This is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and, with it, the romantic remembrances of days past. One program after another has described the musical encounters, the unfettered expression, even the mud and grime as the beginning of a “new age.” Woodstock has taken on the mantle of a generational theme. And millions claim to have been among the estimated crowd of 400,000.
Ang Lee has taken advantage of this nostalgic journey with his film “Taking Woodstock,” albeit there isn’t any attempt to describe the music at this event. That’s probably just as well since most youthful adherents weren’t listening to the music and many of those who did were too high to know what they were experiencing.
I have another view of Woodstock. A self-indulgent generation weaned on the slogan “better living through chemistry” sought to display unfettered expression on a cow pasture in New York state. All the romanticized hogwash cannot rationalize youngsters hooked on drugs, sex and rock and roll. Most were simply riding the Eden express to a place called oblivion. They weren’t committed to “new ideas,” as if there are any, nor were they revolutionaries; they simply wanted to have fun.
To compare this youthful venture in rebellion to some kind of religious awakening is absurd on any level, including the debased level of the revelers. Yet remarkably as the years pass and the baby boomer generation wears its graying pony tails to Grateful Dead concerts, Woodstock has taken on a quasi-religious designation. For many a roll in the hay is recalled as a roll in the mud, a moment when you can let it all hang out because anything goes was the modus operandi.
This was undisguised bacchanalia, nothing more or less. Why convert it into the Great Awakening of the 60s? If anything, it was designed to shock an already shockproof America. It was giving the finger to bourgeois society by the children of the bourgeoisie. These weren’t poor kids trapped in the inner city of marginal schools and insufficient jobs. These were the progeny of privilege acting out in a town far from home with kindred souls who found the liberating effects of drugs.
Drugs, after all, were the lubricant for anti-social expression. They reduced the barriers established by the super-ego. They said in effect, “if it feels good, do it.” For some, the drugs offered freedom; for others, it gave a jolting kick in the rear as overdoses and vomiting were a reminder reality hadn’t evanesced. Brain cells were damaged by drug-addled youths who didn’t know when to stop or who thought they could defy gravity on LSD.
Sure, one can look back and say it was a remarkable event, a gathering unlike others. And there is some truth to this claim. But this is a marginal truth, the footnote to a real story. The existential truth is that a lot of youngsters eager to overcome restrictions demanded by social norms found an outlet at Woodstock. These weren’t revolutionaries, although they claimed that title. They were merely rationalizing behavior their parents reproved.
Before Woodstock is given a chapter heading in American history, it behooves those who can remember without the assistance of rose colored glasses, to tell the actual story. That is the story of wild orgies, drug-fueled memories, and filthy port-o-potties that didn’t work, mounds of vomit and excrement that was ground into the soil as fertilizer.
For those too young to know, beware of claims about Woodstock. It was not all it was cracked up to be and it certainly is not deserving of nostalgic praise. Memories, of course, can play tricks on us. As I see it, Woodstock is among the most elaborate tricks of all.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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