we are stardust
by Debra Scherer
Ah, those wonderful three days of peace and music in Bethel, New York, (not exactly Woodstock, but close enough) marking the end of the Summer of Love, the end of the sixties, that one last chance to get your soul free. And free it was. Miles of traffic, military helicopters, mud baths, extraordinary musical performances, the best acid, the worst acid, and an all together happening that we still dissect, distill, try to re-create, and yearn for 50 long strange years later. And what a trip it’s been. Luckily, we have a lot of evidence to examine when it comes to the true nature of the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival that was a summing up of 1969, and maybe of our never-ending search for who we really are, not as we are defined by corporations, the congressional military industrial complex, and our new super surveillance technological overlords. Our fascination with this most authentic version of the counterculture’s past, hundreds of thousands strong, is only growing as we face down a new more chaotic dystopian present. Feeding this fascination are artists like Henry Diltz, whose photographic work captured the moments both famous and infamous, pretty much symbolizing the time when music and the counterculture were one in the same.
According to Marcelle Murdoch, director of the Morrison Hotel Gallery which is celebrating Woodstock: Three Days That Lasted 50 Years with month long revolving installations, events and concerts, “Henry Diltz is our founding photographer. The gallery wouldn’t be what it is without Henry. He shot the Morrison Hotel album cover for The Doors, that was in ’69—’69 was a huge year for him, plus he was the official Woodstock photographer. So this show is really an homage to Henry, it’s an homage to 1969. It was such a significant year in music, having Woodstock, having this kind of social climate where something like that could happen, and how it happened. Of course we have Henry’s pictures of all the bands, the crowds, the sets, but also we have a couple of other photographers we included; some of them were shooting for the event, but others were just attending. So you really get both sides of what it was like to be there, what the feeling was, what the people were doing, and the show speaks to everyone of all ages. When someone from a younger generation who wasn’t around at that time, didn’t really know what it was about, but now they see these photos—they’re very relatable, it’s all coming back. And we really wanted to honor the performers that were there but aren’t with us anymore because their music is still so much a part of our culture. You know, 20 year olds listen to Jimi Hendrix, they are still buying these photos of him, still asking so many questions about him.
“It means something that 50 years later we are still listening to that same music. And it’s just interesting also seeing what was going on at the time. It was about love, it was about the bands, it was about the music, it was about getting it together without having the whole thing organized top to bottom, and how it worked out, and how people helped out in the midst of it. I think that’s what we are really trying to show through this exhibition—the parts that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, that you don’t see. People in the crowds. Sitting on top of an RV, there is one incredible shot of the gridlock traffic, and in the middle of it there are just people who climbed out onto the hood and are sitting and playing guitar, and they’re so relaxed. It’s so interesting—even in that traffic you made the best of the situation. People just brought tents and camped out, [or not even]they didn’t expect a certain level of comfort as they would today.”
Imagine how far the business of culture has come, taking all of the arts and ideas on a wild and branded ride. Long gone are the days of the festival’s organically evolved economic eco-systems, which outlasted the sixties and somehow even re-emerged around The Grateful Dead through bootleg recordings and generations of teenagers looking for alternatives to the just say no superficial aesthetics of the 1980’s. And the real or perceived threat of nuclear war was enough to push even the preppiest of fair isle sweater wearing kids to stop shaving their legs, start playing hacky sac, start tie dying and hitting the road with brother Jerry Garcia. To follow the Dead in the ’80’s was a new way to join a commune, complete with a summer job beading jewelry, making fruit cups or selling drugs. They piggy backed onto the remains of the zombie counterculture, knowing there was something wrong with society and wanting to drop out one last time before tuning out would no longer be an option. But it’s important to remember all this, as we keep asking the question, where is the music that should be emerging with our current state of political chaos and upheaval?
It’s mostly due to the fact that digital streaming has made it financially mandatory for artists to work with brands, effectively silencing them and suppressing DIY ecosystems that form around them. Our expressions have been reduced to hashtags and selfies and merch and ‘what’s in it for me and my personal brand?’ Woodstock was an unbranded chaotic coming together of all different kinds of like minds; artists, promoters, kids of all ages and anyone who felt caught in the devil's bargain and just wanted to get themselves back to the garden. As Henry remembers, “It really was 3 days of Peace and Music just as Michael Lang had envisioned it to be, and it defined our hippy generation of brotherhood and caring about your neighbor. I'm so glad to have been a part of it and to contribute to it's remembrance and celebration.” And there is a lot to celebrate, if not to remind everyone that expressions of culture can come from the heart and soul, you know, the greatest creative collab of all time.
And you see it in the pictures. “In terms of the curation, we wanted to make sure we included all of the performers in the show, some of whom are very well known, others weren’t, but we still wanted to include a bit of everything. So we have, lets say, Henry’s picture of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner; he looks so in his element, he’s so relaxed, the photo itself is beautiful, but also playing the Star Spangled Banner at that time, people were leaving, [it was already Monday morning] and people weren’t sticking around to hear it. You look back now and think ‘imagine seeing Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.’ And the famous John Sebastian image, from behind, in full head to toe tie dye, you see the crowd and you feel the energy. And I wanted to make sure we did include a lot of the behind the scenes. A lot of shots of the stage when it was being built, when it was going up, when people starting coming in, the case that were stuck there, what people were actually doing; sitting around watching, playing guitars, pitting tents, there was also a medical tent so if someone took something, or were having abad trip, someone could look after them, I think it was called the ‘trip teepee’ or something like that. They made a whole society of togetherness.”
They formed a pop up DIY community, looking to get back in touch with whatever heart and soul was left when society’s back drop is the Vietnam War and the palpable impending failure of the counterculture movements— ultimately expressed in it’s disastrous west coast successor, Altamont, a mere 4 months later. So here’s to Woodstock, the complicated cultural touchstone that at once was a coming together, a shared experience of creativity and mind opening, and at the same time, the ultimate end of an era, one we need to look back at not with rose colored glasses, but with mirrored lenses, so we can recognize ourselves in the images, so we can see that it’s always us and will always be us. For the good and the bad. “Did they have any idea that 50 years later it would still be so important? With this show we are trying to honor the musicians and that whole sense of community and the sense of the love that was put into it.”