Hell, Forty Years On

P.J. O’Rourke reviews several (needless to say) reverential “histories” of Woodstock on the event of its 40th anniversary. Here’s a sampling:


Woodstock was an occasion of enormous pointlessness. I’m loath to give the New York Times credit for anything, then or now, but the newspaper did run the following editorial on Monday, August 18, 1969:

The sponsors of this event, who apparently had not the slightest concern for the turmoil it would cause, should be made to account for their mismanagement. To try to cram several hundred thousand people into a 600-acre farm with only a few hastily installed sanitary facilities shows a complete lack of responsibility.

And The Road to Woodstock proudly quotes the editorial–further proof that Michael Lang’s porch light may remain on, these 40 years later, but he’s still not home.

“We shared everything,” Lang gushes on page 4, and on page 226 he blithely notes, “There were two fewer Food for Love stands on Sunday. . . . Angry kids . . . fed up by the prices and the wait, burned them down Saturday night.”

This be-in required some “Be All You Can Be.” Lang, with utter deafness to irony, says, “A local politician requested that the National Guard . . . supply helicopters. The guard agreed, and their helicopters transported donated food.” (And let us note that the National Guard also did a heckuva job at Kent State the following spring.)

“We recognized one another for what we were at the core, as brothers and sisters,” Lang intones. But a music journalist, present at that core, described a wooden bridge between the performers’ area and the stage as crossing “over the wall separating the stars from the main mulch.”

Woodstock had a tremendous impact on American artistic life. “The lighting of candles,” Lang says, “would set a precedent that carries on to this day. The candles became lighters, which have since become cell phones.”

And Woodstock had deep political meaning: “Out of that sense of community, out of that vision, that Utopian vision, comes the energy to go out there and actually participate in the process so that social change occurs,” said Abbie Hoffman, shortly before he killed himself. In the meantime Abbie had written a book, Woodstock Nation. Like everyone else I have never read it, but I’ve been to that country–overcrowded, muddy, lacking in food, and public order. It’s called Bangladesh. (And wasn’t there a concert that had something to do with that place, too?)

Abbie Hoffman was the source of the one amusing Woodstock anecdote. You’d think you’d get a lot of funny stories from filling a cow pasture with half-a-million adolescents. But no. The Who were playing. After “Pinball Wizard,” Pete Townshend turned away to adjust his amplifier. Abbie rushed onstage, grabbed the microphone and began a political rant. Townshend “whacked him in the head with his guitar.”

It was one of Pete’s best licks. And here’s another: “The people at Woodstock,” the book quotes Townshend as saying, “really were a bunch of hypocrites claiming a cosmic revolution simply because they took over a field, broke down some fences, imbibed bad acid, and then tried to run out without paying the bands.”


Watch any episode of Mad Men to to get a sense of the cool Rat Pack/JFK/ Mies van der Rohe aesthetics of the beginning of the 1960s. Watch Woodstock and Gimme Shelter immediately afterward to begin to understand how badly the American left’s cognitive dissonance after JFK’s death augured that decade so badly into the ground.

Related: A must-see! This is by far the best, most accurate translation of the lyrics sung by Joe Cocker during his interpretation of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” onstage at Woodstock.


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