A Weekend in Paradise: Wallowing in Woodstock the Spectacle
In my job, the idea is to have fun. If you don't have fun most of the time, you're not doing your job. And if you do, you're permitted to conclude that when you don't, they're not doing their job. So one reason I attended Woodstock II was to have fun. But I never thought it would be easy.
For one thing, I had trouble finding a date, and understandably so: preliminary reports read like Monty Python fantasies. The rigidly scheduled arrivals at inaccessible parking lots in groups of not more or less than four, the severely limited egress, the bans on not just drugs and alcohol but children and coolers and, Jesus, tent stakes, and--the crowning touch--the scrip that would be the only legal tender at the overpriced concession stands made Woodstock-in-Saugerties sound like a cross between Tommy's Holiday Camp and the company store Tennessee Ernie sold his soul to. My lifetime companion preferred to stay in bed.
Still, I found much of the nay-saying misguided. Doing talking head duty as one of the few veterans of Woodstock '69 with a public claim to enthusiasm for Rock and Roll '94, I was dismayed when an interviewer complained that the new model was "commercial." I mean, this was rock and roll. The main reason the first festival didn't make money, if it didn't after residuals, was that the exploitation of popular music was so primitive back then. Even sillier were the whines of Catskill locals that Michael Lang and his PolyGram collaborators had purloined a sacred spirit from either a bunch of washed-up folkies at the old Max Yasgur place or the town of Woodstock. By refusing to countenance a real rock concert in a neck of the woods where the old-timers I've talked to look back on the first festival with nostalgic pride, the Sullivan County powers-that-be got the traffic jam and terrible music they deserved (although the Deadhead-style Free Festival that replaced Sid Bernstein's fiasco clearly did have a utopian-escapist magic of its own). As for the boho yokels sequestered in Woodstock-the-municipality, let me be perfectly clear. One factor above all made both Woodstock I and Woodstock II whatever they were: size. They were big, b-i-g big. BIG. BIG. BI-fucking-IG. And they wouldn't have been that way without money, m-o-n-e-y money. Shekels. Dollars. Venture capital.
None of which is to suggest that the basic pretension of Woodstock II, which is that somehow a myth would return to life with the proper application of money, wasn't totally and permanently ridiculous. "They say history repeats itself," we in the press tent heard again and again from PolyGram's John Scher, who emerged as corporate spokesperson once the event was underway and Lang's patina of authenticity had outlived its usefulness. Yet though the conceit goes back to Thucydides, as a '60s fart I prefer Marx, who amended Hegel with "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce"--only since the original Woodstock was more like a miracle, call the follow-up a spectacle. As I told one interviewer, it's impossible to recreate your own marriage five years down the road, so how could anyone expect to recreate so much vaster a social fact? But as I also told her, that didn't mean something else fairly wondrous couldn't happen instead.
That wasn't the main reason I ended up at Woodstock II, however. The main reason was that I wanted to see the bands. Maybe somewhere in the world there's an equally vast social fact, perhaps a religious pilgrimage I'm too culture-bound to know about. But this one wouldn't have happened--wouldn't have happened once, wouldn't have happened twice--without rock and roll. The music wasn't what the original seekers remembered about Woodstock I, but it was why they were there, and as the crowds jamming the North Field at Saugerties Saturday and Sunday proved, no amount of mud or mind-boggling gestalt could distract second-generation celebrants from the cultural commodity that brought them together. Over the past 25 years, however, that commodity has become almost incomprehensibly more huge and various. Partly as a result of forces unleashed or catalyzed or just plain symbolized by Woodstock I, the range of available music had increased tenfold.
Newsday's Ira Robbins rightly pointed out that the bill was "solidly second-drawer. No Springsteen, no Pearl Jam, no Dead, no R.E.M., no U2, no Led Zeppelin reunion." To which one might add, no Guns 'N Roses or Dr. Dre, no Elton John or Rolling Stones, no Madonna or Michael or Janet. Although the general suspicion of Woodstock II contributed to this shortfall, economics made it inevitable--most of the above-named are stadium draws capable of selling 50,000 seats in a single city, well beyond the reach of promoters hoping to attract a mere 250,000 customers to two and then three full days of music. In 1969, there was no such thing as a stadium draw, and the only acts with the undeniable commercial-artistic cachet of the above-named were Dylan-Beatles-Stones, none of whom played Woodstock. And though in retrospect the Who and Jimi and Janis and Sly put Aerosmith and Metallica and Peter Gabriel to shame, through 1969 they had two number one LPs among them, and their lifetime total was four. The long list of folkies at Woodstock I says a great deal about the provenance of American "rock" in the hippie era, and also suggests why Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young proved the festival's real commercial powerhouse. And the total lack of lineup controversy says even more about rock's focus back then. Nobody foresaw the future of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and nobody was smart enough to complain that the Velvets and the Stooges were already of far greater aesthetic and historical moment than Mountain and Jefferson Airplane. What alternatives were there? The MC5? The Mothers of Invention? Come on. Maybe we were utopians, but we didn't think we could have everything.
And then there's the most crucial difference of all. In 1969 the music was the locus of a culture that everyone believed was out there whether they were part of it or not. Going for the music meant going for the culture in a way it no longer can--the two were inextricable. Looking back to render an analysis that would have seemed pointless then, I realize I went for the culture. This wasn't because I didn't care for the acts, although I sat out Friday's rain-soaked folk bill in the commodious tent of some generous acquaintances my girlfriend and I bumped into and spent the weekend with. (Thanks again, Josh and Babette.) It was because as an unmarried 27-year-old rock critic living in a $45-a-month apartment five blocks from the Fillmore East, I had caught most of them many times. As an overemployed 52-year-old rock critic with a nine-year-old and a coop to run, I'm lucky to get out three times a month, and when I do I have alternatives galore. As a result, I hadn't seen a single one of the 22 acts announced as of mid July since the Nevilles played the Bottom Line long about 1987. For me, music is a job that's inextricable from my life. So those "two more days of peace and music"--hell, even three--sounded like they might be fun. And they were for damn sure, albeit not exactly in the ways I'd pictured. No two ways about it--I had a great time. Guess somebody was doing their job.
Ten days earlier, however, all qualms in re lineup, companionship, and totalitarianism were operative, and I had conceived a remedy: Lollapalooza IV. Alternathink plaints about Perry Farrell's ripoff only convinced me I'd love the thing, and in 1994 the bands were L7, George Clinton, the Beastie Boys, the Breeders, A Tribe Called Quest, and Smashing Pumpkins--plus, oh well, the Boredoms and Nick Cave, but six out of eight is smoking. I was beguiled too by tales of the second stage, political tables, and interactive gewgaws. We journalists call this kind of thing a setup. It would be sheer joy to shake my fun in Michael Lang's face when his ill-laid plans went thataway. I hoped there'd be a press area to hear music from, but if not, me and Carola and Nina and our friend Marc would simply bask further back, exploring the sideshows when Nina got bored and repairing to the misting tent to cool off.
This fantasy proved seriously palmy. Maybe the August 3 Lollapalooza at Quonset State Airport in Rhode Island was merely the victim of the four-car accident that closed Route 4 and turned an hour-and-a-half trip from Boston into a four-hour crawl that cost L7 their slot and effectively reduced the number of bands we caught to four even though we saved 45 minutes on back roads. But I think it went deeper than that. In fact, I'm ready to wonder how much effective fellow feeling a postutopian aesthetic can generate. Thank God last-minute child care reduced our party to three--at best Nina would have been the only preteen on the premises, and at worst she might have gotten hurt.
Certainly three of the sets were fine. The Breeders' rough-hewn diffidence, too raggedy a year ago, has evolved into sweet mastery of noise-tune tension, edging out toward chaos then bringing it all back home; it took just four or five brief songs for Marc, a 42-year-old whose appetites tend toward the blues-based and lately the African, to get inside the aesthetic. Although Clinton wasted precious minutes on a lousy white female rapper, a mediocre black female soul singer, and a lecture about drugs and the CIA, most of the P-Funk All-Stars' music was classic in the best sense--together and comfortable at its most galvanizing and up-for-the-downstroke. And the Beasties proved themselves headliners who preferred leaving early to topping the bill. But in any mass setting quality per se is never enough. You have to be able to hear it. And you have to enjoy the company.
Having left our car near the gate for a quick exit, we had plenty of chance to look the crowd over as we hoofed across a thickly weeded cement-and-asphalt parking lot. It was 3:30 at a concert announced for two, yet there was tailgating everywhere as kids downed their verboten beers. About half looked nonstraight--hair colored or braided or long or shaved or coyly unkempt, funny boots, a very few male skirts or kilts, loads of alternaband T-shirts. Between sob stories at the comp window and contraband iced tea at the frisk point, it was four before we were inside, barely in time to get bored with the Verve's second-stage feedback and discover that that dim throb over there was Quest finishing its set. After the rappers had baptized the moshers up front, the audience trod past and over our poncho. We moved up, then found ourselves packed tight for the Breeders half an hour later. They were wonderful, as I said. But sometimes the music was obscured by more immediate sensory stimuli.
At 60 or 75 yards from the stage we were close enough to get a good look at moshing that was willfully rough and intense for such a gentle band, and occasionally a floater would pass by. Since my body is breakable and Carola's more so, I elbowed the guy who crashed next to me for future reference, although I felt more kindly toward the girls, who were not just smaller but braver, more vulnerable--giving up their physical safety to the group, which is the theory, rather than menacing wimp standees, which was too often the male fact. Then, during a lovely "Driving on Nine," a pit opened up right in front of us, threatening a perimeter the moshers would have been happy to enlarge even if a few small young things went home with abrasions. Between eight and a dozen muscular boys, every one taller or broader than me and most both, crossed play-fighting with turf war--no fists, but plenty of hard shoves, with the requisite grins frequently forced or absent, a mark of cool rather than camaraderie. Most of them looked like frat assholes feeling their hormones, the same thing that makes dance night fight night from El Paso to Liverpool. Earlier I'd been bemused by the pit-etiquette advisories in the Beasties' free newspaper. Now I understood.
If only because the crowd never closed up, things were better for George, and if half of those who stayed barely paid attention, much less danced or knew the hand signals, at least they could spy L7 boogieing on the scaffold. As the 25-minute intermission ended, Marc took his camera forward for the Beasties, then quickly returned--it was too crazy up there. The set began fast and strong with "Sure Shot," and almost immediately two pits combusted spontaneously within five yards of us as everyone else pogoed. We were having too much fun to retreat. But around the end of the second song that choice was denied us as several scared-looking girls led a stampede, which we joined instantly with the help of a a tall, intrepid black kid--one of two dozen I saw all day--scooping up our stuff. I shoved a few times, stumbled a few times, caught Carola once or twice; when it was over a minute later, my notes were gone and our distance from the stage had almost doubled. Musically, this made a tremendous difference--the difference between inhabiting the music and observing it. The excitement was secondhand now, and although the blanket-tossing that started up front eventually reached our depth, where we were the music was the occasion rather than the inspiration for this far friendlier physical rite.
It was after 8, so we spread our stash of Armenian food on a desolate press table slightly aft of the stage, but although we hoped to avoid Nick Cave, all too soon rampant self-expression was drowning out dinner conversation. We took our time returning, then lounged far back as the decent conventional rock and unriveting arena solos waxed and mostly waned. Occasionally the star would announce that he was about to knock our socks off, but he never came close, and around 9:20 he started complaining in a strangely un-Australian accent. He dissed Rhode Island, he dissed the site, he told us we should "tear up the empty lot" when the show was over, he congratulated us sarcastically for attending: "There may be a bomb underneath you but you are rocking--at least you can tell your children that you came and you rocked." He pouted: "I'm sorry we suck." He rationalized: "We apologize for trapping ourselves in a vortex we can't get out of." Finally, just before 10, he advised us to drive safely and limped off to widely scattered cheers. The Quonset edition of Lollapalooza was over.
I was pissed off and deeply confused. For half an hour I'd been jeering this bad expressionist band in the expectation that soon I'd hear a good one, Smashing Pumpkins. God, I thought, that must have been some traffic jam. But when Carola asked who the female musician was, I figured it out. Nick Cave had preceded Quest--that was Smashing Pumpkins. How embarrassing for me--but how much more embarrassing for Billy Corgan. Carola, who isn't normally given to hyperbole, called it the worst performance she'd ever witnessed in her life. I told her she'd never seen Richie Havens.
Lollapalooza was no disaster, but as an event it was nothing. The security was irritating and so was the sound system. Most of the food concessions sold greasy street-fair schlock. The overtaxed sideshows closed early and the second-stage schedule was impossible to figure. We never found the misting tent. Racially, Quest and Clinton didn't make a dent. Generationally, the festival was not only uniformly young, but almost uniformly 18-to-25, a subset of young. And culturally it seemed fucked up--dumbass collegians seizing the symbols of the alienated contemporaries who made the scene possible in much the way carpers claim.
Also, the stampede spooked my wife, who'd been considering a date in Saugerties, and now decided I should reconnoiter first. I used to regard moshing as postutopian sublimation and complex metaphor, and I still do, but one facet of that metaphor now dominates--whilst responding poetically to these parlous times, it posits the rigidest version of rock and roll physicality extant. What makes rock and roll an intrinsic youth music is above all the raw energy it demands, and moshers mean to drive off anyone who for reasons of age or gender or size or temperament can't take that energy to the limit--a limit they define. This is significant not just because a new breed of mosher became one of Woodstock's media symbols, but because both Woodstocks were bound up in the physical demands they imposed on participants. Although these had nothing to do with the mosher ideal, I had trouble convincing Carola that smashing pumpkinheads wouldn't be a threat in Saugerties, and maybe she knew more than I did. Who would have thunk anyone would slam-dance to the Allman Brothers?
So we dealt with the demands we could foresee. I packed changes of clothes, a jacket, shorts, two hero sandwiches, two bottles of seltzer, fruit, trail mix, crackers, peanut butter and jelly, a loaf of bread, sunblock, insect repellent, a poncho, a flashlight, and (bingo) an umbrella. I purchased maps of Ulster and Greene counties. And though I'd found friends to put me up after learning the Kingston Holiday Inn wanted $340 a night, on general principles I bought a sleeping bag. Prevented by snafu from driving to the site, I found a use for my map when the shuttle driver got lost on the way from the hotel lot, but the congestion proved bearable--a 15-minute tie-up near Saugerties followed by two miles of stop-and-go. My first impression was tents everywhere--fields, hills, woods, roadsides. Some of them had stakes. John Hughes of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, an easygoing Nevilles and Allmans fan who reads me in Playboy, had suggested I stow my stuff with him in case I needed to share his two-person tent. So at 3:45 we disembarked at the nexus behind the main stage, checked out the giant press tent, and found high ground in a press camping area. And soon the avantish hip hop I couldn't believe I was half hearing drew me away.
The North Field was full but negotiable. As I shuffled past the main concession bank and picked my way laboriously to a more distant spot than I'd ever settled for at Lollapalooza, I determined that this was indeed one of my favorite live bands, Philadelphia's Goats, who finished their abrasive rock-rap to polite applause augmented by my yells. Kindly crew members hosed down a knot of moshers up front. There was a burst of deja vu as a fat, balding, clownish Wavy Gravy warned of strychnine in the white, blue, and dark green acid, pronounced the Felix the Cat and Skeleton brands "shitty," and couldn't believe what he was reading about the brown tabs with black spots: "It's . . . good? Hey, it's good!" Then came the first of many entreaties to those camped on the North Field proper, which was intended as listening space, capped by Wavy's John Lennon rewrite: "All we are saying/Is please move your tents."
Since the never-ending Blues Traveler was up and I needed to get oriented, I made my way back, passing through the gate with the laminate that was the mark of privilege in this community. At Woodstock I, where the press tent turned into a hospital, my only privileges were a lucky limo ride in with Peter Townshend and the providence of my ad hoc hosts. Here my laminate meant a little something--free Pepsi products and Saratoga water in the press tent, queueless phones that worked occasionally, camping close to the stage, relatively undisgusting latrines, two useful service roads--and no matter how much these advantages unbalanced my participant-observer tightrope walk, I would have been stupid (and a very atypical participant) to turn them down. I called Carola, whose knees are trickier than mine, to tell her that our jitney-and-child care contingency plans would be ill-advised even if I could get back to the car, which seemed dubious. This was what sleeping bags were for.
An hour later I returned to a North Field that was reaching critical mass. Still learning the terrain, I was funneled onto the vehicle-clogged road between the main concessions and Ecology Village, ending up well past the camping line. Hopscotching over jammed tents and pushing slowly through impassable walkways, I emcountered numerous children, plenty of mid-teens, and an enormous number of over-25s, with alternakids much sparser than at Lollapalooza. Even the college types lacked that balls-out spring-break arrogance; however much role-playing it did for the cameras, this was not a notably rowdy crowd. After 20 minutes I claimed a one-man patch of grass at the edge of a crosswise aisle, where for four hours I listened to Del Amitri, Live, James, King's X, and Sheryl Crow. The only one I might have sampled in New York was Crow, whose singer-with-backup wilted in the space, but only Del Amitri, a meaningless pop-metal outfit who were one of five PolyGram-associated acts on Friday's supposedly "cutting-edge" bill, enjoys zero word of mouth. As it turned out, James alone showed me something. But just finding out whether any songs stuck was a trip: I was touched by the way some onlooker or other always seemed ready to don this mediocre stuff like a press-on tattoo, humming Del Amitri's hit or strumming air acoustic to Crow or explaining a James lyric to an older sister-in-law up from New Mexico because her Utica-born husband had gone to Bethel when he was 15.
The Friday show was mostly a con. Added when ticket sales seemed ominously slow, its concept was the pseudoalternative niche now favored for breaking acts, a subdivision of the little-of-this, little-of-that strategy that defined Woodstock's programming as it does all current megabiz marketing. At the first Woodstock, the more naive pilgrims assumed a fundamentally homogeneous music that was the locus of a culture--a culture they were eager to share with or even absorb from their hipper, slightly older fellows (so unlike the dumbasses of Lollapalooza, who were intent on transforming its culture into their own). The run of celebrants at Woodstock II expected nothing more than bands they knew, or knew about, which in 1994 includes both Crosby, Stills & Nash and Nine Inch Nails, a bizarre Saturday-night segue that didn't produce anything like the exodus wags predicted. This-and-that was fine with these folks, who could calculate that the much-maligned $135 ticket boiled down to $3.50 a band even if there was no way you could see them all. Revolving stages kept boring intermissions to a minimum--I twice clocked the turnaround at under three minutes, about as long as it takes the Dead to start the next song. And the sound system beat Woodstock I's (and Lollapalooza's) all to shit--loud and clear at a quarter mile, with giant video screens for visuals, not the way I like to listen but a legitimate aesthetic mode nevertheless.
Still, halfway through Crow I'd had enough. I needed to talk to my wife and shoot the shit with my pals in the press tent, and Collective Soul wasn't going to stop me. It was midnight before I rejoined a much looser crowd for the dregs of Candlebox, the last band on my handout. Then, back through the gate, I heard a familiar clatter. Damn! That was "Blister in the Sun," by the announced but presumed-canceled Violent Femmes. I ran back and listened joyously to a long, animated set, often pausing to admire a vivacious teenager who was far from the only one dancing and mouthing the words. This was the first band with a serious following all day, and also the first with a signature sound. The difference was heaven. Give Gordon Gano credit--maybe he deserves a cult as much as Jonathan Richman. The Femmes played the most exciting music I heard all weekend. I've yet to meet another press person who caught it.
I'd been sleeping badly on the ground outside for two hours when some combination of a passing vehicle and the putatively ambient Aphex Twin woke me up. This was Ravestock, John Scher's message that sleep was for wusses, and when the volume rose I gave up and embarked on a futile search for the South Stage. Raindrops sent me racing back to the tent, where John Hughes helped me pull in my stuff. Adrenaline coursing, I grabbed my umbrella and set off down the slick entrance road, where I was refused access at the backstage gate before clambering over a pipe railing and through a breach in a cyclone fence. Onstage, two DJs were mixing loud and tribal and pretty damn good for an audience in the high hundreds, few of whom pretended to dance. Back at the fence, gleeful kids with bedrolls snuck in like ballplayers at a locked schoolyard. It was dawn.
PBJ for breakfast, and at the 9:30 press conference, announcements of portajohn progress, tent struggles, overtaxed parking lots, roadblocks, an unbroken perimeter (sure), and 200,000-plus customers, most of whom seemed to be out taking the air. The foot traffic was so dense I could hardly move, and suddenly my misty memories of Woodstock I cleared: never, never had the bodies been this packed. It took 35 minutes to negotiate the half-mile route to the South Stage; the swath of grass leading down from the Craft Village concession (and camping) area was already the scene of a mud-climbing exhibition. But the South Field itself was idyllic--I was closer than at Lollapalooza, with room to lie down. Regrets to Joe Cocker, scheduled for noon in the main arena--I wanted to guard my spot for the Cranberries. A bland, overpriced curried lentil pita from a local vendor convinced me to stick to the knockwurst-sized $2.50 hot dogs and 24-ounce $2 Pepsis of the Fine Host oppressors. At 12:30 sharp, the new-age Irish folk-rockers began a set so tuneful and weird I never thought of leaving. That was my m.o.--to listen till I didn't want to listen, just like a real person. PolyGram's Italian rocker Zucchero assured that at 2:30 I would have no trouble reclaiming my turf for a disappointingly excellent Youssou N'Dour, who without his male dancers and singers didn't live up to the hype I'd been feeding anyone who would listen, who wouldn't have drawn like the Cranberries if he did, and who cost me Cypress Hill.
By then a bifurcation was emerging--two festivals, almost. Over in the North Field were the stars and their stalwarts, content to do the funky sardine or stand 600 yards from the stage in a dead flat space far less ideal than Max Yasgur's rolling amphitheater. In contrast, the much smaller but never jammed South Field attracted open-minded hedonists, whose distaste for suffering often earned them better music. And of course there was migration back and forth. With the Band's comeback not even a throwback and their South Field show penciled in at two and a half hours, I set out for Henry Rollins via the press tent. And though there'd been sprinkles the whole gray day, that's when the real rain began--a gusty downpour that ran off the canvas roof in thick rivulets for most of an hour. In the hostile element immersed, Rollins howled and flexed through the storm like an Outward Bound poster boy--or so it appeared on the closed-circuit feed. When the rain slackened to umbrella strength, I opted for the Band after all. Avoiding the new mud on a sideline, I couldn't tell when the guest was Bob Weir and when Roger McGuinn, but everyone was sharp and loose. Eventually, however, the group's once bracing repertoire of grand old blues and personal bests seemed too predictable. On the North Field, Melissa Etheridge was into her climactic Janis Joplin routine, which to my considerable surprise she had down. Two over-30 babes with wedding rings shimmied and grokked. I wondered whether they knew Melissa was gay. I wondered again when they both started groping a 24-year-old male law student.
This Woodstock inspired volumes of dumb reporting about sex and drugs and rock and roll, always a danger when you send a generalist out to do a rock critic's job or Kennedy out to do anything. I never got close to the pits, where I'm sure clothes were often extraneous, and I don't doubt the existence of the three naked cuties who posed for 5000 snapshots. But in 48 hours I observed half a dozen nude men and precisely one nude woman--a lush blond who wasn't actually nude, but wearing an open shirt, as was her well-muscled and nicely hung male companion, a very sexy image. Although I'd be sad to learn there was no fucking going on, orgiastic it wasn't. The promised searches were perfunctory, mostly verbal, but the scare worked. Muddy Evian bottles outnumbered muddy liquor bottles, beer was as much beverage as inebriant, and though there was considerable cannabis around, it was far from pervasive and never freely shared. Where at Woodstock I it took effort not to get stoned, here that was one option among many. Yet loose behavior remained an ideal, and my gropers had it going on. I laughed on the outside and cried on the inside when Crosby (your crazy uncle just before he burps), Stills (aging surf shop owner who likes his talent stupid), & Nash (seedy public schoolmaster well into his cups) greeted them with "Love the One You're With." Soon, however . . . well, you know. Morbid curiosity loses its charm. Craving normality, I made for the South Stage and Primus. The band every kid I'd chatted up had the hots for was Nine Inch Nails, and by 8:30 the North Field had long surpassed critical mass. Supposedly due to a sound glitch (I bet they were in a snit or applying their makeup), they came on half an hour late, the longest such delay all weekend, but they sure knew how to make an entrance--plastered with the mud that was already Woodstock's universal currency. "You miserable muddy fuckers," spat Trent Reznor, launching what should have been a set of unparalleled cacophony and aggression. Only it wasn't--half of it was dirges that gave me no reason to fight off the throng. At 30 minutes I'd listened till I didn't want to listen. Other refugees bitched bitterly when they were turned back at the laminate gate, almost breaking through--the only anger I encountered away from the stage and the press tent all weekend. Finally feeling sleep deprivation, I failed to get to the South Field until Salt-n-Pepa were over. John was flat out atop his down bag, and soon I was drifting off to the dulcet strains of Metallica, a band I don't get who sounded like the Kronos Quartet under the circumstances. At 1:30 I woke to a downpour on the rain shield of our efficient little tent and fell asleep to a rowdy Aerosmith I regretted missing. And at 3:30 I woke to World War III.
I thought it was gunshots and stayed down; John thought it was an exploding transformer and burst outside. In fact it was the 10-minute fireworks display the rowdies had capped their show with--there'd be no apocalypses now. Blessed sleep had drained from my body, though, and when the adrenaline didn't subside by 5, I went out. Deserters who'd penetrated the laminate barrier waited for shuttles they could only hope would come. A medical guy I helped phone his parents from the thickly littered press tent claimed countless breaks and sprains in the treacherous slampits and four ODs nobody else reported. The rain had added a slippery cushion to the firmest surfaces, and past the gate the mud was much deeper. Nonsleepers and new arrivals lurched around with arms outstretched, the ubiquitous Pepsi cups their best footing. I've been phobic about mud ever since losing a shoe at a construction site as a seven-year-old, and between my wits and my laminate I was good at avoiding it, but it has a great advantage--it's drier than water, so even when you go over your shoetops you don't get soaked. And so I wandered down into the mostly empty area by the now enormous North Stage pit. Beer drinkers grossed each other out with piss tales. Two Canucks hit on a two-gal-one-guy posse just in from Poughkeepsie. A black suburban teenager in a lounge chair gave her white boyfriend a 1000-watt smile.
By now even Scher had abandoned the fable that free entries were negligible--if 300,000 attended, and it was probably more, at least a third didn't pay. Ticket-checking had been inefficient from the git, and by Saturday afternoon there was no need to crash the gate because you could walk through. Even when I came back at 9:30, few of those positioned up front wore the wristbands that signified official entry, and quite a few talked about driving close and hitchhiking in after midnight. This new blood kept the energy high, but also increased the spring-break quotient; for some, it seemed, this was no longer "Woodstock," just a free concert--a little of this, a little of that. CeCe Peniston's pop-gospel supergroup Sisters of Glory followed fast upon an equally glorious surprise visit from Bethel's own Country Joe McDonald, who worked up vigorous sing-along action on "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" and gracefully retired. Thelma, Mavis, et al. commanded the weekend's strongest voices this side of Youssou, and I enjoyed their Sunday standards until yet another downpour drove through my umbrella-poncho combo. Back in the press tent, we were told the rain would continue all day--and that departures were overwhelming the shuttle system.
Actually, the rain would soon let up, then hold off till late, but the real person in me was worried. Nina had burst into tears when she heard my voice on the phone, and I didn't want to drive the thruway at 3 a.m. on coffee and good intentions. I estimated the likelihood of transcendent Dylan at one-in-five, could just barely stand to miss Porno for Pyros and the Chili Peppers, and had never figured to stay for designated closer, Peter Gabriel. So when a four o'clock ride to Kingston was proffered, I decided I'd probably take it, and in the end I did. But before that, Woodstock would change, as it kept doing. Nearly three hours of Gabriel-approved WOMAD Afrofolk-pop wore out Green Day fans on the South Field, and their mood wasn't improved by Hassan Hakmoun's intense guitar weave or Wavy's grave assertion that these were "some of the best musicians in the world" when they weren't even some of the best musicians in Uganda. I spent half of this time standing on a tent-chocked hillock in the North Field listening to the Allman Brothers, who were both a revelation--Warren Haynes an ace Duane substitute, Dickey Betts an ace Garcia fan, "Ramblin' Man" as hooky as "Blister in the Sun," whole band as classic as P-Funk--and utterly familiar, then tranced out against a fence to Hakmoun. My watch said 2:39. At 2:41 the stage turned and Green Day's Billy Joe shouted, "How you doin', all you rich motherfuckers?"
The Berkeley wise guys' Dookie is so secondhand I'd never pinned it down, and I couldn't name a song on it, but the hooks had stuck. Those fast chords were a jolt of adrenaline I wanted--somehow punk strategy, conceived as a corrective to fuzzy Woodstock Nation vibes almost two decades ago, still sounded fresh, while the Allmans' hardly older boogie seemed timeless. Spurred on by Billy Joe--"We suggest that you throw mud, that's fine"--the pent-up kids were soon pelting their speedy antiheroes with handfuls of mud and clods of wet turf. The whole scene was exhilarating and hilarious, pure punk venting--blue-haired bassist Mike Dimt caught a clod and stuffed it in his mouth, stage-divers scampered around worried, then angry guards. But quickly it went out of control, and before Billy Joe had egged the crowd into demanding they walk off, drummer Tré Cool had lost two teeth. "Let's hear it for the earth which we're moving around so magnificently," Wavy requested pathetically. "Play hard, play fair, nobody gets hurt. These are the good old days. Thank you for sharing mud with me."
An hour and a half later, having decided that the Spin Doctors were a studio band and failed to cash in $22 worth of scrip, I was hiking the two miles to the VIP lot. When I called home from Kingston to say I'd be back by 8, Nina burst into tears again. She'd wanted to go see The Mask.
There were 300,000 stories in the not actually naked city, and mine is but one of them. It would be easier to write the definitive account of, say, Des Moines, which has the virtue of staying in one place for longer than an eyeblink. I never got to the Surreal Field or the far-side campground or the pizza whose poetry-bedecked boxes doubled so nicely as disposable seating. Beddy-bye bound, my colleagues missed my fave set of the weekend; homeward bound, I missed Dylan and the Chili Peppers, either of whom, by all reports, might (and might not) have changed the festival yet again. But in my Woodstock, even the finest Woodstock I rock, by the Allmans and the Band, seemed ultimately unmomentous, a little of this leading only to a little of that, while new music carrying a deeper charge, like Green Day or Nine Inch Nails, threatened the post/imitation/wannabe-utopian vibe. So did alternarock's gift to Woodstock II's counterculture, the mud people the cameras made so much of, who by late Saturday were tending toward the position that anybody within reach deserved the immersion these moshers were certain alone defined their Woodstock experience.
Straight out of Woodstock-the-movie, the mud idea emerged from the pits as textbook Woodstock-spectacle, and judging by the wide berth they got, the mud people never understood what it ended up meaning to most of us. By us I don't mean my interest groups--the laminated, most of whom were unduly appalled by the weekend's discomforts, or the many over-30s the laminated ignored, who totaled perhaps five per cent of the attendees concentrated on the two fields' fringes. I mean the big us--everyone who had the unduplicable and pretty much indescribable experience of getting up in the morning crowded into a specially designed, surreally overpopulated outdoor space with the same music lovers who'd been there the night before, and who then shared the limited, manageable challenge of overcoming adversities that defeated enough celebrants to make the whole thing seem like real life.
Which it wasn't, of course. More or less as PolyGram intended, Woodstock ended up an incalculably complex and profitable entertainment experience. "I suspect that if there were 200,000 40-to-50-year-olds you wouldn't have such a mellow atmosphere," Scher boasted Saturday morning, and this meaningless hypothetical had its truth value. If only because they didn't want to ruin the movie, the young celebrants were nice to each other, keeping a lid on their aggressions however free they were with their joints, and they'll no doubt construct their own myths around an incontrovertibly wondrous event. But it's hard to imagine those myths unleashing or catalyzing or symbolizing any social forces; in fact, it's hard to imagine them competing historically with the fucked-up antiutopian struggle that is Lollapalooza, where much of the most momentous music at Woodstock II first came to prominence. These celebrants didn't believe the commodity that brought them together was the locus of a culture--at best they may have thought it was the province of a generation. Although the minuscule proportion of blacks (a guesstimate two-tenths of one per cent, up after the front door was opened) was probably a tiny improvement over both Woodstock I and Lollapalooza, most of the celebrants were just as glad the artist lineup represented little if any progress in the battle against racism the first Woodstock generation supposedly cared so much about, and although their range of female role models had broadened visibly since 1969, I wonder how many reflected that not one of the few women who played Saugerties had the stature of Janis Joplin or Joan Baez or the potential of the Breeders or L7. Fun was underrated in the '60s, which favored putatively permanent modes of transcendence. In the '90s, people I wish knew better are all too ready to settle for it.
Somehow the foursomes of fellow deserters at the thruway rest area looked wrong to me. Hey--they were clean! Most seemed to have rinsed their bare legs somewhere; even their shoes had the outer crusts knocked off. Me, I wore my mud like a badge all the way to the East Village. Carola and Nina were impressed. But my weekend was over. When I strode home from alternate-siding the car with my laminate swinging and my lower extremities still showing that good clean country dirt, not a soul looked twice.
Village Voice, Aug. 30, 1994