Friday, March 11, 2011

Woodstock: Three days of peace, music and mud.

Of all the times and places in the past when I would have liked to be young and part of the scene, San Francisco in die period 1965 to about 1969 is on top of the list. Perhaps the reality was not as glorious as the myth makers have suggested but after reading Ralph Gleason's "The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound" and Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" and other description of what was happening in the Bay area in those four years and seeing bits and pieces of footage of the tribes and their activities, it seems to me that it would have been absolute bliss to have been young and alive and living in the Haight at the height of the hippie and acid rock phenomenon. I guess one would also have to have been there before the scene exploded, became the haven of weekend hippies and commercial exploitation and was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Jefferson Airplane is still one of my top ten favourite bands of all time, particularly during the first 5 years of their existence, and I am also quite fond of the early Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and other similar bands. One should also mention that Creedence Clearwater Revival, who hailed from Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, also came up at the same time and if their swamp rock was the antithesis of the rambling acid inflected R 8 B of the Dead or Quicksilver, they were nonetheless a flower power era band who was not afraid to record lengthy, trippy version of songs like "Suzie Q" that would have fitted right in with the basic free form jam concept of so many of the acid test bands.

Anyhow, the conventional wisdom seems to be that where Monterey Pop (1967) announced the mainstream arrival and acceptance of some of the cream of the new San Francisco bands, such as Jefferson Airplane, the more pop oriented bands from Los Angeles and the forces of nature that were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969) was at once the apogee and last gasp of hippie idealism. Woodstock was followed by Altamont, which has become a byword for bad organisation, bad vibes and a generally bad idea. There were other rock festivals before and after Woodstock that were obviously little better than the commercial exploitation of the idea of putting on a bunch of bands for kids who are prepared to pay a bunch of money to see their favourite acts, but none of them have ever achieved the legendary status of Woodstock or even Monterey Pop.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the elevation of these two events is that a movie was made of each that have in their own right become culturally valuable and important.

I've seen the Monterey Pop movie only once but I have seen Woodstock a number of times now.

The first time was probably at the Labia Theatre, way back in die mid-Eighties, when the Labia was still very much an art house theatre that made a point of showing off beat, sometimes obscure, always interesting movies, amongst them some of the best rock movies. The celluloid copy of Woodstock was palpably quite old and worn out. Not only did the movie jump here and there and show visible signs of the deterioration of the film stock but it was somewhat truncated, in particular the opening sequence was a lot different to the later, better copy I some a few years down line. The movie still started with "Going Up The Country" but the accompanying visuals were different at that first showing.

In the early Nineties I saw the complete version, also in much better condition, of the original theatre release of the movie. In about 2004 I bought the Director's Cut version of Woodstock on DVD and a few days ago I bought the 40th anniversary edition in a 4 DVD pack, with the Director's Cut version of the movie spread over 2 discs and 2 DVD's of bonus material, one with performances that were never included in the movie and the other a documentary about the making of the movie.

The first version of the movie I saw was pretty exciting stuff for me because, with the jumps, blurry effects and deteriorations on the film stock, it seemed very much like archive footage from a long forgotten, dim and distant era. I was 10 years old when Woodstock happened but at the time I knew nothing about it all and even a few years after the event it seemed ancient en impossibly mythical. To have the opportunity of sharing, at second hand, with the crowd who attended, was special and to be treasured. Now, of course, I own the DVDs and can watch the movie over and over again, or just select particular performances and, if the event is still rather special, it is no longer as completely magical as it was when I first entered the world of Woodstock.

For a long time I had a very specific set of vivid recollections of bits and pieces of the movie, some of which turned out to be erroneous. There is the opening performances by Richie Havens and his tapping, sandal-and-sock clad foot; there is Joan Baez singing "Amazing Grace" (actually "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"); Ten Years After's boogie with the swaying bass player and Alvin Lee's fleet-fingered riffs and the watermelon someone throws onto the stage; Sha Na Na doing "At the Hop" in gold lamé; The Who doing "See Me, Feel Me"; Joe Cocker's spastic jerks in "With A Little help From My Friends"; Jimi Hendrix playing "Star Spangled Banner" on a white Stratocaster to what looks like an almost empty, muddy, garbage strewn field. The non-musical highlights were: the guy who cleans the mobile toilets; Max Yasgur's speech; the admonition to be careful of the brown acid that is not poison but not specifically good either; Wavy Gravy wandering around announcing breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand; the lesson in Kundalini yoga.

The Director's Cut version of the movie adds a bunch of extra musical performances, most noticeably from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and more Jimi Hendrix in an extended final segment. I guess there must also be other added or expanded scenes but I would have to watch the original version side by side with the expanded version to tell the difference.

The main difference I recall is in the opening sequence of the first version I saw, with "Going Up The Country" playing on the soundtrack over footage of the construction of the stage. I did, and still do, found it amazing that the carpenters and other craftsmen on the stage were these young, muscular longhairs. For some reason I just never identified hippies with an activity so "manly" as carpentry, or any type of manual labour, for that matter.

In the Director's Cut Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Long Time Coming" plays over pastoral scenes of the farmland in the area where the festival would be held, setting the geographical and demographical scene before getting to the intrusion of the hippie carpenters building a huge, forbidding looking wooden stage amidst the rolling pastures.

After that we have the amazing mix of musical performances from some of the top artists of the time and pure documentary footage of other happenings and goings-on on the fringes of the festival. If Woodstock were a city it is only right that music was not the only activity of performers or that many people would have had small pockets of life on their own amidst the crowd to which the music was a background soundtrack and always the main event. One of the main truths of the festival is that so many people co-existed so peacefully for a whole weekend with all the trials and tribulations of an event in a muddy field far from basic amenities. Perhaps most festival goers were too stoned to be aggressive.

This general peacefulness is all the more remarkable to me considering that the vast majority of festival attendees did not pay to be there. Early in the movie there are scenes of people first climbing over and then simply trampling down fences to get onto the festival site. The security arrangements had not been very good, it seems (they had expected only about 50 000 people, after all), and the organisers did not get heavy about keeping the non-paying hopefuls out. The organisers simply gave up when they realised the scale of the breach and took a policy decision to carry on regardless and to make the festival free, very much in line with a general hippie belief that all good things in life should be free. This wonderful gesture by the organisers, who basically made a virtue out of a necessity, meant that that the enterprise ran at a serious loss. If everyone of the half a million strong crowd had paid to be at the festival, the thing would have been profitable. Somehow it suits the myth far better that Woodstock was a free festival than a hugely profitable one. The long term gains, both in reputation and financial reward, were eventually are more rewarding than short term success.

One should also bear in mind that a large number of people at the site were not there as paying audience anyway. There must have been an army of technicians and other support staff, vendors, security, hangers on, roadies for the bands, special guests, all of whom contributed to the demographic and who not only would not have paid for entry to the festival but in many instances were paid to be there.

The acts featured in the movie are a good cross section of the musical landscape of the time but Jimi Hendrix was probably the only true superstar there. Neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones played at Woodstock, but then, the music presented there was more or less representative of the psychedelic and hard rock wave that formed the core of what one could call the Rolling Stone (the magazine) generation of the late Sixties when rock music suddenly became serious and deep. Even so, there must have been all kinds of politics going on behind the scenes when it came to selecting which bands to put in the movie, either because of the cost of getting releases from band management or because the bands were not that great. According to Michael Wadleigh his crew filmed songs with meaningful lyrics rather than the hits and rather than, I guess, stellar musical performances.

This is most evident in the DVD of previously unreleased performances from Joan Baez, The Who, Santana, Mountain, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Country Joe, with and without the Fish, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Mountain, Johnny Winter, Creedence and Paul Butterfield never made it into the movie, not even the Director's Cut of it.

This is the root of my gripe about this 40th anniversary set: I already own the Director's Cut on a single DVD so why is it necessary to spread it over 2 discs? Why is the never before seen footage of such little real interest or import and, well, pretty crap. Apart from Mountain's 2 dire tunes, there is a ill-focussed and enervating take of "Love Light", a perennial Dead set closer and a less than riveting Paul Butterfield song that just does not seem to come to an end. His jazz cats probably enjoyed tooting their horns ad infinitum and I guess the sax player is pretty hot, but jeez, what a load of useless musical craftsmanship! I looked forward to seeing the young Johnny Winter live and his performance is energetic and fascinating for a few minutes until he starts the interminable guitar noodling so beloved of guitars lingers of the era. I am very fond of Winter's blues stuff and I wished he could have stuck to the economical and to the point style of his late Seventies recordings for Blue Sky records, with the Muddy Waters band in support.

Mountain's two songs are just dire, uninspiring and in no way an advertisement for the band, unlike, say, Ten Years After or The Who's quite intense performances from the movie. I can quite understand why Mountain's tunes were not in the movie; I do not understand why they are part of the bonus features.

Credence's three songs make them come across as very much a swamp boogie type band, not as 3 minute pop single practitioners, and suggest to me that the band must have been a great band to go and watch in the San Francisco dance halls where the psychedelic bands such as the Airplane and the Dead played for huge dances. Creedence could stretch out a danceable rock groove with the best of them.


The couple of extra Jefferson Airplane tunes are great though they seem to be of a pieced with the performances in the Director's Cut. The Airplane is just great.


One of the very interesting aspects of the festival is that its huge audience was spread out on a hillside, for the most part quite far from the stage, and that this happened in the days before giant video screens on either side of the stage designed to give audience members in even the remotest corners some kind of close-up view of what was happening on stage. The people in front of the stage would have had a pretty good view, but overall the most intimate view one could hope to have is through watching the movie. Michael Wadleigh and his producer wax lyrical about the direct, in your face access to the performers their wide angel lenses could give and ultimately this is why the movie works so well If you were in the audience you are obviously part of the myth and may have a great story to tell about your personal experiences at Woodstock but for me, who does not like camping or mud and would most probably not have spent 3 or four days on the site, the movie is a far superior way of getting to grips with some aspects of the event, such as the music and the activities on the periphery, which I would not have been part of even if I had been at Woodstock.

It is trite that the mythologising of events like Woodstock happens over time and that the myth keeps growing as the years go by and the original organisers and participants get older and grow ever more nostalgic and there is a greater appreciation for the money still to be made from the myth. There has been at least one memorial festival, probably 20 years after the original, with as many as possible, or willing, of the bands and individual musicians who were at Woodstock in 1969. There have even been 2 or perhaps more "Woodstock" festivals that traded on the name, or brand, but with contemporary acts trying to rekindle, I guess, the Woodstock spirit though the spirit of money was the more likely driving force. This is probably also the main reason behind the 40th anniversary re-issue of the movie. The documentary, though interesting, is more about the making of the movie than about the festival itself, and the extra footage is somewhat redundant too. It would have been much more worthwhile if the movie had been accompanied by a proper documentary of the festival with more of the musicians and other role players and perhaps attendees to give us a broader perspective.

Would I have attended Woodstock if I were about 20-years old in 1969 and had the opportunity? Perhaps not. I do not like camping and would certainly not have been keen on doing it for 3 days, irrespective of the bands on offer. Going to festivals for a grand musical experience is also a bit like going to the Sahara for the flowers. The sound is never all that good, there are too many distractions and there is generally an interminable waiting period between acts that dissipates any of the energy that a particular performer might have built up.

The best way to experience a mythological event is after the fact, seeing the sights and hearing the music and comments in the comfort of one's own home, on a big television screen and with surround sound. I now know enough of what happened at Woodstock, Glastonbury of the Sunbury festival in Australia to inform me of popular culture of the times in which the events occurred and to satisfy my curiosity over what it might have been like to be there. I do not need more and I certainly do not need to be able to say I was at any such a legendary event.