Back in early 1979, I bought a humorous poster that I proudly displayed on my wall. It was an illustrator’s satirical vision of what Woodstock’s 10th anniversary would look like. It featured countless thousands of yuppies — the original participants — gathered again on Yasgur’s farm. But instead of their tattered t-shirts and Birkenstocks, they’re wearing designer suits, sipping cocktails and making small talk, embracing the Me Decade without hesitation. For me, that image still says more about the Woodstock myth than anything I’m likely to hear this weekend.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.