Woodstock Remembered

December 9, 2009

(Michael Lang at Woodstock)

In a recent article on this website, I pondered the differences between the generation that produced Woodstock and our current young generation – the generation that can only claim the likes of Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Internet addiction. I asked the following series of questions, that may or may not have an answer: “What do [Bonnaroo and Coachella] lack that make them so inferior to the original rock and roll music fest? Hundreds of thousands of young people still peacefully congregate to hear live music and do a lot of drugs, but with almost no historic notice. Will we ever have another event like Woodstock again, one that crystallizes an entire generation, or is everything far too advertised and commodified to see the likes of that again? Is this our fault, or is it merely a product of the times? While our parents were war-conscious and peace-loving, do we merely buy into capitalist culture, spending $200 on concert tickets just to say we were there? And what was so great about Woodstock, after all? Are today’s music festivals that different?”

Rather than let these tough questions hang in the air, BTR went straight to the source. After chatting with a few actual attendees of Woodstock (and speaking from experience as far as today’s generation is concerned [forgive me for attempting to represent all young people’s views; as we’ll get to in a few minutes, that’s hardly even possibly anymore]), we here at BTR decided that we needed to go straight to the source. Original Woodstock producer, Michael Lang, was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time.

Lang was humble and thankful when asked about his participation in Woodstock. When pressed about his experiences with the festival – good and bad – he keeps it positive, but in perspective. “It was an incredible experience. Nothing is all good and nothing is all easy. But I think it comes out at the end if you get together with smart good people. Good things can happen.”

But Lang knows better than anyone that Woodstock wasn’t just the product of a few people’s desire to put on a concert or make money. While he did play a huge role in creating the event, he’s well aware what a special set circumstances the late 60s provided. As an organizer, he can see perhaps better than even the most critical historian how Woodstock was really more of a series of events leading up to one another, a felicitous and fleeting outcome (and beginning) of decades of multiple building narratives. “It was a really interesting time. There was so much going on for the generation growing up in the 60s. We felt so empowered and so full of possibility that we could really make a difference. It was a very wonderful time to be growing up…There was a moment in the 60s that came out of the fifties where young people could really prove that they could make a big difference. There were a lot of very common goals we put out for ourselves in terms of creating a better world. But there was this commonality of thinking and it pervaded our generation – especially the subculture. It was a very unifying feeling for youth in those days that we could create positive change. So I think coming together to see if we could actually do it was really a result of the time.”

So many things immediately strike me about the way Lang speaks about the lead-up to Woodstock, in contrast to young people today. First of all, he touches on the singular focus of his generation. In comparison, the American youth of today is nowhere at all close to reaching this unity.  With more and more reports of conservative Christian youths and young republicans being in stark contrast to their liberal counterparts on either coast, and the infinity of possibilities that the Internet provides, it’s difficult to imagine a unified personal identity, let alone a generational one like that of the late 60s. In one sense, this could be a case of hindsight. It seemed like the entire youth of the country was united for fairly vague liberal causes – sexual freedom, liberal freedom. But what about those in the middle of the country for whom these new values might have seemed terrifying and wrong? Certainly there were at least if not more racist and homophobic young people then as there are today. The fact of the matter is that the political climate was not nearly as partisan as it is today (as the whole country came together to mourn Kennedy’s death, for instance), or at least certainly not as highlighted by the news media. I’m just not sure you can argue a singular-focus of young people as a cause of Woodstock. Instead, perhaps, the way that the consciousness of the country operated (less information available in general, via the news media and the Internet) allowed an easier focus to be drawn to a particular type of liberal young person. And with fewer representations of self offered to young people at that time, more people than is possible today latched on to that idea of self. In that sense, Woodstock is an event that is impossible to duplicate.

Lang, however, is hopeful that with enough determination, anything is possible. He sees Barack Obama’s election and inauguration as the Woodstock of our generation. “If you look at Obama’s inauguration on that day in Washington, with hundreds of thousands of people coming together out of this longing for a better world, and hope was offered for that. The possibility for that was heavily in the air. And I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that he got elected. Forty years ago a black president would have been a completely absurd thought.”

When drawing that comparison, it’s easier to understand the driving force behind Woodstock. If the racial and sexual oppression of the fifties led up to the 60s Woodstock in a way that cannot be duplicated, then eight long years of the Bush administration led to the singularity of our belief in “hope” in a way that can’t be duplicated. It’s just that the expression of sexual freedom is sort of a lot more rock and roll than the expression of political freedom.

(The Hollywood version of Michael Lang: Jon Groff)

Let us not forget, though, that Woodstock was steeped in politics. That is, ultimately, Lang’s answer for why we are not replicating Woodstock today. No concert organizers in recent years have come from the grass-roots political ideology that was behind Woodstock. Live-Aid and Live-8 are for good causes, but somehow their ideologies are expressly a-political, if you stop to think about it. They’re not rebelling against anything, they are merely supporting what anyone could agree is a good cause. “Woodstock was more a sociological event,” Lang says.  “It was something that came from a political point of view and a sociological point of view and a social point of view. Which, I think, were the motivating factors that brought us together, in addition to the music and to having a fun experience. There’s nothing wrong with [having a fun experience]…I think you need a couple of things. Most important, you need to show up. You have to get out there and actually make yourselves known. The other part of that is you have to have a very positive kind of attitude about the possibilities.”

Ah, the possibilities. It’s a little depressing to hear Lang speak so bluntly about the importance of aspirations of political change in  a Woodstock-like event happening today. But, he’s not necessarily saying that our generation is politically unmotivated (in fact, he’s saying the opposite with his ideas about Obama). He is saying that there hasn’t been a true politically motivated concert produced by us yet. He certainly doesn’t rule it out. His advice to anyone trying to throw a concert today is to just do it, and make sure the spirit behind it is there. I don’t think that Lang doubts the sincerity and seriousness of purpose of young people today, either. I think he just isn’t sure if the next pivotal, cultural event is going to be a concert. I think he’s probably right. More than anyone, Lang probably realizes how important both individuals and larger circumstances are to making history. It’s just a matter of time to see which individuals and which circumstances will make the next great impact.

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– Madalyn Baldanzi


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