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Taking Woodstock seriously

Just what is it about Woodstock that still engages a whole generation that was born years after the peace/love/music/mud music festival at a farm in New York state 40 years ago? With the new film Taking Woodstock in our cinemas this week, Elise Moore considers why the power of that event still resonates.

Woodstock.  The very word arouses an immediate sea of mental images: youth culture, music, drugs, nudity, traffic jams, hippies, peace and mud.

With its 40th anniversary looming, so many of us are still enthralled by the three-day Woodstock “Peace and Music” Festival that took place on a dairy farm in upstate New York in August of 1969.

With Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock – a feature film based on the legendary anti-war event set to be released next week – it’s no wonder we’re curious about what went on in that muddy paddock.

Contrary to what the media reported, there was much more to Woodstock than making a pilgrimage to a rural farm in a beat-up VW Kombie van with a flower in your hair.

It wasn’t just a mass of loved-up hippies with baggy pants and psychedelic drugs either.  Behind the nudity, chaos and tie-dye, Woodstock was a social massing of people that was larger than life on so many political and social levels – a far cry from modern music festivals.

To contrast with the ongoing war and hatred in Vietnam, Woodstock saw more than 400,000 revellers and an army of rock-gods unite in protest for three days of “peace and love.”

Half-naked and stoned in the mud, the Woodstock kids made their point loud and clear and today’s festival-goers can take much from their example. Touching in their innocence, the Woodstock crowd choose to sing and chant as a benign alternative to the Vietnam War and a decade of assassination, racial conflict, urban unrest and police repression.

It is saddening that this sort of event – an entertainment phenomenon meets anti-war movement – is no longer possible.  A festival so organic, spontaneous and powerful is impossible in today’s world of corporate sponsorship, stadium bands and a culture of kids who doubt their power to have a real crack at changing the world.

Though Woodstock may not have ignited harmony in all corners of the world, it sure made one hell of a lasting impression, becoming one of the most defining moments in popular music history.

The revellers were relics of a different world, yet they somehow still changed our world. Modern Australian festivals like Lorne’s ‘Falls Festival’ and Byron Bay’s ‘Splendour in the Grass’ are deliberate and self-conscious re-enactments of the spirit of a re-imagined utopia.

It is about nostalgic yearning for an imagined sea of hope and togetherness – a return to the Woodstock dream, if not the reality.

At that moment in 1969, the generation we now know as baby boomers realised that they had the power to change history.

It was a manifestation of a culture of dreams that began in the 60s and, you could argue, has continued to the election of the first black President in US history, Barack Obama.  Equality.  Wasn’t that what they were fighting for to begin with anyway? Charging the gates and evading ticketing charges, they came in their hundreds of thousands and partied like one outrageous family in barely livable conditions.

Spurred on by the mantra that ‘the best things in life are free’, this rebellious class defined by a generation of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, was suddenly bonding over peace and love.  In a beautiful revelation of human connectedness, women, blacks, gays and other minorities were suddenly all in on the party.

And to the tune of rocker Richie Haven’s “Freedom,” party they did. With Jimi Hendrix and Joe Cocker also leading the charges, Woodstock became the single largest anti-war movement/protest/party in history.

Any summer weekend we can go out and for a couple of hundred bucks see a line up of legends and up-and-comers at a first-rate rock festival with amenities those muddy hippies never dreamed of.

We can use relatively clean port-a-loos, revel in the mass of food and booze options and chill-out alongside a foam machine or huge marquee. But what we can’t do is be part of a singularly powerful cultural moment in history like that. Commercialised to a T, contemporary summer music festivals are all about ultra-expensive line-ups, boozing, pill-popping and mates.

Heaven forbid there be another war in Vietnam, another JFK-esqe figure assassinated and racial tension rife during this generation. Would half a million modern youths strip off and pledge peace and love in a muddy paddock? Probably not. Aside from most of us being aware that indecent exposure is a felony these days, times have dramatically changed.

Today’s youth express their political opinions via blogs, YouTube, letters to the editor and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Whoop- dee-do. Yes, you can arc up as much as you like on the internet, but who’s really going to care? Besides, there’s just something so raw and so delightful in saying “up yours” to everything that’s wrong with the world from a muddy mosh-pit.

It’s completely disheartening that there has been such a decline in trust and belief in the political power of the youth and mass social movements. People no longer have the guts to re-enact something so bold, so chaotic and so utterly original as Woodstock.

Gosh, those cheeky sixties kids were so fired up about the war; they felt that they just had to grab world-wide headlines through nude chants and other shenanigans.

The irony is that their situation in the sixties was not so unlike ours is now. Racial tension? Homophobia? War? It’s all still here, it’s just that we’re not even half as fired up about it.

Iraq? Who would have thought we’re still at war. These days everyone is either ignoring it, or is too busy twittering about it to stand up and do something really bold and brilliant.

And that’s the real shame. I’d much rather make my point and pledge for peace in the mud.

Taking Woodstock opens in cinemas on Thursday.

Elise Moore is a third-year Bachelor of Jouralism student. This is her first piece for upstart.

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