The caption underneath the photograph on the front page of The New York Times for Sunday, August 14, explained the squalor: “People dancing in a pit of mud.” “Elsewhere,” the accompanying article pointed out, “people could be found completely covered in mud.” No, the scene was not from an anthropologist’s notebook or a refugee camp in Rwanda: it was from Woodstock ’94, the up-to-date reprise of the infamous music festival that, for friends and foes alike, came to epitomize the boutique hedonism of the 1960s.
The original Woodstock was hailed by the starry-eyed as a great triumph of youthful idealism. Despite the torrential rains (there was plenty of mud in 1969, too, which made the 1994 mud bath seem to some like an act of Providence), half a million people came together for three days in a spirit of non-violence, anti-materialism, and brotherly love. Or so goes the usual fairy tale. Charles Reich’s mind-numbing best seller from 1970, The Greening of America, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue, was at once an instance of and a cheerleader for this fairy tale. Reich enthused about the heightened “consciousness” of a “new generation” that “rejects the idea that man’s relation to man is to be governed primarily by law or politics, and instead posits an extended family in the spirit of the Woodstock Festival.” Never mind all that poisoned LSD, the drug overdoses, and the shattered lives: the spectacle of five hundred thousand teenagers squirming in the mud, some of them naked, many drugged to the gills, does a pretty good job of summing up what “the Sixties” was all about. Add the mindless political slogans, the anti–Vietnam War fervor, and the electrified Dionysian cacophany that Jimi Hendrix et al. provided and you’ve got the complete recipe. Charles Reich was correct in thinking that the consciousness of the “new generation” he lauded found its objective correlative in Woodstock.
The times seem very different today, of course, but the success of the ’94 festival shows that in many ways the spirit that made Woodstock really did triumph. In the weeks leading up to the event, the newspapers and other media engaged in a fevered orgy of nostalgia and marketing hype. Public television channels across the country repeatedly aired the movie version of the original festival. In a long, solemn article previewing the “music” scheduled for the weekend (one of many bulletins he provided), the rock critic for The New York Times, Jon Pareles, specially recommended the bands Nine Inch Nails and Metallica, and noted that other star acts, including Arrested Development and Porno for Pyros (no, we’re not making up the names), would join such old timers as Santana and Joe Cocker. In the event, more than three hundred thousand people attended this exercise in generational nostalgia, though exactly how many forked over the $135 ticket price (up from $18 in 1969) is unclear. As of Saturday, there was one death reported and hundreds of drug overdoses to cope with; by Sunday, emergency medical workers compared the scene to “a war zone” as doctors treated a new patient every twenty seconds. Sanitation was drastically improved over ’69, however, as was security: though the same three individuals who organized the original Woodstock festival also organized Woodstock ’94, they had learned some lessons. This time there were twelve hundred security guards and miles of fence to keep out the rabble who lacked tickets and to help ensure that this new celebration of peace, love, and non-materialistic idealism proceeded on a firmer financial foundation than its predecesor. The promoters declared the festival a great success. And why not? According to The New York Times, once inside the gates there were “innumerable things to buy.” To expedite the good feelings, cash machines and concessions selling “Woodstock scrip” were on hand to supply fans with the wherewithal to purchase the ubiquitous Woodstock T-shirts and $11 slices of pizza. Major credit cards were also accepted.
Marx famously said that great historical events tend to occur twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. What would he have said about a farcical tragedy that came back as a black comedy?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 1, on page 2
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