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Music

Tom Petty's honest thoughts on Woodstock '69

Woodstock 1969 has long been hailed as one of the most pivotal moments in the history of music. However, in recent years, the more objective revisionist perspective has started to colour the discussion, with many commentators rethinking the festival’s position in history books, and if it was really that consequential at all. 

Often regarded as a paradox, embodying both the counterculture’s pinnacle and its last hurrah, to even some of the biggest names who featured on its mammoth bill, it wasn’t the thing of great beauty that discourse has had subsequent generations believe. 

As the icon Joni Mitchell once said: “You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.” 

Mitchell’s rather cutting comment, indicating her well-known disdain for her generation, is reflective of the kind of comments that we get from many of Woodstock ’69’s most eminent performers. It is due to statements such as this that we’ve seen the paradigm on Woodstock shift away from the purely optimistic vision that we all know so well.  

One reason Woodstock passed into the mythical realm was the concert film, Woodstock, which gives a convenient but unrealistic view of the happenings that weekend in 1969. Duly, the recording has come under scrutiny from many who performed, including Neil Young.

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Regardless of the opinions about the day itself, one thing we cannot ignore is how Woodstock managed to attract a host of the biggest acts, which may account for why it has remained so pronounced in popular discourse. At that point in time, there had never been anything like it, and the pictures of 500,000 longhairs descending on an estate in Sullivan County, New York, to many conservative commentators, seemed like the dawn of the apocalypse. 

The show included everyone from Jimi Hendrix to The Who and Jefferson Airplane, so you can understand why many, particularly those who weren’t there, regarded it as the triumphant coming together of the hippie movement. 

However, even some of that generation who didn’t attend weren’t indifferent to Woodstock, even if they were music lovers. One of the most notable figures who remained ambivalent about Woodstock ’69, was Gainesville, Florida’s favourite son, Tom Petty. Perhaps he was slightly too young to have attended, we’re unsure, but it seemed as if he couldn’t have cared less of his absence, regardless of the fact that he was a big fan of many of the acts on the bill. 

Speaking of 1994’s edition of Woodstock, Petty told The Sydney Sun-Herald in 1994: “It looked OK… I think it was some sort of statement of this generation – ‘we’re going to have our own mud to roll in if we want to’. I didn’t really care for the old one. To be honest, I never looked at it as a particularly great show. I didn’t go but I never thought Woodstock was particularly significant. I was 18 when Woodstock came along and it really had no effect on me.”

For Tom Petty to join Joni Mitchell, Roger Daltrey, Neil Young, and even Billy Joel in providing a more realistic insight into Woodstock ’69, it begs the question, who actually thought Woodstock was worthwhile?

Watch Jefferson Airplane perform ‘White Rabbit’ at Woodstock below.