pilgrimage: we are stardust.


pilgrimage: we are stardust.

To get to Bethel, New York, site of the Woodstock Festival, is 2 hours’ drive from the actual village of Woodstock. I went there for the first time in 2018, when I finally decided I needed to see a show at Levon Helm’s barn, so I was in the general area, and unless you are camping or hiking you are not going to be passing in any kind of proximity. There are essentially two routes to Bethel from Woodstock, one over a mountain, another slightly more direct and populated. I decided to go over the mountain.

When I arrived, my first thought was “Wow,” followed closely by: my word, this is a phenomenally stupid place to have held a music festival as it is not close to utterly anything. The drive was lengthy and complicated in 2018, in a modern car with creature comforts; I cannot imagine slogging up there in a VW Bug or some old beater. The audience members who arrived on Thursday afternoon were utter geniuses.

The location is now the Bethel Center for the Arts, an outdoor amphitheater commonly known in music business parlance as “a shed.” Thankfully, all of that infrastructure is at the top of the hill (those white tents at the top of the photo there), leaving a semblance of the actual performance bowl in situ.

The site is open to the public when there are no concerts and you can park and get out of your car and just… walk around the field. There is a museum as part of the entertainment complex, which I avoided as just standing in the field at the top of the hill trying to have a moment meant I had to listen to 45 minutes of Dudes Explaining Woodstock, and did not want to repeat that at close quarters. However, it is worthwhile going down to the lower level where a hallway is lined with descriptions of each act that performed, including their set times — which now need to be corrected as the result of the recent box set, but at the time was revelatory to me, because, as we now understand, the movie and the album did not give you an accurate picture.

While the actual natural amphitheater on Max Yasgur’s farm has been regraded, you can still very much place yourself within the landscape. If you look at aerial photographs of the day, and compare it to a Google Earth view (you know, the kind of thing normal people do every day), the shapes of trees and forests and fields and lakes are remarkably unchanged, and would not be unfamiliar to someone who was there on that August weekend in 1969. It’s one of the few major rock and roll landmarks that you can say that about; it’s not a parking lot or an office building or an empty field full of rubble. And I know that people wish that the site wasn’t owned by a commercial concern but I don’t know how you can be unhappy that music still happens in the same spot. It’s better than it being turned into a subdivision full of cookie-cutter houses or a strip mall or a big box store.

If you happen to be in the area or nearby and it’s a show day, you can still go to what I think is the best part of the land, which is a corner of the field where the first marker currently resides. It is actually on what was festival land, and has a couple of benches to sit on and a picnic table and some shade trees, and if there isn’t a concert, there’s a gate that’s open to let you walk further out onto the field. But if the gate is locked, you still have the opportunity to stand on the field where the actual Woodstock festival happened. Take your shoes off and wiggle your toes in the clover. This is a place where something took place that changed the energy on the planet. You don’t have to be a hippie to find that profound and remarkable.

As a teenager, I was utterly fascinated by Woodstock. Part of it was the music, part of it was the history, but the major factor for me was the idea of being in the same space with people who thought and felt and looked like me, that had the same unpopular views of the world or ideas that I did. I was not a hippie, although my high school was filled with plenty of aspiring Deadheads. I did not understand or like the Grateful Dead, and just being in the same space as someone smoking a joint would give me an instant sinus headache. I was, quite frankly, terrified of drugs as a teen because I knew I needed to get the fuck out of Dodge, and did not want anything or anyone potentially interfering with my ability to do so. This was one of many aspects that made me dreadfully unpopular, but I was physically unable to even pretend to conform. I am not upset about this — it was fairly smart for someone who was young and dumb — but it did make my teenage years miserable.

When I did get to go to concerts, or hang out in record stores, suddenly, I fit in. Even something like a midnight movie—usually showing Woodstock, or Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii—those were the places where you realized that you were not the only person like that, you were not weird, you were not alone. Which was, of course, what Woodstock meant, and means, and stood for. You weren’t the only person in the world who thought the war in Vietnam was wrong or liked loud music that wasn’t pop, or believed that women had potential beyond being a wife and mother. There were kids at Woodstock who were the only freak in their school or town, and something made them think they should get in their cars or take a bus and drive to upstate New York. 500,000 of those people made it; thousands of others got stuck or turned around or stopped where they couldn’t go any further. But that desire to connect, that physical act of showing up, proved that while they might be isolated, they weren’t alone, that there were plenty more people just like them out there.

It’s a good reason to drive four hours to stand barefoot in a field 49 years later.

And also a good reason, was to be able to do THIS. It still makes me chortle with absolute glee.

more woodstock: pitchfork box set review | notebook dump

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