The Woodstock Moment
May it be on earth as it was in Woodstock.
Woodstock was an aberration! It wouldn’t have happened but for the fact that …
As the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock concert festival approaches this month, journalists and others have set out to examine what was unique about the events surrounding the three days of music, mud and love which happened in Bethel, New York – not Woodstock – in August 1969.
Recently, there have been many articles written and dozens of opinions proffered on TV talk shows about what it all meant, now that we presumably have the hindsight of history to enable us to see clearly now what it was really all about.
Speaking of history, we often hear these wise guys and gals who appear on the TV talk shows and write for the Op Ed pages of the New York Times repeat Santayana’s dictum that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. (See, for example, Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace, Op Ed piece by Jon Pareles, New York Times, Aug 5, 2009).
Perhaps when it comes to Woodstock, though, we might want to repeat it! If forgetting it helps, then let’s forget all about it!
It’s only two little reasons which prevent us from doing this: the first is that it’s very hard to forget something when that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. As Francis Huxley pointed out, it’s like trying to find the hidden treasure on the desert island, which can only be found, you’ve been told, if you do not think of a green monkey while looking.
To understand the second reason we need to understand a little about psychoanalysis. Analysts talk about how certain events and memories are repressed. When a traumatic event occurs, the individual may forget all aspects of the experience and, furthermore, forget the act of forgetting itself. This double-action – forgetting and forgetting that one has forgot – Freud termed repression.
Generally, this process of repression is thought of as acting upon the negative – traumatic, painful experiences which are too painful to allow into normal consciousness. However, maybe it’s possible that a person can repress the good and enjoyable. Repress love itself and its manifestations.
Maybe it’s this process which is at play now in the analysis of the Woodstock phenomenon – three days of love and peace where everyone got along just fine in a small temporary city created in the hills of beautiful upstate New York. There were no reports of violence, burglary, muggings, rape or murder. No one called the cops “pigs”!
As can be seen from the concert movies and photos of the events, everyone was having a grand time, despite the mud and lack of normal amenities. People laughed. Enjoyed the music from some of the finest rock ‘n rollers of the time – Hendrix, The Who, Country Joe, Ten Years After, Richie Havens … the list goes on and on. Woodstockers sang, enjoyed the recreational drugs of the day, shared food and made love. Making love in every sense – the non-sexual love – an unquestioning regard , openness and generosity towards the other – as well as making love in the sexual sense.
So, what if it’s the case that The Woodstock event wasn't an aberration at all? What if the state-of-being-of-the-social-order as evidenced at Woodstock is the normal, default state of things? And that the other state – the competitive, violent, I’ll-screw-you-before-you-can-screw-me is the aberrant one? What if the good has been repressed, and the compulsively competitive, dog-eat-dog aberrant behavior has been exalted?
If this were the case, what would be the implications for group analysis? We would have to re-examine Bion’s conjectures about the “unconscious” dynamics of groups. Bion’s vision would now be seen in a new light, as a pessimistic view of the hidden violence at play in any group – violence which the group wishes upon itself – as dependency group, pairing group, fight-flight group, and so on. Freud’s pessimistic voice might also need re-thinking.
What would be the implications for sociology? For psychology and psychoanalysis? And, for all those muttering Sunday talk-show mouths spouting off, self-importantly about how Woodstock was just a freak event, an aberration, a chink in the system, a strange singularity?
What would be the implications for philosophy? Perhaps it shows us that Levinas is correct – that our normal nature as human beings is to love and honor the other.
If this is the case, then why do we have violence in society? Why have all concerts after Woodstock not been free and love-filled, as Woodstock was? Why did Altamont happen? And why the unfortunate Woodstock reunion of 1994 that Jon Pareles tells us about?
Why is it that, today, when I go to a rock concert, it costs enough to feed a family of four for a few days? And that’s just for a single ticket. $75 to see Leonard Cohen at the enormous, impersonal Madison Square Garden? $50 to see Bob Dylan growling his way through a few of his old favorite numbers from yesteryear at Prospect Park, sounding like he’s just woken up after a night of too much whiskey and cigarettes?
Perhaps it’s the violence inherent in the commercialization of the events of Woodstock which have permeated the system. The effects of the push-to-profits has taken over, in the wider social system as well as in the particular events surrounding concerts.
Of course, performers deserve to be paid. But when the rock acts of the 60s and their descendants become part of a no-holds-barred profit-at-any-cost milieu then it’s a sign that, for me, the spirit has left the music. Go to see The Who or the Rolling Stones play at enormous cavernous Shea Stadium, where we view the performers as little dots in the center of the cavernous space? No thanks. I’d rather go and see some new band trying out it’s thing at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side – it’s live, it’s intimate and may bring a surprise, as I enjoy a beer. Also, it’s not going to cost an arm and a leg!
When I saw The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1969, around the same time that Woodstock happened, fellow concertgoers from London somewhat derisively talked of how The Who had already sold out – they’re not like they were back in London’s Soho clubs, they said. Talking of the Isle of Wight Festival, where Bob Dylan played: it was also very cool, friendly peaceful and free-spirited. Some concertgoers shared food with me, shared their tent with me, and we all had a good time.
Not that the sprit has left entirely – the virtually free concerts at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park still recreate a mini Woodstock event every week of the summer. You can enjoy the greatest acts for only a few dollars while enjoying some wine and cheese on the lawn, enjoying wafting hints of incense and herbs as one enjoys Burning Spear, and some other great acts – David Byrne, King Sunny Ade, Freshly Ground, and others.
At the Burning Spear concert, I shared my bottle of wine with an African American couple sitting next to me and we all enjoyed the sweet smell of incense and the herb wafting over the crowd, while everyone danced and grooved to the music, the cops included.
Woodstock may have been an aberration of sorts – in that it was the beginnings of a revolution – a revolution of love – love in the sense of acceptance and respect for the other, who in turn reciprocates.
Maybe it’s like that breakthrough moment in therapy – the first realizations of the repressions and the concomitant sloughing off of the chains. Frequently, these first moments of freedom in therapy remain just that – moments. Soon the neurotic, maladaptive behavior returns, and things return to how they were before. But now with a difference, a difference of hope and positive expectation.
Perhaps the Woodstock event was a first try – to show what could be done, what might be achievable in relationships between us. Perhaps we should remember and recall it with a spirit of reverence of a sort. A reverence filled with love. Let’s remember how we could be, and continue to work towards that. We could even re-think the Lord’s prayer, as R.D. Laing once suggested: When we say “May it be on earth as it is in heaven” we could instead say “May it happen everyday as it did in Woodstock”.
The term “Woodstock” becomes now a description of a state of mind and a state of being, just like the term “promised land” refers to a state of being-between-us, as Jacques Derrida suggested.
Let’s work then towards rediscovery of the Woodstock state of mind, not the profit-driven naked capitalism which reduces every human need to money, which strives to make a buck at every turn, no matter the human cost, and which now, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out (Is It Now A Crime To Be Poor? , New York Times Op-Ed, August 8, 2009), makes it a crime to be poor in the U.S.A.