That's why it was so refreshing, about 10 years after the event, to hear I wasn't alone. I was in a car riding from one gig to another with George Clinton, who though his music was grounded in the black community had always made it his mission to reach out to white fans. Someone, probably his publicist, mentioned Woodstock. Clinton exploded. "Man, don't even talk to me about Woodstock! I was there! Everyone's always saying how Woodstock was the beginning. Hell, no! It was the end! Once was a time, you wanted some weed, you could ask your friend and he'd lay some on you, and you'd pay him back when you had some. But at Woodstock, there were signs: 'Weed for sale!' Once, a musician was a cat like you, only he could sing and play better than you — you know, like Bob Dylan — not some god on a stage! Woodstock invented rock stars, man."
He wasn't completely right, of course. People had been selling marijuana at least as far back as Mezz Mezzrow's 1920s Chicago. And if rock stars had a place and time of invention (which I also doubt), it was the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967, where star turns by the Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, among others, changed the rock landscape. But each generation discovers things anew, and Clinton's outrage, at least, was appropriate to his.
As time went on, the rock festival became an institution, especially in Europe — huge events like Roskilde and Rock am Ring have now existed for decades. It has nothing to do with building a new world —they're where you test-market strategies for youth-oriented products. And the hordes who battered the gates at Woodstock have migrated to the Internet, where, with an identical sense of entitlement, they're downloading from torrent sites.
One thing they're probably not doing, however, is going to www.woodstock.com. There you'll find a number of things you probably expected — posters and memorabilia from the festival, DVDs of the new "director's cut" of Woodstock, the six-disc box set of live performances — along with a number of things you probably didn't, like very random concert reviews and a section on "living green." If you look carefully, you'll see that the whole thing is owned and operated by Sony. Wow, man: 40 years later and the Japanese own Woodstock. Heavy!
All this has come into existence because of that 40th anniversary. (Forty, after all, is the new 50: the people who were 20 at Woodstock will be 70 on its 50th anniversary, so let's take advantage of the marketing opportunities while those folks are still alive.) But Woodstock was an illusion when it happened, and 40 years hasn't changed that. It's one of those relics of the 1960s that gets trotted out to show younger generations how much better things were then, an assertion the youngsters are perfectly correct in not believing. Oh, it wasn't completely awful. It inspired a very nice song by Joni Mitchell (who wasn't there), and there were some memorable musical moments (though almost nobody heard Jimi Hendrix's astonishing set because everyone had left by then). But George Clinton was right: far from being the start of a new era, it was the end of one, and an inglorious end at that. If it were up to me, I'd just say let it be. But where's the money in that?