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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001
Woodstock: three days of . . . whatever
Guitars are still strummed, drums are still bashed and vocals, as ever, are still howled, but rock -- and I mean Rock, that once-powerful, unifying voice of youth counterculture -- is dead.
What we see before us -- on MTV, in stadiums, on Shibuya advert screens -- is nothing more than its re-animated corpse, a bloated marionette with Big Money pulling the strings, tarting up their pathetic puppet in any variety of costumes, old and new, desperately trying to convince us that there's life in the old boy yet.
Trying to pinpoint the death of Rock -- the actual point where artistic innovation and independence and relevance gave way to repetitive recycling and corporate control -- would be hard. But for a glimpse the arc of its decline there's no better primer than "My Generation," a clear-headed documentary that unsparingly contrasts the 1969 Woodstock festival ("Three Days of Peace and Music") with its successors in '94 ("Three Days of Nostalgia and Merchandising") and '99 ("Three Days of Hate and Rape").
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not trying to glorify the '60s. As someone who came of age somewhere between the Woodstocks (and now listens primarily to obsure space-techno, dub and Tunisian chanteuses), I view them both in a rather detached way. But let's face it: There was something in the '60s that has been lost, depressingly so. Just look at the faces of the kids who came to these events, the beauty and joy and cameraderie radiated amid the grime of '69 vs. the anger, "attitude" and loutishness of '99. Woodstock '69 was held on a grassy farm; in a stunning bit of irony, Woodstock '99 was held on the blistering hot tarmac of a disused air force base.
An even better marker of change was the nudity -- in '69, it was an expression of freedom and openess, with male and female alike stripping down in the mud. By '99, it was a strictly one-way phenomenon, with male hecklers yelling at Sheryl Crow to "take it off." Nothing better symbolizes the descent from idealism into pure commercialism than the punters paying $15 to have their photo taken with a topless body-painted babe. Even more depressing are the scenes of women getting groped in the mosh pits, where -- notoriously -- several rapes and assaults occured.
Director Barbara Kopple ("Wild Man Blues") largely refrains from editorializing, but the themes she uncovers are so recurrent and glaring. Granted full access to both '90s Woodstocks and the archival footage of '69, Kopple fashions a case study in how the counterculture was bought and sold.
True, things weren't perfect in '69 either. Event producer Michael Lang -- the ill-starred Sisyphus who organized all three festivals -- tells how The Who and The Grateful Dead refused to play unless they were paid cold, hard cash then and there. But still, there's something irresistibly naive and romantic about watching a young independent promoter not only pull off such a massive undertaking, but also be able to shrug off a financial loss -- when kids pulled down the gates -- and merely grin at the pleasure of having instigated the high-water mark of his generation, saying: "A project doesn't need to make money to be a success." Imagine someone saying that now.
The differences in the '90s are readily apparent: omnipresent advertising and corporate logos, ATMs and $150 tickets, metal detectors and a beefy "Peace Patrol." But most of all, there's the inescapable shadow of the past, a strained sense of supposed historical significance in which the mantra is "I'll never forget this for the rest of my life."
Take the "mud people." In '69, the hippies wallowed in the mud in sheer playful defiance of the rain that threatened to wreck the event. By '99, you had people deliberately hosing down some soil so they could get muddy "like the hippies did"; spontaneous creativity morphed into meaningless ritual.
Yes, '90s youth are generally smart enough to realize they're being pandered to, but disillusioned enough -- by the failed hippie experiment, among other things -- to feel that there's nothing they can do about it. All too often this frustration ends up getting released as pointless, inchoate rage. The cameras catch louts turning on each other, pelting a tent site with garbage cans and debris; girls getting their clothes ripped off in an out-of-control mosh pit; and a near-riot in which the concessions stands were torched. Is it any surprise, given what was on the stage -- people like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit bellowing, "I feel like s***, I'm dangerous -- break your f***ing face tonight -- just want to break some s***!"?
When Jimi Hendrix deconstructed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in '69, he knew exactly what he was rebelling against and why. What Durst represents is rebellion as mere attitude, against nothing and informed by nothing except perhaps an excess of alcohol and hormonal imbalance. If the '60s bands were promoting an expanded consciousness -- politically and psychedelically -- Limp Bizkit expounds a reduced consciousness, the simple belief that one can only register existence in this world by lashing out at it, however blindly.
If "Gimme Shelter" was the rockumentary that marked the end of '60s idealism, then "My Generation" will stand as the epitaph for rock 'n' roll as a whole. As one of the graying Allman Brothers remarks in '94, "In my days, you had better drugs and people were more mellow." Could it be as simple as that? Fortunately, the true spirit of independence and creativity that blessed Woodstock does live on deep in the Nevada desert, at Burning Man. It's more techno-pagan/performance/just- plain-weird than Rock . . . but does it ever .