A Retrospective of Woodstock Retrospectives

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, so it's time once again to remember how great things were, how different things are, and how they'll never be that good again.

WWD has a bizarre round-up of memories from a lot of people who weren't there, including Anna Sui—"I did read about it and definitely knew about it"— and some people who were there, like Courtney Love (?):

"Because I'm old, I was there. I remember mom and pop there, a woman screaming, and there's a guy - this woman with watermelon, watermelon on my body and this woman with pink on her face. And a black guy, with his guitar on fire - so that was one of them. And this woman screaming. And that is all. And I, you know, searched."

We're sure Love is confusing the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which took place in August 1969, with Woodstock 1999, which took place in July 1999. There was a fire, but it was an audio tower being burned to the ground by vandals, not Jimi Hendrix. And there were lots of women screaming, because they were being raped.

In addition to WWD, just about everyone from CBS News to the BBC to Ang Lee—whose historical film about Woodstock starring Demitri Martin opens in two weeks—is pausing to consider the significance of the gathering.

This is the fourth navel-gazing retrospective spasm devoted to the event that we can recall in our lifetimes. There was the 20th anniversary in 1989, when a half-assed gathering of not-particularly-interesting bands attracted 30,000 people to the concert's original site in upstate New York. Coming as it did on the heels of an orgy of boomer greed throughout the '80s, it had a dazed feel to it, as ex-hippies pondered the distance between the all-consuming ideas of their youth and the mid-life crises they were trying to avoid by revisiting them. From the New York Times' coverage:

Now the Woodstock Generation has credit cards and dares not leave home without them. It used to be that they did not trust anyone over 30. Now they are over 30, and the big four-oh has come and gone, too. And they have different ways of getting around now.

''The last time they came in Volkswagen buses; this time they'll come in Mercedeses,'' said Bob O'Keefe, an ice cream vendor. ''Here comes a Volvo.''

A Retrospective of Woodstock Retrospectives

But the 20th anniversary was just a dress rehearsal for Woodstock '94, when Pepsi bought the festival and helped turn it into something actually marketable: A three-day festival featuring Metallica, Bob Dylan, Blind Melon, James, and a rogue's gallery of other band from the '90s you had forgotten about (Arrested Development! The Spin Doctors! Peter Gabriel headlined!). The rampant commercialism—it was chopped up and sold on Pay-per-View—sparked handwringing about whether a seat-of-the-pants, commercial-free, crazy happening like the original Woodstock was even possible in the '90s without the intervention and support of multinational corporations. It wasn't. And Trent Reznor stole the show with horrible teenage music, so the torch was passed from the Boomers and their hazy memories of hanging out naked in the grass to "Generation X," a nihilistic and mopy cohort raised by divorced parents and wholly without ambition.

A Retrospective of Woodstock Retrospectives

Woodstock 1999 was an MTV production, forbodingly staged on a former Air Force base and Superfund site 200 miles from the site of the original festival. Rage Against the Machine played, bottles of water were $4, and ATMs were stationed everywhere. At 30 years on, whatever remained of the spirit of Woodstock had curdled into a rage and senseless violence as pissed-off concertgoers torched the place. Four women were raped while MTV's cameras scanned the crowds.

Mercifully there was no Woodstock '04. Who needs a festival that traces its roots to the activism and culture of a generation that stopped a war, when there's a war in Iraq to be fought?

Nor is there a Woodstock '09. There was going to be a concert in Brooklyn's Prospect Park—which would have killed your blogger's summer—but it proved too expensive. Instead there's a VH1 special on Friday night, and we're left to mull the meaning of those 40 years that have elapsed without the benefit of a hollow re-enactment sponsored by Facebook (which you know it would have been). So what does it mean? What tectonic cultural shifts are we to identify on this anniversary? We don't know, but each Woodstock remembrance takes on the character of the age in which it occurs, and the one thing that struck us looking back over the coverage of the original concert was this: Tickets—which no one even paid for anyway—were $15 $18. Jesus.