Woodstock and the American counter-culture

by Philip Ferguson

Nick and Bobbi Ercoline, then and now. Bobbi says she wasn’t a hippy at the time of the Woodstock festival but has those values today

This weekend just past marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the most famous of the great 1960s music festivals.  It was held over the weekend (Friday-Monday) of August 15-18, 1969.  Woodstock was a highpoint of the US ‘counter-culture’, and also the beginning of its end.

When exploring the US counter-culture there are some key ideas and questions to start with.

  • The counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s could be seen as starting with the Beat poets and novelists of the 1950s and early 1960s and their alienation from modern, industrial, consumer society.  Yet the counter-culture (and, indeed, the Beats themselves) were very much dependent on the existence of modern, industrial consumer society.

  • The counterculture challenged orthodox ‘straight’ society’s conventions in relation to drugs, sex, music, marriage and the family, and lifestyles more generally.

  • The counterculture focused on the ‘free’ idea – free music, free love, free living, yet much of this would be easily converted into new businesses.

So how “counter” was the counter-culture? What kind of freedom did it demand, and for whom?

Was it a radical alternative or just a kind of me-me-me phenomenon?

Elements of the counter-culture

Dope and LSD were important components; LSD, for instance, was seen as way of opening “the doors of perception”.  This involved:

● Perceptual changes

● Ego loss

● Illumination

Ken Kesey & his Merry Pranksters (including Beat figure Neal Cassady) experimented with LSD in Northern California while Harvard University professor Timothy Leary on the East Coast suggested young people “turn on, tune in and drop out”.

The San Francisco Bay Area was especially important.  Probably the most famous area for the counter-culture in this period was Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  This suburb was in decline after World War 2, so it became cheaper to live in.  Bohemians increasingly drifted there in the 1960s and an identifiable new section of young people, hippies, appeared in 1966.  Kesey and his Merry Prankster pals helped introduce LSD to ‘the Haight’.

This was helped along by the fact that LSD maker Owsley Stanley (of Owsley White Lightning fame) lived in Berkeley, across the bay from SF.

Hippies appear

The first significant event marking the arrival of hippies was perhaps the ‘Trips Festival’, held in San Francisco over three days in January 1966.  About 10,000 people attended, ingesting LSD, listening to the Grateful Dead and experiencing a light show.

By June 1966 there were about 15,000 hippies in Haight-Ashbury and commodification began; for instance, tourist buses would take people from Middle America around ‘the Haight’ to look at the hippies and their shops, businesses and art.

1967 saw the arrival of Be-ins; in January 1967 a San Francisco ‘Be In’ attracted 20,000.  These were events based on expanding your consciousness and ‘being’ and being at peace with other people, nature and the universe.  Later in 1967 came the ‘Summer of Love’, in San Francisco, with up to 100,000 hippies taking part.  love-ins, “flower children”, 1966-68 highpoint of this period.  In June 1967 the first really big music festival took place, about two hours drive south of the Bay Area.  This was the Monterey Pop Festival, held in mid-June.  It featured Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Mamas & Papas, Ravi Shankar and others.  A big festival by the standards of the day, there were probably less than 10,000 in the packed arena and thousands more outside.  Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, who played at Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont, has described it as the best of the three.

In New York, Greenwich Village was a key site – coffee houses and folk singers of early 1960s became the forerunners of the counter-culture of the later 1960s.  In the Big Apple, however, many involved in the counter-culture were not necessarily hippies (eg the Andy Warhol set), and a chunk of it were contemptuous of San Francisco and the peace and love vibe (eg Lou Reed and the scene that the Velvet Underground were part of).

Beats and Hippies

As noted above, some Beats became part of hippie scene – eg poet Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, but others were staunchly anti-hippie (eg, Jack Kerouac was horrified by the drug-taking – he preferred alcohol – and anti-establishment politics).  Kerouac was a rather socially and politically conservative Catholic.

So while the Beats were partly predecessors to hippies, there were important differences – Beats were (at least initially) apolitical, hippies had politics; Beats were sombre, the hippies were colourful; Beats were alienated but still part of society (eg they worked in paid employment most of the time), hippies often lived off society and thought they had every right to do this.

Hippies and Communes

By the end of the 1960s, about 200,000 hippies were living in communes across the US – this was tiny numerically, but big in impact.  Altogether several million young Americans experimented with communes.  Moreover, the ideas of free love, different hair and dress styles, drugs etc took root among a large sector of young people and spread out from there into ‘mainstream’ society, even among otherwise politically conservative people.

In the later 60s/early 70s, as urban decay became increasingly problematic and riots became common in black ghettos, many communes moved from cities to rural areas.  Hippies were more self-absorbed than interested in taking part in political rebellions.

Underground Press

This era sprouted literally thousands of ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ papers, marked by psychedelic designs and colours and often promotion of counter-cultural lifestyles.  A section of these papers combined anti-establishment politics with the new lifestyles.

By the early 1970s about one million Americans were reading them each week – some of the key ones were the Berkeley Barb, Great Speckled Bird, and East Village Other.

Music

The second half of the 1960s saw the rise of Psychedelic music, heavily influenced by  dope and LSD.  The centre of the new psychedelic rock was the Bay Area, with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  In Britain, the leading psychedelic band was Pink Floyd, who combined music with inventive light shows.  Going to a gig became a whole experience: music for the ears, light shows for the eyes, psychedelic drugs for the brain.

Woodstock was, of course, 1969 not 1968; Jefferson Airplane, who did not identify as hippies, were an iconic psychedelic band out of San Francisco

Monterrey (June 1967), Woodstock (August 1969), Altamont (Dec, 1969) were the key music festivals of the era in the United States, with Woodstock being seen as the high point and Altamont as the dark denouement.

In Britain, big festivals took place on the Isle of Wight and at Glastonbury (which evolved from a hippy festival into the highly commercialised festival of today). The Stones free Hyde Park concert after the death of Brian Jones (1969) and Blind Faith’s free gig in the same park (also 1969) were important.

Eastern religions

The counter-culture concentration on the inward led logically to interest in Eastern religions and philosophies (Zen Buddhism, Hinduism).  These were viewed romantically and seen as alternatives to Christianity and western philosophy

In particular, they were seen as overcoming the mind/body and spirit/matter dichotomy of Western philosophy and religion, especially if the ‘religious experience’ involved LSD

Meditation, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, were embraced by the Beatles after their first LSD experience.

Pop Art

British pop art came first, in the early 1950s; US pop art began in the late 1950s and the 1960s.  While sharing a name, they had separate origins.

In the US pop art was especially associated with Andy Warhol, based around ‘The Factory’ in New York. Warhol turned the everyday into ‘art’, art for the mass industrial consumer society – he used common household items, eg soup cans, made paintings of them and also mass-produced the art as posters.

Warhol also made movies, usually using hustlers, gay men, lesbians and transsexuals.  He presented the seamy side of New York life to a section of the middle class bored with the ‘mainstream’; many of his movies premiered in gay porn theatres.

Audience at Woodstock

Woodstock

The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, August 1969, took place in upstate New York, actually over 40 miles away from Woodstock itself, and near the town of Bethel.

The gathering took place at the height of the Vietnam War While huge protests were taking place in both the USA and around the world, there was also a widespread feeling that protest was ineffective.  The US government seemed to just keep waging the war regardless.  There was therefore an expansion of frustration and demoralisation, a chunk of young people turning away from political action.

Woodstock also took place just a month after the first humans landed on the moon.  A hugely exciting time technologically, but also a time of growing ambivalence about technology because of the way it was harnessed by the imperialist war machine to wreak murder and devastation on a mass scale in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Although those at Woodstock would have been generally anti the Vietnam war, they were not, by and large, the people leading and building the mass movement against the war.

Three days of peace and love, with an attendance of 4-500,000 seemed to present an alternative to the war, racism and rampant consumerism of capitalist Amerikkka.  In reality, of course, Woodstock was very much part of, and dependent on, capitalism.  Almost everything that made it possible was created by workers, the exploited class.  From the clothes worn by attendees, to the vehicles they used to get there to the amplification and instruments used by the performers, virtually everything involved the creation of surplus-value – ie the workers producing new, expanded value that was expropriated by the capitalists who owned the means of production for these commodities.

Things sour

Moreover, Woodstock was followed a few months later by a much darker festival.  The Rolling Stones had been touring the United States and, having made a lot of money from the tour, decided to maintain their street cred by putting on a free gig at the Altamont speedway, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco, on December 6 of 1969.

Meredith Hunter, the young black man murdered by Hells Angels who had been hired by the Stones

From early on, an air of foreboding hung over the gig.  A key factor in this was the Rolling Stones hiring Hells Angels to do security.  Jagger in particular was trying to create an aura of the ‘prince of darkness’ about himself at the time and building street cred, at least in his own mind, by cultivating an air of dangerousness about himself.  Of course, he was about as dangerous to the ruling class as a cream puff. 

The Hells Angels began assaulting members of the crowd and when challenged by members of Jefferson Airplane, who were much more courageous than the Stones, they promptly knocked out one of the Airplane’s lead vocalists, Marty Balin.  Subsequently, a black audience member, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death.  The counter-culture suddenly looked less attractive.

Moreover, by 1969, LSD was being replaced by amphetamines and heroin; there was a ten-fold increase in heroin addiction.  The Haight was now increasingly inhabited by junkies and delinquents; the hippy era had passed by 1970.

Sharon Tate, butchered by hippy killers whose aim was to start a ‘race war’

Additionally, the week before Woodstock, a bunch of parasitic hippy racists had carried out the Tate murders.  Members of the ‘Manson Family’ hippy cult invaded the home of film actor Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski in Los Angeles and butchered Tate, who was pregnant, and four of her dinner guests (Polanski was away at the time).  Manson wanted to start a ‘race war’ and had a pathological hatred of black Americans.

What happened to the counter-culture?

Altamont, the Tate (and other murders by the Manson Family) and the degeneration of the drug culture into heroin took the shine off the loving, happy veneer of the counter-culture.  Part of it was subsumed into the mainstream – especially in terms of music and art – and ‘alternative’ businesses.  The result of this was ‘hip capitalism’.   Indeed, within a few years what has been dubbed the ‘hippy industrial complex’ was worth billions of dollars.  This was where people like English multi-billionaire Richard Branson got their start.

Hippy fashions – bright-coloured clothing, long hair for both genders – became part of the mainstream, as did new sexual mores, living arrangements and recreational drug-taking.

Part of it ‘burned out’ in death by drugs and addiction (or problems related to these) – most such deaths are anonymous, but they included high profile figures such as Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, who all died aged just 27.

Part of it just gave up and returned to mainstream society – this was the result of the end of the long postwar economic boom around 1973-74.  The end of the boom drastically undermined the ability of people to live a ’60s hippie lifestyle.  It became harder to get welfare and harder to find short-term employment that you could just take up as and when needed.  You now needed qualifications, work experience, CVs and so on.  

Part of the counter-culture, however, continued in rural communes and traveller groups.

Politically, it helped give rise to the ecology movement and Greens.  However, a bunch of hippies and ‘alternative’ political people drifted rightwards and, by the 1980s, had embraced hard-right economic views.  This shift was really not that much of a change.  Central to both hippy ideology and new-right economics is a “me, me, me” attitude.  The self-absorption of so much of hippydom segued comfortably into the self-centredness of neo-liberal or new-right economics in the 1980s and since.  

(Unfortunately, it has re-emerged in a chunk of the younger left of today, where narcissism and self-absorption run rampant and the grown-ups are expected to continually pat the kids on the back and ‘validate’ any and every ridiculous (and non-left) idea that they take to.)

The chief impact of the counter-culture, however, is probably changing social views and patterns of living.  No-one blinks an eye these at people who live together without the ‘benefit’ of a marriage certificate and who have children before marrying.

However, the counter-culture should not be seen as a space of liberated views on all things to do with sex and freedom.  Sexism and anti-gay rhetoric was widespread.  Women were still widely viewed as existing to service men and suggesting this or that member of the ‘establishment’ was gay, or a “fag”, was widespread.

And, of course, we have all that great music. . .  Both the music produced then and the music it developed from, like a big resurgence of blues, folk, authentic country/bluegrass, etc.

Lastly, it is important to understand that Woodstock itself was very much an historically specific event.  It was a product of a specific historical moment.  Thus an attempt to hold a 50th anniversary Woodstock, fronted by Michael Lang, the key figure behind the original event, failed miserably.  It too is historically specific – thus it had extremely wealthy backers and huge payouts for a range of contemporary artists, including the likes of Miley Cyrus!  Thankfully, the name of the actual Woodstock was saved from a ghastly super-commodified spectacle.

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