Watching the Woodstock Movie (Again)

This weekend I saw the recently released “ultimate collector’s edition” director’s cut of the Woodstock Movie (available on DVD and Blu-Ray). This was the third time I saw the movie; I originally saw it in the theater back in the late seventies, and then watched it on VHS sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. But the ultimate collector’s/director’s cut has about two hours of footage not featured in the theatrical release, including Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, plus additional footage from the Who and Jimi Hendrix.

Having been too young to go to Woodstock (I was 8 at the time, I suppose I could have gone if someone took me, but obviously, that didn’t happen), the movie has been the heart of my understanding of Woodstock. When I saw the movie in the 70s, it was like a revelation to me: my first real introduction to so many musicians I would come to love: Joan Baez, Crosby Stills & Nash, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Joplin, and of course Jimi Hendrix. Seeing it on VHS a decade or so later just anchored my sense that Woodstock was a watershed event, both artistically and socio-politically.

What a difference an extra twenty years makes.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t gone all right-wing in regard to Woodstock. But I think the perspectives of age, of being a veteran of plenty of Pagan gatherings, and of considering Ken Wilber’s critique of “boomeritis,” all have given me perhaps a more balanced view of the festival. Watching the movie this time, I was struck by a number of things I hadn’t noticed before. Kids jumping the fence to get in, before the concert was declared “free.” The arrogant idealism, that suggested hippies and stoners were really going to change the world. The almost total lack of non-white people (except on the stage, but even then, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix were the exceptions). The liberal use of completely gratuitous vulgar language (for example, the Intermission card read “Interf***ingmission”). The kindness and tolerance (for the most part) of the townspeople and neighbors, all of whom were massively inconvenienced by the event. The fact that the army, the national guard and others were flying in food and medical supplies — economic realities that never seemed to be factored in to the “Woodstock Nation’s” smug insistence that they had a better way of living than the society at large. And of course, the huge garbage-dump that Max Yasgur’s farm became at the end of the festival.

The key word here is balance. I still think the Vietnam war was a horrible misstep; it is impossible to understand the 60s counterculture without considering the draft and the absurdity of that war as key factors contributing to its rise. The Hog Farm giving away food and the innocence of the skinny-dippers and the mud-sliders are all sweet to consider, even now. And the overall peace and love vibe, naive though it may have been, still seems to me a far better orientation of the mind than the cynicism that has reigned in our country pretty much ever since a certain president from California broke the law (less than four years after Woodstock), an existential malaise that only deepened when another Californian was elected president in 1980.

So I’m writing all this not to say sour grapes on Woodstock, or on my own youthful idealism, but to ponder how we can re-envision some of that hopeful idealism and commitment to gently transforming the world… only without gate-crashing and ignoring the contribution of all the “squares”?

Now, as for the music. What really struck me is how young everybody looked. And they were young — most of the A-list rock and rollers I mentioned above were all in their 20s when performing at Woodstock. Grateful Dead’s Pigpen, Janis and Jimi were all fated to die within a few years. Roger Daltrey oozes eros, and Joan Baez, dignified and reserved, exudes a maternal warmth (she was pregnant at the time). Grace Slick looks exhausted (scheduled to take the stage hours earlier, Jefferson Airplane was up all night and played at dawn). The guitar playing is phenomenal, of course, with memorable performances from Pete  Townshend, Carlos Santana, Jorma Kaukonen, Jimi Hendrix (naturally) and Jerry Garcia (in an otherwise less-than-stellar 35-minute workout of “Turn on Your Lovelight”). Crosby, Stills & Nash and Arlo Guthrie were pretty sweet, and Joe Cocker — weird air-guitar-ish hand gestures on full display — was truly a joy to hear. John Sebastian was embarrassingly stoned. And on it goes. So if my sense of Woodstock’s politics may have changed with the passage of time, I remain as entranced as ever with the music, only now I am even more impressed because I see just how young those kids were when they played there. Really, really wonderful.

So watching the Woodstock movie again, I am reminded what the members of Grateful Dead used to say, impatiently, when journalists would ask them about the rampant drug use among their fans: “We’re about the music.” And I think Woodstock, far more than the politics of the anti-war movement or the idealism of the Hog Farm or the free love vibe of the hippies (which Hugh Hefner blatantly twisted to his own ends, as documented on the included bonus disc), is really all about the music. And what wonderful music it was.

One final gripe about the “ultimate collector’s edition” Blu-Ray and DVD: both come with all sorts of unnecessary extra packaging: an iron-on patch (as if we’re all still wearing denim jackets), a lucite paper-weight thingy, a mini-reproduction of the Life magazine that dealt with Woodstock, etc. What a waste. It reminds me of the stark ending of the movie, with its apocalyptic survey of the tons of left-behind garbage. Our generation really is pretty pathetic when it comes to paying lip service to environmental issues but then greedily consuming resources for the purpose of acquiring more disposable trinkets. I’m just saying.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • noel

    y’know carl your music taste very like mine in the past too.
    i still wonder at the adulation we pay homage whether gerry garcia or frank sinatra or bono.
    compared to jesus we all live in the dark. when in the dark one always heads for the light and yet those past years we did not recognise the light. i say “we” ‘cos i think it is a universal story.

    someone take this line of thinking over i will comment later

    self esteem, belonging to the norm etc etc.
    what a fake life absorbed in a life that supports the dark or the not brightest light

    anyone who disowns me i will disown before my father

  • Gary Snead

    Zechariah’s song, particularly Luke 1:76-79.