sábado, 1 de agosto de 2009

Three Days of Peace and Music: Woodstock

 Published in August issue of Panorama of the Americas:

This month is the fortieth anniversary of the mythical Woodstock concert, which has been preserved in the collective consciousness as the climax of the hippie movement. Hippies, with the slogan “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” made up the most important counterculture movement in the United States; they spread to communities around the world and influenced current Western culture to an extent that is still the subject of social science studies.

1969 was the era of the Vietnam War and of the first human to walk on the moon.   Hippies became an alternative for dissatisfied young people. They sought happiness now rather than later through free love, drugs, music, leisure and the return to a more natural life full of love and peace. It was a generational revolution that sought a life different from that of their parents, which was considered dull and boring with its eight-hour work days, televised entertainment and consumption as the elixir of happiness.
Open-air festivals had always been tied to very local traditions and celebrations were often connected with farming and ranching; folk music accompanied these festivals. With the arrival of rock and roll in the 60s, the first mass concert were held.
Michael Lang, one of the organizers of Woodstock, had put together the successful Miami Pop Festival in 1968, with an audience of approximately forty thousand people. Along with his friend Artie Kornfeld, he conceived the idea of organizing a huge concert in the Woodstock area, some 93 miles from Manhattan, which at the time had been home to figures such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, among others. The friends were looking for financing, and they came across the two young backers who were looking for investment projects: John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. In March of 1969, the four (who were between twenty-three and twenty-six) formed Woodstock Ventures Inc., which would produce the concert.
They wanted to have the most popular performers, some folk and a lot of rock. No one knew who these men were, but they had money and signed contracts for never-before seen sums. Woodstock brought together performers of the caliber of Joan Baez, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix, to name just a few. The first place selected for the concert was land rented in the county of Wallkill, around 62 miles from New York City.
Advertising appeared in April. Problems with the authorities and residents of Wallkill began shortly after. The town definitely did not want “three days of peace and music” with fifty thousand disheveled and drug-addled hippies roaming around. The conflict grew more impassioned until, after an all-out war between Wallkill County and Woodstock Ventures, the permit for the festival was refused on July 15th.
The rejection was a publicity boost for the concert and in the end, it turned out to be good for the organizers. Lang later stated that the climate created in Wallkill would have ruined everything. “I did not want police with gas masks and that was what was in the offing,” he said. Another member of Woodstock Ventures related that they had received threats to the effect that the first hippie to set foot in town would be shot.
The concert was a month away and Ventures still lacked a place to hold it. A few days later, they rented a dairy farm on the outskirts of Bethel, which Lang loved. The land had the right slope for the stage and there was a lake in the background; they had finally found a place to hold the concert. Just as in Wallkill, many residents of Bethel opposed the event, but time was growing short and some businesspeople saw the opportunity to make good money. Those opposed to the concert were not able to back out of what would become a milestone for the hippie movement and rock and roll.
Woodstock Ventures moved to the Bethel farm and work began immediately. There was no time to lose; preparing for an event like the upcoming one was not an easy task. Building the stage, installing sound equipment and public phones, setting up a clinic, fencing the area, turning the spot into an amphitheater, renting portable toilets, setting up food and drink stalls, organizing a camping area and providing community kitchens and play equipment for children were some of the tasks that fell to production company employees.
They hired The Hog Farmers, an experimental community of disciplined hippies, to oversee organization and safety and watch over the young people. It is striking that in the documentary Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, the leader of The Hog Farmers first warns the young people that a bad batch of brown acid was going around, and then later tells them: “If you want to trip, take just half a tablet.” In addition to this “ hippie police,” there were only a few officers on horseback and some private security officers hired by the company and specially trained for the occasion.
The Woodstock concert was for Friday the 15th to Sunday the 17th of August (it actually ended on Monday the 18th). It is estimated that by Thursday the 14th there were already at least twenty five thousand people at the Bethel farm. Advance ticket sales had reached 180,000 tickets. The ticket booths could not be set up, since cars people and tents blocked the roads. Miles of parked cars invaded not only the side roads, but highways and nearby fields as well; the transportation system collapsed. On Friday morning, the organizers discovered it would be impossible to sell tickets at the entrance and the concert would lose money.
Woodstock Ventures managers had calculated some fifty thousand attendees, but some sources talk about a million people. More reasonable estimates put the number at around three hundred thousand, which is still six times more. Performers were unable to arrive, as were more than one hundred thousand young people stuck in traffic on the highways. At the last minute, helicopters had to be rented to ferry the performers and the program had to be changed to feature bands in the order in which they arrived.
The mistaken estimates forced improvised solutions. There was not enough food or water. To top things off, that weekend the climate alternated between heavy rains and blazing sun. The performances were so backed up that Jimi Hendrix, who should have closed the Sunday night show, began singing at nine on Monday morning. The event completely overwhelmed the organizers.
The Woodstock concert was definitely a financial disaster for the organizers. There was also one confirmed death; a boy sleeping on a mound of trash was crushed by a tractor moving the trash. There were also rumors of two deaths from overdoses. Nevertheless, forty years later, we cannot help but marvel that “three days of peace and music” actually turned out to be three days of peace and music. Despite the deficiencies and the improvisation, the back-to-nature and harmony with Nature spirit of the hippie movement turned Woodstock into a truly unforgettable celebration for those who were there.
And that’s no small thing.