K.V. Turley writes from London.
Fifty years ago Woodstock ended.
The rock festival held at a farm near Bethel, New York, had started Aug. 15, 1969. It ground to a halt four days later. It had been successful in attracting large numbers of young people to what was billed as three days of “peace and music.” (In fact, it ran over by a day.) The organizers had reckoned that at most 150,000 people would show up. In the end, the number of those attending what would become known as “Woodstock” was closer to 450,000.
The festival was a financial disaster — initially at least. So many people had turned up that chaos ensued. Even attempts at ordering ticket sales collapsed. Eventually, the organizers were forced to announce that the festival was “free.” What subsequently did make money was the documentary film of the festival. “Woodstock” was a box office hit, as well as winning the 1970 Best Oscar for a Documentary Feature. In due course, the film created a legend.
On screen, all the disorder and madness of this shambolic festival was transmuted into what it had been billed to be: a countercultural celebration. In the past five decades most people who have heard of Woodstock were nowhere near when it took place. Instead, their impressions of it are based on the official cinematic version. That presentation of Woodstock is a wholly biased one. It promoted attendance at the festival as a kind of countercultural pilgrimage to worship at the newly minted god of “peace and love” to be found at Bethel.
One who was there was Roger Daltrey of the English band, The Who. “Woodstock wasn’t peace and love,” he told the New York Times recently. “There was an awful lot of shouting and screaming going on. By the time it all ended, the worst sides of our nature had come out. People were screaming at the promoters; people were screaming to get paid. We had to get paid, or we couldn’t get back home.”
Woodstock is often talked about in the same breath as the equally mythic “Summer of Love” that allegedly took place in the summer 1967 in such cities as San Francisco and London. Retrospective secular hagiography sees this summer as the start of the modern permissive era. The modern media therefore views it as something worth celebrating. Woodstock has become part of this narrative about the 1960s.
Of course, such a narrative in no way equates with what was actually taking place in America and abroad. This invented narrative therefore sees no connection between the summer of 1967, Woodstock and the Grand Guignol being performed for America on its streets and watched on its nightly news.
It could be argued that 1967 marks the beginning of a decade rich in disaster for the United States. There were riots at home, a war abroad. There was the memory of one president who had been murdered, while soon another president perished as a result of his own folly. Corruption reigned; public morals collapsed; assassination became ever more commonplace, pornography legal, abortion a right. During those years, Hollywood abandoned all restraint in exchange for the license to portray the violence and moral decay on screen that was occurring on the nation’s streets around the then-emptying movie theatres.
The chaos — both logistic and moral — of Woodstock is, in the normal narrative, not linked to any of this. Shortly after the event, Time magazine saw the rock festival as a new beginning that could change America. On Sept. 15, 1969, Life magazine put the “peace and love” mud bath — it rained heavily during Woodstock — on its front cover. The Life article on the rock festival followed on from one about the gruesome Manson murders that took place a week before the “love and peace” experienced in upstate New York.
Perhaps a starker example of what influences were at work in America’s counterculture occurred some months later in California. The Altamont rock festival had been organized and billed as the “West Coast Woodstock.” Headlining the event were the Rolling Stones, with the local chapter of the Hells Angels in charge of “security.”
As the Stones mounted the stage, it was possible to see that Mick Jagger had emblazoned on his shirt the Greek letter Omega. It is a letter that signifies “the end.” Sitting to the side of the stage that night was Timothy Leary, the self-proclaimed guru of the decade, present to “bless” proceedings and to witness the final “tuning in.” That night was to prove an end point of sorts.
On Dec. 8,1967, having recorded it over the Summer of Love, the Rolling Stones released an album called Their Satanic Majesties Request. A year later the band’s first number on the Altamont stage was Sympathy for the Devil. The song presents a curious dance through history with the identity of the narrator finally revealed at the end of the song. We are to call him by his name: Lucifer. As this name was uttered into the Californian night, a disturbance broke out immediately in front of the stage. At first, the band ignored it. It persisted. The Stones stop playing and Jagger said: “We’re always having—something very funny happens when we start that number.”
After that, the crowd never settled; even the band was unnerved. The next song began but then the music abruptly stopped. For at this moment the Rolling Stones witnessed the ending of a life as some of the Hells Angels beat a young man to death.
What became known as the countercultural movement was at the vanguard of the sexual revolution. The Summer of Love, Woodstock, and Altamont are but the means by which aspects of that revolution continue to be glamorised, even if it was, and continues to be, a revolution as deadly as any war and, with the hindsight of half a century, with just as many causalities.
Is it mere coincidence that the countercultural festival Woodstock started on the feast of the Assumption? Or that Altamont was held around the feast of the Immaculate Conception? Or the original hippy anthem of the summer of 1967 and beyond San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) was released May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima?
There are many such temporal “coincidences” regarding that pivotal decade pointing to the real forces at work, a decade that culturally, socially and then politically gave birth and then crowned so many facets of the culture of death with which we, sadly, still live today.
It came as no surprise to learn that this year there was suggested a hippy pilgrimage back to Woodstock to mark the 50th anniversary. It came as no surprise also to learn that such a pilgrimage collapsed in a sea of bitter dispute and lawsuits.
The real problem for those who wish to make a return pilgrimage to Woodstock is that it never existed. It was a muddy field with almost half-a-million young people, many of whom were on drugs listening to rock music through a bad public address system with a shortage of food and toilets. It wasn’t even held at Woodstock if truth be known, but nearby at Bethel. Yet, like so much of the 1960s mythos, the legend that has been printed about the festival since the event is wholly misleading. The recent attempt to “return” to Woodstock is just as manufactured, and bogus, as the original event was in 1969.
The Christian has no abiding city here. Instead, we are pilgrims journeying to our true home, an eternal kingdom with the King of Kings at its head. In contrast, Woodstock, what it represented both then and now, was, and still is, as counterfeit as the kingdom from which all such falsehoods emanate.