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Peace, love and rock n’ roll

This August 1969 photo shows Ravi Shankar performing at the Woodstock music festival, New York.

This August 1969 photo shows Ravi Shankar performing at the Woodstock music festival, New York.  

It is 45 years since the first Woodstock festival happened in August 1969 in New York. To be young, and to be a part of the countercultural movement even in small ways, was to feel like a rebel.

August 15, 1978. Four young Vellorians have gathered at their favourite restaurant in the township of Katpadi, Tamil Nadu. They are waiting for Nigel, their Anglo-Indian friend, to arrive and tell them his Woodstock story. They’ve heard it several times before but never tire of it; besides, it also happens to be the concert’s anniversary. Nigel arrives and launches into the story right away, mixing English and Tamil. “First scene: oru Joint varum on the screen, next….” He describes, with action, the line-up of bands and singers and what they said to the roaring crowd. And he ends with his favourite bit: “For 15 minutes, they attentively listen to Ravi Shankar, and when he stops there’s rapturous applause. Shankar says, ‘If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more’.”

Years later, when the four Vellorians finally got a chance to see the concert tape for themselves, it turned out to be not half as exciting as Nigel’s version: they didn’t see a marijuana joint fill up the screen, the line-up seemed distinctly different from Nigel’s order and the moment they were waiting for — Ravi Shankar’s tuning quip — never came. (That mystery was eventually cleared up: Shankar said it later at the Concert for Bangladesh, but Nigel had deftly appropriated it for his Woodstock).

My rock music-loving cousin — who happened to be one of those four Vellorians — told me this story. For those who grew up in the 1970s with a passion for rock music, it became a requirement to see the Woodstock documentary. But, like Nigel, the Woodstock concert movie is the closest any of us got to embrace this gigantic countercultural movement. To somehow be a part of that, even vicariously, in the India of the 1970s was to feel like a rebel. We were in thrall to the new hippie culture and the rebellion it had stirred up among young people!

For perhaps the first time, in a world that seemed very old and adult, young people were at the centre of things! They were rejecting adult values — radical! Young people were making a difference! They had a message for the world! The music of Woodstock is now mostly forgotten, and the bands, of course, have broken up or continue to tour without their key players (who have either died or retired).

Back then I was more into folk rock than classic rock, and followed the music and career of Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin, The Band and Creedence Clear Water Revival more closely than that of The Who, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. For Indians, Santana is perhaps the most popular Woodstock band, and its career was launched with the set it performed here.

Woodstock has been mythologised endlessly; so much written on it that it oozes trivia. Wikipedia is chockfull of it: Bob Dylan turned it down and was then annoyed that it was happening in his neighbourhood; Baez said this wasn’t her kind of audience and it was mostly noise; financially it was a huge loss — the organisers lost over a million dollars; there wasn’t enough food to go around, not enough toilets, the place was stinking, thousands were sick but there was not enough medicine; it rained most of the time turning the ground to muck; there was plenty of drugs, all kinds, being passed around freely sending people on bad trips.

I don’t want to rehash all the trivia here but, in trying to say something about Woodstock for this anniversary, I can’t resist listing some things about those crazy three days that still seem remarkable today. For those who may have forgotten, ironically those ‘Three Days of Peace and Music’ at the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair was a capitalist venture, a corporate attempt to use a ticketed music festival to raise money to build a recording studio/label. The huge crowds couldn’t be contained, and the organisers declared it a free concert. This was the turning point: thousands more of the great unwashed came and made it the culmination of a counterculture movement that had been growing.

Wavy Gravy, one of the performers, summed it up trippingly: “Let’s face it: Woodstock was created for wallets. It was designed to make bucks. And then the universe took over and did a little dance.” Woodstock should have been a disaster — so much went so terribly wrong in those days of August — but it endured and still endures. And continues to inspire because you could never again hope to see such an overwhelming demonstration of togetherness and community, of idealism, of hope, of freedom; the last beautifully illustrated by that notorious brown acid warning casually made as an announcement over a stage mike to the thousands gathered: “The brown acid that is circulating around us isn’t too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. Of course it’s your own trip. So be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, ok?”

For me, the lingering image of Woodstock now is a scene from Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, when the young hero drops acid and experiences his first psychedelic trip: from where he is standing on the hill, the lights of the concert shine below in the valley. Even from afar, he hears Ravi Shankar’s sitar lilting up to a night sky filled with stars, providing him with the perfect soundtrack for his trip; his initiation into a counterculture that was to soon take over the lives of young people everywhere, asking them to be the liberation of the world.

Top Acts at Woodstock

The acts at Woodstock were of two kinds: bands and singers who were already famous when they took the stage and those who were yet to make a name. The top acts at this concert according to various list-makers seem to differ only here and there. Most agree that the acts listed below stood out:

Santana, little known until then, made its breakout act here with their 45-minute set that included ‘Soul Sacrifice’

Richie Havens astonished with his acoustic guitar work and his song ‘Freedom’, a paean to hippiedom, became the concert’s anthem

The Who, already a legend, proved it again with ‘My Generation’, as the audience went wild over Pete Townsend’s virtuoso guitar playing

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were on stage for only the second time in their young career but hushed the crowd with their harmonies on ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’

Jefferson Airplane’s 100-minute set filled with familiar hits was on everyone’s lips

Janis Joplin disappointed a bit, but even her presence here was a blessing

Joe Cocker’s voice and melodies swept the crowd

The Band played a lot of Dylan, making up for his absence

Ravi Shankar’s music was unlike anything they’d heard, but rain abruptly cut short his set

Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar closed the concert throwing the audience into a frenzy

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 1:06:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/young-people-were-at-the-centre-of-things-at-the-1969-woodstock-festival-in-new-york-writes-pradeep-sebastian/article6323908.ece

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