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
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/