Some of the more elderly amongst us will know that exactly 50 years ago we had an event that defined a generation. It was either three days of madness and chaos, or three days of heaven on earth, depending on your point of view. I refer of course to Woodstock, held on August 15–18, 1969 on Max Yasgur’s large dairy farm in upstate New York.
Many of the great rock acts of the time were there, including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Ten Years After, and Canned Heat. Acoustic performers included John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Richie Havens and Joan Baez. With over 400,000 people attending, it turned small rural towns into over-crowded hippy havens, with massive traffic jams that actually became parking lots.
It certainly is the stuff of memories. In case you are wondering, no, I did not make it there – I was far too stoned for far too long back then to even consider going. (Two years after Woodstock I became a Christian, so that was the end of my leftism and my radical hippy days – and it explains why I now write for conservative websites.)
But the significance of this festival for us hippies and rebels of the late sixties was overwhelming. The Vietnam War was in full swing at the time, and so many of us were protesting against the “system”: materialism, the military-industrial complex, capitalism, middle-class values, the police, and all forms of authority.
Woodstock seemed to embody everything we wanted life to contain: peace, love, and rock and roll. No violence, no cops, no restraints – just a half million people seemingly getting along just fine. So we really did see this as a spiritual experience: it was bringing heaven on earth.
Those who were there – and those of us who saw it from afar – really thought we could make the cultural revolution a reality. And we saw it as laden with religious overtones. Consider the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. She was invited to attend but had other engagements, so she penned this piece while watching the concert on television. Check out all the spiritual, utopian themes in her words:
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ’n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
And many may not realise it, but a religious speaker was one of the first to take the stage at Woodstock. The Indian Hindu guru Swami Satchidananda gave an opening ‘invocation’ at the Woodstock festival, calling music ”the celestial sound that controls the whole universe.”
Paradise Lost – Altamont
But of course, it was not to last. Indeed, just a few months later the dream came crashing down at another major rock event in California, just east of San Francisco. In many ways, the December 1969 concert ended the hippy dream once for all. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was held on Saturday, December 6. It was supposed to be “a kind of Woodstock West” and it seemed like it would be just that.
But at Altamont the bubble burst. The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones were among the hardcore highlights. Unfortunately, however, some of the groups seem to have decided that the Hells Angels would make for handy bodyguards and security.
They had served in this capacity at other rock events, after all. Unfortunately, they gave the bikers free beer as a payment – supposedly around $500 worth – which was a pretty good amount back then. But Hells Angels and plenty of free beer is a bad combination.
I remember often as a young teenager back in Wisconsin being high on drugs, and meeting up with hardcore bikers. On the one hand, we were on the same page because we were both into dope, and lots of it. But it was always such a heavy trip when they were around, and I at least really got bad vibes.
It was just scary to be around them, even though we shared a common drug culture. And that was certainly the case at Altamont. As was to be expected, the crowd was always getting out of hand and trying to rush the stage. Before the eyes of thousands of young counterculture idealists, the Angels stabbed to death an over-zealous fan as the Stones played. And the demise of the counterculture began. Indeed, we all knew the Age of Aquarius was over.
We really did think that the counterculture and the radical left were the answer. We really did believe it would pan out. But it was a false dream. As mentioned, I did not make it to Woodstock – Indeed, it is surprising how many concerts I and my hippy friends did manage to get to back then, given our spaced-out condition.
Our individual lives were a microcosm of the bigger hippy scene. It was a short-lived experiment, one that had some high moments (Woodstock) but too many lows (including Altamont). It was a fixation on self, and was all about finding happiness on our own terms.
And even though we had a lot of peace and rock and roll at Woodstock, what we really had was a whole lot of hedonism. It was all about personal peace and happiness, about getting high, about free sex, about pleasure of all sorts. Such hedonism cannot achieve any lasting social goods.
That is not how you build a better world. That is not how you recreate mankind. That is not how you solve all the world’s problems. Indeed, unbridled selfishness and hedonism can only compound our problems. At the end of the day, Woodstock was just one gigantic exercise in leftist romanticism and idealism. As Jesus had put it two millennia earlier, it was a house built on the sand, and not upon the rock.
Hot on the heels of the cultural revolution of the late sixties was the Jesus revolution. As mentioned, I was a part of both. The more lasting and more worthwhile of the two revolutions was the latter. And countless other hippies were a part of that as well.
The truth is, I really should not be here: as a hard-core druggie, my life was often at risk. And sadly some of my friends did not make it at the time: they either died of drug overdoses or committed suicide. So while many of us old guys look back with some nostalgia at Woodstock, we especially look back on the far greater revolution.
As Greg Sheridan recently put it on this site, “The West cannot survive without a re-energised belief in Christianity.”
Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.
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