Comment: Woodstock, My Woodstock

Comment: Woodstock, My Woodstock

A day-glo homage to the Merry Pranksters’ bus lies within Bethel Woods Center’s staid exterior.
Courtesy Bethel Woods Center for the Arts

How do we go back when we don’t even know where to begin? The music and drugs have been well documented, but the sense of space, the softened corners, amorphous shapes, and communal élan of the 60s counterculture are less easily reclaimed. Where are the landmarks and monuments of the psychedelic revolution? Timothy Leary spoke of a Magic Theater and the Beatles sang of Strawberry Fields. Carlos Castaneda, in his 1968 best-seller Teachings of Don Juan, wrote of the sitio, a place of psychic strength.

I start by attending a press preview for the new Woodstock museum in Bethel, New York. My route is across the Delaware River and up through lovely rolling farmland, still bucolic, almost no development, with the sun sparkling on Lake Superior. The road winds through a pine forest with a mossy green glow and magic trees bending down. I can almost see the Caterpillar smoking his hookah, but not quite, and when I arrive at the new Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the TV vans and press busses are already lined up in the parking lot. The main complex stands atop the hill, oddly postmodern, built with local stones, hefty timbers, and copper roofs rising toward glass-sided cupolas. The complex was designed by Paul E. Westlake, Jr., principal partner of Cleveland-based Westlake Reed Leskosky (co-architects with Coop Himmelb(l)au of the Akron Art Museum), and seems more like a Republican golf club than a hippie hallucination. Richard Meier was chosen originally, but client Alan Gerry reacted with alarm to his “flying saucer” proposal and in truth, Meier’s antiseptic aesthetic might have been even less appropriate for a memorial to funky mud sliding. (It’s tempting to imagine what anarchic hippie designer/builders like Steve Baer or Lloyd Kahn might have concocted given the right stimulants: a revolving kaleidoscope? Geodome? Giant bird’s nest? Freeform rabbit hole?) But while the exterior architecture seems oddly out of sync, the exhibitions inside are worth the trip, as it were.

Richard Meier’s original "flying saucer" proposal was rejected as too alarming for the nostalgia-soaked site. Cleveland-based architects Westlake Reed Leskosky designed the oddly postmodern complex, which was built with local stones.

The museum’s floor plan is a flowing, spiraling circle, sort of like a giant ying/yang button. An introductory section called “Back to the Garden” explains what happened with the civil rights movement, Elvis, the Beatles, assassinations, moon walks, and “Baby Boomer Emergence,” while a curving wall has a year-by-year timeline leading up to 1969, the year of the three-day love fest. Multi-colored walls are mounted with photo murals, hippie ephemera under glass, collages from the day, video testimonials, and displays such as an interactive map that takes you on a virtual tour of the original Woodstock site, showing the location of the main stage, the Hog Farm, campgrounds, woods, and even the Port-o-Johns. “The Bus Experience” is an actual school bus that has been painted with psychedelic swirls and doves á la the Merry Pranksters’ “Furthur” (sic). You can sit inside and watch rear-screen projections of cross-country odysseys to the festival playing on the windshield. (I imagine Cheech and Chong, smoking reefer, making all of this up 40 years ago, and puff, suddenly here we are, grayhaired, sitting in the pretty psychedelic bus watching movies…)

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a 50-foot-high surround-sound immersion chamber that recreates the spatial/aural experiences of the festival, with thunder cracking overhead and roadies scurrying across the stage. Six video projectors play on four different screens and give a pretty good sense of actually being there, but even better is the hi-def video that ends the exhibition. Shown in a little amphitheater, it tells the story through the voices of the performers themselves. You can see how musicians like Santana, Hendrix, Joplin, et al. were inspired and felt at one with the half-million throng, motivated not by profit or fame (in this instance), but by the idea of something bigger and better than their careers, singing and playing from the heart. Everyone in the amphitheater, even the gnarly New York press, seems moved and teary-eyed after the 20-minute film ends. That’s the real thing, and something makes us want to stay and watch again. Maybe it’s because the performances seem so authentic and pre-digital now. Or is it that we all want to share an idealized moment in our collective past, a never-never land of possibility and lost innocence? We need a dreamy, utopian Woodstock, even if it didn’t really happen that way.

In the end, the thing you come away with is not the painted bus, the music, or Wavy Gravy’s handmade jumpsuit embroidered with mystic symbols. It’s the great green bowl itself, Max Yasgur’s former alfalfa field that dips down and away from the arts center. You walk past the “Peace Pub” and past the sprawling parking lot, and there it is, a sloping green expanse, catching the afternoon light in just such a way. It’s the real artifact, and possesses a presence that’s hard to describe, but you think “this must be sacred ground,” a place of connection and resonance that needs no interactive display or interpretive text to understand. Festival organizers spotted the naturally embracing amphitheater from a small plane buzzing over the Catskills in search of an alternate site, and it turned into an alternative city, new paradigm, Woodstock Nation. You can see where the stage was set up at the bottom of the slope, near West Shore Road. (There’s a little monument to one side and a split-rail fence surrounding the site.) You can crouch in the field and commune with the spirits here, not of the dead but of the living and loving and tripping multitudes (more than 500,000) who sat out in the rain, shirtless and happy. And for a moment, a kind of hush descends over the spirit, a quiet bliss. Woodstock, my Woodstock…