I don’t know how strict or impenetrable the New Yorker paywall is, but hopefully at least some of you will be able to read the article I’m referring to.
The festival that many boomers see as a touchstone of their entire existence, while younger people regard it with something along a continuum stretching from mild interest to mild derision to utter contempt or obliviousness, has passed its 54th anniversary. Whether to honour or to throw dirt on that legacy, the New Yorker has reprinted a written-just-after-the-fact review by Ellen Willis, entitled “The Not-So-Groovy-Side-Of-Woodstock.”
Variously teased online as “Woodstock Was Overrated” or “Woodstock Wasn’t That Great,” the article immediately attracted my attention, partly because I’m one of the aforementioned boomers, but even more so because I was there – in body at least; I’m not entirely sure where my brain was – and wanted to compare my recollections with Ms. Willis’s. Her slightly dyspeptic
analysis will no doubt have annoyed many onetime hippies, whether or not they made it down to Yasgur’s Farm, because it casts a fair bit of shade on the 60s generations Greatest Event In History. But I’m generally up for a good diss regardless of whether or not I agree with it, and besides, Ms. Willis was an educated and articulate writer, whereas I was a ditzy kid (okay, full disclosure: young adult who refused to act like one).
She gives credit to the bumbling quartet of neophyte producers for pulling off “a great public-relations coup” by convincing the public that “the crisis in Bethel was a capricious natural disaster rather than a product of human incompetence,” and clucks semi-sympathetically, if a bit dubiously, at the notion that they had “lost more than a million dollars in the process of being good guys who did everything possible to transform an incipient fiasco into a groovy weekend.”
Having been at Woodstock for the mid-part of that weekend, and having talked with or read accounts by dozens of others who were also there, I have to say I’ve never heard anyone else describe the festival as a “crisis” or “fiasco.” Such words wouldn’t be out of place had the event been, say, a dinner party, a political convention, a barn-raising, or a cotillion, but as rock festivals go, well, it was about what you’d expect only ten times bigger.
Apart from Ms. Willis, I’ve only heard one other person voice a negative opinion of Woodstock, that being Abbie Hoffman, but getting cold-cocked by a guitar may have clouded his judgment. He also said that Woodstock was not so much a celebration of the counterculture as a funeral for it, or maybe that was Jerry Rubin – I always get those two mixed up, even though they looked or sounded nothing alike.
Before delving further into the Woodstock-bashing, though, I should mention my surprise at being reminded that Ms. Willis was a prominent and well-established female rock critic, despite the view that this field was utterly dominated by overgrown frat boys. It was, of course, but Willis was a notable exception; what surprised me most was that while I was a regular reader of her stuff in the late 60s and early 70s – and despite agreeing with her about 70% of the time, which, if you know me at all, you will realize is an unusually high percentage – I had forgotten about her, and bought into the notion that female critics existed barely if at all before the 21st century.
Granted, it’s been three or four decades since I’ve given much thought or attention to rock critics of any gender, but before realizing that most of them were even more full of it than I was, I used to read them semi-religiously. The only one I agreed with more often than Ms. Willis was Lester Bangs, one of the previously mentioned overgrown frat boys, who wrote for my hometown rock mag, Creem. Nowadays I’d rather have my eyes gouged out than to plow through a paragraph of his turgid, bombastic, and prolix gibberish, but like many young men, I once thought he was a genius, not just because he was blazing new trails in journalism (or at least sharing one with Hunter S. Thompson) and laying the ideological foundations for punk (he was the first person I know of to combine the words “punk” and “rock”), but because he gave constant praise and adulation to our local bands, especially the MC5 and the Stooges, at a time when they were ignored or despised by the rest of the country.
Willis, on the other hand, was a good and thoughtful writer, unlike most of her male contemporaries, who alternated between portentous pontification and convoluted journeys up their own asses. I read her Woodstock article with more than passing interest, assuming she’d have some valuable insights, and might also be able to shed some light on what my own experience had been like (although the festival, as well as the journey there and back, occupies an indelible place in my mind, I couldn’t tell you with any accuracy whether I had a good time, a bad time, or any time at all).
As it turns out, though, not really.
Although we’d occupied the same space that weekend, Willis and I were viewing the festival from very different perspectives. There was the age difference – she was in her late 20s where I was, like Iggy in 1969, 21-gonna-be-22. More than that, she was Manhattan-born and middle-class, maybe even upper-middle-class (granted, given my blue-collar background, anyone who didn’t come home from work covered in grease or coal dust was upper-middle-class). Educated at Barnard and Berkeley (okay, I’m guilty of the latter, but not until much later), she seems to have had a much lower tolerance for squalor than I did.
She was also far better connected, able to hitch a ride into the festival with a police escort, and to spend the weekend in a snug waterproof tent with an ample supply of food. My Woodstock experience involved no shelter or bedding, and once I’d squandered my last 25 cents on an orange (a massive price gouge in those days; soon afterward, a mini-riot destroyed the profiteering fruit stand), I had nothing to eat besides the several tabs of acid that the police had overlooked when they searched us in western New York. As occupant of the shotgun seat, it had been my duty to quickly swallow all the acid in the glove box – about 30 hits – when the cops pulled us over. While this left me unable to sleep for four days, it also took much of the edge off my hunger.
I mention this not to brag or complain; my life in 1969 was a litany of poor choices and foolish decisions. But it might help to explain why the conditions I experienced (Willis would probably say “endured”) at Woodstock barely fazed me. She, on the other hand, despite enjoying luxurious (or at least non-mud-soaked) accomodations), seems to have spent the weekend collecting kvetches, which is something New Yorkers do almost innately, as I would begin to do myself once I’d lived there a while.
Willis harrumphed about the inadequate food, water, and toilet facilities, not to mention the disorganized and ultimately abandoned ticket collection system, none of which personally affected her. The whole operation was, I can practically hear her sniffing (I’m slightly guilty of putting words in her mouth), utterly unprofessional.
What Willis missed is that to the teenagers and young 20-somethings who made up the vast majority of the Woodstock audience, a lack of food and sanitation would have been an almost trivial price to pay for a chance to participate in what must have seemed at the time like the greatest weekend in history. Yes, some of the bands weren’t that good, while others who were good had a bad outing (Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, for example), but dwelling on that would be like complaining that Neil Armstrong’s first words spoken from the moon could have been better scripted.
Still, up to this point, Willis’s criticisms, while they may have been irrelevant, were not inaccurate. Then, however, she veers off into the sort of pompous blather that was usually the province of her male contemporaries. Rock and roll, she declares, apparently intending to hit us between the eyes with this blinding revelation, is “bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power” (my father, bless his heart, had told me something similar the first time he heard Elvis Presley).
She goes further off the rails, not to mention off the wall, when she insists that “rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues.” Two things: I’ve had the privilege and good fortune to see many legendary bluesmen, and never once did I get the impression that they were driven by a desire to play music non-commercially. The fact that they often did was not because the blues – or any other genre of music – “wants to be free,” but because the market was limited, and what cash there was got skimmed off by disreputable managers and record companies. Innumerable rock bands – including some that eventually went to become rich and famous – have had similar experiences.
Even more maddening is her repetition of a popular trope in those days: that rock was just blues played by white people, slicked up to have more popular appeal. Any doofus off the street, never mind a distinguished rock critic, should be able to hear the difference between the two forms. All music may have originated with pounding on rocks and plucking on strings, but that doesn’t mean Beethoven and hiphop or klezmer and black metal are essentially the same thing. Blues formed part of the foundation of rock and roll, of course. So did hillbilly music, and ecclesiastical harmonies, and once the Beatles, and later the prog-rockers, got their hands on it – well, there’s a reason that these days it’s called “classic” rock.
Admittedly this whole business strikes a raw nerve with me: a few months before Woodstock I’d found myself trapped in a claustrophobic one-room hippie pad while a mustache-tugging, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing, dope-smoking man (the type who, apart from Ms. Willis, almost invariably promulgated this 1960s version of “cultural appropriation”) forced a group of us to listen to some “tasty licks” performed by a newly discovered blues guy. Repeatedly lifting the needle and restarting a song or passage as he lectured us, while furiously passing one joint after another around the room, he insisted, “Rock is simplistic kid stuff. This is the real deal.”
I already had a headache when we started, the marijuana made it worse, and the monotonous, repetitive iterations of the blues scale drilled into my mind like the ministrations of a sadistic dentist. A few weeks later, I’d see B.B. King play at a wondrous all-night jam session and loved it, which goes to show, I guess, that there’s good blues and bad blues. Or, as Mustache Man would have no doubt said, that I was a hopeless, easily swayed philistine.
Do I digress? Yes, of course, but let’s put it this way: while Willis correctly notes that the true spirit of Woodstock was to “ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen,” and follows this by stating (again correctly, if a bit tautologically) that “there can’t be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution,” she abruptly reverts to bourgeois parental mode by concluding, “In the meantime, we should at least insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts charge reasonable prices for reasonable service.”
Today’s young people may be only vaguely aware that in the Woodstock era, a “reasonable price” for a concert was in the three to six-dollar range (I’m talking about the likes of the Rolling Stones, etc.), and the Woodstock three-day price was, I believe, 15 or 18 bucks (I didn’t pay, and I don’t know anyone who did). Even allowing for inflation, there’s no way Willis, who died in 2006, could have envisioned the hundreds, even thousands of dollars that rock concerts fetch in 2023.
As someone who has logged nearly 60 years of service to the spirit of rock and roll (and almost never paid more than 10 or 20 bucks for a show), I can state with certainty that had the Willis Standard been applied to the multitude of life-changing, mind-altering, earth-shattering events I’ve been fortunate enough to witness, most of them never would have happened. You’re far less likely these days to find me cramming into a basement firetrap or abandoned building to watch a band who typically will disappear down the memory hole of total obscurity, but I don’t regret for a minute all the times that I did.