“I knew the revolution was over at that moment. I looked over my shoulder and no one else was there.” – Dennis Thompson
It’s an awfully big title to use, I know. It’ll shatter the heart of my hippie boyfriend. But I assert that it’s warranted. Necessary, even, for the dark side of the counterculture music event.
This idea has been rattling around in my head for months now, since I first read Rose-Tinted Glasses: You Don’t Love Everything From the 60s & 70s; a triumph by Presley Overgoor. And yes, “since I first read,” I’ve revisited it more than once. As another Woodstockiversary comes and goes, I see the phrase “peace and love” everywhere. The "peace and love" I talk about here has none of the hippie values to back it up. You can say it all you want, but if you don’t have drive and desire for change behind it? It’s a naïve, anemic catch-all phrase. It’s even worse when used to make a buck.
Hopefully by describing the pitfalls (and horrors) of some counterculture music events, I can illustrate how operating off "peace and love" alone can do more harm than good; and that peace and love with weight behind it is still precarious. So this one’s for Woodstock, and how the hippies were doomed from the start.
Garden of Earthly Delights
At best, the Woodstock festival was the true Aquarian exhibition. Some of the greatest moments in rock-and-roll history took place on that stage. Think Jimi Hendrix’s transformation of the US national anthem into an anti-war display. The 3-day festival saw the second-ever performance of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and propelled a previously-unknown Joe Cocker into worldwide fame. But let’s be real: we romanticize Woodstock and we romanticize it hard! A great deal of the sunshiney view of Woodstock we hold today comes from the 1970 film cut together by Michael Wadleigh and Martin Scorcese. (I touched on the film briefly in this week’s Vinyl Monday episode.) Remember, every documentary film has an angle. Especially ones that tote themselves as objective.
Looking past the damn good music, Woodstock was a logistical nightmare the likes of which live music had never seen. Michael Lang and Co. vastly underestimated the number of people who’d turn up. When suddenly faced with 400,000 people flooding Max Yasgur’s farm, they simply couldn’t keep up with who had a ticket and who didn’t. Surprise free festival! Hippie culture at its best! That is, until your artists don’t get paid.
The festival ran egregiously late, giving plenty of time for the entertainment to get zooted beyond this mortal plane. Note the Woodstock performance of “Somebody to Love,” you can see Marty Balin’s acid kicking in. It’s a common misconception that all the acts playing Woodstock were junkies who didn’t care if they were high on stage. In reality, they vastly over/underestimated the time they’d be waiting to go on and just got zooted to pass the time. Janis hated her Woodstock performance. She got high while waiting around, then was called onstage when she didn’t expect it, and knew the drink and drugs affected her singing. Not to mention she was put on the bill before even agreeing to perform in the first place!
There were also serious safety concerns at Woodstock. As we all know, the weekend was plagued by rain and thunderstorms. This wreaked havoc on not just the schedule, but on the farm too. If you were doing the hippie thing and not wearing shoes, didn’t see a broken bottle in the mud, and stepped on it? Good luck. There was little to no medical staff on hand. Food ran out within the first day. There were no bathrooms – "peace and love" won’t fix streams of raw sewage! And the icing on the cake: the main power cable to the stage was exposed and partially submerged in water. It’s a miracle no one got killed! To all you who say “I want to travel back to Woodstock,” trust me, you probably don’t! It was NOT for the faint of heart.
Pictured: The Hell’s Angels looming over Woodstock; an omen for what is to come in a few short months.
Okay, so maybe the pitfalls of Woodstock can be chalked up to poor planning. None of these guys had any idea what they were getting themselves into. But one disaster that cannot be chalked up to simple naïveté is Altamont.
It was “rock-and-roll’s all-time worst day...a day where everything went perfectly wrong.”
The Altamont Speedway Free Concert took place on December 6th, 1969 in Alameda County, California. It aimed to be a counterculture event similar to Woodstock, and pulled a similar-sized crowd. It was truly an all-stars event organized by members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, and CSNY all played sets on the Altamont stage. The Rolling Stones were the top-billed act and took the final time slot. Or, at least, what would become the final time slot. Things went so wrong that the Dead, the main organizers of the concert, didn’t even get to play.
Unlike Woodstock, which was advertised with a $5 admission price before it became a free concert, Altamont was advertised as free from the get-go. The Rolling Stones rarely played in the US at this time, so thousands of people flocked to Altamont to see them. Less than a day before the show was set to take place, the venue was changed to the Speedway; essentially a giant ditch with a stage. Locals weren’t given advance notice that thousands of rock-and-roll fans were about to descend on the Speedway. They weren’t fans of rock-and-roll fans. Like Woodstock, there were next to no bathrooms on site and the place was blocked off by cars. The PA was weak, so the crowd pushed as close as they could to the stage to hear the bands. And the Hell's Angels were hired as “security” and picking fights with the crowd left and right. They even antagonized Jefferson Airplane; almost fighting Paul Kantner and punching out Marty Balin.
Things only worsened. During the final set of the night, the Hell’s Angels killed a concertgoer: 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. The Stones paused their show, calling for a doctor as bystanders tried to get Hunter backstage to the Red Cross truck. The Stones only saw a fight break out and had no idea Hunter was dying. The Hell's Angels blocked those trying to get to the stage to aid Hunter.
The set was only completed to keep the crowd from descending into a full-on riot. Perhaps the most telling line, from a witness interviewed for Rolling Stone Magazine’s 1970 account of Altamont, is this:
“Would you be willing to testify (against the Hell's Angels?)”
“No. I don’t want to get killed.”
Altamont is often cited as “the end of the hippies,” the day peace and love died in a violent rage. The Garden of Eden had devolved into a nightmare only conceivable by Hieronymus Bosch. But the true death of the ‘60s counterculture took place long before Altamont. It preceded Woodstock by a whole year. It happened in Chicago.
The Day The Revolution Died
The police had – and still have – a funny way of picking on these events until they became incidents. Like Altamont, the ’68 DNC was hot going in. But the reason we call it this event a riot is not due to poor organization, rowdy concertgoers, lax security, or aggressive security. It’s called the DNC Riots because of Chicago police.
There were many demonstrations surrounding the DNC that year. But for the purpose of this post, I'm focusing on the Festival of Life. Big Brother and the Holding Company was set to play this Yippie-organized show, among others. The MC5 put themselves on the bill too, hungry for recognition and a record deal. (Which they’d snag and almost immediately lose, but that’s a whole story in and of itself.) They were no stranger to Detroit police crashing their shows; note the “love-in” attempted by Detroit youths in the Summer of Love. But this time was different.
The only laughing matter was how off their asses MC5 were on hash:
“I think we were doing our song ‘Starship’ and we’re in this space music thing and we’re talking about the war and the human being lawnmower and everything, and the Chicago police helicopters started buzzing above us...the helicopter sound fit in with what I was playing on the guitar – ‘Yeah it’s perfect man, waaaaahhhhh!’” – The ever-eloquent Brother Wayne Kramer
Fun as it is to harmonize with helicopters, shit went sideways fast. There were undercover officers in the audience picking fights so the peaceful crowd got antsy. Soon, the whole park was surrounded by police on the ground and in the air. Abbie Hoffman hopped on stage and did his thing, which gave the MC5 the opportunity to load up their equipment and get the hell out. Not long after the music stopped, violence broke out in the park. The Festival of Life took place within an already riot-striken Chicago, and this event would befall the same fate.
The DNC riots would stretch on for almost a week, cause countless casualties, and lead to the trial of the Chicago 7 – and therefore the horrific and undoubtedly racist treatment of Bobby Seale.
Aside from singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, no other groups slated to play the Festival of Life came except for the Up (but they didn’t even make it to the stage.) Everyone else caught wind that Chicago was running hot, riots were possible, and they backed out of playing at the last minute.
Whether the call was made by managers or the musicians themselves, the cut-and-dry, hard-to-swallow truth is this: the San Fransisco bands chickened out.
On that day, they did not put their money where their mouths were. They all abandoned the counterculture ideals they toted. It was and still is disappointing as hell! As soon as the situation got “too hot” for them to show, the revolution was over. Did the hippie bands even believe in the cause? Sure, Woodstock was precarious and Altamont was a tragedy. But did the events WITH muscle behind them stand a chance either?
Above: Footage from the Festival of Life, sans audio.
The reason we still talk about Woodstock and Altamont is because they were captured on film. We hardly have any footage of the Festival of Life. Even though it had the proverbial firepower to back its peaceful intentions, it never really stood a chance.
The Post-Woodstockian Fantasy
Considering all the muck which surrounds counterculture music events, why do we keep trying to resurrect the Woodstock dream? Though Woodstock ’94 was blessed with a mud fight during Green Day’s set, the ’99 iteration went more like Altamont. In 2019, a 50th anniversary Woodstock festival was planned. With no set venue. Although it would’ve been pretty damn cool to see Greta Van Fleet at Woodstock ’19, I can’t help but wonder...no venue? Did we learn nothing??? In terms of the modern music festival, we can’t leave out Coachella. It’s morphed from a post-Woodstockian fantasy (where some pretty cool indie bands would play!) to an influencers’ playground. Or, alternately, my own personal circle of hell!
Maybe the safest element of the ’60s music festival to romanticize is the fashion. How could you not adore Grace Slick’s fringed getup? It’s fun to wish we could rock it too. (And if you know how to sew, you probably can!) But here’s the thing about the vintage fashion fad: regular people didn’t actually dress like our style icons! We model our fashions after what was worn by celebrities/rock stars/featured in photo shoots. Real people couldn’t afford those pieces. There were no fast-fashion brands to replicate them. If you look out into the Woodstock crowd, you won’t see much of the sequins and feathers those on stage sported. You’ll hardly see any tie-dye! Most people wore t-shirts and jeans...which then became jorts when the jeans were inevitably ruined by mud. For the most part, hippies dressed just like everyone else.
Besides the long hair, the only thing that separated hippies from the average Joe was their set of ideals. Peace and love was the fad, environmentalism and human rights activism was the counterculture!
Pictured: The crowd at Woodstock. Not a single tie-dye t-shirt in sight. (Photo by John Dominis, 1969.)
The spirit of the music festival was to come as you are, not shell out exorbitant amounts of cash for stuff that’ll fall apart if it’s put in the washing machine. So when brands like Anthropologie and Free People sell beautiful full-fringe tops and suede lace-up boots as “festival fashion,” it makes me feel...weird. Hippies were all about saving the planet and looking out for your fellow man. A real hippie would give you the shirt off his back for free. So why is Free People selling mass-produced, tie-dye boho bullshit, which came from a factory with terrible working conditions, for over $100? And billing it as festival fashion? It’s an affront to everything the counterculture stood for. The "peace and love" catch-all is tacked onto stuff a hippie would hate.
Pictured: Grace Slick (left) on the final day of Woodstock (Photographed by Henry Diltz, 1969.) Many a brand has tried replicating this look, but you can’t put a price tag on the counterculture spirit.
Instagram’s vintage fashion community totes peace and love left and right, saying they were “born in the wrong generation.” I appreciate those who rescind the desire for a time machine and can look at the past with a critical eye. But to the rest of you: you do not want to go back! Woodstock was not for the faint of heart, and Woodstockalikes have a piss-poor track record. If you call yourself a part of this community and anything I said about big-brand peace and love put you off, then I recommend taking a look within. We can love the clothes and the tunes, but “loving the past” overlooks hard truths.
We can move forward with hippie ideals like antiracism, environmentalism, and compassion for your fellow man. Grow out your hair! Ditch your shoes! Love one another! But if the 3 events described here are any indication, we cannot continue on just “peace and love” alone. It’s not enough for change to be made. It’s certainly not enough to organize a good counterculture event. And even when you've got the meat and potatoes to back it up, things will not be easy.
We’ve got to remember what peace and love was all about, not just “peace and love.” That’s been dead a long time. So bag it and tag it.