Name a big classic festival. Surely Woodstock springs to mind. Even if you haven’t seen any actual footage you will think of flowers, hippies and those awkward pink round sunglasses that are totally coming back now. So peace, love, some drugs mmkay, and musicians with hair down to their ankles. Sure, that’s all true. But was that all there was to it?
Woodstock was off to a great start, with Richie Havens opening the festival with nothing more than a guitar, a mic and a stool to sit on. Poor toothless Richie, who with his scruffy beard was the ultimate personification of a protest singer if ever there was one. Why poor? Because the rest of the acts were stuck in a massive traffic jam, Richie had to stretch, and stretch, and stretch some more.. Having run out of songs after an hour or so, he tried to stall his gig by asking the sound guy for “more guitar on the monitors!”, then “less guitar on the monitors!”, “more mic on the monitors!” and as time went by, his requests for the sound guy became increasingly more random. But time did pass and sure enough, when Richie was at the end of his sanity, he started strumming a random chord, thought of an old spiritual song he had once heard and turned it into a historical performance of his now famous song “Freedom”. Finally he was saved when artists started arriving. Total running time: over three hours!
Though not all performers would openly state or admit it, ‘hashtag freedom’ of course also spread to the green room (pun intended). The Who’s Roger Daltrey was, in his own words, tripping balls while performing their super late-night set. Carlos Santana was enjoying some mescaline backstage when management bumped his show to an earlier slot, forcing him to go on stage high as a kite. So while Santana’s 20 year old drummer (!!!) was playing his ass off, footage of Carlos makes it painfully clear that he was on something (or everything).
Someone who didn’t get to live the experience was Joni Mitchell. She did get to witness the festival though, but on a tv. That’s right. Her manager thought she would get more exposure playing on the famous Dick Cavett show, so he decided she didn’t need to play this Woodstock thingy. The ironic thing was that most of the bands that joined her on this show had indeed performed at Woodstock the day before and simply arrived at the TV studio with a light buzz, but right on time to shoot the program nonetheless. Now Joni Mitchell, being a songwriter, wrote a song about Woodstock. A slightly depressing piano ballad with an undertone of “boohoohoo”. Joni’s boyfriend at the time, Graham Nash, who had in fact played on the festival, took the song and turned it into a powerful rock song together with his besties Crosby, Stills (Nash) & Young. Of course it was this version, and not Joni’s, that topped the charts soon after. Double ouch.
Although the 60’s are often seen as the pinnacle of peace, love and understanding, this seems to have changed with the rise of these bigger festivals. Not even a year after Woodstock, the New York Popfestival fell victim to extremist groups, demanding free admittance while causing all kinds of mayhem. Only a month later in the UK, the Isle of Wight festival was host to many riots, people jumping fences, and promoters caring more about money than music. With over 600.000 people attending the festival, and not nearly enough room to fit them in, peace (not to mention love) was stretched to its limits. In sheer size of both acts (over 50) and attendees, Isle of Wight was never matched again.
In ’94 a second incarnation of Woodstock was organised, but much of the festival terrain was washed away by heavy rain after the first day, essentially turning the entire experience into a musical mudbath. Five years later, Woodstock ’99 was supposed to be the 30 year anniversary of the ultimate symbol of peace & love, but instead was cut short after violent incidents, sexual assault and massive bonfires (including a burning audio tower, nice). Oh how far we’ve strayed from Monterey ’67, where the only thing burning was Jimi Hendrix’ guitar. As Bob Dylan would have said; the times they are a-changin’.
Needless to say, big festivals are still alive and kicking. Sziget, Glastonbury, Roskilde, and I can keep going. Not to mention the many festivals in Amsterdam that seem to be named by randomly opening dictionaries (Appelsap anyone?). Together with the return of the strange pink round sunglasses, I think we may be onto something. Summer is coming, “and we’ve got to get ourselves, back to the garden”