The new Woodstock nation
July 18, 1999
BY BRIAN McCOLLUM FREE PRESS POP MUSIC WRITER
It will be huge. Momentous. Spectacular. And while the greater meaning of Woodstock '99 -- if any -- will be determined later, one thing is certain for now.
It's going to be quite the party.
How's this for a familiar refrain: A landmark music and arts fair kicks off next weekend in upstate New York. This time it's a 30th-birthday bash, with two stages, 14,000 workers and 250,000 fans. Thunderstorms and mud to be determined.
Featured is an eclectic blend of more than 50 acts, including -- as a sampler -- Metallica, Al Green, the Offspring, Dave Matthews Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Roots. Like Woodstock '94, which spurred plenty of skeptics before culminating in three successful days, it's a modern, streamlined festival with most of the edges sanded smooth. This time, there's even a series of massive fences encircling the site, as organizers seek to end the dubious Woodstock tradition of party crashers.
For sentimentalists who fear the Woodstock Nation has gone Banana Republic, there will be plenty next weekend at the abandoned Griffiss Air Force Base to fuel their concerns. Aside from the name, this Woodstock won't have much in common with the peace-and-love vibe of the mythic 1969 event. For starters, it is, well, on a military base. It will include an all-night rave. It will feature Insane Clown Posse.
But what Woodstock III does share with the inaugural festival -- indeed, what the contemporary zeitgeist shares with 1969 -- is the bristling, electric sense that the world can, and will, be changed.
Swap tie-dyed ideology for digital culture, and you wind up with plenty of the same characteristics: a feeling of privileged enlightenment, an appreciation for the irreverent, a liberating sense that society can be overhauled on your terms. Not that anybody expects next weekend to become the stuff of cultural legend, although, like 1969, it will get its own movie, soundtrack and official T-shirt.
This week, you'll hear the same kind of carping you heard before the 1994 event, which teemed with complaints about Pepsi's sponsorship, use of the venerated Woodstock name and the fact that the show wasn't on the original site.
Thing is, when you stick hundreds of thousands of people onto a big field for three days while loud music plays in the background, these events tend to take on lives of their own. After a point during the 1994 event, Kmart could have tattooed its logo on everybody's shoulder and no one would have noticed.
Keeping the spirit
But why call it "Woodstock"? This anniversary fest isn't actually on the anniversary, which is next month. Founder Michael Lang is still involved, but so are several big corporations. And although even the first festival wasn't in the town of Woodstock, this one -- in Rome, N.Y., 178 miles to the northwest -- is nowhere close.
"The word 'Woodstock' really only pertains to one concert," says Sheryl Crow, who will perform Saturday. "I personally thought the (1994 show) should never have been called Woodstock. It was not that at all. It didn't necessarily stand for anything."
But organizers, who now plan to stage a Woodstock every five years, insist there's a spirit that's still intact.
"Michael Lang calls it a rite of passage for kids who come up here," says John Conk, Woodstock site manager and a 33-year veteran of the concert business. "I've got to tell you, of the thousands of shows I've done in my entire life, nothing can compare to Woodstock. It is my rite of passage. The one thing: Forget about all the planning and months of preparation. I'm telling you -- Saturday afternoon about noontime, the prisoners will get the keys. And Woodstock will happen."
At any rate, Crow has no doubt that playing Woodstock '94, where she provided one of the weekend's most memorable musical moments with an impassioned "Run Baby Run," changed the face of her burgeoning career. Lesser-knowns on this year's bill -- acts such as Guster, Lit and Moe -- should take note.
"At that point, I was pretty unknown, and had not had exposure remotely like that. It really opened up a whole new world for us. Suddenly we were being written about and people were investing in us," Crow says.
"As we drove out of Woodstock, we felt like we'd accomplished something just by making it through a gig in front of 200,000 people. But we didn't really see what was happening until we got some distance. I mean, we drove from Woodstock to playing the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., for 150 people. So, you know, for us, it was just part of our touring experience. But for the world, it was an introduction."
Defining a generation
On the eve of Woodstock '94 -- with Oldsmobile's memorable ad campaign ringing fresh in folks' ears -- the going mantra was: "This is not your father's Woodstock." Whose was it? Pepsi's, perhaps, or maybe MTV's. It was somebody's.
On the eve of Woodstock '99, it might seem hard to figure out whose Woodstock this is.
At first glance, there's little here to define a generation -- not the way the festival did in '69, and not even the way it did to a lesser extent in '94, with its long-lingering images of Trent Reznor and Green Day caked in mud.
For starters, just look at the scattershot lineup of artists. By the time they get to Woodstock, they'll have traveled from all corners of the music map: Korn's scathing rock, George Clinton's classic funk, DMX's hard-core hip-hop, Jewel's wispy pop, Willie Nelson's quirky twang.
And then it hits you. Maybe that's your generation-defining right there. Pick your metaphor: the diversity of a 60-channel cable TV lineup, the patchwork of the World Wide Web, the mix-and-match ethic of a Beck song.
Woodstock '99 is the ultimate point-and-click music event. And not just because you can drop in on the action by heading to www.woodstock99.com. With its food vendors, ample parking space and 210 acres of campground that includes real toilets, showers and convenience stores, this is Woodstock with a user-friendly interface.
Not many of the fans in Rome next weekend will be much concerned with defining a generation. Self-definition isn't so important to a legion of young people raised amid the liquid, morphing nature of the tech-happy '90s. Yes, this Woodstock is at least somewhat about community: You can find it on-line, where for several weeks thousands of fans have mingled in the official Woodstock chat room. But it's unlikely that many of the teens and twentysomethings on hand will be conscious of connecting to whatever Woodstock tradition they've glimpsed on old newsreel footage.
Woodstock '69, portrayed as the climax of a communal revolution, was actually a triumph of individualism. Conservatives in 1969 failed to see that -- distracted, understandably, by the long hair and dope. Sentimental liberals in 1999 still fail to see that, distracted by warm, fuzzy nostalgia and forgetting that the Who's Pete Townshend literally booted activist Abbie Hoffman off the Woodstock stage.
Sure, hippies were intent on rejecting the provincialism of traditional America. But in their own deliberate freakiness, they embraced freedom and liberty like Granny at the Fourth of July parade. The revolution, it turned out, was won not by the collectivist elite but by good old-fashioned individualists. Who happened to be naked and on the lookout for brown acid.
Next weekend, the moment will be what matters, just as it did in 1969 and just as it did in 1994, when a whole bunch of young people gathered in upstate New York to goof around and listen to tunes.
Let the pronouncements come down later, from folks who mull over these things in offices under fluorescent lights. Next weekend, now will count most. History, if there's any to figure out, can wait.More stories and coverage
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