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Woodstock: Stoners, terror, enlightenment

 
Here's what my favorite Woodstock performer had to say about the event some 40 years after he had performed there on Aug. 15, 1969:

"This was a terrifying experience . . . I performed in front of an audience of half a million -- an ocean of people. It was drizzling and very cold, but they were so happy in the mud. They were all stoned, of course, but they were enjoying it. It reminded me of the water buffaloes you see in India.

"Woodstock was like a big picnic party, and the music was incidental. I wish I hadn't performed there . . . there was no way of communicating to the crowd. It was such a vast audience." 

I was 11 years old. I didn't pay much attention to the news accounts or the photos that surfaced in Life magazine a few weeks after the festival. So what? 

However, by the time of my high school years in the mid-1970s, I had become one of those millions of people who joined in the mythologizing of Woodstock even though we weren't there. "Hey, man, Woodstock isn't a place or an event - it's a state of mind!"

Jimi Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- chilling and awesome. Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'to-Die Rag" -- one of the most riveting, perfect moments in protest music history (along with the time Bob Dylan took a stage the night after President Kennedy's assassination and opened with "The Times They Are a-Changin' ").

T
he mythologizing of Woodstock was in full throttle the summer of 2009 as the event's 40th anniversary approached: books and commentaries by the score, reissues of the official concert recordings, reissues of the movie on DVD.

I'm not knocking my fellow boomers who are mind-tripping back to 1969 and slathering themselves in memories of Woodstock's hippie-powered peace 'n' love vibe. 

But, in the new book "Woodstock: Three Days that Rocked the World," I was amused when I discovered the ironic, dystopian, myth-busting sentiments voiced above by sitar master Ravi Shankar of India.

Ravi was no fan of hippies. Or, to be more precise -- he abhors the idea of getting high on drugs in order to experience music, or life. He says so pointedly in his two autobiographical works, "My Music, My Life" and "Raga Mala." 

I'm still stirred by Jimi and Country Joe's Woodstock performances. I'll be listening to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, U2, Pearl Jam and Public Enemy until I die.
 
But, since discovering Shankar's classical Indian music a half-decade ago, I can't imagine a universe (or my home or car stereo) without the sounds of sitars droning like extraterrestrial crickets. 

Shankar said worries plagued him at Woodstock and led to a "not a very inspired performance." 

Woodstock co-organizer Michael Lang disagrees in the book "Woodstock: The Oral History": "Ravi Shankar on stage was kind of a special moment. The vibe was intense. It may sound a little corny, but it was a very tangible feeling in the air. When those spiritual moments would happen, you could really feel them."
 
Decades after Woodstock, I discovered that supposed Woodstock spirit -- in the alien sounds of an alien culture a half-world away. 


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