Woodstock '99

In august 1969 i set off from Boston with several friends, bound for a rock concert in Bethel, New York. I was 18, which placed me smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, with all its attendant social, political, and cultural consequences. If, in retrospect, I was remarkably naive about many aspects of how the world worked, I certainly did know a thing or two about American youth culture circa the Age of Aquarius.

I had, after all, been raised on the classics: Davy Crockett, Hula-Hoops, the Beatles, and protests against the Vietnam War. I could sing every song Bob Dylan had ever recorded, in what I thought was a passable imitation of his trademark rasp. I had hair down to my shoulders, and a pair of bell bottoms purchased the previous spring in Haight-Ashbury. And, yet, even equipped with such impeccable credentials, I had no idea what to expect as I headed to the Woodstock Music and Art Festival.

Starting today the latest incarnation of Woodstock comes to an abandoned Air Force base 10 miles up the road from the small community where I live and teach in central New York. Though I have no intention of attending this time, somehow, I know exactly what to expect - as do, I imagine, the several hundred thousand people trekking up the New York State Thruway.

There will be, as advertised, three days of peace, love, and music. Lots of interesting people to look at. A brisk trade in illegal pharmaceuticals. And, hopefully, sometime during the weekend it will rain, providing the slippery terrain required for the abandonment of conventional standards of cleanliness and interesting photo opportunities for the media.

I don't mean to begrudge anyone, or any generation, their moment in the sun - or mud. But I do find it disconcerting that young Americans are going to spend this weekend in a ritual re-enactment of the collective excesses associated with their elders.

Imagine if veterans of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were to witness a modern-day Civil War re-enactment. They might well admire the lengths to which participants go to ensure the authenticity of uniforms, weaponry, and deployment. But it wouldn't be surprising if they still felt that it wasn't quite the same thing as the battle of Gettysburg.

And the Civil War analogy isn't extreme - it's worth remembering just how divided America was at the time of the original Woodstock. The US still had more than half a million troops in Vietnam and nearly 10,000 of them would die that year in the conflict. It was just over a year since Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The Kerner Commission declared the previous December that the nation was becoming "two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." And during the 1968-69 school year both the war and racial issues provoked a series of violent confrontations on campuses across the country.

SO, although Woodstock's promoters promised peace, love, and music, it wasn't at all clear they'd be able to deliver. The unknowns that surrounded the event as I headed off for Bethel 30 years ago included the distinct possibility it might turn into yet another bloody conflict between insurgents and authorities. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's advisers contemplated sending in the National Guard if law and order broke down at the festival. In the end, disaster was averted. It didn't seem to matter that there wasn't sufficient parking, portable toilets, shelter, or food. Life magazine reported the next week in mild wonderment: "For nearly three days nearly half a million people lived elbow to elbow in the most exposed, crowded, rain-drenched, uncomfortable kind of community, and there wasn't so much as a fist fight."

Woodstock was judged a success for what it wasn't, as well as for what it was.

The 1999 Woodstock doubtless will prove a well-crafted product - sanitary facilities and fast food aplenty. Concert-goers will know exactly what to expect, and exactly what's expected of them. There will be the requisite photos of happy, muddy young people in next week's newsweeklies. This time there will be no surprises ... alas.

All that will be missing are the uncertainties that made Woodstock '69 the real thing.

* Maurice Isserman is professor of history at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. He co-authored the forthcoming 'Divided America: The Civil War of the 1960s' (Oxford University Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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