What you wanted and what you got. (Two days of paranoia, mud and bullshit… that’s Woodstock II. And what the hell were limey invaders JAMES doing there?)
“This is CNN Live and we’re off to Saugerties, New York to Woodstock ’94. Come in Bob.” (Cut to Bob in tragic ex-hipster attire walking through starry-eyed bods covered in mud) “Hello Larry, yes. They were stardust, they were golden and now they’ve come back to the garden. But this time it costs $200 for a ticket, $6 for a slice of pizza and $30 for a T-shirt. What was peace and love is now greed and profit. The age of Aquarius had been replaced by the era of Mammon.”
A kid pushes forward and blows the smoke from a joint into Bob’s face. Before Bob can finish his ridiculous gush, the studio cut to a clip of Hendrix doing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Thus we are spared talk of the $2 million Pepsi sponsorship and the interview with a hippy who was at the first event. Ah, the memories, the nostalgia, the comparisons and the commercialism. Woodstock ’94 is knee-deep in it: mud and bullshit.
Take An Other Hippie up there on stage. He’s 45 and he’s ranting “We’re the generation that stopped the war! We’re the generation that made a President resign!” Yeah, sure. The Vietnam war stopped because it was hemorrhaging money into an intractable conflict that most people in America had lost interest in by the time it ended. Nixon took the long walk because of a load of tapes leaked by some straight. A bunch of longhairs in kaftans waving flowers had little or nothing to do with it. We’ve heard it all before, all those myths and legends I blame the parents, especially as this time around they’re in charge.
Woodstock ’94 is a desperate affair. Journalists traipsing around in Millets-style outdoors outfits, desperately trying to find out what “Generation X” believe in. Hordes of record industry Mafia running about believing their own hype and desperately protesting too much about what a fantastic time they’re having. The bands lost in this world of make believe, desperately wanting not to go under.
And the punters desperately wanting something, without actually knowing what it is. They’ve come in the hope of experiencing the kind of hippy epiphany legend has it everyone underwent in ’69. But they have no idea of how to get it. Especially without any beer, let alone any brown acid.
Walking past the 45th security checkpoint into the whimsical world of the backstage village, the airis thick with anticipation. No matter how you interpret it, this is a big event, if ridiculous. Look around: in the distance somewhere is ‘The Surreal Field,’ whatever that is. Just here are various tents encouraging you to get personally involved with every kind of wildlife creation. Save the Michigan beaver. Save the Miami sea cow. Adopt a dolphin.
The whole thing has been designed as a media fiesta. The press corps here stretched to 1,500 people-the kind of numbers usually associated with covering international conflicts and natural disasters. And every one of them gets a huge fact-pack on everything you don’t need to know, which
boasts about the logistical triumph of the festival: “65,000 gallons of diesel fuel will be consumed;” “4,000 cans of soda will be consumed backstage;” “7,200 latex gloves will be used;” “there is enough vinyl flooring to do 52 kitchens.”
Each band playing is subjected to a three-legged press conference: first the one for MTV, then the one for the new Woodstock movie and then, at the end, one for the ordinary press.
Right now Tim Booth and Saul Davies are on the end of the somnambulant series of questions in which the great American fourth estate attempt to get to grips with one of the few British bands here.
A man from the Chicago Tribune looks at Tim: “For your dancing do you draw from Joe Cocker?”
Booth stares blankly into space with the silently impassive expression of a man who’s just been shot between the eyes with a silenced pistol. The press conference is at an end.
JAMES are big in the States: their last LP, “Laid,” was well received; they’ve toured with Neil Young; recorded an experimental album, “Wah Wah,” with Brian Eno; and helped in the opening ceremony of World cup ’94. Woodstock is the last gig on a large tour, which apparently had been an excellent laugh.
Backstage the band are pondering what they’re doing here. “When success came in the UK with Sit Down we’d worked hard for it and were desperate to be taken seriously. But this time around, in the States, it’s like such a bonus we’ve all been able to enjoy it a lot more,” explains bassist Jim Glennie.
Outside the band’s Portakabin, Tim Booth is dancing outside the picket fence which runs around his prefab structure. No sign of nerves you might expect to see from an outfit about to play the biggest gig of their career. The others sit in the canteen, arguing about the calorific value of cheesecake and apple pie. They are not the angst-ridden Manc bohemians you might expect. But they’re still not having a historic or epoch-making time of it.
“You can’t even get a beer here!” points out Mark the keyboardist, swigging from a bottle of Beck’s, referring to the (largely ignored) alcohol ban. Five minutes before they’re due to go onstage, the band slouch around in the canteen. There isn’t supposed to be any beer here. There are no drugs.
Everything is run like a scout camp. Worse still, DEL AMITRI are playing in front of 250,000 people.
“Woodstock ’94?” mutters Jim. “This is Wuss-Stock ’94.”
According to Newsweek, the first Woodstock has now become a rigid historical event. The original festival isn’t regarded merely as a weekend when a load of hippies gathered in a muddy field to watch some dodgy bands, but-like the Boston Tea Party or the Gettysburg Address-as a watershed for a developing nation still in its historical adolescence. British people might have it pegged simply as a US Glastonbury, an alternative to the traveling Reading that is Lollapalooza, but to America it’s much more important than that. To us, it might look much the same-a rainy farm filled with a daft mixture of hipsters, hippies, punters, psychotics and the criminally unstable. But where Glastonbury has developed into a quaint English tradition, an annual pilgrimage for anyone with even the most fleeting interest in music, drugs or falafels-for Americans, Woodstock ’94 is more like the recent D-Day celebrations, a commemoration of others’ glories and a tribute to their success.
Of course the legacy of Woodstock isn’t as great as the old longhairs would have you believe. Aging beardies are often making a point of how apolitical and apathetic the Rave (UK)/X (US) Generation is, but we wouldn’t have been in this state if ’60s radicals had achieved just ten per cent of what they set out to. Their real legacy is not peace and love, but hedonism and good music. The concrete achievement of The Woodstock Generation is not that they changed the world, but that they gave us the mechanisms with which to cope with it.
JAMES are not a typical Woodstock ’94 band. It’s a capital R-for-Rock weekend and the many all-American Beavis and Butt-heads in the audience are not big on perceived English ethereals. They go down amazingly well even with the stuff from “Wah Wah.” Booth dances in his wavy-gravy way and mouths through a megaphone over the Eno-manipulated weird-outs. The crowd doesn’t know what’s going on, but they know it’s different from everything else so far. JAMES refuse to grab their big moment in history like no-hopers further down the bill. Earlier, one of a succession of redundant metal acts tried to impress us by drinking beer, smoking joints and simulating sex with a cameraman. Watching the spectacle from half-way up the scaffolding (from which is suspended one of the slightly sad banners proclaiming ‘2 More Days Of Peace And Music’) it’s hard not to be awestruck by the sheer numbers of people. This is Desmond Morris material.
“It’s funny,” says Larry after their set, peering over the seven-foot fence in front of the stage, designed to separate ‘talent’ from ‘customer.’ “It’s like a congregation. I’m a bit done in by it-you just provide the backdrop. It’s like The Kop-the Woodstock crowd will be more famous than the team.”
And the crowd is all. In spite of everything, it erodes the event’s corporate identity. By mid-Saturday morning rain is sluicing down. Reeling bodies indicate that cracks have appeared in the alcohol embargo. The PTA atmosphere starts to evaporate as ticketless hordes begin turning up and security glimpse the enormity of their task. By early evening you can’t walk anywhere without falling over; the paths are now biblically-proportioned rivers of slurry. The summer camp atmosphere has begun to decay toward that of a rich man’s Rwanda. As dusk gathers, shadowy figures an be seen scaling the fence into the VIP enclosure.
In a bizarre way the scene suits Tim Booth. “I used to think that if something was really commercial on the outside it would have to be on the inside. But now I can see that they can put up this huge bureaucratic machine and it can still be eroded. People are looking for meaning at Woodstock, they’re coming with preconceptions. It’s set up like that. It’s a contemporary pop culture ritual-25 years on from this weird happy accident that left a big impact, they’re setting everything in place and hoping the spirit comes.”
Typical Booth-speak, which’d make him sound borne down under a weight of pretension, if not for the fact that he really means it.
“It’s a bit sick what’s happening here. It’s so expensive ‘cos some of the bands are taking a mint.” They certainly are. Aerosmith got a reported million dollars, while Dylan got $300,000. James got less than the $18,000 that Hendrix got in ’69.
“I hope the spirit doesn’t see all the commercialism and money, and decided not to arrive. (Tim is a descendant of William Booth who founded the Salvation Army. As a child he went to church six days a week, between the ages of 11 and 18, which may account for his slightly loopy, yet deeply-felt worldview.) The language has been devalued. Spirituality is just a feeling of aliveness. I get it from dancing. When people feel ‘the spirit’ all it means is they’re alive. At Woodstock they’re calling down some Dionysian, Bacchanalian revelry.”
We spend the first part of Wuss-Stock ’94 looking for spirits of a different kind. All we find is half bottle of Passport Scotch and the slops in a can of Bud. It feels like an outward-bound course with the Young Liberals, a lurid combination of physical exhaustion and patronising glibness. Still, with enough inside you and ORBITAL onstage it’s possible to find ‘the spirit’…
By Saturday night everything has fallen apart. The highway has been sealed off. The security have given up. It’s pouring. Ark-building is considered. Lightning is forecast. Everybody is told to lie low and steer clear of metal fences-seems the ideal chance to climb up the tallest piece of scaffolding and wish for deliverance. But things are improving, someone’s selling commemorative Woodstock acid.
And we’ve made the wise provision of inviting friends down from Boston. Who arrive bearing beer, chocolate vodka, a bag full of herbal uppers and a very nice pill that, apparently, truckers use for late-night long distance journeys. Ideal for parties and other social gatherings. But be warned, we end up thinking it’s a “good idea” to go, shoeless, to a sodden tent owned by a guy named Hooter.
He insists we drink fortified wine and smoke some rather powerful homemade cigarettes. The wine he later refers to as “pure L-S-D!” Consequently most of Sunday morning is spent trying to locate our motel which is half-an hour away and not, as we’ve grown to believe, a six-hour drive through a mountainous terrain filled with bears and leaping elks.
The rain offers some respite during Metallica’s storming set. This is the only highlight of the event.
They summoned up the spirit big-time, as the trucker’s speed, chocolate vodka and fireworks all mixed with the lightning. We are treated to an all-American spectacle. We understand. It’s in The Constitution, man! Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! In the States, ROCK is part of the fabric of freedom. It’s about making big bucks, going for it and Rock and fucking Rolling. Or as Tim puts it, “Rock is just a small part of the tapestry of English Heritage. In the states, through, it’s much more part of the society.”
Damn right, 25 years and history’s already warped. Parallel universes created with each new news report. Reality and history don’t mix. Well, only occasionally. In the Woodstock film-the groovy one, the brown-acid-no-rain-myth-making one-there’s an interview with a young guy sitting on the roadside. This is what he say: “People that are nowhere are coming here ‘cos there’s people they think are somewhere. Everybody’s looking for some kind of answer when there isn’t one why would 300,000 – 600,000 people come to anything? Was music that important? I don’t think so… People don’t know how to live, they don’t know what to do, and they think they’ll find out what it is or how to maintain with it. People are very lost.”
If people’d listened to him – not Dylan, Leary, Lennon or the Woodstock legend-maybe they’d be happy now, and looking forward. Maybe we’ll never understand. But, then again, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. And is there any reason left to like it? James’ spirit, however… if it comes in pints, let’s have a couple.
Incidentally, if you ring me in 2019 I’ll be out.