Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I took my daughters on a pilgrimage to the new Woodstock museum in Bethel, New York and recommend doing the same to anyone who attended the actual event or for those who couldn't attend, like myself, or for those who weren't even born yet but wish they'd been there. (The 40th anniversary of Woodstock Nation will be celebrated next August.) The museum's floor plan is a spiral, like a giant Ying Yang button, with interactive displays and 165 original artifacts including Wavy Gravy's hand-embroidered jumpsuit and the original travel manifest for the Hog Farm who came to Woodstock all the way from New Mexico. There's a flowery painted VW bug and Sha Na Na's Wurlitzer electric piano and ticket stubs and a psychedelic school bus and alarmist reports published in local newspapers, and correspondence back and forth between organizers and community officials.

But the displays are oddly shorn of the radical politics, sex, and drugs that made the event such a tipping point in popular culture. "I took a trip to the future," wrote Abbie Hoffman in 1969, a few days after the festival. "Functional anarchy, primitive tribalism, gathering of the tribes. Right on! What did it all mean?... If I had to sum up the totality of the Woodstock experience I would say it was the first attempt to land a man on the earth."

The most poignant reminders of pre-digital body culture (sadly missing today) are the museum's collection of hand-scrawled messages written on scraps of paper and tacked to the Woodstock message board: "To Cindy (with black hair and sister) I'm sorry I was too untogether to remember to ask your address, please call… Dan." And that's also been forgotten, the way that information got circulated without the Internet, through some subtle kind of morphic resonance, word of mouth, Dylan lyrics, cross-country trekking, "grokking" and head-shop bulletin boards. Everyone just seemed to know what was going to happen next.

The most jarring note, along with the retro architecture of the museum's outer shell--just imagine what Steve Baer or Ant Farm might have done--is the final gallery that has video testimonials from Pat Buchanan, Nancy Reagan ("The 60s was the worst time in history…") and Ed Meese ("It was the age of self indulgence…"), voices that sound like fingernails scratching across the psychic blackboard. Haven't we heard enough "fair and balanced" propaganda over the past eight years of Fox News and Cheney/Bush? Isn't it time to reclaim counterculture mythology from the powers of darkness and forgetting?

In the end, the best thing you come away with is not inside the museum, but outside on the great green bowl itself, Max Yasgur's former alfalfa field that slopes away from the arts center and possesses it's own effervescent vortex of energy. 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. Festival organizers spotted it from a plane buzzing over the Catskills in search of an alternate site (after being thrown out of Wallkill, NY) and it turned into an alternative zone of 500,000 souls, something like a nation.