It was rainy but the mud had long been well and truly quelled before well rolled in our air-conditioned mid-sized SUV into the paved and enormous car park of the Bethel Center for the Arts at Bethel, New York. The public restrooms were much bigger than the stage once graced by the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Yes, this is Woodstock, but not as we know it.
And on this week day in September 2011, figures stooped and misshapen by age picked their way into the sumptuous building housing the corporate memories of an ageing generation. Meanwhile, a high school group all wearing the carefully cultivated gaze of ennui responded listlessly to their teacher’s instruction, “The bus!”
Clearly these adolescents weren’t particularly interested in another repetition of how their parents (or is it grandparents now?) allegedly changed the world.
Granted, the evidence proffered in the loud, vibrant, imaginatively curated display provided impressive evidence in favour of the world-changing hypothesis.
Over there is Exhibit A, the brain-paralysing blandness of the 1950s, big tailfins and little boxes and evenings watching black and white bonanza. And puppy love.
Further on is Exhibit B, nuclear annihilation.
Then a handsome president is smeared in Dallas and a war is stoked in an Asian jungle.
Suddenly Bonanza gives way to the first televised war. Uncle Walter stalks the streets of Saigon wearing a tin pot and a look of pained puzzlement.
LBJ, the president who signed into law the most far reaching legal guarantees of Black Civil Rights can’t understand how the most powerful nation on earth can’t win a small war, sacrifices his legacy in the interests of national unity. Some other Democrat will have to lead the party to victory in the 1968 presidential race. But the question is who?
The assassination of Bobby Kennedy disenfranchised American youth who believed that the war on poverty and the war on war could be won within the existing party system. The alternative was a new form of politics. I choose to call this politics existential Gandhianism. Woodstock was a leading example of this politics. But at the time most participants were only dimly aware of this intellectual force. People live their lives forwards but understand it backwards.
The Woodstock exposition does an excellent job in setting this scene. For the first time anywhere restless youth confronted big politics with a program of their own. And the primary action was simply to turn up. From coast to coast, by all means available, but most iconically in superannuated school buses and in amateurishly daubed Kombi vans hundreds of thousands descended on Yasgur’s Farm outside Bethel in verdant New York State.
Could I detect 1969’s dianesianism in the scattering of early baby boomers who shuffled past the flags, posters and cases of ephemera that comprised much of the museum exhibit? Not really. Perhaps they were members of the unmotivated majority who were left behind, u thought. I wasn’t there either. But I had an excuse. In August 1969 I was lighting engineer for my high school’s performance of “The King and I”. Moreover, I was in Australia. But I do vividly recall the ABC News breathlessly reporting on muddy events in some town half a world away. Now I know that town to be Bethel New York. Now high school students precisely my age are required to do assignments on those events. “Geez, do we hafta?”
All the expected stuff is there. Film footage. Audio clips. Fond reminiscence. Too much commentary from briefly famous performers telling us how great it was way back when.
And some surprises. The legacy of Woodstock exceed some vituperative commentary from Ronald and Nancy Reagan “The 60s was a terrible time to raise children because so many crazy things were happening. And Pat Buchanan, staunch conservative, who intelligently noted that Woodstock emphasised a cultural and political divide that continues to bedevil public discourse in the USA.
Later I saw two matrons peering at a photo of a drummer performing in 1974 at Roosevelt Park. “Remember that concert?” said one to another, “he was hot.”
The other gazed fixedly at the photo. Perhaps I misunderstood those ageing folk.
Even the Hoover Presidential Library could not resist applying itself to a pedestrian guide to changes between 1963 and 1968: