Saturday, August 17, 2019

Woodstock | Lefsetz Letter

Everybody was on the bill.

Back then there were two lanes, AM & FM, hits and album tracks.

Woodstock was a festival for the album tracks. An era that began with either “Sgt. Pepper” or “Rubber Soul,” depending on your viewpoint. Was your hair long or short? Were you for or against the war? These were lines of demarcation. And those who went to Woodstock were on the FM, long hair, against the war, peace side.

But no one knew the contingent was so big, NO ONE!

That was the essence of Woodstock, THAT EVERYBODY WENT!

I’m sick and tired of writers opining on Woodstock and getting it wrong.

No, I did not go to Woodstock, I was at a summer program in Chicago. But to tell you the truth, we never thought it would happen, it was too good to be true.

So everybody drives upstate and the straight press is overwhelmed.

Now, by this point there was an alternative press. “Rolling Stone” being the music bible. But even “Rolling Stone” didn’t gain mainstream credibility until its scoops on Patty Hearst, and that was five years later!

I’m trying to paint the picture for you. The counterculture was hiding in plain sight, but the establishment didn’t see it. And Woodstock was evidence of its humongous size, even its members were overwhelmed. It was a tribe. And from thereon forward, the younger generation ruled.

Oh, it’d been percolating since the early sixties. It was not like today, your mom didn’t have to work, there was extra money, there were no homeless people. Money did not drive the culture, MUSIC DID! And the music was not mindless, not made for money, but a direct transcription from the players’ hearts to vinyl, which you purchased and ate up like manna from heaven.

And you didn’t only listen to hard rock, soft stuff resonated too. As evidenced by the inclusion of such disparate acts on the bill as the Incredible String Band and Jimi Hendrix. We were addicted to FM radio, we were addicted to the music.

And now we’ve got all these naysayers saying there were not enough black performers. You can’t look at the past through modern eyes. The truth was there was very little black music on FM radio. It was kinda like Bob Pittman saying that MTV was an AOR station. Sure, it switched, as did FM radio, but at the time, every act that was credible other than Bob Dylan was there, and the rumor was that he was gonna show up too.

Now we keep hearing from the musicians what a dump it was. About the delays. And the lack of infrastructure.

If you expect musicians to get it right, you expect them to be able to pick the single and understand the business, and these are very rare qualities. It was another gig.

But really it was about the audience, the fact that everybody showed up and there was peace.

There are school shootings today, but back then they shot the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and there were riots and Nixon ran on restoring law and order and then 400,000 kids show up and no one gets hurt? IMPOSSIBLE!

It’d be like having no security at the airport and no planes getting hijacked.

And speaking of killing the Kennedys, don’t compare Altamont to Woodstock. You can only do it once, you can only surprise people once, you can only make your point once, after that it’s a variation on a theme.

And that’s what the Stones did, in an ersatz fashion. Pushing their faux danger, hiring the Hells Angels for security. The band had no pulse on how America worked. And they were English. And although English bands appeared at Woodstock, it was quite definitely an American production.

Now you’ve got to know that Woodstock didn’t really blow up until the following April. With the three disc set and the movie. News doesn’t stick to your ribs like music.

You dropped the needle and you were there, but you weren’t. You reveled in the tunes, knew all the stage announcements.

And then the movie!

Oh, I’ve seen “Monterey Pop,” I’ve seen them all, and “Woodstock” is the best. Because first and foremost it’s a MOVIE! With interviews and special effects and you felt like you lived through the weekend, you didn’t want it to end, which is why it played through the summer and I saw it three times, some people even more.

That’s another thing that bugs me, the naysayers who say the music sucked. Come on, you ever been to a gig? The only time it’s perfect is when it’s on hard drive. Rock music is a feeling, an emotion, and when it resonates…

Kinda like when you listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

They were seen as a singles band, because their tracks were so good they crossed over to AM, and they were on a crappy label, Fantasy. Most people had never seen them. And then the trio hits the stage and…

Listen to the studio recordings, they’re slick, smooth, but rock music live is not like that, it’s rough, it’s got edges. Kinda like Creedence’s performance of “Born On The Bayou” at Woodstock.

John Fogerty is screaming. In tune, because he needs no help, this was back when you had to have a great voice to front a band.

And as you listen, your head starts to nod, because the music has penetrated your soul and turned you into a follower.

This is how it was back then, that’s how powerful the music was. It was not background, but positively FOREGROUND!

And when I heard Creedence’s performance of “Proud Mary” on Deep Tracks yesterday, I didn’t wince, I got into it. This is the concert experience, first and foremost it’s about the energy, delivering the music, production was unseen and irrelevant back then.

And sure, you can talk about tracks on the original three disc set not even being recorded at the festival, but that was irrelevant, here was this SOUND!

And the bands that said no to being included. Like the Band, and Mountain and Creedence. Thereafter everybody said yes. Because Woodstock turned Ten Years After into an arena act overnight. Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and John Sebastian got a second wind. Sly & the Family Stone crossed over to white people, now it was not only about the singles. Bottom line, if you played Woodstock you were a SUPERSTAR!

Do you know what it was like if you weren’t there?

Now you had to go to every rock festival thereafter, because of the fear of missing out. And none was ever as good. But boy, the music scene flipped, now it was all about FM and the album acts. Credit that to Woodstock.

So don’t talk about the business. Today’s festivals are nothing like Woodstock. They’re corrals to sell stuff and shoot selfies. It’s about the money. Woodstock was an experiment. What would happen if you got all the greatest bands together? Now we know what happened, fans came out of the woodwork to see them.

So yes, it was a moment in time. Never to be repeated. In the spring of ’70, students were shot at Kent State.

But the war eventually ended. And the youth and their protests helped make this happen. The youth are why Johnson didn’t run for another term and why Nixon kept trying to wind down the war. And even Nixon went out and talked to the protesters at the Jefferson Memorial. He may have been evil, he may have been tricky, but he had more of a heart and more of a sense of reality than Donald Trump.

That’s another point… Back then the youth were Democrats. There were no Republicans in the music scene. Sure, money mattered, but not as much as the music itself. Which spoke to the culture. The acts insisted on using the studios of their choice with their own engineers. Albums couldn’t be rejected. The covers were a big deal. It was not a product, but a STATEMENT!

And the story of the seventies was about ever bigger acts dominating. Hell, every show sold out, you couldn’t get a ticket. And when corporate rock got traction, it was all over, the audience tuned out and disco reigned and then the whole thing cratered.

And then we went to the monoculture known as MTV.

So what did we learn?

Woodstock was the cultural monolith it was considered to be and described as back then. Lack of shelter, lack of food, the inability to hear…that’s what boomers used to VIP say today. But back then there was no VIP. We were all equal. And then Reagan legitimized greed and we got income inequality and we can never recapture that spirit again.

We’ve gotten so far from the garden it’s nearly impossible to see it.

But the truth was music was the highest art form. Its profits built the Warner Cable system. Music made more money than movies. It was a juggernaut. Driven by the best and the brightest.

We didn’t want to work in government, never mind the bank. Our lives were experiments, we wanted to be the best we could be, the Army ended up ripping off our slogan. We wanted to follow our heroes, look to the Grateful Dead for example.

But in ’69 it was a choice. Not everybody was on the same page.

But by the following spring, when the youth were exposed to what really happened at Woodstock, they just could not get enough.

It was a giant victory lap, a consummation of the sixties, the straight and narrow disappeared and it was all about personal liberation. Funny how income inequality has enslaved today’s youth to play it safe, talk about going backwards.

And that’s why you see the Woodstock blowback. Most of the writers are pissed they missed it. They weren’t there or they weren’t old enough or they weren’t even born yet.

The sixties were something special.

And so was the music.

It was a can-do era. Against all odds, Woodstock happened. Credit those in charge, irrelevant of how disorganized and unprepared they were.

Today it’s all about finding scapegoats, the problem can’t be with yourself. And you play it straight for fear of falling behind. And we measure everything with money.

But back then we were all in it together.

You can get by with a little help from your friends.


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