Lots of people never made it to Woodstock, in part because the 400,000 who did caused the most famous traffic jam in New York history. But for those of us who missed it because of the inconvenience of having not yet been born, the concert’s 40th anniversary is instinctively less a cause for celebration than an excuse to plug our ears. We know the basics or think we do. It was three days of music, peace, love and nudity remembered with greater clarity by those who weren’t present than those who were. For decades, our boomer elders have wielded that muddy weekend at Max Yasgur’s farm as a signature accomplishment. To have not been alive during Woodstock, we’re told, was to have missed the freest moment in American history.
Boomers do this regularly, of course make up stuff about how great they are. They’re also eager consumers of goods that jog the memory of their greatness. This explains the current avalanche of hagiographic Woodstock products DVDs, oral histories, “40th Anniversary Flashback Edition” paper dolls which is not the most apt way to recall a moment supposedly unbound from commercialism. But picking one’s way through the mess is worthwhile, if only to find Woodstock 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm , a six-disc collection of 77 tracks, many of which were thought lost, that strips out the mythology and reconstructs Woodstock as it was intended: a musical event. The eight hours of sound are just a fifth of the overall concert, and thank God. Because Woodstock’s first half was honkingly bad. Richie Havens’ “Freedom ,” a song he improvised onstage because other artists were stuck in traffic, is representative of the problem. Absent the day’s biggest commercial acts the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan declined to participate the bill tilted toward flute bands and folkies, and they played to a crowd the size of Reno, Nev., as if they were in a coffeehouse. A lot of the rock bands, meanwhile, were stoned out of their minds. At least the Who so enchanted with the vibe that Pete Townshend bonked a speechifying Abbie Hoffman on the head and wrote “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the concert’s wake come off as professional. Not passionate, but professional. It’s clear that no one not the bands, the organizers or the audience had a clue what they were supposed to be doing, and with good reason: no one had ever done it before. Prior to Woodstock there weren’t many impromptu six-figure gatherings or stadium tours, so appropriate behavior had to be invented. Luckily a leader emerged near the end of Day Two. Using the only lull in a churning 17-minute medley, Sly Stone explained that singing along isn’t old-fashioned, that it wouldn’t turn the kids into their parents: “You must dig it is not a fashion in the first place. It is a feeling, and if it was good in the past, it’s still good.” Moments later the entire city of Woodstock was shouting “Hiiii-yer.” By Day Three, after Yasgur praised the crowd for proving “that a half million kids can … have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music,” the concert had turned great. Not all of it 40 years later and still no one can explain why Sha Na Na was on the bill but enough so that the collective memory is founded in something real. Performing live for just the second time, at 4 a.m. no less, Crosby, Stills & Nash delivered a riveting “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” A few hours later, Jimi Hendrix treated the last 25,000 standing to their own national anthem. But Joe Cocker was the real king of Woodstock. We think of him now as a series of tics and growls, but his seven-minute version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” begins in complete control, slowly building until halfway through, when his sweet-voiced backup singers ask, “Do you need anybody” Cocker responds … well, it’s hard to describe exactly what he howls. But there’s no happier sound. And no matter how long people get together to listen to music, there won’t be another moment when singer, song and audience merge so completely. For a few days, a generation of people got high with their friends. It sounds like a small thing, until you hear it.