Back to the garden again

The song, written by Joni Mitchell -- who wasn't there in person but somehow managed to grasp the essence of those three muggy, ineffable days in August 1969 while hunkered down in David Geffen's New York apartment watching TV -- said we had to get back to the garden. But what exactly was the garden?

In a literal sense, of course, it was Max Yasgur's bucolic dairy farm in Bethel, in upstate New York, where the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place in a torrent of almost preternaturally inspired musicianship and gusting rains.

But for a number of those who invented Woodstock, or were present at the inception to document it, the Eden-like quality of the event had more to do with the idea of young people taking control over their lives, wresting their destinies away from the powers that were (parents, politicians, the draft board). It had to do with the still-relative newness of rock 'n' roll, the raw, naked power of an art form still striving for recognition and respect. Music, at that time, was youth's lingua franca in the way that the Internet, cellphones and video games are today, and John, Paul, Mick and Bob were as famous as, well, Biz Stone or what's-his-name who just won "American Idol."

"It was before the music business became the music industry and there was a lot more room for bands to find their feet," says Michael Lang, the promoter who masterminded the festival into being.

Mostly, Lang and others assert, the freshness and vitality of Woodstock had to do with the performers' creative energy and the generous, cooperative spirit of social harmony that prevailed over that long, muddy weekend, despite the 20 miles of stalled traffic and the bum acid trips.

"For a moment, everybody was peaceful. Everybody looked out for each other," says Baron Wolman, one of four photographers whose seminal images of Woodstock will be on display this month and in September at Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles (Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz and Lisa Law are the other contributors).

Of the hundreds of images he took that weekend, Wolman says, one of his favorites shows law enforcement officials working together with the tie-dyed crowd to evacuate people needing medical help. "This was a manifestation of the coda of the '60s generation and the counterculture and people who felt it was time for a change, politically and socially," he says. "Look, it wasn't perfect. It was difficult. It was hot, it was humid, it was muddy. There wasn't enough food, there weren't enough porta-potties. Nevertheless, nevertheless. . . ."

Four decades old next weekend, Woodstock already has been analyzed and commemorated endlessly, canonized by pop culture historians, even sequel-ized and reenacted a couple of times, as if it were the Second Battle of Bull Run. Its stature as an official creation myth of the 1960s counterculture is a fait accompli.

But even at this late date, and with our nation preoccupied with more pressing matters (what did Michael Jackson's doctor know and when did he know it?), there's still occasion to reflect on Woodstock's complicated legacy, as the latest wave of backward-glancing books, documentaries and exhibitions attests. Yet another take on the legend will be represented in Ang Lee's new feature film, "Taking Woodstock," opening this month, based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, who as a young man helped steer the festival to his town of Bethel.

Heading for Woodstock

Lang was an ambitious 24-year-old promoter from Brooklyn when he and a small group of associates conceived the idea of staging an outdoor music festival. A haunter of New York nightclubs and former owner of a Miami head shop, he had big ideas and chutzpah to burn, as he writes with Holly George-Warren in his just-published memoir, "The Road to Woodstock." Lang also elaborates on his odyssey in a new documentary, "Woodstock: Now and Then," directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, which Lang executive produced; it's scheduled to air this month on the VH1 and History cable channels.

For Lang, one of Woodstock's principal messages was that young people were capable of putting on and managing a large-scale cultural event themselves. In the weeks leading to Woodstock, Lang says, he and the other promoters held intense discussions about how overtly political (or not) the festival should be. Lang's contingent thought the political themes, notably opposition to the Vietnam War, would emerge more or less naturally, as in fact they did. "We had big debates with the underground press and the counterculture press. We managed to convince everybody except Abbie Hoffman," he says, adding a chuckle.

In the end, the festival spoke on behalf of young people's concerns simply by communicating that "We're in charge, this is how it's going to be," Lang says. "The event was the political statement."

Asked what he thinks is most often missing from the many reappraisals of Woodstock and its era, Lang doesn't hesitate. "A lot of the serious work that was done and effort that was put into changing the things that we thought were unjust in the world," he says. "There were a lot of very serious people doing serious work. They weren't just standing around on the corner getting stoned."

The question of who gets to control and shape the history of Woodstock and the 1960s was revisited during the 25th and 30th anniversary restagings in 1994 and 1999. Chip Monck, the original festival's production supervisor and stage lighting designer who also was pressed into last-minute service as master of ceremonies, says those latter events belonged to "a different time, a different milieu, a different association." Any future Woodstocks, he predicts, are "not going to be filled with acts that make you tremble."

But he does concede, half-jokingly, that "I've already designed the wheelchair ramps for the 50th." And, having witnessed and helped engineer a global platform for the first festival, he's intrigued by the idea of what can be done when a new culture meets an emerging technology.

"If we had had laptops in 1969 and then every one of those 456,000 people had had 10 friends, couldn't we have made a helluva movie?" he says, speaking from his home in Australia.

Paul Kantner, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane, says that his band and the other musicians shared "a sort of unspoken sense that a whole lot of stuff was going on." The music of that time was deeply influenced by a host of what he calls "random factors": the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, drug experimentation, Beat poetry. "I kind of liken it to white-water rafting," he says. "We didn't have time to think about it." By contrast, he believes, with today's contemporary music, "There's no big scene going on where people gravitate to the scene rather than just being fans."

The lasting impression

Few people had a fuller perspective on Woodstock, both from ground level and behind the scenes, than Michael Wadleigh, the documentary filmmaker whose three-hour, Oscar-winning "Woodstock" brought the festival's fecund atmospherics to a worldwide audience, helping to seal its impact. (An expanded 40th-anniversary edition has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.)

Wadleigh thinks that impact partly endures in the unsurpassed force of the acts: Janis Joplin's wrenchingly earnest, "utterly dangerous" blues wailing; Jimi Hendrix's smoldering guitar riffs; Country Joe McDonald's scorching indictment of middle-class parental complicity in allowing their sons to be shipped home in boxes.

Even more, he believes, the Woodstock spirit is encapsulated in a commitment to cultivating an "independent, creative approach to life" that he fears is being lost. "Question everything, that was the slogan then," says Wadleigh, speaking by phone from his farm in Wales. "You read the big books and thought the big thoughts."

Above all, Wadleigh expresses concern that the necessity for taking care of our great, planetary idyll -- what Wadleigh, citing Buckminster Fuller, calls "spaceship Earth" -- has failed to live up to Woodstockian idealism. In some of its final frames, Wadleigh's documentary raised the specter of this failure with its bleak images of the exhausted, garbage-strewn hippie campground.

"I gotta tell you, I thought the '60s were going to end badly," Wadleigh says. "And in terms of a popular [environmental] movement, the carbon is still not going back down."

Today, Wadleigh and his wife, Birgit Van Munster, are devoted to the cause of sustainable development, as activists, college presenters and through their Homo Sapiens Project. One of its principal efforts is an ecologically minded graphic novel, relating the muddled evolution of mankind and its shortcomings in planetary custodianship, related from the perspective of a visiting space alien reporting back to its fellow creatures.

The modern environmental movement kicked off years before Woodstock, with the publication of Rachel Carson's dystopian elegy, "Silent Spring." Nearly half a century later, Wadleigh laments, we're even further from solving our environmental crisis than we are from returning a man to the moon, another of this summer's big anniversaries.

"We've got to get back to the garden," he says.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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