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Some historical events are palpably momentous from the second they occur. Pearl Harbor. The fall of the Berlin wall. The first time man walked on the moon.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend, wasn’t one of them.
Jann Wenner, owner and editor of Rolling Stone, the preeminent music publication of the age, didn’t even go.
“Who wants to come to New York in August?” he says of the festival, which took place at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Bethel area of the Catskills from Aug. 15 to 17, 1969. “I lived on the West Coast then. I’d seen Jimi Hendrix three or four times already. I’d seen more than enough of the Grateful Dead.”
The New York Times was barely paying attention to the concert and got its big front-page wrap-up from a reporter named Barnard Collier, who went there on his own dime, called his editors at the paper and recalls saying something along the lines of, “You’re making a big mistake not devoting more resources to this.” (As he remembers it, they hastily sent up a couple of other staffers on the second day, when the crowds were simply too big to ignore.)
Nor did the Associated Press predict the party of the century, which is why many of the images it syndicated to publications like Life Magazine came from a 19-year-old intern named Lawrence Kramer, who’d never had a photo assignment before and presumably got the job because no one else wanted to go. “You’re a little spoiled if Woodstock is your first assignment,” says Kramer (now a digital media consultant). “But at the time, no one really knew it was going to be a story.”
Even after Janis Joplin; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Arlo Guthrie; Jefferson Airplane, and Carlos Santana finished their sets, few in the mainstream media (as it’s now called) heralded the weekend in Upstate New York as the most important rock ’n’ roll event of all time (or the signature cultural event of the Sixties).
Partly this is because Woodstock was, logistically speaking, a total disaster. Nearly 200,000 tickets were sold, and between 400,000 and 500,000 people showed up, according to Time magazine. The traffic jam leading up to the fairground was described by Rolling Stone’s man on the ground, Greil Marcus, as an epic mess comparable to the famous scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave film “Weekend.”
Then came the rain, the mud, the food and water shortages and the “brown acid” circulating throughout the crowd, which sent many to the makeshift infirmary. “It was hot and uncomfortable; there was no sanitation; people were sick; it was really bad,” Marcus remembers.
Of course, few people now remember Woodstock as the world’s worst traffic jam, a standoff in which the 346 police officers walked off the job just before the festival’s scheduled start, or a concert at which helicopters flew overhead, dropping fresh clothes into the wet crowd. It’s become something larger, vaguer and more symbolic — a kaleidoscopic fashion show for the Sixties characterized by groovy music, peace signs, fabulous clothes and endless free drugs. But at the time, the indignities people suffered at the festival dominated headlines and overshadowed the tremendous accomplishment of gathering all those kids in one place for the biggest concert ever.
“400,000 Jam Rock Festival in the Catskills” read the headline for The Washington Post’s first front-page story on the affair. That article didn’t even mention the bands playing the festival until nearly a thousand words had been devoted to car troubles, sick attendees and the boy who died when he fell asleep in a sleeping bag on a farm nearby and got run over by a tractor (one of only two people who died out of close to half a million).
The New York Times was vicious. An Op-Ed was titled “Nightmare in the Catskills” and went as follows: “The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation… What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?”
Hearing this today absolutely tickles Collier. “Someone should suggest that Stephen Colbert read it on air on Woodstock’s anniversary. What it looked like to me was a rare example of nonviolent anarchy, but newspapers are terrified of anarchy.”
Still, if much of the initial post-Woodstock press coverage was negative, it didn’t take long for the media to pivot from covering it as a domestic disturbance to dubbing it “history’s biggest happening,” per Time magazine only a week after the event.
And that troubles some members of the Woodstock press corps, who admit to being a little perplexed and exhausted by the festival’s enduring mythology. It’s like having failed to properly anticipate just how momentous Woodstock would be, the media has now spent an eternity kicking itself and telling people, “It’ll never be like that again.”
“My generation has worked really hard to insist that its history was privileged in a special way,” Marcus says. “We lived in what we considered to be the most glorious of all times and have devoted the rest of our lives to making sure no one ever forgets that. The result is to trivialize everything younger people have lived through, and part of the reason we’ve been able to do that is that every time this history is sold back to them, people line up to buy it. It’s tremendously destructive and sad.”
Wade Lawrence, director of The Museum at Bethel Woods, agrees journalists are laying it on a little thick as the 40th anniversary approaches, but isn’t sure that’s anything remarkable. “Woodstock has been overmythologized and pumped up, but I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. It means something to an awful lot of fifty-something and sixty-something people who were there and it changed their lives in a lot of ways. So was it pumped up? Yeah. But name a world event that doesn’t get pumped up by the media.”