“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
— Proverbs 26:11
Now that the 50-year anniversary of Woodstock and its attempted celebration have both passed us, no foreseeable Woodstock revivals lurk on the horizon. In a perfect world, it would stay that way forever.
But it won’t. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and because of its ability to bleed into pop culture, there have been three festivals over the last 25 years that have carried and almost completely sullied Woodstock’s name. Woodstock ’94 had a laughably inadequate security presence, and people pelted so much mud at the bands that in 2014, Les Claypool claimed to still have dirt clods in his bass cabs. Meanwhile, Woodstock ‘99 ended in flames and left in its wake victims of sexual assault.
We don’t need to go into detail on why Woodstock 50 was disastrous, but with its farcical saga and the surrounding occasion now behind us, it’s time that we come to grips with an uncomfortable truth: Woodstock needs to stay in 1969 where it belongs.
Was Woodstock a defining milestone of the 1960s? Absolutely, but have you noticed that every other Woodstock that defined a generation did so for the worst possible reasons? Woodstock ‘89 went off without a hitch and didn’t attract any negative press, and few people even know it happened. There was also a Woodstock ’79, and unless you somehow consider Canned Heat and Stephen Stills defining artists of the ’70s, you can’t possibly argue that it was culturally significant.
In short, we have two forgotten renditions of Woodstock that ultimately fulfilled their purpose, and we have three rekindlings that became unbridled disasters and cautionary tales for anyone aspiring to cut teeth in the festival business.
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So why have we repeatedly let the myth behind Woodstock defy all good judgment? On that note, why is the myth surrounding Woodstock so exaggerated? The vast majority of the public wasn’t even in attendance, and those who were had somewhat contradictory testimonies that seem to arrive at a consensus when it came to the haphazard nature of the festival’s logistics.
There was literally a 10-mile traffic jam surrounding Bethel that lasted three days, and if you think the attendees had a hard time entering and exiting the grounds, think about the artists who had to load in and subsequently leave the festival to make it to their next tour destination. People actually parked their cars in the middle of the road and walked five miles to make it to the festival, and that may have something to do with the fact that rural farming communities don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate a mass gathering of over 400,000 people.
If you think people today would abide such conditions, note that a crowd a fraction of that size had to walk three miles in Miami Beach after this year’s installment of Ultra Music Festival, and despite the festival’s 20-year history, irate guests were swift to compare it to the infamous Fyre Festival fiasco. If people raised Cain about having to walk a lesser distance from a festival located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, just imagine how they’d feel about being stuck in a New York farming community with almost half a million people.
So yeah, trying to reconfigure Woodstock’s likeness to fit the modern zeitgeist is an anachronistic endeavor. Yes, festival demographics tend to be progressive, and yes, millennial festivalgoers want to trip balls and have promiscuous sex, but they also want to be at the same festival as a Kardashian. They also want VIP accommodations and expensive meals. They look at festivals as a status symbol, and not a music-centric spiritual experience like Woodstock’s attendees did (side note: Burning Man has long been an option for those itching to have a spiritual experience in an anarchic landscape, so we’ve kinda got that covered.)
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Plus, people do not realize that 1969 was one of the worst years for hippie culture, and that it was on its way out as Woodstock happened. The Manson Family murders deprived the movement of its perceived innocence, and four months after Woodstock, the Altamont Free Festival in California left four people dead on a day Rolling Stone called, “Rock and roll’s all-time worst day.”
Suffice it to say, there are numerous misconceptions of this era, but dispelling these won’t compel people to let go of their Woodstock nostalgia. To that point, we’ll just say that nostalgia isn’t an inherently bad trait, but can’t concessions be made that every attempt to bring back Woodstock has joined the ranks of the ’90s swing revival and that Wicker Man reboot with Nicolas Cage in being profoundly tasteless and unnecessary?
Yes, fantastic artists sprouted from that era, and yes, Woodstock boasts legendary performances. But in staring at the rearview mirror and trying to re-create those glory days, we miss out on the fantastic artists and legendary performances that are right under our noses, and in doing so, we’re keeping our culture more stagnant.
You want to pay tribute to artists from the ’60s? One effective way to do that is to let their legacies continue to blossom and become manifested in the music of those who are pushing the culture forward. The adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” does not apply here.