Country Joe's Place

Irwin Silber on Woodstock



The most overwhelming impression one gets from the inevitable film of the Woodstock Festival is that the euphoria was real.

I suppose that those of us who did not participate in that cataclysmic Catskill ritual will never really know what it was like, but this opulent and expertly produced filmed record of the now-legendary event undoubtedly captures much of the feeling which the Woodstock experience generated.

Drug-induced? Unquestionably. But to say that and no more is really to say very little. Surely it is of some moment to understand, in part at least, why in the summer of 1969, a year almost to the day of the Chicago massacre, with B-52s flying their daily missions over Vietnam, in the heat of America's campaign of extermination against the Black Panthers, almost half a million young people went up to the mountain top of a drug-music-communal experience and announced to themselves and the world at large that they were a nation in the process of coming of age.

One may believe, as I do, that it is a pathetic rebellion, an escalation of pseudo-innocence to the level of massive self-indulgence and ultimate social defeat. Still, it is a phenomenon of some importance, and if it must ultimately fail as an answer to the sickness of America, it can at least be understood as a symptom of the living death which America has become.

The film of Woodstock, a massive undertaking which will undoubtedly recoup the highly-publicized financial "loss" of the concert itself many times over, tells us a lot about this incredible phenomenon in ways which are ironically unintentional.

But first, one must recognize that the film, while clearly a documentary of the original weekend, is an event in itself, subject to its own logic and aesthetic conformations. The sheer process of editing down 315,000 feet of film and 81 hours of sound recording into a three-hour movie implies an attitude and an appraisal which the selections and unity reflect. That attitude is, fundamentally, one of self-justification -- self-congratulation would probably be more accurate -- on the part of the Festival producers. To a great extent this is the Woodstock of legend now on the screen, a Woodstock in which the incompetence and ineptitude of the Festival promoters is seen simply as a case of too much of a good thing.

From a technical point of view, director Michael Wadleigh and his sound and camera crew have done a superb job. The sound is excellent, so good, in fact, that I'm sure the music played at Woodstock will have a much greater impact in the theater than it could possibly have had out in the open spaces around White Lake. Using double and triple split-screens with supreme assurance, "Woodstock" manages to juxtapose musician and audience, theme and reality, art and life in a marvelously visual counterpoint which is constantly inventive. Perhaps "Woodstock" does not show us all the dimensions of Woodstock. Abbie Hoffman and the ill-fated "Movement City" are nowhere to be seen in the film. The overwhelming sense of communality in the face of mutual hardships which so many who were there talked about afterwards is only hinted at in some fleeting moments of a joint or a bottle of wine being passed around. But most everything else seems to be there -- the grass, the love-making, the unabashed laying on of hands and taking off of clothes, the relaxation, the occasional bad trips, the perpetual high, the skinny-dipping, the self-conscious reports on the size of their "city" and the various social announcements over the loudspeaker system, and of course and mostly the music. In the film, at least, the music dominates everything, and because the very best has been selected, "Woodstock" may turn out to be the single best presentation of the sound of contemporary rock yet made.

But there are other things revealed in "Woodstock." Never has the show business reality of the rock revolution been shown more clearly. Faced with the problem of having to communicate with several hundred thousand people under less than ideal conditions, the inventive professionals who played their music on the Woodstock stage over that weekend pulled out every trick they'd ever learned and improvised a few more on the spot. From Richie Havens' flowing Indian costume to the gyrations of The Who, the whole texture of the rock performing style begins to merge into a pattern. The deliberate casualness and studied spontaneity of rock, as compared with the vapid triteness of its musical antecedents, has created the illusion of a culture which is free-flowing and open-ended.

But commodity art, no matter how creative, is inevitably defined by the necessities of packaging and distribution, programming and exploitation. Surely it should not be a disappointment to see this pattern in the music of Woodstock. In a certain sense one can appreciate the achievement of such a Joe Cocker (absolutely stupendous in the film with his rendition of "A Little Help from My Friends"), Sly and the Family Stone and Country Joe & The Fish even more, once the limitations are recognized.

One is also struck by the almost total male-ness of the Woodstock scene, a social delineation which I think is a characteristic of "hip" culture generally. The music is made almost exclusively by men. With the exception of Sly and the Family Stone, the few women who participate do so in such traditional female roles that the old patterns, far from being smashed, are reinforced. One begins to understand why the "groupies" have emerged as one of the more unsavory sub-cultures of the rock explosion. But the maleness of the Woodstock scene is not limited to the stage. Within the context of a new kind of sexual freedom, male and female roles among most of the Woodstock half million do not seem to be appreciably different from general societal patterns. In fact, one senses that some of the cultural mores of Woodstock, with their orientation to male-dominated social forms of the past -- whether the mysticisms of the East or the primitive naturalism so celebrated as the response to technology -- actually represent a step into the past in terms of the liberation of women. One can almost feel a "Me Tarzan, You Jane" mood rustling through the Woodstock grass.

And finally, subtly and for the most part unconsciously, what also emerges is a sense of elitism. "I don't want to see a mass change" says one of the Woodstock "stars" at one point. He doesn't articulate it, but it is clear that the creation of a free "sanctuary" in the heart of the American wasteland is a more accurate representation of the goals of these young than the painful and massive process of restructuring society in meaningful terms.

And this, in a sense, is the ultimate banality of most of that which passes itself off as a "revolution of the mind" in the name of cultural change in America. It would like to bring into being a "free" society, unstructured, natural, open and loving. But so far it seems unwilling to pay the price necessary in such a process -- namely the political commitment which would understand that only the liberation of the American working class and total elimination of both racism and male domination can bring that about.

At the end of "Woodstock," with the vibrations of Jimi Hendrix' rendition of the Star Spangled Banner still in our heads, we hear the crowd (surely from an earlier moment since only a relative handful were still around at the dawn's early light) shouting "More, more, more!" It may not have seemed so to those who made the film, but it was the statement not of the people but of the merchandisers, the producers, the mob-manipulators who were paying homage to the new breed of consumer. Uncalled for, the image which came into my mind was that of Oliver Twist, plaintively holding out his bowl for another portion of oatmeal, crying "more, more, more" for the simple sustenance which kept him alive. Perhaps some day the plea will become a demand, the demand will become an action, and the "more" will be not only music but a life which is no longer dependent on the largesse of those who define us.

-- From The Cultural Revolution: A Marxist Analysis by Irwin Silber


H  O  M  E