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Woodstock Rocked Us but Didn’t Change Us

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“There is always a little heaven in a disaster area.”

--Announcement from the stage at the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art and Aquarian Exposition, August 1969.

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“Heaven? Did he say heaven?” I asked my festival-going companion, my “old man” in the vernacular of the day. We were sitting on a blanket that hours earlier had become one with the sea of mud that engulfed us. Directly above our heads, Mr. Philadelphia Freedom was swinging naked from the scaffolding and dropping large chunks of caked dirt from his body onto our heads. I’m not sure why he was called Mr. Philadelphia Freedom. Or why he wanted to swing from scaffolding. But I understood the naked part. This was Woodstock and we were showing the world how we could all live in peace (or at least live without our clothes on) and love one another and get high and get laid and blah, blah, blah.

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I repeated my question, this time louder to be heard over the constant earsplitting drone of amplified music blaring from speakers best measured in stories, not feet. “ ‘Heaven’? He said ‘heaven’?”

“Can’t you just mellow out and dig the music?” came the annoyed reply from my boyfriend, then a budding musician, now a Jaguar-driving Realtor of industrial properties in New Jersey.

Well actually, no, I couldn’t just mellow out. I had to go to the bathroom. We had driven to upstate New York from the Jersey suburbs the night before. After abandoning the VW along the side of a gridlocked country road and hiking the final four miles in the rain into the festival zone, we joined several zillion fellow longhairs in an impromptu campground. There were people dancing and prancing everywhere; the only things that weren’t everywhere were toilets.

Memories of Woodstock improve with age. With 30 years to glorify Woodstock, it’s easy to overlook that only one-third of the throng who made it to the festival actually stayed all three days through the cold rain, the sardine-packed crowds, the food shortages, and yes, the absence of adequate toilet facilities.

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The other two-thirds succumbed to the physical discomforts, perhaps not quite believing the mantra from the stage that, “If we all share what we have with those around us, we’ll all have enough.”

*

I was one of those who left early and whose personal memories of Woodstock long ago blurred with things I’ve heard and read to the point where I now can barely differentiate my own observations from collective lore. Does it matter? Probably not. Because curiously, while not a defining moment in my life, Woodstock continues to define me to others. To say that you “were there” is to say plenty about who you were, if not who you are. Mere attendance at the festival means you were a member of The Club. You were the bona fide, authentic counterculture, the real thing--someone who pledged allegiance to change, not country. Somehow, my attendance at what was essentially a rock concert run amok makes me a more interesting person to those I encounter 30 years later.

Should I spoil the image and tell them how I spent 40 excruciating hours needing a bathroom and being too modest to drop my bell-bottoms in front of 400,000 strangers? Will it alter who they think I am if I admit to being stunned by the excesses, the crush of half-naked bodies, the open sexuality, the plentiful drugs?

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When pressed for something positive to say, I am limited to this: I felt a sense of community. I may not have liked all my neighbors, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that so many people shared my politics and philosophies. We addressed our disagreements with a cerebral flash of the peace sign. We wanted to show the world how things could be different--sweeter, softer, less angry.

We were different from our parents, we told ourselves; we rejected their blind patriotism, their inability to view their lives critically. And we ridiculed their pursuit of material goods, the fancier cars and bigger houses, their devotion to the pagan gods of convenience regardless of the toll it took on precious Mother Earth.

Somewhere along the line, though, we became our father’s Oldsmobile, but drove BMWs instead. We un-self-critically morphed into the very people we pledged never to become. We have traveled from an era of anything goes for us to zero-tolerance policies for our children.

Back then, heeding a New York disc jockey’s call to crash the concert without paying for tickets, thousands did. Today on the Internet you can buy an original three-day ticket to the 1969 Woodstock festival for $250, unframed.

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