This weekend marks the fortieth anniversary of the much beloved and widely worshiped “counterculture festival of peace and love” — Woodstock. According to popular belief, Woodstock was a generation-defining event that represented the best of the sixties spirit: half a million young people gathering for peaceful anti-war protest, easy sex, great rock music, mind-expanding psychedelics, and a rejection of lifeless commercialism. But is that what Woodstock really was?
This hallowed sixties legend, like that of so many “iconic” counter cultural events, has deeply and deliberately distorted the truth. In reality, Woodstock consisted of masses of people spending several days outdoors in rain-drenched conditions without proper facilities — to the point that the vast majority of the crowd had departed before Jimi Hendrix’s famed closing performance, leaving behind a massive swath of garbage-strewn farmland. The prevalence of recreational drugs at Woodstock has become a point of humorous pride among the counterculture, but the deadly toll that the glorified drug culture exerted on that very generation is not so funny. One sixties icon after another — Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and John Entwistle (the Who), Bob Hite (Canned Heat), to name just some of those at Woodstock — died of drug overdoses.
Sifting through the realities and un-realities of Woodstock forty years later might seem trivial, but honoring and remembering Woodstock as a pivotal point in American history is foolish. The phrase “If you remember the Sixties, than you weren’t there,” has been repeated constantly throughout the past decades. But how can that be said about a decade that in actuality was one of the more conservative decades in recent history? The Sixties have come to be represented by hippies, rock music, and social revolution — but at the time that counterculture existed largely outside the mainstream, conservative society.
Woodstock has become the number one example of this decade delusion. One puzzling question about Woodstock is how the organizers got so many big names to participate. This quiz may provide a clue: Which of the following Woodstock bands and singers had Billboard #1 singles during the 1960s?
1) Jimi Hendrix
2) The Who
3) The Grateful Dead
4) Carlos Santana
5) Jefferson Airplane
Actually, none of them did. Neither did Bob Dylan. By contrast, crooner Bobby Vinton had four #1 hits, and any list of the decade’s most popular performers would include decidedly non-rockin’ chart-toppers like Herb Alpert, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Petula Clark, Conway Twitty, Henry Mancini and Andy Williams. The albums “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” and “Mary Poppins” out-sold the Rolling Stones’ biggest records, while big band leader Mitch Miller sold over 20 million.
The bottom line is this: Woodstock performers, and rock music in general, were not nearly as popular in the sixties as we’ve been led to believe. Rock music wasn’t the music of the sixties. And Woodstock certainly didn’t lie at the center of the decade. Contrary to popular belief, America in the sixties remained an overwhelmingly conservative country, where the counterculture’s tastes — in politics, fashion, and even music – were in the minority.
A more important story of the time, of course, was the war in Vietnam. For, while the groovy hipsters were tripping at Woodstock, other Americans were fighting to defend the people of South Vietnam from Communist invaders. These Communist forces committed countless atrocities during the war and after their victory, including their attempt to “ethnically cleanse” the country of its Chinese minority, the forced migration of the “boat people,” and the torture and brainwashing of their political opponents in “re-education camps.” The Communist North Vietnamese Army also proved instrumental in the rise of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, ultimately resulting in the Cambodian genocide.
This is not how the 1960s is typically remembered, however. Ensconcing themselves in the media and in academia, counterculture activists have written their own version of history in which — surprise, surprise — the counterculture is glorified as daring, hip, freedom fighters, while Vietnam vets are portrayed as victimized dupes at best and as depraved murderers at worst.
The anniversary of Woodstock will undoubtedly engender a great deal of self-adulation by the remnants of the counterculture. It’s a good time, then, to re-evaluate their real legacy. To define the sixties by what supposedly happened at Woodstock — or, even what actually did happen — is to accept a false historical narrative, put forward by a small, radical clique that falsely portrays its own experiences as that of an entire generation.
Furthermore, despite its anti-commercial pretenses, the event was backed by Warner Brothers. Even its name was erroneous: the town of Woodstock is 45 miles away from the festival site.