My memories or the museum’s re-creation? It’s hard to tell.
It was high summer—rock ‘n’ roll season—and we were just uncomfortable enough with our dull and repressive landscape to work up that friction into a rush of revolutionary blood, and then kick it off with a party. For the nearly half-million revelers at the 1969 Woodstock Music & Arts Fair—and the many more who either wish they’d been there or have convinced themselves over the decades that they actually were on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for those three days in August— Woodstock was the most vivid proof possible of a larger dynamic at work.
A recent New Yorker cartoon pictures a baby-boomer dad pontificating from his armchair to his flannel-shirted son: “Of course there was sex and drugs when I was your age, but it was sex and drugs about ending the war.” It’s easy to pooh-pooh ’60s counterculture boasts—claims of helping to push through civil-rights legislation and end the Vietnam War—as the deluded ramblings of drug-addled old men with granola in their beards. So does the Woodstock Generation own a defining moment in human history? Or is it merely making a proud show of convention, since every generation’s youth creates a like-minded community of oppositional souls?
The new, 40,000-square-foot Museum at Bethel Woods, adjacent to Yasgur’s fabled pasture, makes a convincing case for the former argument, particularly with its centerpiece, a permanent exhibit that immerses visitors in the music, radio, television, fashion, and politics of the decade leading up to the festival itself and then beyond, to whatever imprint it left on the collective American consciousness. A dense, cutting-edge, “you are there” multimedia trip back in history, this is no fusty stroll past glass cases. It’s a “time machine,” opines Duke Devlin, who should know: At age 26, Devlin hitchhiked from the Southwest to the festival, and never left. Now a large, snow-bearded hippie, he escorts visitors on Interpretive Walking Tours through the pristine field that was once a history-making zone of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and peaceful anarchy.
I was there myself in ’69, hired to oversee ticket-taking, and since there were no fences, I wound up backstage, eating grapes, drinking champagne punch, and dipping my pinkie into a vial of Orange Sunshine with one of the acts and his entourage. It would be more accurate to say that I dream Woodstock whenever I think about it, rather than remember it. And now that I’ve been to the museum in ’08, it’s hard to tell where my dream-memories come from: the beams of light arcing over a half-million arms extended out of darkness to flash peace signs as Sly and the Family Stone performed “Stand”; the announcements from the stage reminding us that we were beautiful and peaceful; Jimi Hendrix’s guitar screaming into the bluest Sunday-morning sky; the improvised Hog Farm kitchen feeding many thousands; the imminent sense of a future world filled with harmony, love, and music—even if food, shelter, and toilets were in short supply. My memories or the museum’s re-creation? It’s hard to tell.
No drugs or sex memorabilia are on display, but otherwise my Woodstock’s all there and then some. To the accompaniment of a constantly booming soundtrack, you wind your way past giant video screens looming on either side and overhead, along with blown-up photos, music and fashion artifacts, and interactive stations packing more videos, music, and narrative. You’re traveling from the early ’60s (the nuclear threat, helmet hairstyles, Elvis, and 45s) to the late ’60s (the moon landing, protest marches, political assassinations, Dylan, the Beatles, and psychedelic LP covers). Wavy Gravy’s tattered denim overalls are on display, along with a newly painted psychedelic Chevy bus that doubles as a mini-theater screening a video explaining how the Merry Pranksters got to Woodstock on its inside windshield. A rear-projected animated map of the festival site allows six people at a time to call up a wealth of festival information. Scraps of note paper, old newsprint, and photos recount the festival’s backstory: Two young guys want to build a music studio in Woodstock, New York, and decide to kick off fundraising with a music-and-arts fair there. How it wound up on Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel is another story.
Then there’s the show itself, evoked with startling reality via the Festival Experience in-the-round theater, decorated with re-created notes that were once tacked to a tree. (Samples: “To Cindy with the black hair and sister. I’m sorry I was too untogether to remember to ask for your address. Please call Dan”; “Ride for two chicks needed. Leaving. Desperate.”) A condensed, 11-minute re-creation of those three days and nights is highlighted on a 40-by-60-foot main screen (plus screens on either side and one overhead) via nine video projectors, putting you right in the mud-spattered crowd, while theatrical lights cued to changes in sound and image give you the rain, the nights, the sunshine. Another film is screened nonstop in the 132-seat, hi-def, multichannel-projection Museum Theater (complete with stadium seating). Layering sounds and images from the never-seen, rarely seen, and frequently seen performance footage, as well as new narration by Woodstock performers today and awed younger artists, those 21 minutes are the emotional culmination of it all.
Everything about the museum—and the Bethel Woods Art Center of which it’s a part—is precisely worked out to the last detail, right down to the Technicolor- green grass, lush flower borders, and even the man-made wandering brook with tiny footbridge. You could say it’s antithetical to the sloppy soul of the ’60s, but this is high-tech perfectionism with a higher purpose, all of it orchestrated by the 80-year-old Alan Gerry. A high-school dropout and ex-Marine from upstate New York, Gerry started a cable-TV empire in 1956 with $1,500, after running wire from hilltop antennas so that he and his neighbors could get better reception. Gerry sold to Time Warner in 1996 for $2.8 billion and then, ever neighborly, started the nonprofit Gerry Foundation to rescue Sullivan County from a long, inexorable slide into abject poverty, by developing a sprawling, green-powered, nonprofit arts center right next to the original Woodstock festival site. The museum also includes a shop where you can be photographed against the Woodstock crowd or other backdrops; a gorgeous stone, wood, and glass Events Gallery; two state-of-the-art “smart” classrooms; and a Special Exhibit gallery for traveling shows, along with the center’s outdoor Terrace Stage and café. It officially opens June 2, joining the 4,800-seat Performance Pavilion that opened in the summer of 2006.
“Is it over yet?” Devlin likes to quip to site visitors who dare to speak of Woodstock in the past tense. Today, few are rioting in the streets over our own bad war, and we all know what happened at Woodstock ’94. Still, these are the days of virtual communities, and a black man and a white woman have been running credibly for president. So maybe a museum fueled by so much revolutionary nostalgia might end up being right on time.