Arts

How Woodstock ended in a trash-strewn quagmire

Woodstock: not a portable toilet in sight

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (BBC iPlayer/Amazon Prime/PBS) offers a somewhat unexpected picture of the 1969 rock festival. Its producers wisely chose not to present a bunch of rock acts – the film Woodstock (1970) does that – preferring to go behind the scenes and recount the difficulties in choosing a site and then dealing with crowds as much as 10 times larger than expected. This tale of logistics and improvisation, often fascinating, unfolds in archival footage, stills and voiceovers by the event’s promoters and staff.

Less successful is the commentary from participants, the kids – now greying hippies – who trekked cross-country to found what some of them regarded as a new nation. The festival became a “city”, a venue where peace reigned and love filled the air. The three days constituted a “cosmic moment”, which in the Age of Aquarius was as good as guaranteed. In sum, Woodstock was the high watermark of the counter-cultural world, a monstrous kef where marijuana smoke so filled the air that almost anyone might get high through the simple act of breathing.

With around 350,000 attending, food naturally ran short, as did facilities. The field rented from Max Yasgur (as it happens, a conservative Republican dairy farmer) soon became a trash-covered quagmire that, from another account, stank of sweat, urine and faeces, and not just then but for years. As for the food, everybody shared, as one attendee enthused, just “like the feeding of the five thousand” – well, minus a miracle or two.

Like the congested traffic that stranded actual ticket-holders six miles from the site, these all-too-familiar clichés often slow the documentary’s pace. But eye-rolling narration aside, this business of food is one of the real stories of Woodstock, certainly new to most viewers.

When the vendors ran out of victuals, the people of nearby Bethel – upstate New York’s flyover country – emptied their pantries and store shelves to feed the kids. Why? As one resident declared, it was their Christian duty.

Yet for all its claims to novelty, there’s something about Woodstock that seems over-inflated. Let’s not forget, it was a rock concert and a sort of gargantuan tailgate party that got out of control. Thanks to the “local yokels”, the food and drink remained available for about three days, but when that ran out, when the stench and filth became unbearable, the free sex gave way to post-coital regrets and, of course, the bands went home. Woodstock Nation disintegrated, its “citizens” returning to mom, dad and the comforts of the homes they despised. Today, these ageing kids can watch the documentary in their own comfortable homes and dream of what once was – the Never-Neverland of 1969.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia