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Recalling Woodstock, musical emblem of an era

The film Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music will appear on television this Saturday (PBS stations will air the program March 9-24, check local listings), which means that millions of Americans -- many of whom never got a close look at the concert that was to become emblematic of a generation and an age -- will be able to sit in their living rooms and think at length about what that generation believed about itself and its world. As the title suggests, this film (a moderately edited version of the 1970 theatrical release) is far from a balanced presentation of the behemoth concert. But it is no less a telling social document for all that.

We ought to pick it up and turn it over wonderingly as an artifact of our recent history, a rune telling us how close we can come, any of us, to blindly accepting the rule of unreason and the doggerel of demagogues.

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The rock music business and the culture it promotes have become more a matter of profits and pyrotechnics these days; but ``Woodstock'' shows that not much has changed about the basics of the scene.

What you had in that concert was more than a music show: It was the epitomizing of a common belief that the philosophy of drugs-sex-music was a force equal to overthrowing the established order and creating a brand new one, free of violence and killing, full of peace and love. It wasn't so much about ending the war in Vietnam as throwing a party to the birth of a new drug culture.

Now, 15 years later, it all looks like a bad dream.

Brave words about freedom and truth are thrown around by people whose eyes can't properly focus. Joe Cocker looks like a man in the later stages of delirium tremens. A guru tells us America is becoming whole.

It would be comforting to think that only those wrapped up in the occasion itself believed that what was happening there in Bethel, N.Y., was something elevated and special. But a New York Times editorial, after the fact, referred to Woodstock as ``a phenomenon of innocence'' and praised the participants for their orderly behavior and for enduring ``patiently and in good humor'' the discomforts of mud, rain, and bad drugs.

The Times was not alone. Society at large looked on benignly at the children of the '60s going through a rite of passage and making a political-musical statement.

But think of it. One person died of a drug overdose, one in a tractor accident. Four thousand people were treated for injuries, illnesses, and drug abuse. Thousands hallucinated nightmares after taking the ``bad brown'' acid, as one emcee advised them to ``take half a hit.''

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Many drug side-effects are not apparent in the film. At least one person who was there recalls seeing kid after kid carted off for treatment. This particular young man took the advice of the emcee and dropped half a tab of the brown acid, and suffered for 12 hours.

Looking at the film today, the pious pronouncements from the stage about the high moral purpose of the event sound empty, almost deranged.

We've seen where it all went: the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, Calif., where drug-induced violence led to the stabbing death of one youth; the 1979 Who concert where 11 people were killed in a stampede for seats; and a whole new generation of rock performing, stripped of political pretensions and loaded with drugs and violent imagery.

The lessons of Woodstock and the drug culture are simple: People die, lives are ruined, years are lost.

And almost no one there grasped what was happening. At one point during the concert, the wind began to whip up and rain came rolling over the distant ridge. So they tried to ``think hard'' and get rid of the storm. For a while, they chanted, ``No rain! No rain!'' Still, down it came. In torrents, unrelenting.

But the dream went on. Almost everybody there believed that they had come to Woodstock to change something. And that it had worked.

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