Woodstock Fifty Years On

Woodstock happened a half century ago this month. I mean the rock concert, which was actually not held in Woodstock, but no matter. “Three days of fun and music,” as the owner of the property famously put it. The music spilled over into day four, when Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, played to a small and burned out group of several thousand at 9:00 AM. “Woodstock” supposedly defined the counterculture and what being a hippie was all about. The New Yorker recently ran a review of a 38-CD set which chronicles nearly every minute on stage of that mythic event. (No, I won’t be buying it.) So, having been a hippie and having seen the movie—I was too young (12) and too far away (Alaska) to attend—I offer a few reflections.

In case you missed the basic facts: The festival drew tens of thousands more people than expected, gate crashers forced it to become a free concert, the resources on hand were quickly exhausted, and it rained and rained, reducing the venue to a huge mud field. This great mass of hirsute humanity experience the best rock and folk music of the day (no jazz, sadly) by Santana, The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, partook copiously of illegal drugs, immoral sex, and generally tried to “blow their minds” in the process. Joni Mitchell wrote a haunting song about it called “Woodstock,” (which is by turns anthemic, optimistic, and nihilistic), although occluded roads forbid her come.

Woodstock was hailed by some as a new Eden, a utopia, a temporary hippie paradise of music, free love, and a vision of a possible future for America. Half a million youth shared their goods (and drugs and bodies), got along well in tough circumstances, and experienced a respite from the rest of “straight” and “square” society. “It really is a city,” said one agog man on microphone. Woodstock, by this view, was the antidote to the Viet Nam war and the “plastic” keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society.

The Jefferson Airplane’s song, “Volunteers of America” affirmed that we “got a revolution” because “one generation got old,” but “this generation got soul and had no hesitation at all.” How successful was this revolution, of which Woodstock was the epitome?

While Woodstock was relatively peaceful and idealistic, other gigantic music festivals were not. An eighteen-year-old man was murdered near the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels during a Rolling Stone’s performance at the Altamont Festival in 1969. In an act of unbridled and unequaled stupidly, the Hell’s Angels (aptly named) had been hired to do security. This event was widely hailed as the end 1960’s idealism. Of course, profiteering and egotism was never lacking from the production, promotion, and performance of such events. Original sin was not erased, nor even diluted.

The public nudity and sexual expressions at Woodstock represent an attempt to return to the garden without the mediation of Christ. Nudism has historically been an attempt to regain innocence without redemption. We don clothes in public because of the shame of sin, as Genesis teaches (Genesis 3). The body is not shameful, but sexuality in a fallen world needs to be guarded.

Woodstock did not regenerate America. Nor was it a pilot plant for a better world. It did give us some memorable music and an emblem for the impossible: peace on earth without Jesus at the center. I wonder how many Christians came who were interested in evangelizing the hippies. The Jesus movement was underway by this time, so it may have happened. No Christian rock groups performed at Woodstock, since Christian rock was still in its infancy. Pioneers Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman had yet to establish careers.

Woodstock was instrumental in legitimizing non-Christian forms of spirituality. The concert began, not with a pastor’s invocation, but with Swami Satchidananda, surrounded by meditators in traditional Indian garb, giving the official opening remarks and leading half a million American youth in chanting “OM.” He would later be known as “the Woodstock Guru” and was a leading figure in bringing yoga and Hinduism to America. The film Woodstock depicts a yoga teacher giving techniques to induce an altered state of consciousness through extreme breathing. Still, in 1969, yoga was an exotic practice. Today, it is mainstream and a supports a gigantic industry (consider yoga pants and mats), with its essential roots in Hinduism often obscured by the hawking of its purposed physical benefits. This domestication of yoga has done as much to bring the East to the West as any other factor.

The brilliant leader of The Who, Pete Townsend, performed at Woodstock and was a follower of the guru Meher Baba, who is credited as “Avatar” on their signature rock-opera album, Tommy (1969). Athough he advocated no particular religion, Jimi Hendrix exuded the mystical sensibility of a Gnostic or animistic sort, fueled by hallucinogenic drugs. He performed “Voodoo Child” at Woodstock, which he deemed in other settings as “a new national anthem until we can get a better one.”

The New Age movement was budding at Woodstock and the concert did much to speed it along the way to the “Me Decade” (Thomas Wolfe) of the 1970s, to prominence in the 1980s, and to mainstream status in the last twenty-five years. America has never been the same. Pew Research tells us that 25% of Christians believe in reincarnation. Oprah Winfrey is considered a spiritual guru to her millions of fans. Many Christians practice yoga without a second thought—or even first thought—concerning its origins or spiritual dangers.

The term psychedelic was coined to give a favorable interpretation of drugs that were technically called hallucinogens. The latter term means a chemical substance that when ingested produces hallucinations—that is, something that artificially produces delusions. But the term psychedelic connotes a substance that when ingested enlivens or augments the psyche. The Jefferson Airplane reveled in this notion in “White Rabbit,” which was performed at Woodstock, hauntingly sung by Grace Slick. The last lines of the terrible poetry are:

When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Night is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head

Remember what the Dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head

Francis Schaeffer observed that the ideology of drug taking in the counterculture required an “escape from reason”—as in the death of “logic and proportion” in “White Rabbit”—in order to find some ultimate meaning apart from either Christianity or in any rational philosophy. As Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live?

Timothy Leary, for example, said that drugs were the sacraments for the new religion. Of course. . . this drug taking was really only one more leap, an attempt to find meaning in the area of non-reason. Charles Slack, writing of his long relationship with Leary, reported in Timothy Leary, The Madness of the Sixties and Me (1974) that Leary had said to him, “Death to the mind, that is the goal you must have. Nothing else will do.”[1]

This optimistic take on hallucinogenic drugs mostly died out by the mid-1970s and was replaced by recreational use and a return to pure hedonism. But it’s hard to keep a strong drug down. Hallucinogenic drugs are making a comeback.

In How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, best-selling author, Michael Pollan advocates for “blowing your mind” once again.  The psychedelic-drugs-open-up-mystical-realities people never really went away (a lot of them went into computers), but the claim has come back with more establishment backing of late.[2] Some boosters of these drugs call them “entheogens,” taken from the Greek for “the divine within.” It’s Woodstock 2.0, this time with much of “the establishment” behind it. And, of course, pot is legal all over this land, and stoner speak befouls the air.

Christianity offers a worldview and way of life more true, rich, and bracing than anything the neo-romanticism of Woodstock has to offer.  Christians admit that we are a long way from the garden, but that we cannot find our way back unaided. Jesus Christ is the way back and the way forward, since he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). The church, not any festival, is the pilot plant for a new order of being in the world in which true worship is returned to the Creator based on the mediatorial work of his Son and applied to our condition to us through the Holy Spirit. Here is the deepest loving fellowship. The taste of heaven on earth is experienced as we devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

 

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A.. How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition) (Kindle Locations 2543-2546). Crossway. Kindle Edition. The best book-length treatment of the counterculture is Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

[2] Michael Pollan Drops Acid—and Comes Back From His Trip Convinced See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/books/review/michael-pollan-how-to-change-your-mind.html. On the idea that certain drugs lead to enlightenment, see Os Guinness, “The Counterfeit Infinity” in The Dust of Death.

2 thoughts on “Woodstock Fifty Years On

  1. Have you looked at the now decade-old “counter-culture” that is the Burning Man Festival? I am hardly surprised that Burning Man became such a popular gathering, nor that it remains a sold-out desert gathering. It shares little with Woodstock outside a rural location, mind-altering drugs and casual physical intimacy – unless technological and visual creativity stand in for musical prowess.
    All the Lusts of the Flesh (including the stupor of Mammon) can be yours in the desert heat of Northern Nevada.

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