Ten years ago, I wrote a column for the Tab marking the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. A documentary of the three-day event had just come out, and a fictional rendition, directed by Ang Lee, was playing in movie theatres. I wrote, “Millions of fifty and sixty-somethings claim to have attended though only five hundred thousand were actually there. After all these years, the debate rages: what did Woodstock really add up to?”
I felt emboldened to speak because, unlike many others, I was there. Now, ten years later, I am still amazed at the power that the memory of Woodstock still holds, and not just for aging boomers getting long in the tooth. Not that it made such an impression on me at the time. I admitted in 2009 that I could not remember even the names of the five or six companions with whom I had made the pilgrimage to the festival. Nineteen years old then, I was both idealistic and confused, strong in my belief in the myths of peace and love but lacking any idea of what to do with my life.
My two-day experience at Woodstock (soaking and shivering, we bailed Saturday evening) did have some memorable ups and downs. At the outset, my idealism took a serious hit when a fellow shaggy-haired “brother” sold us reduced tickets before we had reached the entry gate. Less than a minute later, we learned that the crowds had smashed through, making entry free of charge. Ripped off! So much for peace and love, I thought.
Fortunately, Richie Havens and other performers bathed us in heavenly music, and though I couldn’t see the performers from so far away, I lay in bliss on my blanket soaking it all in. Even better, I survived a very foolish decision to wander, unannounced to my comrades, down to the stage the next day to observe the music close up. Once there, surrounded by masses of people, I didn’t know how to get back. Happily, by relying on the kindness of strangers, make it back I did…and my friends hadn’t even noticed that I was gone.
When we departed Woodstock, we were wet, hungry, and grumpy. Having attended a few other rock festivals that summer, I had little sense that I had just participated in something transcendent. Woodstock had not yet become “Woodstock.”
Still, the spirit of the times, embodied by the myth of Woodstock, lives on in me and others my age. Many of us are advocates of the preservation of green space in Newton; we support the city’s increasing use of solar power; we want the Garden City to be a place of peace and love which, in these stressful times, means that it welcome those from foreign lands with open arms.
Tomorrow I turn sixty-nine. At age 19, I was fretting about whether I would be selected in the approaching draft to serve in Viet Nam. These days I sometimes wake up at night worrying that an unstable and arrogant fool of a national leader will make some impulsive decision that will endanger the entire planet. Culturally, much has changed since Woodstock, including the proliferation of computers, the empowerment of women, and gains in civil rights. Unlike 1969, however, hardly anyone believes that rock and roll is “the music that will set you free.” Popular culture is…well, it is what it is, and I can’t imagine ever again participating in anything akin to Woodstock, even if I were still nineteen.