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Remembering the Way We Were

On Woodstock's 25th anniversary, a Monitor critic recalls his experience at the event

WOODSTOCK'S silver anniversary is approaching, complete with festivities in upstate New York and nostalgic sighs all over the land. For weeks now, the coming occurrence has drawn attention from critics, cartoonists, editorial writers, and pop-culture pundits.

I haven't followed the commentary too closely, but it's set me to remembering my own presence at the 1969 event, and how different it was from anything I expected when I signed up for the experience.

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In those days I was a 20-something arts critic with a passion for books, movies, and rock-and-roll. The first two were widely regarded as suitable subjects for critical writing. But pop music, despite the distinguished history it had racked up in about 15 years, had just recently crept into ``intellectually respectable'' territory - thanks mainly to the Beatles and to certified grown-ups like composer Leonard Bernstein and poet Archibald MacLeish, who had said nice things about their songs.

Spurred by this highbrow Beatlemania, and by a generalized fascination with American youth, a number of tradition-minded publications were trying out the new game of pop-culture criticism. This newspaper was among them, and as one of the few staffers who could tell an early Elvis Presley song from a late Jimi Hendrix number without looking at the label, I was in the middle of the experiment.

So it was that I received the Woodstock assignment with a smile, chucked a tent in the back of my station wagon, and set off with my wife for three days of peace, music, and reviewing.

Concert turns phenomenon

A lengthy session with Hendrix, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane - all inheritors of the anything-goes exuberance that made classic rock so exciting - was a thrill to anticipate. But also in prospect were hours of Joe Cocker's manic hollering, Santana's empty virtuosity, and Janis Joplin's ersatz blues. While these stars were hugely popular, none epitomized the sense of radically inventive, utterly spontaneous inspiration that I valued more than any other quality in rock music. And whole evenings of their second-rate stuff were more than I cared to undergo.

I needn't have worried. As all the world knows, the flimsy fence around the concert area was no match for thousands more fans than the sponsors had expected, and soon Woodstock was not a concert, it was a phenomenon that called more for reporters than reviewers.

Going with the flow, I spent little time near the music stage and much time slogging through mud, mingling with crowds, and marveling at the grace, generosity, and good humor with which the local citizens greeted this onslaught of uninvited guests.

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Then as now, some grumpy journalists and pundits emphasized the dark side of the situation - the chaos of too many people, the hazards to health and safety, above all the dangers of drug abuse in a community of perilously naive youngsters. Without question, these shadows were sadly present.

But in my view, they were far outweighed by the friendship, the helpfulness, and yes, the much-advertised peace that leapt into being wherever I looked. Woodstock has been called an event that defined a generation, and in most important respects, that definition seemed as positive and upbeat as the spirit of '60s youth itself.

A few months later, at the Altamont Speedway in California, a heralded Rolling Stones concert - given free, in the brand-new Woodstock tradition - provided a different perspective that did much to end the idealism of ``Woodstock Nation'' on both sides of the generation gap. A spectator was murdered by a member of the motorcycle gang enlisted to guard the stage, and this tragedy forced youth-culture admirers to acknowledge the grim underside of human experience that Woodstock's three days had managed to ride over but not to eradicate.

A one-shot affair

I was shocked but not too surprised by Altamont and its aftermath, since Woodstock had obviously been a one-shot affair, too good to be true even as we waded through the midst of it. Although there won't be a memorial concert at Altamont this season, events there are worth remembering as a sobering corrective to the wave of simplistic optimism that Woodstock stood for during its brief time in the sun.

But hey, Woodstock deserves plenty of remembering, too - and celebrating, if not for lasting influence, at least for the hope and idealism and fun that were its sturdiest foundations.

See the movie, wear the T-shirt, visit the anniversary concert if you're in the neighborhood. Its pricey tickets, newfangled groups, and prefabricated atmosphere won't be the same as their '60s prototypes. But as Bob Dylan once sang, we were so much older then; we're younger than that now.

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