Thwarted by permit denials and financial troubles, Woodstock 50, the anniversary festival commemorating the landmark cultural event of 1969, won’t be happening after all.
Plans to celebrate the iconic “3 Days of Peace and Music” fell through first in New York state, where the original festival attracted over 400,000 rock music fans, and then at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, a venue that accommodates only 30,000.
“We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the Festival we imagined with the great lineup we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating,” organizer Michael Lang, co-founder of the 1969 festival, said in a statement.
If all that scrambling about has made you tired, a book like Daniel Bukszpan’s “Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music” is a calming, nostalgic read for those who want a quick and easy take on the original event. But the truth is, Woodstock can never be duplicated, no matter how much producers and music fans try.
In the festival’s opening set, Richie Havens sang his song “Freedom,” an apt beginning for an event all about freedom. Bukszpan’s book embellishes that ideal. Other anniversary books — Dale Bell’s “Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation” and John Kane’s “Pilgrims of Woodstock: Never-Before-Seen Photos” — do much the same.
This vision of the event — a celebration of hippie ethos and style — however photogenic, presents a selective view of the ’60s. Though Woodstock was the apex of hippie culture, most young people in America could not or did not want to attend. Many carried on as usual, dressed boringly, went to boring jobs and worried about the future in standard ways. This in no way obliterates the historical significance of Woodstock, but it does complicate how its story is told, and what it has come to represent.
It is impossible today to imagine 400,000 people lounging peacefully in the mud and sharing stuff. Has anyone wondered how many, if any, guns there might have been at Woodstock? Any large gathering today provokes this question but, given Bukszpan’s emphasis on peace and music, it seems obscene to ask it of Woodstock.
Bukszpan keeps at a distance events such as the Manson Family murders, the stabbing death during the Rolling Stones’ set at a concert in Altamont, Calif., and the linked escalations of the Vietnam War and the protests against it, making his a nice coffee-table book. He wants to focus on “what went right” at Woodstock, but the larger history of 1969 should not be avoided, because so much went wrong. There is no nudity in the book, either. (“Pilgrims of Woodstock,” a collection of photos and interviews of attendees, makes up for it.)
The accounts of cooperation and generosity Bukszpan does include make good reading. Building the stage, along with the sound and lighting setups, required speedy, can-do American ingenuity. Wavy Gravy, aka Hugh Romney, worked tirelessly to feed, clean and heal anyone in need. The event’s promoters transported Wavy and his comrades from their commune in New Mexico to Woodstock via private jet, just one zingy detail that highlights the codependence of the counterculture and business, which continues.
Perhaps the mess and attempted remake of Woodstock 50 were inevitable. Before “Mad Men’s” Don Draper intuited the catchy phrase about buying the world a Coke, peace and love were being commercialized. The backers of Woodstock figured this would happen. Despite taking huge losses during the event, they made a fortune once the 1970 film of the festival was released. Films, soundtrack albums, books and the anniversary concerts — each increasingly violent and expensive to attend — this is the commercial legacy of Woodstock 1969. You can still buy a piece of history and groove on it. Rhino records is offering a 38-disc box set of the original performances, along with a Blu-ray of Michael Wadleigh’s film “Woodstock,” for $799. (Fun fact: That would be about $114 in 1969.)
Although Woodstock 50 is canceled, a separate smaller event featuring a few artists who performed in 1969 is set for Aug. 15-18, the dates of the original event, in Bethel, N.Y.