If it's toxic to overdose on saccharine, then over the next few days, you should try to avoid the gathering deluge of reminiscence about Woodstock. It's the 40th anniversary of the upstate New York rock-and-roll extravaganza, and we in the media are already gorging ourselves on hazy recollections of the event—memories borne not so much from what actually happened, but from what hippie folklore says happened and from how popular imagination and wishful thinking transformed a chaotic mudfest into an epic pageant of peace and love. This wallow in artificially sweetened nostalgia is being supplemented by entertainment-industry efforts to exploit the occasion: according to The Associated Press, we'll soon be blessed with a remastered music CD of the festival, a new director's-cut DVD of the original film epic Woodstock, and a Woodstock comedy called Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee. Several anniversary concerts have also been scheduled at the site of Max Yasgur's farm, which now features a concert stage and a museum dedicated to the 1960s.
As an authentic Woodstock attendee (or should I say victim?), I hate to rain on the procession of warm memories and good vibrations, but I will say this: wake up, folks. For some—maybe quite a few of us—who made the journey, Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess. If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat. For those of us who saw those things as a hassle, good music did not necessarily offset the discomfort. OK, for a lot of us who figured on buying tickets at the gate—and then arrived at the site to find that no box offices had been built—the fact that we got to hear top acts gratis was some compensation for the unpleasantness. And the spirit of the massive crowd, even if chemically mellowed by THC and other mood enhancers, was congenial, tolerant, and at times stoic. But in hindsight, what was Woodstock's bottom line? That 500,000 people jammed into in a mudhole didn't fight, riot, or annihilate each other? Is the fact that such a large crowd didn't become violent and start killing each other (albeit serenaded by sometimes brilliant musical performances) Woodstock's principal legacy? What's the big deal?
To be fair, maybe I was a bit too young for Woodstock, or what Woodstock turned out to be, though I probably shouldn't have been. A newly minted 17-year-old high-school graduate by August 1969, I nonetheless was a fairly accomplished patron of big-time pop or rock music events, having attended, inter alia, the American debut of Led Zeppelin at New York's Fillmore (they were the opening act for Iron Butterfly—In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby), a Newport Folk Festival (more of a rock event), and a Janis Joplin solo concert (the most memorable of the lot). The night before my high-school graduation party, I celebrated by watching Hair on Broadway. As the summer of '69 sweltered on, I scouted out additional entertainments, canceling one at the last minute due to fear of rain, only to find myself sitting at home watching the first men land on the moon.
For weeks, the organizers of Woodstock had been promoting their event with large ads (featuring the soon-to-be-immortal guitar logo) listing all the famous bands who were scheduled to play. Two of my closest high-school friends, with whom I had attended earlier events, suggested that we meet in New Jersey and drive up to Woodstock. We decided to travel the night before the festival was to begin because we hadn't bought tickets and figured that by arriving early, we not only might be able to get a choice parking spot, but also could avoid the massive ticket queues likely on the day the concert actually started. We did arrive in time to get a good parking spot in a forest clearing a few hundred yards from the stage. But the event was not quite the well-ordered megaconcert that had been advertised. No ticket gates, little food or other amenities, no fencing to separate the people who had paid from freeloaders like us—it was puzzling from the outset how the promoters were going to make back their investment, never mind deliver the scheduled performances.
By lunchtime the next day, we had staked out a small patch not far from the stage. Though prepared for the possibility of showers, we, like most of the rest of the growing crowd, were not prepared for torrential downpours. The rain threw off the concert schedule by hours and quickly began to turn the venue into a mud pit. To my surprise, the organizers did manage to produce the performers they had promised, even as we wondered whether the rain would cause them to electrocute themselves. But as helicopters swooped in and out taking rock stars to and from the scene while the rest of us soaked, I began to envy those privileged enough to merit air transport. The acts I remember—or at least think I remember, since memory can be a tricky business—seeing live on stage include Richie Havens, a group called Sweetwater, Sly and the Family Stone, and Country Joe and the Fish. I definitely did not see Jimi Hendrix play his trippy valedictory version of the "Star Spangled Banner." Actually, my clearest recollection of Woodstock had nothing to do with the music: during an interlude, I excused myself for a bathroom break. I'm still amazed that I managed to navigate myself to the portable toilets on the far outer perimeter, then back through a multitude of 300,000 to find my friends.
After an uncomfortable but dry night in a cramped car seat, I took a walking tour of the site and concluded that the crowd had grown too big for the venue. Concerned that I might not be able to escape for days, I decided to check out then and there. I grabbed a one-way bus that the promoters had organized for would-be refugees, and on a rural highway several miles away from the stage, I hitched a ride from a carful of disappointed concertgoers who had become frustrated with the regionwide traffic jam, and concerned about the radio bulletins warning hopeful attendees to stay away. When my new friends dropped me off near Grand Central Station, I was extremely grateful to return to civilization.
In hindsight, after spending 35 of the last 40 years as a professional journalist, Woodstock does not loom large in my consciousness when compared with some of the other major events I have been fortunate to witness. While the spectacle may have been tawdry, it seems to me that the uproar and congressional impeachment proceedings that resulted from revelations (by my NEWSWEEK colleague Michael Isikoff) about President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, at which I had a ringside seat for more than a year, had a far greater, if not necessarily beneficent, impact on politics and culture than Woodstock. As a cultural and political phenomenon, the anguish that swept the world and paralyzed Britain after the death of Princess Diana in a car crash was far more sweeping to my mind than any blip in the zeitgeist caused by Woodstock. Ultimately, a lasting and significant memory will probably be my presence last summer, with my teenage son, in Denver's Mile High Stadium when Barack Obama accepted his nomination as America's first African-American candidate for president. Maybe that's the kind of development for which Woodstock is supposed to have laid the groundwork, but I don't really see how you get from there to here.
Hosenball is an investigative correspondent for NEWSWEEK who covers national affairs.