It was officially called “Woodstock Music & Arts Fair” and it began 50 years ago today.
We remember it, but why? Yes, there was a movie made about it. But there have been movies made about other music festivals: Monterey Pop, to some extent Altamont, even the 1982 Us Festival. Yes, a lot of people attended Woodstock, but there have been many festivals attended by lots of people.
I could speculate, but there’s no reason to do that when it’s possible to talk with someone who wasn’t just there but who performed there.
Let me digress a moment to note that the most generous realistic estimates of the crowd size at Woodstock puts it at or a little below a half million people. There are all kinds of claims of two or three million. If we added up all those who later said they were there, we could settle on a number of 25 million or so. But the fact is that the number of people actually at Woodstock for all or part of the three-day festival was 500,000 or less, which is itself pretty big.
Thirty-two bands and individual artists performed that weekend. A lot of the musicians have died since then, as happens over a half century, though we should note, too, that two of the biggest names – Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix – were dead within 15 months of Woodstock. So those who played there and who are still alive and making music are a select group indeed.
Woodstock’s Saturday night headline act was, not surprisingly, the Jefferson Airplane. And given how things unfolded at Woodstock, it’s no surprise that the band didn’t take the stage until Sunday morning after sunrise, the band having been backstage all night. (Even so, there’s a new three-record vinyl album of its entire performance.)
The song most emblematic of that era, in my estimation, is the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit." Its lyrics describe the chemical exploration popular among young people in the late 1960s, the effort, as the lyrics put it, to “feed your head.”
But its lasting impact, for me and I think probably for others, is the song’s introduction, the ominous, almost martial bass line and the guitar riff that soon joined in. (I’d happily listen to an instrumental entirely of those two elements, played that way, with Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar riffing on the bass laid down by his lifelong musical compadre, Jack Casady.) Those few bars, the opening of that song, are recognizable by just about everyone.
The guitar half of that duo has lived here (well, in Meigs County, but he’s in Athens often) for a little over a quarter century. The bass-playing half is a frequent visitor, as are some others who played at Woodstock.
And last week, Jorma was kind enough to share some thoughts about Woodstock as viewed 50 years distant by one of its headliners. It’s been proposed that Woodstock is remembered pretty much entirely because of the movie, but Jorma disagrees.
“I think it was iconic before the movie, just because of the mass of what happened and the mass of humanity, the mass of an odd sort of cultural awareness,” he said. “Nobody thinks ‘I’m being an icon’ while you’re crafting your icon-ness. We did a lot of festivals back then – we’d just done the Atlantic City Pop Festival a couple of days before – and they were all big festivals.
“I find it interesting that people are always trying to re-create it, not just in the sort of Woodstock of this year but that cultural moment. It was just a zeitgeist that I don’t think can ever be duplicated on any level.”
Every few years, including this half-century anniversary, there’s an attempt to have another Woodstock, and it never quite works. But, says Jorma, that oughtn’t be a surprise.
“If you think about what happened as soon as the term ‘Summer of Love’ happened, to back up from Woodstock a little bit, the mainstream culture was then commercializing something that was uncommercializable before that, so as soon as you had the term ‘Summer of Love,’ there was none, because now it was a commercial thing. And I think the same thing happened in some way with Woodstock. It happened, there was an amazing magical cultural event, and once it was over it was – I want to say weaponized, but that’s not the right word – the concept was commercialized certainly, and people inclined to recreate it in my opinion are trying to cash in on it.”
The movie, which is the only place where most of us have seen live performances by many or all of the bands, didn’t initially include any of the Jefferson Airplane’s two-hour set.
“Paul Kantner decided not to be in the movie,” Jorma said. “So I guess the Jefferson Airplane decided not to be, but the real prime mover was Paul. For some reason he didn’t want to be in it. I don’t know why.” The band’s official view is that the film of the performance was subpar. Kantner, an original member and rhythm guitarist of the Airplane, died in 2016. And the 1994 “director’s cut” of the film did include some Airplane songs. “There we are, yes,” Jorma said. “Thank goodness.”
The Woodstock movie imparts the notion that the musicians knew they were part of something unprecedented. Did the musicians have that sense at the time?
“Absolutely,” he said “As I told my daughter when we went to the (Woodstock) museum in Bethel a year or so ago, I personally will never be in front of an audience that big as long as I live. And there are such big audiences; I mean there’s Coachella; there are all these huge festivals. But it’s not the same thing, and I’m not saying one is better than the other, because it’s not 1969 anymore. In that moment, there was a confluence of cultural and emotional, and on some level I guess spiritual, events, that conspired to sort of make that ground zero for that sort of consciousness, of the so-called counterculture.
“This many years later, when you look at it you wonder, did it really exist? Was it just an odd dream that for some reason I was part of? The answer? I really don’t know. I think that in that moment all of us who were ‘of that age’ thought that we were part of something that was special going on. And this many years later, as a much older man, it’s almost like a dream in a way.”
As previously noted, the Airplane had been scheduled to play Saturday night but didn’t take the stage until Sunday morning. What did the Jefferson Airplane and the other bands do overnight?
“Everybody was hanging,” he said. “It was a big hang. I was younger then, so I guess everything was more fun. But yeah, I guess – just hanging out and partying with your friends, waiting for stuff to happen.” Was there any place to catch a nap? “No, absolutely none. There were zero amenities. That stuff didn’t exist backstage.”
Jorma discusses Woodstock and other festivals – including the disastrous Altamont a few months later, in his book "Been So Long," published last year. Some of the bands arrived at the festival in helicopters. The Jefferson Airplane was in one or more Ford LTD station wagons, and Jorma was in hot water for inviting one too many guests – but you’ll have to read the book to learn more. Jorma mentions that the high point of the festival to him was watching the performance of Carlos Santana – and last week it emerged that it was a high point for Santana as well, because he was tripping his brains out on mescaline. (He was scarcely unique in that regard.)
Substances would cause the deaths of some of Woodstock’s most celebrated artists. Jimi Hendrix died from downers 13 months and one day after his performance that closed the festival. Janis Joplin, a friend of Jorma’s from the early days, died two weeks later of a heroin overdose. It was a dangerous time.
“Yes, it was,” said Jorma. “It was. Yeah, it was a dangerous time. And the cultural eddies of that moment were so strong in so many different ways. I remember living in the Fillmore in 1965. I lived at the Filmore when they had the Filmore riots and they burned a lot of it. That’s the kind of stuff that probably for better rather than worse I’m not going to see again.”
The summer of 1969 seared the country, and wasn't just due to the the hot sun. The country was rent by the Vietnam War. Americans landed on the moon and came back. The week before Woodstock the Manson family committed its weirdly ritualistic murders in Southern California. And there was Woodstock itself. So there were a lot of new and alarming aspects to that eventful season.
“The landing on the moon obviously in that moment was a high-tech achievement supported by who knows how many millions or billions of dollars by the American government, all this kind of stuff. Charles Manson, sort of an interesting aberration of the time – yeah, what a summer.”
In the early 1970s, there was a phrase, “Woodstock Nation,” that was used in publications and on the air to describe what the media supposed was a group of people and a philosophy typified by those who attended and perhaps those who performed at the Woodstock festival. The festival itself, it was said, had been the beginning of something. I asked Jorma if that idea got fulfilled.
“I’m not really the right person to ask about that, because I was never sort of a commune kind of guy, but I understand the question,” he replied. “And I guess my answer would have to be, in my opinion, no. Because the ‘Woodstock Nation,’ whatever you want to think about it, even as the crowd dissipated in some ways the fulfillment was only in that moment. This many years later, when you look at where we are culturally, what happened at Woodstock is like something from a parallel universe.”
Was there any sense that Woodstock would be remembered, be elevated to its almost sacramental status, a half century after it happened?
“I’m not sure that at 28 it was possible to conceive of something that would happen 50 years later,” Jorma said. “Honestly. That’s the kind of question that older guys answer in that way. The answer is probably not really, because at 28 you think you’re going to live forever anyway. I guess at 28 we thought that the Airplane would live forever, that all these things would live forever, and as you and I both know, that’s not the case.
“The Woodstock thing is still interesting this many years later. One of my quotes is ‘In that moment there was magic in the air,’ whatever that means. And I think it was just a function of what was happening in the world at that time, and that world doesn’t exist anymore.”
A part of that world has been preserved, though, and put on display by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen at their Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp and Psylodelic Gallery in Darwin, 15 minutes south of Athens. For instance, fellow Jefferson Airplane member Marty Balin performed with Jorma and Jack there five years ago. Other Woodstock artists have appeared on the Fur Peace Station stage over the years. One of my favorites was John Sebastian a few seasons ago, though he wasn’t wearing the tie-dyed outfit he sported at Woodstock.
It’s remarkable that five decades after a music festival, it would still be discussed in hushed tones and covered as big news all around the world.
“It’s more than remarkable,” said Jorma. “Yeah, there have been a lot of festivals, but there’s only one Woodstock, and it wasn’t just the size. . . . From a commercial professional point of view, nothing is supposed to go wrong. The fact that everything went wrong yet somehow came out right at Woodstock is part of the magic.”
Something to think about. Food for thought. A way to feed your head.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.