Woodstock 2019: Flashback or Reality?
by Baker Lee
Illustration by Andy Au
It has been reported that Michael Lang — one of the co-founders of the original Woodstock Festival — is planning to bring back the iconic “3 Days of Peace & Music” festival for a 50th anniversary edition. Interestingly, the plan is to have the event take place at Watkins Glen — the site of the 1973 “Summer Jam” concert hosting approximately 600,000 people and featuring entertainment by The Grateful Dead, The Band and The Allman Brothers.
An Audio Revolution Begins
While the audio at the Woodstock festival was touted as the beginning of festival sound, it was the sound at Watkins Glen that took it to the next level. Realizing that it would be impossible to reach the middle to back of the huge crowd with only point source speakers, Dan Healy, the head of The Grateful Dead’s audio team, worked in conjunction with Eventide to put in place a delay system that incorporated Eventide’s new integrated circuit technology to delay the front of house system to the towers. What they used with great success was the Eventide DDL 1745.
I was onsite at Watkins Glen a day early for the event and had the chance to speak to one of the audio engineers who explained the delay system to me. I was amazed at the technology and, during the long sound check, I walked from the stage to beyond the delay tower to witness first-hand the magic of this new technology. I was not disappointed. Not only was the Watkins Glen festival the first of its kind to incorporate delay towers, but also the festival itself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest audience at a pop festival.”
Please note that while Woodstock and Watkins Glen were festivals renowned for their size and audio innovation, the history of modern-day music festivals dates back to the early 1950s with such festivals as the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festival, which began in the 1950s. In 1967, The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival took place in California at the height of the hippie movement to celebrate what has become known as “The Summer of Love.” One week later, in Monterey, CA, the eponymous and historic festival took place, which many people regard as the first pop music festival and the forerunner to Woodstock.
I graduated high school in 1969, and in August of that year, I had the choice to go to Woodstock or go to California. As a young, impressionable, hippie wannabe, I opted to travel to San Francisco to be at the front line and partake in the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Haight-Ashbury, which is usually considered the birthplace of the 1960’s counterculture movement, I was informed that I had missed all the action and that the front line had moved to an undisclosed location. Meanwhile, rumors were reaching across the country that half a million people were descending upon an upstate farm in New York — apparently in search of the same utopian dream I was chasing. In retrospect, it’s safe to assume that the attendees of Woodstock found more of that dream intact in those three days of mud, rain and music than I did in my two-week sojourn to sunny California.
While it was neither the first or largest pop music festival, Woodstock was a seminal event which will be remembered and revered not only for the bands that entertained a spontaneous crowd of half a million young people, but as a cultural phenomenon of a dream realized. That dream officially ended in December of 1969 when The Rolling Stones hosted a festival for 300,000 people outside of San Francisco, in Altamont CA. A friend of mine who attended both Woodstock and the Altamont event told me that, unlike Woodstock, he experienced a palpable sense of negativity underlying the Altamont concert and — considering the outcome at Altamont — I can fully appreciate and understand why Woodstock would be the brand promoting a 50th anniversary concert rather than Altamont.
For all the remembrance of peace and love and a Hippie Nation, Woodstock was unfortunately a culmination of the 60’s rather than a new beginning and, as demonstrated at Altamont, gravity has a way of keeping dreams from soaring. Woodstock took place with the 1960s as a backdrop and it was a tumultuous setting to say the least. The cold war between Russia and the U.S. had the threat of a nuclear outcome that was a real menace and threatened us all with extinction. The Vietnam war was being waged to supposedly keep us safe from communism and Martin Luther King was leading the civil rights movement with a call for passive resistance that was being met with violence from those who opposed desegregation and voter rights.
By 1968, President Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act into law. JFK, Malcolm X, RFK and MLK had been assassinated, and the movement of passive resistance was being taken over by such groups as the Youth International Party (Yippies), The Black Panther Movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), all of whom advocated a more radical approach of resistance to the establishment.
The Vietnam War was escalating, and the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was running an often-illegal program called COINTELPRO, which ran from 1956 to 1971. It was a covert operation to infiltrate and neutralize all the groups that were considered a threat to national security and the status quo. COINTELPRO has been alleged to discredit their enemies by using psychological warfare, violence, wiretapping and planting false reports in the media.
In 1968, Chicago was the site of the Democratic National Convention, where there was a violent confrontation between the police and demonstrators. In that same year Richard Nixon was elected president and the Vietnam War escalated. The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination based upon gender. However, since the government frequently overlooked the anti-discrimination law, it gave rise to the National Organization for Women who fought for equal job opportunities for women. And 1969 also marked the beginning of the gay rights movement with the first gay protest that took place at The Stonewall bar in New York City and — in response to huge citizen protests regarding the environment — congress passed the National Environmental Act of 1970 and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Fifty years later, we live in a different world. Technically, a sound system for Woodstock 2019 would easily be able to deliver a clear sound to 500,000 people — that is, if they showed up. Much like the Super Bowl halftime show, the promoters could easily stream the event and reach millions of people who might want to avoid the crowds and the security checks to which they would be subjected. Of course, the experience is not the same as getting high with a half million people in the mud and then walking 10 miles to your car, but it is 50 years later and times have changed.
Russia is still in the news as the American nemesis, as are gay and women’s rights. Our country’s involvement in foreign wars is still pursued with unabated vigor and — after all these years — race is still a nagging issue. Marijuana, which was a symbol of protest and the Aquarian age, is now (for the most part) legal. Ironically, Woodstock Ventures, the promoters of the Woodstock festivals, have filed suit against a cannabis company that is using the Woodstock name to sell their weed, and some of the baby boomers that might have attended Woodstock as weed-smoking protesters now have positions of authority, which they need to defend against a younger generation demanding change. The question remains — is there a generation of younger people who can make Woodstock 2019 into a watershed event, or is “Woodstock” relegated to being a brand name for selling (in the words of Lowell George) weed, whites and wine?