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Love, Substances, and Music: What Really Happened at Woodstock 69?

Behind the legend, what really went down in that New York State field? Learn the true story of Woodstock music festival.

Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess.”
Mark Hosenball

After the disastrous endings of both the 1994 and 1999 anniversary festivals of the original Woodstock, the media was quick to criticize the new generations for not keeping with the spirit of the first one. But is it possible that we’ve been sold a lie for so long that it’s become a truth?

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The myth was born out of a fantasy we’ve all bought into claiming that those 72 hours in White Lake, New York in 1969 were a beautiful memory of people being united by music, rather than the “bad trip” several attendees admitted it was. It’s true that Woodstock, as the festival would forever be referred to, became an iconic moment in music and counterculture history. Young people had finally reached a point where they could express themselves and connect freely with others. The Vietnam War had also influenced several attendees to develop beliefs that would be represented in several artistic mediums. It a was beautiful idea that brought together almost 400 thousand people. But it came with a cost.

One thing that I remember was that the crowd was so large that trips to the portable toilets always required an endless stream of apologies as I accidentally stepped on people's feet and legs.” -Glenn Weiser

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The film Taking Woodstock and some literary pieces detail the difficulties Elliot Tiver, Michael Lang, John P. Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld endured to make the festival happen. Aside from permit issues, they had to convince an entire town to allow access to the space. As it tends to happen with events like this, radio promotion and word of mouth led to an unexpected amount of people attending, which led to failed attempts of maintaining order and security. The documentary Woodstock recounts this mishap. Yet, despite showing moments where the audience faces problematic situations, it fails to appropriately present the true torture or boredom some people were forced to cope with.

Several true accounts agree on one thing: Woodstock sucked. Let’s start by seeing it through a logical perspective. The stage was of normal dimensions, not too big, not too small. Considering the sound systems of the time, to think that 400 thousand would be able to hear is absurd. Some admit that it was a total bore; for others it was a complete nightmare. The rain, cold, lack of tents, illness, and possible overdoses made it almost impossible to enjoy whatever would be happening on the stage. The pictures we see in the documentary or in the images were taken by journalists and professionals working with the planning committee. There’s barely any night takes that fail to show how several attendees had to sleep amidst the urine and feces of others because they refused to lose their spots or were too stoned to do so.

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As we lay there, trying to sleep, a constant, never-ending stream of people moved back and forth. All night long, without cease, their feet sloshed and stomped and slammed a few inches from our heads. Some of these passers-by were chemically disoriented. Their panic and confusion made them heedless of their steps. The rain, the mud, the unending shuffling and tramping, the constant fear of having one’s face trodden on—all this made sleep difficult.” – Hendrik Hertzberg

There are stories of substance use heavily influencing rampant sexual activity. At one moment in the documentary, security personnel say on the speakers that someone in the crowd is sharing “bad acid.” This brings some giggles from the attendees. It might seem funny, but there was a death due to a heroin overdose.

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The lack of water and food supply also led to a problem. Hundreds of audience members had to run out of the concert, not being able to get their car out of the parking lot, to get food. Thousands underwent hunger in order to remain at the show that was making history. Testimonies from Hosenball and Hertzberg take some of the magic away from the legend of these “three days of peace and music.” Instead, they bring to light what was true for most people rather than the experiences from those who were closest to the stage and able to enjoy the music, sex, and drugs, not to mention those who were not subjected to hunger or took food from strangers without knowing if it was spiked or not.

I took a walking tour of the site and concluded that the crowd had grown too big for the venue. Concerned that I might not be able to escape for days […] I hitched a ride from a carful of disappointed concertgoers who had become frustrated with the region wide traffic jam, and concerned about the radio bulletins warning hopeful attendees to stay away. […] I was extremely grateful to return to civilization.” – Mark Hosenball

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The famous images taken from the extreme cases of comfort hide the several tragedies lived by thousands. Despite all the pain, discomfort, and hunger, there was a bond formed between the different attendees. Whether they enjoyed it or not, they became part of moment signifying an anti-war statement that demanded a freer world where people could openly be themselves. We might not be living in the Utopia they dreamed of, but the movement led to a shift in society.

Woodstock 69 is remembered through different perspectives. Its legend carries on because of a distorted sense of truth we chose to overlook. The violence lived in its sequels could be seen as similar to the original, yet it seems that the older generations were right about one thing: the humanity and unity that joined the youth in 1969 is something that can never be replicated.

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Translated by María Suárez

Read more:
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The Weird Story Of The Coolest Kid Born On-Stage At Woodstock '69
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