DIARY 18 August 1969 Woodstock: the downing of the Age of Aquarius

Woodstock 1

In August 1969, anyone looking at me in the street would have assumed that I was a ‘hippie’. In Leeds, where I had just finished my first year as a philosophy undergraduate, there weren’t many hippies. There was a bloke called Reg who dressed scruffily like me and wore his hair similarly in an unkempt halo. That was all. I was gently patronised by my fellow students for my poor dress sense and hygienic habits but accepted because I was perfectly likeable but eccentric rather than dangerous[1].

Bethel, New York State, where the Woodstock festival was held between 15th and 18th August 1969, was 43 miles from the town of Woodstock. However, when a resident of that town threatened to ‘shoot the first hippie that walks into town’ the local authority withdrew permission. A dairy farmer from Bethel offered his farm on the promise there would be no more than 50,000 people. Half a million turned up. This initial dislocation presaged the disorganised chaos that would follow.

Leeds, Yorkshire was a long way from Bethel; about three thousand, three hundred and fifty miles. In the 21st century the world is much smaller, with instant communication via satellite on television and radio or, even faster, through social media. Imagine the overload on Facebook or Instagram if Woodstock happened today. In 1969 there were only a handful of communication satellites, including the first successful versions of Telstar. Satellite broadcasts then were highly managed affairs. Fifty years later there are over 2000 satellites deluging the stratosphere with broadcast data 24 hours a day.

In the terraced house in Leeds which I shared with two other students we didn’t have a television. Radios were small transistor-powered devices although the BBC, being the main broadcaster, barely covered the event, treating it as a footnote to the Vietnam anti-war movement. A few thousand young people gathering on a farm over three thousand miles away did not generate much news interest until it all went wrong.

Information about Woodstock that did get through was far from today’s idealised memories of people were probably not there. There was torrential rain, deep mud, food shortages, overflowing toilets, bad acid trips, drug overdoses, low-fi sound systems and bands not turning up. I had never much enjoyed the very few festivals I had attended but these were only mildly uncomfortable compared to the chaos that was Woodstock.

Woodstock 3 mud

Woodstock was a financial and environmental disaster. Conditions became so bad that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was ready to call out the national guard. Clearing up the mess took months. Fires from piles of rubbish burned for weeks. It was years before the land could be returned to agricultural use. The organisers ended up $1.3 million dollars in debt; it took eleven years to clear the debts, helped mainly by proceeds from the 1970 documentary.

Rather than the fabled ‘summer of love’, by the time of Woodstock the hippie dream was turning sour. Haight-Ashbury had become an anarchic drug den full of homeless junkies. Woodstock was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: three days of peace and music’. Instead of heralding the new age of Aquarius, it was more of a wake for the hippie dream that was already turning into a nightmare.

Woodstock 2

Only a few days before, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family. Charles Manson was a psychopath who manipulated his cult members using hippie imagery. He was no hippie but this event would stoke fears about its darker side.

More chaos followed at free concert held by the Rolling Stones at Altamont in California on 6th December later that year. Meredith Hunter was murdered, stabbed to death, and there were three accidental deaths. Dozens were injured, there was extensive property damage and numerous cars were stolen.

For this hippie, sitting more or less alone in his small room in damp, grey Leeds the dream was definitely fading. I never went to San Francisco or wore flowers in my hair. It was too cold for sandals. I did a few weeks work in a frozen food factory, bought a ticket to Rome and hitch-hiked round Italy with Gill. At least it was warmer.

[1] This was how I looked the previous year. I doubt if I had improved at all by the following summer.

1968 Derek Perry-001

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