Number 165 / September 1999:

A friend who works in the concert industry wondered why the crowd at Woodstock had gotten so upset. "They knew the ticket price before they got there. What did they expect?" he asked. Good question. First of all, it has a useful answer: For their $150, the fans expected to be treated as something better than ATMs for which the promoters and concessionaires had the only cards.

The context of the looting and burning at Woodstock isn't Littleton or Altamont or the rumbles at Alan Freed concerts forty years ago. A much closer parallel is the 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles. It's one thing to be in a disaster area, like the first Woodstock back in '69, where facilities are overstrained or nonexistent. People instinctively pull together. But the crisis at this year's Woodstock was completely artificial. There was plenty to go around. The question was whether you had enough money to pay $4 for a pint of water, $6 for a chicken salad sandwich or $12 for a snack-sized pizza. Under those circumstances, people do react with fury. That's what the looting and trashing, especially the smashing and theft of the festival's ATMs, was all about.

People went to Woodstock to get away from it all, especially from the tension of grasping for dollars that runs the "real" world. Yet once they got to "Woodstock" (which was actually in Rome, NY a couple hundred miles from Yasgur's farm) fans discovered that they had slipped from frying pan to fire. For that weekend, those middle-class ticket- buyers were treated the way the residents of our nation's poor communities are treated every day. Because they aren't used to being sucked dry, these rock fans rebelled after just three days of such treatment. That doesn't make them heroes but it doesn't make them brats, either. It makes them victims of a swindle.

The nature of the swindle was an essential part of the event. The famous posters for the first Woodstock, with that dove perched on the guitar, promised three days of peace, love and music. Woodstock became legendary because half-a-million people showed up-- most of them getting in free--and because despite rain, lack of sanitation, and essential resources stressed past the breaking point, no one died. There was no rebellion at the first Woodstock.

What did Woodstock '99 promise? Three days of music with a really, really big audience. What was being sold was simply the sheer scale of the event. But Woodstock isn't just a music festival. It's also that promise of freedom. At Woodstock '69, with wars raging in Vietnam and in America's inner cities, "freedom" implied personal and social liberation. That's why Pete Townshend said recently that he regretted kicking Abbie Hoffman off the stage at the first Woodstock. Abbie was trying to connect Woodstock with the great social and historical currents of its time. Townshend now says, "What he was arguing for was very valid."

The promoters of the 1999 festival did their best to erase all that from the history of Woodstock. They even managed to make a travesty of the "peace" part of the message by claiming that holding the festival this year on an abandoned Air Force base was some kind of symbol that, despite Belgrade and Baghdad, "we have won." Still, there's no denying that in rock'n'roll, a new concept of freedom has replaced the old one. This year's substitute was the Howard Stern version of freedom, where you get your kicks and to hell with who gets hurt. People did get hurt and several women were raped.

This is what happens now that the old hippie ideals have been mocked to death and recast as sales slogans. This is what goes on when the crumbs of our dreams are spewed out alongside Budweiser commercials for so long that the kind of dumbass thug who didn't go to Woodstock because he hated longhairs thinks he can come along now as part of a "tradition." We should never forget that with peace, love and freedom at $150 a head, tight security and promoters in full control, and food and water sold by the kind of people who'd put you in prison if you tried to put some marijuana into the brownies, what happens is you get fucked.

In its way, Woodstock 1969 was a celebration of innocence. Woodstock 1999 makes it clear that we have not gotten back to the garden. And there can be no claims that no one could foresee what might happen. Consequences like this have been foreseeable at least since Altamont, where no rapes were reported but a murder was committed. Ralph Gleason wrote a column right after Altamont lambasting the Dead, the Stones, and others involved because they should have known what would happen if they invited a gang of Hell's Angels to supervise a party full of hippies. Today's Woodstock promoters should have known that selling freedom without selling peace and love in our society is an invitation to rape and riot. Yet, as Al Kooper wrote after being sent an earlier version of this piece: "As long as there is one dollar bill waving in the breeze, there will be some sort of promoters vying for it."

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