This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the summer of 1969, which for most people is a “so what?” sort of thing, but to anyone who lived back then or (like me) obsesses about “The 60s” period of American history, it’s a big deal. They don’t make years like 1969 any more.
40 years ago this summer, a lot of big things happened. The Who released Tommy and Hurricane Camille killed 250 people in Mississippi and Louisiana. Star Trek aired its final episode and three American astronauts landed on the moon for the first time. The Manson family murdered 8 innocent people and Ted Kennedy (RIP) received a two-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal drowning accident in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.
But the biggest thing (well, aside from putting a man on the moon) happened at the end of the summer, in White Lake, NY. On August 15-18, nearly 500,000 people gathered on a massive dairy farm for “three days of peace and music.” It was Woodstock: the music festival of all music festivals and the era-defining high water mark of the iconic 60s.
Last week I saw the new Ang Lee film, Taking Woodstock, and wrote a review for Christianity Today. Inspired by the film, I spent much of my weekend watching the 4-hour Woodstock director’s cut DVD—the 1970-released definitive documentary film about the legendary event. If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT. In terms of capturing a moment in time and a particular “spirit of the era,” there are hardly any better documentaries out there.
It just blows my mind to watch this and realize the magnitude of it—to see half a million young people pouring into this middle-of-nowhere farm for an event that was about the music, yes (Hendrix, Baez, Joplin, Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, etc), but mostly about the scene. The moment. The drugs and freedom and peace and camaraderie. It was the climax of all things “counterculture” and an unparalleled expression of generational solidarity. The hippies were there, along with the SDS activists, the bra-burners, gay activists, yippies, performance artists, yoga gurus, shaman, Vietnam vets, suburban straights and everyone in between. How amazing that one event like Woodstock could mobilize such a wide swath of American youth and galvanize them in their rebellion and idealism?
Could anything like that bring together a crowd of 500,000 young people today? I sincerely doubt it.
The thing about Woodstock is that it was literally the culmination of decades of cultural change and political foment, a sort of final consequence/celebration of all that had been building and bubbling up as the relatively new youth culture came into its own and established itself in opposition to the dominant hegemonies and systems of accepted technocratic order.
When Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the rapt throngs of muddied young Americans at Woodstock, it was the apotheosis of so much. In that moment was George Washington, Davy Crockett, manifest destiny, JFK, the GI Bill, Bob Dylan, “I have a dream,” Montgomery, Berkeley, Nixon, Hiroshima, Hanoi, Chicago ’68, Ozzie and Harriet, and Huckleberry Finn. It was the youth, adolescence, and future of an entire generation.
These youngsters had been born after the war and had grown up in the idyllic Howdy Doody era of optimism, consumerism and capitalistic excess. And like their Beatnik forbears, they were convinced that there was more to life than bureaucratic clones, Levittown suburbs and white picket fence perfection. They resonated with Ginsburg when he wrote:
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
They resonated with Kerouac when he wrote, in On the Road:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…
As Theodore Roszak describes in The Making of a Counter Culture, the driving force of the youth culture’s rebellion in the 60s was a rejection of the “technocracy” that had come to define America in the post-war era—the massive bureaucracy that was ruled by experts who deified technology, rationalism, and science and trusted in mechanization and specialization to solve the world’s problems. In contradistinction to this, the young, emerging counterculture in the 60s was increasingly characterized by an elevation of the personal, subjective and experiential rather than the broad, objective or ideological.
Channeling countercultural pioneers like Emerson and Thoreau, and feeding upon current European Marxist and existentialist thought, the 60s hipsters were convinced that the impersonal technocratic regime was waging war on human joy, on the preciousness of life and consciousness. True to the eternal hipster spirit, the emphasis was on the individual, on private and personal experience. It was less about class-consciousness than it was about “consciousness consciousness”
It was a generational rebellion, the mobilization of a youth culture that was larger and more prosperous and better educated than any American generation prior. And the world was spinning out of control in the 60s, which galvanized these restless youth in their revolt. People were getting assassinated right and left (John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X), the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular, the fight for civil rights was at a tipping point, there were riots and protests all over the world, rock music was being born, and so on and so forth.
There was a lot going on, and, importantly, it was all coinciding with the heyday of mass culture. The news of the world was now everywhere, the trends proliferated, the horrors unshielded from the public eye. And it was all on a limited number of media channels. Everyone saw and experienced the same stuff. This made it possible for so many people of the same age to be on the same cultural and spiritual page. They’d all grown up in the same Campbell’s soup post-war America. They were all equally nervous about Vietnam.
These days, there is still a lot going on, but by now we are used to a constant barrage of shocking news and earth-shattering events. Nothing riles us up anymore. Plus, there are far too many channels with which to receive information. Everyone gets a different story. Our music and cultural tastes are infinitely more disparate than that of our parents’ generation. Everything about culture is personal and fragmented rather than public and cohesive. Aside from the YouTube viral video of the week, nothing is really shared anymore.
Something like Woodstock simply could not happen. 500,000 young people in this era would never be able to agree on a motivating cause, let alone a lineup of bands.
But that’s okay. It’s not like Woodstock changed much of anything anyway. Its lasting importance is mainly that of an American cultural artifact—a nostalgic celebration of a revolution that nearly happened but didn’t. That, and an amazing 4-hour concert DVD.