Woodstock 40th-Taking Stock

Keys that jingle in your pocket
Words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly?
Was it something that I said?

Noel Harrison, Windmills of your mind.

It’s 40 years ago today that Woodstock began.

When you stood in school assembly with freshly scrubbed pimples and sang “40 Years On”  it did, indeed, in the words of the song, seem afar and asunder. But when you look back and forgetfully wonder it does seem only a short chronological hop, skip and a jump back to 1969.

Promoted as an Aquarian Exposition of music and art, Woodstock attracted half a million young and not so young of the hirsute and hippy persuasion, as well as many clean cut college kids, to its 32 acts, which included Ravi Shankar Arlo Guthrie Joan Baez  Santana  Grateful Dead Creedence Clearwater Revival  Janis Joplin  Sly & the Family Stone  The Who Jefferson Airplane  Joe Cocker Blood Sweat & Tears  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix  

Many are still performing, living on the premium Woodstock added to their musical stocks. Others are gratefully or otherwise deceased. A sad few are musical zombies.

In August 1969 the modern pilgrims set off for dairying rather than strawberry fields outside of Bethel, N.Y. They came bearing pot and potpourri not frankincense and myrrh. They also brought the gifts of peace and love, though three quarters of a year later there was more tangible evidence of the latter than the former.

The festival itself was remarkably peaceful. Despite the bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation there was a sense of social harmony. After the concert  dairy farmer Max Yasgur , who owned the site of the event and had faced down opposition to it, (“Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival”),  saw it as a victory of peace and love, with half a million people filled with the potential for disaster, riots and looting  until the cows came home, instead spending  the three days musically and peacefully: “..if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future…”.

In the United States Camelot was long dead and buried together with the assassinated John Kennedy but idealism persisted, even in the face of gritty domestic and foreign realities.

 Richard Nixon was now President after Lyndon Johnson opened the door to the Republicans by deciding the year before not to stand for a second term. (Just before he announced his decision the Press headline was “Johnson stops bombing”. In fact it was the Vietnam bombing and the reaction to it that stopped Johnson).

The idealism of Woodstock soon evaporated in the cynical 70s. The musical Hair stopped playing, Gillette and Remington sales shot up, so did the sales of business suits and military uniforms as America got the corporate/military machine back on the rocky road.  But the tunnel vision of the North Vietnamese proved clearer sighted than the helicopter vision of the Americans. The last American chopper was to leave Saigon in 1975 dangling instant refugees. 

In New Zealand in 1969  Keith Holyoake was still Prime Minister and Robert Muldoon had taken over as a young and aggressive Minister of Finance after Harry Lake’s demise.  The conservative cocoon was starting to split. Decimal currency had been introduced the year before, together with the liberalization of drinking hours to permit 10 p.m. closing.  But the first oil shock and Britain’s jilting of the old Commonwealth in favour of the Common Market were three years in the future. New Zealand still went where Britain went-except for Vietnam.

New Zealand had a token military presence in Vietnam and suffered casualties. The ruling rate of exchange for supporting the U.S. was roughly a thousand sides of hamburger prime beef allowed into the country for every Kiwi soldier in Vietnam.  The country also supplied the main ingredient for Agent Orange, the nasty defoliant used in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Anti-Vietnam protests were de rigueur.  New Zealand’s association with American military overkill  provided a fresh cause sandwiched between the rugby imbroglios of the early 60s and 80s.   Senior leaders of the Labour-led Government 1999-2008 earned their political spurs on the anti-Vietnam barricades.  Outside party politics Tim Shadbolt,  the old gray mayor 40 years on, was just a young stirrer of bullshit and jellybeans.

Back in the USA, if you were a young American civilian male (especially if you were black or a non college student), there was a very real prospect of being shipped off to Vietnam and shot up. Woodstock was an attractive, albeit temporary, oasis that was a definite step up from annual kids camps in the freedom department.

But the festival was not just a happening- Woodstock was designed as a profit-making venture by four young men who add advertised thus in the Wall Street Journal: “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” Rather than being counter cultural the organisers were inviting money from the bastion of capitalism itself.

As an early and unplanned example of free content, it became a “free concert” only after it became obvious that the event was drawing hundreds of thousands more people than the organizers had prepared for. In partial compensation the entrepreneurs  offered Warner Brothers a $100,000 deal to make a film about Woodstock on the basis that “it could have either sold millions or, if there were riots, be one of the best documentaries ever made,” according to organiser Artie Kornfield. The thousands who turned out in dank cow pastures, not dry cornfields, became unwitting extras (see excerpts below).

If many bands built their brands on Woodstock, others rued missed opportunities. Tommy James and the Shondells declined an invitation. Lead singer Tommy James stated later: “We could have just kicked ourselves. We were in Hawaii, and my secretary called and said, ‘Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field.’ That’s how it was put to me. So we passed, and we realized what we’d missed a couple of days later.”

Joni Mitchell was in the original line-up but cancelled to avoid missing a scheduled appearance on TV. (She made up for it by singing Woodstock at the 1969 Big Sur Festival and many times since. Popular but unreliable memory would probably aver that she was there in person.)

It is hard to imagine Woodstock without electric guitars. Les Paul, who died this week, was literally instrumental in developing the amplified solid guitar played stunningly by southpaw Jimmi Hendrix to wrap up the three days.

Woodstock is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in popular music history and was listed on Rolling Stone‘s 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. It also indelibly coloured the lives of millions, whether they were there in person or saw the movie and listened to the songs.

But rolling about stoned gathers no moss and Woodstock memories, real or ersatz, are elusive. As Paul Kantner famously said: “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”.

Either way, from this distance we can still watch the images unwind-and even have an occasional tilt at windmills.

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.


From the documentary Woodstock 1970 part 16/23

Bare facts  Woodstock 1970 part 17/23

Hendrix closes  Woodstock 1970 part 21/23 

Joni Mitchell – Woodstock (Big Sur, CA 1969)

A great Second Life cover, stunning visuals Machinima – WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND

Lyrics-Windmills of your mind  http://www.flickr.com/photos/ktlindsay/878061073/

Lyall Lukey 15 August 2009   http://www.lukey.co.nz/


7 Responses to Woodstock 40th-Taking Stock

  1. Gord says:

    Hi Lyall,
    “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Glad you weren’t there because you have given me a better perspective on Woodstock than I have seen anywhere!


  2. Craig Hubbard says:

    Hello Lyall

    Nice website! I remember well 1969 for Betty and I had married in June and here we are 40 years later. We resided in Oakland just a short distance from the hippiedom of Berkley’s Telegraph Ave. Alas, just 6 years into my 20 year career in the US Navy, I never got to be a hippie.

    All the Best

  3. Craig Hubbard says:

    I misposted a note to the Nancy Wake blog.

    It should have been here.


  4. lyall1 says:

    [Reposted from The Marshall Democrat News, who ran my Woodstock post]

    Hey Lukey
    Good article about Woodstock.

    One thing jumped off the page at me, however.

    This was your assertion that the legendary Les Paul may have had something to do with designing the Fender Stratocaster – which is what Hendrix so famously played at the concert – wowing the crowd with his own version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

    As a musician, I have played both the Gibson Les Paul (Recording Model is my favorite) and the Fender Stat. Had no idea Les Paul designed the Strat.

    I’ll agree with you that Paul does, however, deserve honors for his contributions to guitar playing and design.

    Thanks for the article.


    — Posted by circuitrider on Mon, Aug 17, 2009, at 10:54 AM

  5. Tejinder Hansra says:

    Hi Lyall

    Good to hear from you, mate. You brought back some memories from 40 years – not long ago – seems only the day before. Your blog is as interesting as the man holding the pen … oops …. fingering the keyboard :). I have saved the link in my browser favourites and will be keeping myself updated. Here is my take on 1969 :))

    1969 …. hmmm
    The year before I had finished senior high school. Bleary eyed with dreams and strong views on just about everything – the world was just black and
    white with no shades of grey. Man had landed on the moon inspired by JFK’s vision and challenge, Woodstock came on scene (did nt much hear
    about them in backyards of India till Ravi Shankar created fusion masala with George Harrison and Co).
    India was still a young free nation and memories of the largest human displacements in the history of modern humankind were still painful. In the name of religion, brothers slaughtered brothers, neighbours
    slaughtered neighbours, employees slaughtered bosses, mothers slaughtered kids. Rivers of water from the Himalayas turned red with no distinnction between hindu blood, muslim blood, sikh blood. History had not stopped repeating itself – Man had not learnt anything.

    1969 …. hmmm
    Led Zeppelin released their first album. The Who released the first rock opera – Tommy. Golda Meir of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, became Prime Minister of Israel. did I say “of usa” !!! Internet was born
    with the release of software (RFC 1) that would host and connect the networks. Katherine Hepburn became the only actress to win the Oscar three times over, that too in the best acress category – encore, encore

    1969 … hmmm
    Remember Charles Manson and Sharon Tate headlines in the newspapers? One Colonel Moammar Qaddafi came to power in Libya. Abbey Road was released by the Beatles. Concorde breaks the sound barrier for the
    first time. I took part in ‘Stop the Vietnam War’ at the university. Flares and bell-bottoms and long hair were the ‘cool’ style – ha ha – I already had long hair 🙂

    1969 …. hmmm
    Rolling Stones released – Let It Bleed. Remember Rob Muldoon, became Finance Minister for Keith Holyoake, the Prime Minister. Nationals scraped through with just 1% margin of victory. Voting age was lowered from 21 to 20. Ron Guthrey was the Mayor of Christchurch. TVNZ showed the moon landing by playing a video tape that was flown in from Sydney. It was
    “high security flight mission” undertaken by RNZAF!!
    Shane Thomson, Michael Campbell, Simon Doull, Rachel Hunter, Chris Harris arrived in Aotearoa one after the other. New Zealand Trotting Cup won by Spry.

    1969 …. hmmm
    India tests its first nuclear weapon – not in India but in USSR. Indira Gandhi splits her grand father’s political party to continue the dynastic hold. Vishwanathan Anand, current world chess champion was born.

    1969 … hmmm
    i turned 17.

    Ffwd 2009 … hmmm
    40 years on – three different countries, many different cultures, the world is no more black and white and the shades of grey are now all hues of the rainbow. Experienced? Yes. Wiser? The jury is still out. Fun? Definitely, Absolutely, Positively .. YES.


  6. TSS says:

    Hey I was just passing through Berkley,taking the kids for a historic tour of thee coolest place on earth.A group of students were crossing the street and when they got a across I heard one of them shout…”hey hippie turn your headlights off.” So hilarious.Berkley is enriched with a new generation of “green” and like minded individuals with the opportunity to turn Americas fate around. I will always be able to say..hey, I went to Berkely. And I did….the ice cream is pretty good.

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