Back to the Garden

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s or later has had to live with the premise that they missed rock ‘n’ roll’s best days. The Rolling Stone history of music says that the 1960s were a musical and cultural high water mark, and everything since pales by comparison. The iconic moment for that belief is Woodstock – a gathering that demonstrated just how large the rock ‘n’ roll audience was (more than 450,000) and what it would do for rock ‘n’ roll (travel to the country outside Woodstock, New York, which is no Monterey). It provided the conceptual blueprint for future music festivals – Jazz Fest included – by linking music, culture and arts, and it provided the model for future festival booking, emulating a Chinese buffet as it put on a little bit of everything people liked without lining up exactly with anybody’s tastes.

Last month was  the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and to commemorate the moment, Rhino has released Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm, a six-disc set of music from Woodstock, reissued Woodstock and Woodstock II,  while Sony Legacy has repackaged albums by Woodstock artists with their Woodstock sets. Combined, they offer an occasion to reconsider Woodstock as it was, as opposed how it has been represented through history.

The initial response? Overrated. The six-disc set  is pretty baggy, with folk singers thankfully lost to time, folk singers who treat every sentiment as gospel (Joan Baez), and folk singers who are too high (John Sebastian). Canned Heat boogie on for a half-hour, and even Jimi Hendrix’s closing jam loses purpose.

Such criticisms feel a little unfair, critiquing music that is inextricably linked to the aesthetics and causes of the moment from a contemporary perspective. It’s a little like members of one generation goofing on their parents’ style; it might be dated, but it wasn’t always dated, and perhaps the error is in being too much a part of the moment. Many of the musical sins of Woodstock are directly attributable to the self-assured attitude that the bands, audience and youth in the culture were doing right, and right thought made good art. We know that’s not true and I’d like to think the artists at the time did too, but the sense of revolution dulled their judgment.

Even if we agree to be charitable, much of Woodstock is tough to listen to. Sha Na Na seems like an even worse idea as the group rips through “Get a Job” with punk rock rapidity, and a generous sampling of Mountain says the only Mountain you need is “Mississippi Queen.” But Woodstock wasn’t all rain and fear of brown acid; Sly and the Family Stone are represented on the Rhino collection by a medley that keeps on giving, but as the Legacy release demonstrates, the show was pretty relentless. The Legacy set ends with “Stand,” which finds the band spent after the medley and “Love City,” and it’s anticlimactic.

The Who were not about peace and love, and not getting on stage until 4 a.m. did nothing to improve their mood. Neither did encountering a very high Abbie Hoffman onstage, one who felt that their set was the perfect time to talk about freeing John Sinclair. As a result, their tracks are ferocious, horribly and blessedly out of step with the vibe. Grace Slick started the Jefferson Airplane set by announcing, “You have seen the heavy guys. Now you will see morning maniac music,” and the results are sufficiently unruly to make me rethink my general disinterest the band. Their set is packaged with Volunteers, and they do bring a level of chaos that folk rock usually needed – their own included.

Obviously, a six-disc Woodstock set is designed to take listeners to the experience as best as possible, and the announcements from the stage between sets are some of the most interesting, revealing parts. There’s a surprising amount of drama in announcer Chip Monck’s carefully phrased and ennunciated news. You can hear moments of barely suppressed pride in the size of the crowd and what it represented, barely supressed laughs at some of the more ridiculous announcements, and not-even-remotely supressed exasperation with the people who found perches in the scaffolding, even though they obstructed the view of those behind them. That and the infamous brown acid also reminds us that Woodstock wasn’t as utopian as we’ve been led to believe, and that no time has been free of assholes and predators.

Weirdly, when I was Woodstocked out – never made it through Janis Joplin’s and Johnny Winter’s set, the former because I didn’t care enough, the latter because I love the rush of 15 minutes of anything Winter did at that time, but more is just more at some point – I was a little sorry for the releases. On one hand, it’s vindicating to know that previous generations don’t necessarily have the aesthetic upper hand on mine, but it’s still a little disappointing to find out how ordinary much of Woodstock was. In truth, though, it really only suffers because of the place Woodstock has held in our culture. If it hadn’t been posited as something momentous, one would expect some dross on an album that presented the highlights of from 33 sets. But it was a remarkable moment, and it’s a shame that its soundtrack provides reason to doubt the whole event. If the music was less than history has led us to believe, what else about Woodstock has been overhyped?