I wasn’t at Woodstock. In August of 1969, I was more into Rocky & Bullwinkle than Neil Young. That, however hasn’t prevented me from being a bit of a geek on the subject of Woodstock, as only someone who never had to endure the traffic, the rain, the filth, the cold, the lack of food and water, the insect bites, and the many subpar performances could be.
As such, I’ve been looking forward to the release of “Woodstock: 40 Years On, Back to Yasgur’s Farm,” by Warner Rhino, a 6-CD set with a greatly expanded roster of bands and songs presented at the celebration of “3 Days of Peace and Music.” The set, “sequenced in chronological order of performance and featuring 38 previously unreleased recordings” should represent a significant improvement over Warner’s lackluster and weirdly joyless 4-CD set released in 1994, if only because it restores and expands the contributions of stage announcers Chip Monck and John Morris, as well as the Rain Chant and other crowd chatter. It will be interesting, after all these years, to hear Woodstock renditions of songs by Quill, Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, The Incredible String Band, and Ravi Shankar (among others).
The ’80s, the decade that encompassed my late teens to early twenties, wasn’t a prime decade for big music festivals. The trend had pretty much exhausted itself by then. The music changed, too, as anyone who has seen clips of the US Festival (Los Angeles, 1982 & 1983) can attest. There was nothing very inspiring about watching MTV-launched New Wave bands (Missing Persons, Quarterflash, Men At Work, a fledgling and awkward U2) flail tinily on a battleship-sized stage. The music wasn’t about community, after all. It was about fashion. Fashion and marketing.
By the time Lollapalooza appeared, I was perilously close to thirty years of age. This didn’t stop me from attending one show on each of the Lollapalooza tours from 1992 through 1997, along with any number of shows at grungy clubs like Maxwells in Hoboken or the Mercury Lounge, the Ritz, and CBGBs in NYC. The crowds skewed younger, but there was always a recognizable subset of people like me and my friends at the shows we saw—thirtyish guys who preferred Jawbox and Neutral Milk Hotel to David Bowie or, god help us, the Eagles. We probably weren’t aging gracefully, but we were self-possessed enough (or clueless enough) not to give too much of a crap.
Lollapalooza went on an extended hiatus after a particularly disastrous 1997 outing that combined electronic acts (The Orb, Prodigy, Orbital) with nu-metal acts (Tool, Korn), but its original founder’s attention had already wandered off to other endeavors by then. Perry Farrell’s ENIT tour was meant to rekindle the spirit of community that had withered away after the first two or three Lollapalooza tours. Toward that end, the ENIT Festival combined electronic dance acts with a few rock bands, and was scheduled as an all-night event.
I attended the ENIT Festival with a friend from my early ’90s concert-going days. We each brought our girlfriends (and, as it happens, future wives) along. This was in 1996, at the Garden State Art Center in Holmdel, NJ. We didn’t stick it out until the next morning. In fact, we didn’t last an hour at the ENIT Festival.
When we arrived, we found that the rock acts (most notably Black Grape and Love and Rockets) had already cancelled their appearances for that night. We found this out as we stood in line, trying to enter the venue while Arts Center staff thoroughly frisk-searched every ticket-holder passing through the turnstiles. Once we finally got inside (after being relieved of the bottled water we’d tried to bring with us), we found that the show wasn’t being held in the Arts Center’s amphitheater, but on a barren adjacent field. This meant we wouldn’t have access to the venue’s restrooms or concession stands. Worse yet, the Beer Garden featured in ENIT advertisements had been cancelled as well.
We wandered out onto the field and found a handful of tents, a water truck that had attracted a line of well over a hundred people, and a main stage. If I remember correctly, a New Orleans brass band was playing on the stage. The tents sheltered the usual Lollapalooza-style roster of face-painters, trinket-sellers, and pamphleteers. But there were no food vendors. How could there be no food vendors?
Because all the food was free! And all the food consisted of a kind of vegetable-and-oat paste that was being ladled out by volunteers into styrofoam bowls in a single food tent at the back of the field. Clearly, Perry Farrell had been greatly inspired by that moment in the Woodstock movie in which Wavy Gravy, leader of the Hog Farm gets on the PA system and announces “What we have in mind, is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” But we didn’t want free vegetable-and-oat paste. We wanted a hamburger and a beer.
We were not happy citizens in an ENIT Nation. And yet everyone around us seemed absurdly cheerful, given the shortage of eating and drinking options. In fact, they were so happy, they put those blissful hippie chicks of Woodstock film fame to shame. We looked around for a bit and then noticed a commotion at the locked gates to the amphitheater. A few people had climbed up onto the fence and were shaking it, and calling out to someone or something on the other side. They seemed upset, so we, recognizing our kind of people, went over to investigate.
The people on the fence were calling out to a man who was sitting in a lotus position on a picnic blanket arranged on the grass about fifty feet from the gate. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be meditating. A broad tray on the blanket held an unopened bottle of wine, two glasses, and some assorted fruit and cheese. A young woman was hovering about and I realized the man wasn’t meditating, he was being brushed and painted and touched up by the woman. There was a TV truck on the other side of the fence.
The people on the fence, a handful of kids, were taunting the man. “Rock star!” they called out. “Sell out!” A woman walked away from the truck, followed by a cameraman and another man with a portable lighting rig. The woman was holding a microphone bearing the logo of MTV. I looked again at the man.
“Open the gates, Perry!”
“Let us in!”
The man on the blanket was Perry Farrell, the event’s organizer. He was about to do some sort of interview. He was ignoring the kids on the other side of the fence, which only made them louder and more insistent. The MTV crew went about the business of setting up their shot.
“Hey, Perry! It sucks out here! Let us in, man!”
“Perry, man, you gonna drink that wine?”
“Fat cat rock star!”
This went on for a good five minutes or so, until I climbed up onto the lowest cross bar of the metal gate and shouted, “Hey, Perry, it’s like a Communist nation out here!”
The kids on my side of the fence looked at me curiously and then took up this new notion. “Yeah! It’s a Communist nation! Rock star!”
Farrell was being helped up off the blanket by the makeup girl and I saw that he was looking at me, his long face pale and composed under a layer of TV makeup. He was wearing a kind of short, blousy, intricately embroidered kimono.
“We’re like the proletarian rabble out here,” I yelled, trying to get a rise out of him. “You gonna throw us some bread or what? You gonna let us eat cake?”
Farrell looked at me on the fence, a new expression of perplexity coming to rest on his face. He waved off the makeup girl and approached the fence. “You’re here for the show?” he said.
“Yeah. We all are.” I indicated my little party of fellow guests, my future wife and our two friends, standing a good distance away at the bottom of the hill below the gate.
This seemed to surprise Farrell, as if he had had reason to suspect that I might be there for some other reason. He looked down the hill and then back at me. “Why is this a Communist nation?” he said.
“Because everything’s for free and nobody wants any of it.”
The kids around me had fallen silent at Farrell’s approach. Perhaps, having heard me speak, they were sensing they were on the wrong team. Farrell was gazing at me intently, seeming to consider what I had said.
“What is it you want?” he said.
“Rock bands,” I said. “Where’s Black Grape? Love and Rockets? Where’s the Beer Garden? Where’s the, you know, food?”
Farrell blinked in puzzlement. “No,” he said. “That’s all gone.” He lifted one long hand and waved all that stuff away. “The show is …” He seemed to lose the thread of his thought.
“Well, then, this event has been misrepresented in the ads.”
“Evolving,” Farrell said, completing the circuit of his suspended thought. He was looking at me in a different, peculiar, way. I couldn’t quite place the meaning of his look. “What is it you want?” he said again.
“I want a refund,” I said. “Four refunds.”
And this seemed to make Farrell profoundly happy. “Of course,” he said. “That would be best. Escort this man to the ticket office.” He was looking over my shoulder and I turned to find a member of the Arts Center security staff climbing the steps behind me. “Give him whatever he needs.”
“Thanks, Perry,” I said, but Perry was already walking away, back to his MTV interview.
Retreating, somewhat sheepishly, down the steps, I had a chance to look around at the venue. Though the gates had been open for an hour, there were still relatively few people in attendance. I realized that most of the people I saw were pretty young. And then, one by one, the pieces—the canceled rock bands, the dispatched beer garden, the confiscated water bottles, the euphoric kids—fell into place.
Oh, right, I thought. I get it. It’s not a rock show. Not anymore. It’s a rave. That’s what’s evolving. And that thought triggered, inevitably, my next thought.
I’m too old for this. I’m way, way, way too old.