Who can forget Woodstock ’79, the 10-year commemoration of the original “3 Days of Peace and Music”?
The answer, of course, is “everyone.” Everyone can, and quite probably has, forgotten Woodstock’s 10th birthday party. Each time the August anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair rolls around — as it has again this week, 50 years on — we trot out the fond memories and bad trips about the first “peace and love” festival and its enormous, less serene sequels in 1994 (the 25th) and 1999. No one talks about the 10th anniversary observance, which took place not in a nostalgically muddy field but at Madison Square Garden, with a related reunion on Long Island.
Do you recall that there was also a 20-year Woodstock “celebration” in 1989? This one happened on the original farm, which was, by then, no longer Yasgur’s. With little to no pre-planning, the aptly nicknamed “forgotten Woodstock” featured an organizer and performer named Rich Pell and, as a headliner, Hendrix — not the late Jimi, but his father, Al.
Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. The odds, however, are astronomically stacked against the same bottle catching another bolt. (Just ask Scott Brown, or this year’s Red Sox.) In the concert industry, no lightning strike has been as difficult to conjure again as the thunderbolt that landed on a dairy farm filled with a massive herd of shirtless humanity on the weekend of Aug. 15, 1969.
But that hasn’t stopped various promoters from trying. After all, what is a promoter without an event to plug? And what is an anniversary without a self-congratulatory cake? Even if it’s been left out in the rain, and the candles fail to spark.
There’s a case to be made that the original Woodstock and its periodic remakes have smeared far too much icing on the cake. In their aftermath, no successful festival performance can ever be left well enough alone — it must be resurrected, reworked, and reimagined, ideally each year, but at the very least every round-number anniversary.
Though the proposed Woodstock 50 eventually collapsed under its own weight while in search of a suitable site, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts — the fancy, gated cultural institution that has arisen on the grounds of Yasgur’s Farm — will host a weekend of flashback concerts, including Carlos Santana on Saturday and John Fogerty on Sunday. (Ringo Starr, Friday’s headliner there, did not play the original Woodstock, but he does say “peace and love” a lot.)
Rare these days is the new music festival that is launched as a stand-alone event. Instead, they’re all the “first annual” something or other. From Coachella and San Francisco’s Outside Lands to Boston Calling and the Made in America production in Philadelphia, today’s festivals are designed to repeat. The Lollapalooza tour had its moment in the early ’90s, ran its course, then was reinvented as a destination event in Chicago.
The original Isle of Wight Festival in the United Kingdom, which predated Woodstock by a year, mushroomed from a crowd of 10,000 in the summer of 1968 to 150,000 the following year, when the lineup included a Bob Dylan comeback of sorts. In 1970, hundreds of thousands arrived by ferry to enjoy sets from, among others, Miles Davis, the Who, and Hendrix (Jimi, not Al). And that was it for the Isle of Wight for more than 30 years, until 2002, when the festival was revived, naturally, as an annual event.
The memory of the Monterey Pop Festival, which took place in 1967, survived unmolested up until its golden anniversary year, in 2017, when the same California fairgrounds hosted a lineup that featured Norah Jones, Gary Clark Jr., Father John Misty, and others.
In 2005, Bob Geldof tried to recapture the razzle-dazzle of the original Live Aid concerts from 1985 (last seen in the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”) with Live 8, a global simulcast of benefit concerts that included Robbie Williams giving “We Will Rock You” a go and Rob Thomas and Adam Levine nosing in on Stevie Wonder’s set in Philly.
A few years ago, a bunch of contemporary acts hit the road with a 40th-anniversary remake of the Band’s all-star “Last Waltz” extravaganza. Earlier this year, Blake Shelton hosted a televised tribute to Elvis’s ’68 comeback TV special.
Perhaps most garish are the recent attempts to put deceased stars back onstage with hologram technology. I once saw the rotary-phone version of this idea, a concert featuring Elvis’s actual TCB Band playing the hits as towering film footage of the King in his Vegas prime sang along on a screen overhead.
Must we forever reenact past glories? Apparently, we must.
“It’s as foolish to think you can re-create a 1969 rock event like Woodstock in 2019 as it would be to try and persuade people to go back to old-fashioned telephones and operator-booked long-distance calls,” Simon Napier-Bell, a rock and pop manager whose career spans the Yardbirds and Wham!, recently told the Associated Press.
The first Woodstock was billed as an “Aquarian Exposition.” It was going to be a testament to the healing power of the Age of Aquarius, when peace and harmony will rule the planet, and modernization will help make that so. Deftly demonstrated in the new documentary “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” now streaming on PBS’s “American Experience,” that ideal became a miraculous reality. For three days.
Three days that won’t happen again.