The Sounds Of Woodstock Refuse To Fade, 50 Years After The Last Note Was Played
I was not a part of the Woodstock generation. That dubious honour belonged to my parents, the bell-bottomed men and women of the 1950s and 1960s, who grew up in a Bombay that didn’t look askance at youth in tie-dyed clothing. They were the ones who tacked up posters of The Who, torn from magazines sold second hand on the streets of Fort, the ones who passed around vinyl records of Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, and the ones who nodded along to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix in bars that have long been taken over by banking institutions.
When I look back at how I was introduced to the music of Woodstock, it’s with surprise because so much of what I took for granted wasn’t necessarily familiar to the rest of India. While the festival took place between August 15 and 18, in 1969, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and our country was dealing with a problem that’s never really gone away. There were communal riots in Gujarat that year, less than a month after the festival in New York. If there was something simmering in the air in the months before that tragedy, it’s safe to assume music had no part of it. Some reports claim that 2,000 people lost their lives, which presumably made it hard for millions of people to focus on “3 days of peace & music”, even if Rolling Stone magazine would eventually say it had changed the history of rock and roll.
There were other momentous diversions, including the splitting of the Indian National Congress and the death of movie star Madhubala, both of which took up a lot more newsprint than reviews of an American music festival. It’s why I often wonder at how my parents — in small Roman Catholic nooks of Colaba and Byculla — had access to what so many of their peers were effectively denied. In an age of state-controlled television, decades before YouTube and streaming services, the possibility of stumbling upon live performances of Woodstock was remote.
I first heard it on cassette, a double edition culled from the original triple-LP set sold by vendors on DN Road. It could have been a pirated copy. This was in the 80s, and I had been steadily moving past the hair bands and synthesizer pop of my day in an attempt to understand where it had all come from. As a habit, it has served me well, this refusal to accept the present without attempting to explore its precedents. A number of names on the back of the cassette seemed familiar anyway, thanks to the mixed bag of records owned and played by my parents, so I picked it up and popped it into my walkman for the train ride home.
There was no epiphany, despite what scores of music writers and critics may have felt, presumably because they had expectations I didn’t. My culture simply didn’t permit me to understand the nuances of what Woodstock meant, what it stood for, or what it was a movement against. That knowledge came much later, with repeated listenings over the following decades. Some songs managed to age well (will the Hendrix interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” ever get old?), while others lost their potency. What it started to become, as I grew older and the events of 1969 began to reveal how they fit into a larger scheme of things, was a historical document.
When I listen to the soundtrack now, I have specific reactions to some of the tracks, and a subtle appreciation not just for the snippets of banter but the implications of what the artistes were singing about. The opening by John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, for example, was supposedly an impromptu appearance, but sets the tone for so much of what Woodstock hoped to accomplish. “I had a dream last night, What a lovely dream it was, I dreamed we all were alright, Happy in a land of Oz” ought to sound twee any time after 1970, but doesn’t because it is informed by the music that follows it.
Then there was Richie Havens, whose three-hour set was reduced to something he came up with to stall for time, a reworking of the spiritual “Motherless Child” that was eventually titled “Freedom”. As more of his music that day was revealed in later editions of the soundtrack, it is marvellous to consider how a throwaway filler song catapulted him to stardom and continues to define his legacy. It was followed by Joan Baez’s cover of The Byrds’ “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” with its reference to the Ku Klux Klan, Sha-Na-Na’s doo-wop “At the Hop”, Neil Yong’s broody “Sea of Madness” and The “Fish” Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish that continues to be a benchmark for call-and-response live recordings.
I still turn to the soundtrack, sometimes because Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is the best way to end a drunken evening, at other times because the Sly & the Family Stone medley can inject a shot of adrenaline to the most melancholic day. So much of the music is now familiar to millions across the rest of the world, which doesn’t make sense given how local it was meant to be, and how far from its original profit-making origins. Its organisers didn’t know what hit them — as the celebrated documentary makes painfully obvious — but they couldn’t possibly have known what the repercussions of their venture would be, or how it would continue to have an influence on not just the idea of a music festival, but the way artistes would start to believe in their ability to usher in change.
The fact that issues relevant to the cause of Woodstock are still pertinent half a century on is what makes listening to it a bittersweet experience in 2019. It is that continued relevance though, that also makes it special.
— First published in GQ, August 2019