Grappling with Woodstock in 2019


Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.


21 thoughts on “Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

  1. Great piece Pete! Got to wonder what is going on in this world that cannot be correct quickly in order for our own kids and grand kids to have a better place to live. I do know God and prayer has to be part of that equation.

    • Agreed. Trump is merely the ugly tumor, though. There’s a larger growth underneath that pushed him, and others like him, to the fore. I don’t know the answers, but it will take major surgery and lifestyle changes to get even close to the “garden,” and we’re running out of time.

  2. Hey Pete! Your emotions are palpable in this piece! Coming from Australian eyes, all I can say is that the answer to the Trump problem is to get more people to vote. It would seem he does not have that much support (although perhaps I choose to mix in the circles that don’t support him??) But it seems with such a low voter turn out you will never get rid of him. We are “lucky” voting is compulsory (I’d do it anyway) We have election days on Saturdays (always) you can pre-vote if you are sick/working/too far from a polling station and best of all most voting places are in schools and they run a sausage sizzle to raise funds. We call it the democracy sausage! There is an unofficial competition for the best sausage sandwich. But it seems to me if you have elections on Tuesday when most people work, how are you going to get a better turn out??

    • Thanks for commenting, Robyn. I completely agree about voter turnout, and it’s eye-opening to read about Australia. Mandatory voting? Wow.

      But another part of the equation is informed, intelligent voting, which requires, at minimum, a solid formal education. (Americans’ scores in basic, core subjects have been slipping globally for decades.) Still another part is how lobby and campaign finance money influences electoral politics. And the income gap, which is greater in America than any time in history, exacerbated by Reaganomics in the ’80s, which favored the wealthy. I don’t know about Australia, but money doesn’t just talk in America, it screams. Still another part is the press/media. Conservative propaganda media here is beyond belief and has been marinating voters for years. And even non-conservative media now focuses more on personality, human interest, and sensationalism than issue and policy (easier for people to digest, which helps ratings, which increases profits). Also, conservatives/libertarians have been cultivating “think tanks” for years, that have perfected an “attack dog” style of politics that undereducated voters respond favorably to. These think tanks dwarf anything equivalent by liberals or moderates. America’s antiquated Electoral College system, and its rigid, money-soaked two-party system don’t help, either (Trump and Bush 2, in 2000, both lost the nationwide popular vote). Read “How Democracies Die,” if you get a chance. I reviewed it on my blog a while ago. It goes into greater detail and sums up much of what’s wrong in America these days (and what happens here resonates in the rest of the world).

      This is just the political part of the equation. There’s also a cultural “war” going on that affects the political part. And it’s not just a “Trump problem,” and I think we need to be careful about focusing on one person. As nightmarish as he is, he’s the tip of the iceberg. He was nominated by the Republican Party before the General Election, and last I heard, over 80 percent of Republicans still support him. Yeah, uh-huh. Our “sickness” has been festering a long, long time, starting many years before Trump was elected.

      I probably sound like I’m calling for some kind of left-wing counter to the right-wing shit going on now. But I’d be happy if this country could just return to a semblance of normality. We’ve never seen anything like this before, including with Nixon.

      Sorry to ramble, but I wanted to adequately respond! Peace (with meaning).

      • Hear Hear! Well said! I’ll seek that book out. Our very different parliamentary system makes a big difference. There ar VERY strict caps on who can donate and how much can be donated to political parties here. Elections themselves receive funding from the “government”. Of course, it’s not perfect and we too see the sensationalist media having a tragically huge effect. Our laws relating to the % of media coverage any one person/company can own or control have been drastically watered down over the years so we only hear two main voices and one of those is Rupert Murdoch. Our current Prime Minister is also an embarrassment and very much blurring the very strict separation between State and Church that is part of our Constitution. There is a lot of joking/not joking here about moving to New Zealand! Or making Jacinta Prime Minister of the World! She seems to be the only world leader with any balls at the moment!

  3. It’s just as bad in Britain ( except we are so much smaller and can do less damage to the rest of the world). My only real hope is that something better and different will evolve out this mess at some point but I don’t know how bad things have to get first.

    • Yes, it’s too bad you guys are saddled with all the collateral damage of Brexit, and now “Mini-Trump.” Good luck. But you’re correct, at least Britain can’t create as much havoc as we can. Interestingly, I was just over there, visiting family in Glasgow. While hiking, I got into an interesting conversation with a Scotsman and a German. We were all three in agreement about “things,” and that rarely happens with me these days. Traveling is nice.

  4. Good food for thought Pete. I was not at Woodstock but did attend Texas International PoP Festival a week later outside of Dallas. It was almost the same lineup of performers as WS. I played in a popular rock band through the sixties, so my mind was, and still a bit geared that way. Our festival was hot, hot and hotter with temps reaching 100 or above daily. The poor musicians couldn’t believe that humans actually lived in this hellish part of the southwest. Us humans couldn’t believe we sat in the sun for three days and lived. My wife was there too, although we didn’t officially date until the next year after she graduated.
    I agree it was a poor decision to try and replicate Woodstock. The country has changed far too much to allow a gathering like that without certain violence, and that was one of the multiple reasons it didn’t happen. The Peace and Love generation we once were is all but faded memories and old pictures. We grew up and became variations of our parents and the times and somewhere soon after, we lost our civility to each other. I am embarrassed by our leaders in Washington, both sides of the isle mind you, have taken us as village idiots. It’s not taking a stand for something by carrying signs and marching peacefully, its about violence and discord and ripping each other apart. At 70 years old, I am done with politics and all the grief it has caused me.
    There is a great documentary on Netflix about the making of the movie, the concert and actual new footage of Woodstock. Check it out. There was recently a 50th-anniversary concert for the Texas International Pop Festival in Lewisville Texas, about 3 miles from the original site. It went off smoothly and was a huge hit. Of course, being in Texas, most of the attendees were likey packing. So no foolishness occurred. I like your work, keep it up.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say, Phil. We’re still two tribes fighting in America, but today the separation is less about generation and more about culture and ideology.

      Thanks for complimenting my writing, it means a lot. I may have seen that new Woodstock doc. It did have some great unseen footage, especially of the “kids” arriving. Back in January I did an interview with Rose Simpson, who performed at Woodstock, which you might like. Somewhere here I also did a piece on Janis Joplin (a while ago) and talked about her Texas roots. What was your band’s name? Are you familiar with Roky Erickson, Tommy Hall, and the 13th Floor Elevators? They’ve always interested me.


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