Please understand that I was only eight years old when this most celebrated of American concerts took place in rural New York state. That is why I barely remember it, not because I was there, dropping acid....Can art be the answer to civil unrest? That is one question worth thinking about today on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.
I sometimes lament that I was not "of age" back in the days of the Vietnam War protests, the beginnings of the environmental movement, and other great shifts in our society. Yes, I recognize that Woodstock is either highly romanticized, or vilified for the grossly unsanitary conditions and rampant drug use, pubic sex, etc. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and without interviewing every single spectator and participant it is unlikely we will ever get the full, accurate picture.
In the absence of social media, Woodstock represents a truly profound event, one born out of alternative print and radio media, word-of-mouth, and a longing for validation of one's anti-establishment sentiments. The commitment to attending must have been staggering in view of social and logistical obstacles. It may be the shining pinnacle of rock-and-roll music, too, validating the genre as a tool for culture change, encouraging collaborations, and energizing youth. To say that the concert set the stage for a generational metamorphosis might be an understatement....or an overstatement.
I imagine that upon arrival in that farm field, many were overwhelmed to find so many others, from far-flung points of origin, sharing their anxiety over the war, pollution, and other pressing problems. It took mobilization to get people there, and the event itself was an engine that catalyzed further action. It was both an opportunity to relax, take a breath, celebrate life, and also comprehend the magnitude of the issues before our country.
It had to be a comfort and relief to be surrounded by those of like mind, with a unity of purpose. Where are those opportunities today? The answer in this digital age is that they are mostly virtual. Those who attend marches and other public demonstrations and protests are proxies for a vastly larger village. Not everyone can afford an airline ticket (or even a bus ticket) to Washington, DC to participate in person. Some, perhaps many, fear that they would be met with hostile opposition from those who violently endorse continued racism, the proliferation of personal weapons of mass destruction, and other issues that continue to erode the fabric of our society.
Would it help to have a new version of Woodstock (not a lame reunion event) today? Is art the answer to our divide? Few performers, I wager, would take the risk that those musicians of the late 1960s did. Record producers were "the establishment," and in many ways still are. They answer to wealthy investors like any other corporation, and you rock that boat at the risk of being blacklisted. Furthermore, there are few high profile voices today that carry enough impact. Pink and Lady Gaga carry the torch for the disenfranchised, but at a deeply personal level, the level of intimate relationships be they familial or otherwise. They express lyrically an intolerance for abusive relationships, not the abuse of entire races, immigrants, and other categories of humanity. Where are the likes of Joni Mitchell?
The view from here, behind my computer monitor and keyboard, is one of utter frustration. Our inertia has us isolated physically, connected virtually, and strung out in terms of the issues that captivate us. It is an overwhelming prospect to muster the energy to break out of normal routines, to risk shaming, insults, loss of friendships, and exile in pursuit of what we know is right and just. The thing is, we don't consider the prospect of what the audience at Woodstock must have embraced: a new community, shared experiences, renewed energy, and personal validation. Peace out.