Mid-August 1969. Michael Lang is standing in a field in Bethel, N.Y., as the finishing touches are being put on the site for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. He is wearing a leather vest over a bare chest. A huge bush of curly brown hair wobbles about his head. He is 24 years old, hip and confident, one of three young promoters about to slipslide into history, and . . .
There's this reporter, some network dweeb in his 30s, standing in front of him with a microphone asking the most insane questions."What is it that the musicians have that they can communicate so well to the kids?" the newsman asks.
If a lamer question ever has been asked, Lang hasn't heard it. He looks dismissively at the reporter, the Generation Gap yawning like the Dead Sea between them. Then he answers.
"Music," he says.
* * *
Twenty-five years later, Michael Lang and his generation - the Woodstock Generation, the Woodstock Nation - are nearing 50, another Woodstock festival is dawning and that ludicrous exchange is replaying endlessly in the movie "Woodstock," re-released this summer for the anniversary.
That, and so much more, echo like the soundtrack for a slightly off-kilter generation.
Arlo Guthrie telling the crowd: "The New York State Thruway is closed, man! It's far out, man!" A stage announcer exhorting the crowd to shout away the rain, leading 400,000 stoned and drenched people to begin chanting, "No rain! No rain!"
As Frank Zappa was later to observe: "It just goes to show you the flexibility of the human organism that people who would willingly sit in the mud and chant `no rain' periodically between badly amplified rock groups could suddenly turn out to be the ones to run the U.S. economy."
To anyone who was, say, 15 or older in 1969, it is an astonishing, not to mention frightening, thought.
But back to the music. Music, as Lang said, is what Woodstock was supposed to be all about. The promoters promised "Three Days of Peace and Music," and it turned out to be accurate enough - amazingly so, actually, considering that few people at the time believed the three days could pass peacefully.
This was 1969: Richard Nixon had just become president, the Vietnam War was at its height, the antiwar movement was cresting and the news was full of riots, bombings and a general sense that the fabric of society was not holding.
It had been two years since the "summer of love," and the innocence of the flower children had given way to increasing bitterness, anger and a generational dividing line between those who were political radicals and those who weren't.
What brought them together was the music.
Jimi Hendrix; Janis Joplin; Jefferson Airplane; the Grateful Dead; the Who; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Creedence Clearwater Revival; the Band - in all, 31 groups or individuals performed at Woodstock. If they weren't famous before the festival, Woodstock - the concert, film and record - assured that most of them would be famous for a long time after.
Few, if any, gave the performance of their lives at Woodstock. The Grateful Dead's performance became legendary as one of the band's worst; afterward, the Dead grumbled about bad Czechoslovakian acid, as well as wet equipment that zapped them with electrical shocks - sparks crackling like lightning on the stage! - when they picked up their guitars.
The British blues rocker Alvin Lee and his band, Ten Years After, were catapulted into superstar status for their performance of "I'm Going Home." But looking back on it now, Lee says: "I didn't play at all well. . . . I had played it better before and I've played it better since."
It didn't matter. Half the people in the audience couldn't even hear the music. For those who could - and for the far larger number who later saw the movie or heard the record - the sheer magic of the moment overwhelmed any technical shortcomings.
But somewhere along the way, Woodstock stopped being mainly about music. As important as the music was, it took more than "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," more even than Hendrix deconstructing "The Star-Spangled Banner," to tattoo an entire generation with the name of a rock concert.
How did it happen? As big as Woodstock was, it was, after all, only a concert. Somehow, though, it came to stand for not just an entire generation, but an entire era.
Thomas Segrue teaches the history of the 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania; his students were born in the mid-1970s. "Their image of the 1960s IS Woodstock," Segrue says. "My students think about Woodstock the way their parents might have thought about World War II. After all, the war was 25 years before Woodstock."
* * *
MAYBE IT WAS Abbie Hoffman who turned Woodstock into a legend. The yippie leader, who was brusquely chased from the Woodstock stage by the Who's Pete Townshend in the most overt clash between politics and culture at the festival, returned from Woodstock and declared himself a new man, from a new nation.
The Woodstock Nation.
"That's very useful rhetorical baggage, which he co-opted," says Jacob Cohen, a professor of history at Brandeis University who specializes in the 1960s.
Then again, maybe it was Joni Mitchell.
Her song, "Woodstock," written shortly after the concert, captured the sense of innocence and idealism that became its trademark, and spoke to the dreams of a generation: "We are stardust, we are golden, and we have got to get ourselves back to the garden."
Or maybe Michael Wadleigh, director of the "Woodstock" movie. This was the Woodstock most young Americans attended, and it was a much more carefully crafted, more intentionally ideological creation than the actual event.
Wadleigh, in turn, credits the festival's promoters with setting the right tone from the outset, with the emphasis on "peace and music" and their insistence that the concert be held outdoors, in the country.
"We talked, even before the event, about Woodstock being a Pilgrim's Progress or a Canterbury Tale. . . . I don't want to compare ourselves with Chaucer, but I'll bet this film 1,000 years from now will have a real validity."
* * *
THESE ARE DIFFERENT TIMES. One of the poignant things about seeing the Woodstock movie now is seeing the faces of young people, knowing their youth is now well behind them.
So many are dead. And so many, it seems safe to say, have lost whatever hold they had on the common dream of the time.
In the movie, a young couple sit by the side of a road talking about their lives and hopes. Somehow, the discussion turns to whether the young man would like to be president of the United States - a metaphor, really, for whether he wants to succeed at all in conventional society.
"I don't want to make the climb," he says. "Because there's nothing to climb for. It's all sitting right here."
You can't help but wonder: Does he still think so? Somehow, it seems easy to believe that he eventually made his peace - and his compromises - with the workaday world.
"My only regret," says Alvin Lee, "is that it seems the Peace Generation came together for Woodstock, and then they all dispersed and went home again."
Lee now lives and works in Spain. These are happy days for him, he says, but he misses the idealism of the late '60s. He wasn't asked to play at the Woodstock anniversary concert being held in Saugerties, N.Y., on Aug. 12-14. If he had been, he's not sure he would have accepted.
"Woodstock was an accident, and it was a great event, and I'm quite happy to leave it at that, actually."
John Sebastian, the folksinger whose gentle, sweet performance helped give Woodstock its aura, says the festival was "the beginning of the end." He was speaking of large outdoor concerts, but he may well have been speaking of the era as well.
Woodstock, more than one person has observed, marked the moment when corporate America discovered the baby boom generation in a big way. If 400,000 young people could turn out for a rock concert, who knew how many might buy blue jeans or record albums or hamburgers or beer?
* * *
THERE HAS BEEN GREAT DEBATE over the anniversary concert. It is being produced by the same three men who put together the original Woodstock festival: Lang, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. But with its corporate sponsors, $135 ticket price and slickly designed facilities, the anniversary concert strikes some '60s survivors as a sellout, out of tune with the sensibility of the original.
Another, now-cancelled concert was being put together in Bethel, N.Y., but it is likely that neither would completely satisfy those for whom Woodstock is hallowed ground.
All this strikes Roberts as so much silliness. The original Woodstock was very much a commercial venture - the promoters were, after all, attacked for charging the unheard-of price of $18 for a three-day ticket. Sure, most of the concertgoers got in for free, but that wasn't part of the plan.
"There was a major corporate thrust to it that was appropriate to the times, in the sense that whatever corporate or commercial outlets were available to us as the producers, we used," Roberts says.
This time the promoters want to get it right. If that means military-scale security, corporate logos, ATMs, pay-per-view television, T-shirt concessions and an appropriate fleet of portable toilets, well, maybe that's progress.
Is it Woodstock? Of course: The promoters own the trademark.
* * *
JOHN SEBASTIAN can be seen this summer in Pepsi commercials in which he jokes about Woodstock. He plans to play at the reunion concert in Bethel. He is profoundly unsentimental about the Woodstock legacy; it was, he says, "good for Sebastian," but hardly something that young people need to study in school.
"This was just a show," he says. "I don't know that 20-year-olds need to have anything burned into their skulls about this thing."
Sebastian wasn't on the original bill at Woodstock. It was part of the serendipitous nature of the festival that he was more-or-less shoved onto the stage when the promoters needed someone - quick - to fill a hole in the so-called schedule. He proceeded to give a performance that somehow distilled the spirit of the festival and the age.
At the close, he summed up with a little advice: "Just love everybody around you and clean up a little garbage on the way out and everything will be all right."
Oh, yes. Everything will be all right.
Here's a Woodstock trivia quiz
By Robert Davis
The time has come to get back to the garden. The 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, which took place Aug. 15-17, 1969, is upon us.
To commemorate the event, Woodstock '94 - a music and art fair featuring performers such as Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Aerosmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - will be held in Saugerties, N.Y., Aug. 13-14.
If you can't make it to the event, you can celebrate the anniversary - and test your memory - by taking the following quiz.
Here are 25 trivia questions to feed your head in Woodstock's honor. (The first three parts are on the Weekend Section cover. The answers can be found below.)
TRIVIA PART I: THE SCENE
1. What was the official title of Woodstock?
2. Why was Woodstock, N.Y., originally selected as the festival's site?
3. Where did Woodstock actually take place?
4. Name the farmer who rented out his dairy farm for the Woodstock site.
5. How much were the tickets to Woodstock?
TRIVIA PART II: THE PERFORMERS
1. Which performers opened and closed the three-day music festival?
2. Which performer, featured in the Woodstock film and on the Woodstock album, was not originally scheduled to play?
3. Who was the highest-paid performer and how much did that person earn?
4. What was Quill?
5. Name three Woodstock performers who died within one month of each other a year after Woodstock.
TRIVIA PART III: THE PEOPLE
1. Who did Pete Townshend of the Who swat off the stage with his electric guitar?
2. What duties did Chip Monck, John Morris and someone named Muskrat perform at Woodstock?
3. Who is Wavy Gravy and what was the Hog Farm?
4. How many people actually attended Woodstock?
5. What was the name of Woodstock's official food concessionaire?
6. Two people died at Woodstock. How many were born there?
PART IV: THE MUSIC AND MISCELLANEOUS
1. What song, featured on the Woodstock album, was created by the performer while on stage at Woodstock?
2. What was ironic about Country Joe McDonald singing his anti-military song, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"?
3. What primal heavy-metal band, whose best-known hit from 1968 included a famous extended drum solo, was booked to perform at Woodstock but was unable to make it from the airport to the festival site?
4. What was the No. 1 song on the charts during the week of the Woodstock festival?
5. Name two popular expressions used to describe the people who attended Woodstock.
6. Where can you find a famous secretary named Woodstock?
7. In what category did "Woodstock," the movie, win a 1970 Academy Award?
8. Name one of the editors of the Woodstock movie who went on to direct a number of popular films starring Robert De Niro?
9. Where was Joan Baez when she said to a crowd: "This is your Woodstock!"?
Woodstock Trivia Quiz answers
PART I: THE SCENE
1. Woodstock's official title was "The Woodstock Music and Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition in Wallkill, N.Y., 3 Days of Peace and Music."
2. Woodstock, N.Y., was selected because it was a popular artist and musician community. Its most famous resident at that time was Bob Dylan.
The Woodstock promoters planned to build a recording studio there with the profits from the Woodstock concert.
3. Originally planned for Woodstock, N.Y., the festival site was switched to Wallkill, N.Y.
Then, five weeks before the festival date, the local zoning board withdrew its approval. Woodstock finally took place in the town of Bethel in New York's Sullivan County.
4. His name was Max Yasgur.
5. A three-day ticket to Woodstock cost $18, but it eventually became a free concert.
PART II: THE PERFORMERS
1. Richie Havens opened the festival and Jimi Hendrix closed it with his now-famous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
2. Singer-songwriter John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, performed solo at Woodstock but wasn't officially booked for the show.
3. Jimi Hendrix was the highest-paid performer at Woodstock. He reportedly earned $36,000.
Hendrix performed at 6:30 a.m. Monday to a sparse crowd of about 25,000 people. (The penultimate act was Sha Na Na.)
4. Quill was one of the "unknown" musical groups that performed at Woodstock.
The group was known to the Woodstock producers, who had hired them to perform goodwill benefit concerts around the Wallkill community.
5. The three Woodstock performers who died within one month of each other were Al Wilson, the lead singer of Canned Heat, who died on Sept. 3, 1970; Jimi Hendrix, who died on Sept. 18, 1970; and Janis Joplin, who died on Oct. 4, 1970.
PART III: THE PEOPLE
1. It was the late Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. Townshend swatted him off the stage after Hoffman grabbed the mike and started making a political speech during the Who's set.
2. Chip Monck, John Morris and Muskrat were the masters of ceremonies who read stage announcements at Woodstock. E.H. Beresford "Chip" Monck was also stage-lighting and technical director, and John Morris was the production coordinator.
3. Wavy Gravy (who now runs a performance-arts summer camp) was the head of the Hog Farm, a communelike group that performed volunteer care services at the festival and assisted those on bum trips (Gravy preferred the term "hobo voyages").
4. The popularized estimate of the actual number of people who attended Woodstock is 500,000. The police and the media either made the number too small or too large, usually ranging from 350,000 to 600,000. No one really knows the exact number.
5. Food For Love was the official food concessionaire.
6. Two babies were reportedly born during the festival, though none are officially recorded.
PART IV: THE MUSIC AND MISCELLANEOUS
1. "Freedom," sung by Richie Havens, was created onstage at Woodstock.
2. McDonald was a veteran, having spent the first part of the decade in the U.S. Navy.
3. The group was Iron Butterfly and the hit song with the drum solo was "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
4. Zager and Evans' "In the Year 2525" was the No. 1 song on the charts that week.
5. Woodstock Nation and Woodstock Generation were two of the more popular expressions.
6. You can find a secretary named Woodstock in the comic strip "Peanuts." Woodstock the bird, a friend and secretary to Snoopy, made his first appearance in 1970.
7. It was named Best Feature Documentary at the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony.
8. Martin Scorsese was one of the film's editors. He went on to direct a number of popular Robert De Niro films, including "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."
9. She was at 1985's Live Aid concert.
Give yourself 1 point for every correct answer.
0-5 points: Bummer.
6-10 points: Drag scene.
11-15 points: Cool.
16-20 points: Far out.
21-25 points: Groovy.