In retrospect, Woodstock ’69 seems like a sacred pinnacle of the counterculture movement and also the sorry last hurrah. As Neil Young’s old friend 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.” This sort of take is indicative of the mixed bag of comments that the seismic event now garners from artists, attendees and commentators alike.
And for those who weren’t there, the concert film, Woodstock, stands as a handy vignette, but as you’ll see, even the recording is under scrutiny from Young. While Woodstock might not achieve the impossible feat of transporting you back to the era-defining festivities, it serves up enough peace-and-love-addled carnage to at least offer a glimpse.
The show itself represents a pivotal moment in music. Few concerts in history continually pop up in the discourse of culture, quite as frequently as Woodstock, as 500,000 descended upon a field for a show that included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and so many more. Upon release, it was rightfully acclaimed as a fine piece of counterculture filmmaking featuring some spellbinding performances, but now the film has been imbued with the fascinating edge of retrospect.
Woodstock not only features Jimi Hendrix at his spellbinding best and an ensemble of other performers from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Sly & The Family Stone, but it is also a wonderful kaleidoscopic encapsulation of a moment in time, that transfigures the film a piece of art to the heights of an important historical document – “with a cast of half a million outrageously friendly people.”
As a performer, Young’s view was rather different. “Woodstock was a bullshit gig,” he bluntly put it, “A piece of shit. We played fucking awful.” He added: “No one was into the music. I think Stephen [Stills] was way overboard into the huge crowd. Everybody was on this Hollywood trip with the fuckin’ cameras. They weren’t playin’ to the audience as much as to the cameras…I could see everybody changing their performances for the fucking camera and I thought that was bullshit. All these assholes filming, everybody’s carried away with how cool they are…I wasn’t moved.”
This was a viewpoint that he also shared with Howard Stern in 2014, when he recalled: “I didn’t like the fucking cameras, they didn’t have to be on stage. They’re cameras, ‘Hello! Use your zoom, dickhead!” Adding: “Who cares? It doesn’t matter, I was there, I saw it. Who gives a shit? I couldn’t care less.”
The star even had a monumental battle getting to the gig itself, setting things off on the wrong note. As Young recalled: “As it turns out, the charter plane I was on with Jimi Hendrix flew into the wrong airport. We were supposed to be picked by a helicopter. The roads were jammed and there was nobody at the airport, so we had no way to get to the concert.”
While hectic incidents and other complaints regarding the gig are plentiful, you’ll find a fair few comments out there to contrast those that Young has made. It might not have been the great fanfare that it is sometimes referred to as, but it was certainly the grand old proverbial something else.