Families in SUVs drive up to the grassy hill all summer. Dads snap pictures at the memorial plaque. Young couples look at the lush expanse and try to imagine the chaotic scene.
This is not some old battlefield, but the former hay field where the Woodstock concert helped define a generation 35 years ago, Aug. 15-17, 1969.
The steady dribble of nostalgic baby boomers and curious Gen-Xers visiting this remote field shows how Woodstock still reverberates in the popular imagination. Even as the hippies of Woodstock become eligible for AARP cards, the concert remains a symbol to many of the transcendent power of music. From Live-Aid to Lollapalooza, no concert has mustered the same cultural cachet.
“What happened here will never happen again,” said Jakub Muller, a Czech who visited the site last week during an extended stateside stay. Muller was born four years after the concert and an ocean away, but he made a point of standing on the exact spot of the Woodstock stage.
“I wanted to be where it was, you know? Step on the stones.”
The Woodstock story is known all over: rock promoters fail to land the arts colony of Woodstock, N.Y., for a festival site and settle on a dairy farm some 50 miles southwest in Bethel. Despite the site switch, some 400,000 people show up — many as gatecrashers — to listen to the Who and Jimi Hendrix during a long weekend of rain, mud and blissed out anarchy.
By the time it was over, Woodstock became a sort of shorthand for hedonism, anti-war sentiment and youth culture. It still is. The word has become synonymous with the ’60s and terms like “Woodstock era” and “Woodstock generation” still pop up in newspapers and magazines hundreds of times a year.
'Part of the Woodstock dream'
Woodstock performer Country Joe McDonald said the concert remains all the more meaningful because 2004, like 1969, is a time colored by a controversial war and civil unrest. He said young people who “want to be part of the Woodstock dream” still ask him about the concert.
“It is exactly as relevant today as it was in 1969,” McDonald said. “Historically, politically and socially, the battle is still being waged.”
Author and journalism professor William McKeen, who teaches a rock history course at the University of Florida, said his young students not only listen to Woodstock era music, but remain keenly interested in learning about a concert that encapsulated the spirit of the times.
Could it happen again?
Some people doubt it could in a time when concert tickets can cost more than a DVD player and corporations have taken tighter control of the industry. The image of unchecked hordes trampling into a concert can seem quaint in a time when some promoters use metal detectors.
“I don’t think you see that kind of Bacchanalian orgy thing going on anymore at rock concerts,” McKeen said. “Maybe people have gotten too conservative over the years.”
And while Woodstock featured bands that played blues, funk and folk, successful festivals of recent years tend to cater to niches in a more balkanized pop landscape. Bonnaroo features jam bands, Ozzfest is heavy metal, Summer Jam is hip-hop and the Warped Tour attracts punk fans.
A few concerts have compared to Woodstock in terms of their ambitions. The trans-Atlantic Live-Aid concert of 1985 enlisted top acts like David Bowie and Madonna for the cause of fighting starvation in Africa. The initial Lollapalooza concerts were credited with mirroring youth culture of the ’90s (although this year’s version was canceled because of poor ticket sales). But few people would refer to the “Live-Aid generation” or the “Lollapalooza spirit.”
“I don’t think music today has the same cultural significance,” said Gary Bongiovanni of Pollstar, the concert industry trade magazine.
Woodstock was resurrected twice — at least in name — during a pair of multi-day concerts at other upstate New York locales. A rain-soaked 25th anniversary concert in 1994 was followed by a 30th anniversary concert five years later at a sweltering former Air Force base. The 1999 show ended with tractor-trailers set ablaze and vendor stands overrun.
Critics say the similarities among the concerts ended with the name. McKeen compares the latter Woodstocks concerts to the straight-to video sequels of Disney’s animated hits, like “Aladdin II.” He calls the idea of trying to recreate Woodstock foolish.
“If they set out to recreate it, they’re probably doomed to failure,” McKeen said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happens again. But it’s going to be an accident.”