Beginning? Or end?

By ED WARD  |  August 12, 2009

But I was disquieted by Woodstock then, and this feeling got more intense as time went on. There was the crowd's demand for a free festival. I'd done some concert promotion and watched others do it, and I knew it was hard work. I also knew musicians and was aware of how difficult their work could be. I didn't understand why these gate crashers, who I assumed were middle-class white kids (though crowd shots I've seen recently show far more black faces than would have been in a similar shot three years later), felt they had a right to free entertainment.

I was also put off by the juggernaut of hype that followed the event, hype that was generated by the media — including Rolling Stone — and snowballed as the release of Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary drew near. By the time the film came out, I was living in San Francisco and working for Rolling Stone, and my colleagues and I got to attend a screening in a big theater with a deluxe sound system. I wasn't aware at the time that much of what some people thought was the best music played at the festival — like the performances by the Band and the Grateful Dead — hadn't made it into the film. Neither was I aware that some of the music on screen — specifically the much-hyped debut of Crosby, Stills & Nash — had been re-recorded afterward. As a music critic, I was appalled by Ten Years After's interminable "Goin' Home," but not as appalled as I was by the many people I read and talked to who considered it the highlight of the film.

As the years went by, I found the endless attempts to replicate Woodstock depressing. Of course, "replicate" is the wrong word: nobody wanted to repeat the filth and the mud and the bad sound system. No, these were attempts to do it right. That's what was depressing: in a world where the drugs of choice had gone from the kind that made you passive and inert (marijuana, LSD) to the kind that made you surly and aggressive (alcohol and amphetamines), idiots were still trying to cram 100,000 people into a field and make a profit on a peaceful gathering that had no way of happening, and you still got filth, mud, and bad sound. I went to only a couple of events like this, and I made sure I had VIP access and a way to get home. Even so, I found them so physically grueling that it was impossible to enjoy the music. And wasn't that the point? Well, no: people came to get stoned, hang out, throw frisbees, drink, and flirt, all to a soundtrack that was a lot like the local FM radio station, only louder and more distorted. Some came to hear the bands, but not as many as you'd think.

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