Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blu Blues at Woodstock

I finally had a chance to screen most of the material included on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970)—the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version, to be precise, that I ordered from Amazon about a month ago. Touted on as “one of the most impressive Blu-Ray releases of 2009 or any other year,” the Collector’s Edition has lots of what is called, in marketing lingo, “value-added content.” The box (enclosed in a protective plastic sleeve), for instance, is designed to resemble a faux fringe leather jacket, while inside there’s an iron-on patch with the familiar logo, a Lucite paperweight with pictures, a reprint of the 60-page Life Magazine special issue about the 1969 event, a reproduction of a three-day ticket, and some other memorabilia (of the miniaturized and simulated sort). Such materials make the event no more “real” than it ever was, but serve as an illustration of the conceit that an important social and cultural event presumably can be fully represented as a series of fragments, making the past seem as visible and proximate as the world you see outside the window as you eat your daily breakfast.

To be honest, I was most interested in the Amazon-exclusive bonus content included on the Blu-ray edition, that is, the additional concert footage consisting of performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Mountain, and others. Screening the film this time, though, and having viewed the additional footage, I had a rather strong experience of déjà vu, as it occurred to me that many of the artists and bands who’d appeared at Woodstock had already (earlier) appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, e.g., Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish (duplicating a couple songs at Woodstock previously performed at Monterey), Jimi Hendrix (ditto), the Butterfield Blues Band, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar, as well as musicians such as Stephen Stills and David Crosby, who’d appeared at Monterey in different bands. Woodstock has always been pitched as a more significant and historic “cultural event” than Monterey, a perception that unwittingly reaffirms the widespread (mis)conception that “The Sixties” consists of events that occurred from 1968 to the end of the decade. It seems to me that the difference between Woodstock and Monterey is all about “authenticity,” which event is seen as the more “authentic” representation of “The Sixties.” My subjective impression is that Woodstock has won out as the more “authentic” event of “The Sixties” . . . but, as Simon Frith has observed, “authenticity” has always been premised on the opposition between “music-as-expression and music-as-commodity.” Hence Woodstock is generally perceived, historically, as being all about “music-as-expression” (expression of historical moment, crystallization of sensibility, and so on), while Monterey has been viewed as being all about “music-as-commodity.” I offer this observation purely as speculation, not as accepted fact.

In any case, this time around I noticed the number of blues and blues-based bands that appeared at Woodstock: Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Mountain, and Ten Years After—but, ironically, how few black blues artists were represented (none). Black artists were represented at Woodstock, yes, of course; that’s not my point. Blues music was well-represented at Woodstock, but was played exclusively by white musicians—Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (one of the few bands with black musicians), Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and—the whitest of all—Johnny Winter, who gave the best blues performance at the festival (“Mean Town Blues”), in my view, based on the footage included on the bonus disc. By no means am I claiming that the blues played by white artists is “inauthentic,” but viewing the Woodstock material this time was a painful reminder of the way white people have historically exploited black people, particularly in the popular music industry. Black music is the ghostly presence of Woodstock. I do not make this observation as a so-called “white liberal,” but as someone who is simply stating a central tenet of the American musical industry. About 99% of those who attended the Woodstock festival were white kids who had the wherewithal, as well as the leisure time, to be able to burn a weekend listening to rock music. The documentary associates primitive behavior (lack of regimentation, nudity, communal bathing, nature worship, fucking in the tall grass, non-Western religious practices, magical thinking—the “no rain, no rain” chant”—and so on) with authentic expression. Monterey has not had this sort of mythology attached to it, but that ought to make the point(s) I am making all the more obvious. Of course I love the music, and the documentary itself is an example of great filmmaking, but speaking for myself, I have few illusions that hippies (middle and upper-class white kids with lots of disposable income and leisure time, still possible in the 60s) are worth all the ideological obfuscation that have been granted them through the Woodstock documentary. Would that I could believe otherwise.


Diana said...

Well, congratulations! You certainly make me want to buy the Blu-Ray set, but I can't afford it any more than I could afford a ticket to and/or transportation to the original event! I wanted to hitchhike but I was in California and a little young. I knew people who did though.

I appreciate your pointing out that this was a period when the blues were introduced to some us young people at a time when we were especially interested in hearing something other than Top 40 AM radio. That's a good thing for the blues, whether played by blacks or whites and it did indeed cause some of us to go in search of their original blues idols and buy the albums. So, is that a bad thing? No.

After seeing John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, having panhandled the money for a ticket, my next stop was BB King and Papa John Creech live, and buying a slew of albums on discount racks in Woolworths by black blues artists I had never heard of but were life-changing (Alberta Hunter being one of them - still my favorite).

Also, there were plenty of hippies, us included, that were penniless and remained (remain, LOL) on the fringes economically because, for too long, we refused to join "the establishment" or go to work for "the man."

So you may be disappointed at what you might regard as only "the appearance" of a life-changing event by a bunch of kids playing at hippiedom, but I am still alive to tell you that the 60s movement, the feelings, the spirit, quest for freedom, and the mind-blowing musical explosion of the times was very, very real and existed in all sorts of corners of the country that were not televised. It was not a perfect time. But I miss the promise of the times. I miss the groove.

Tim Lucas said...

I have to write about WOODSTOCK myself this weekend, so I can't do that here, but I want to append that, while authentic black blues was arguably underrepresented at Woodstock, it seems to me that the festival was much more about the spirit of folk music. Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian, Country Joe, Tim Hardin, CSN all had folk roots, and Paul Kantner's lyrics for "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon" were copped from a Ralph Gleason SF CHRONICLE column about the San Francisco Be In of 1967, placing it in the reportage tradition of folk music. I think this was the secret of its success and what primarily differentiated it from Monterey Pop, though it was obviously the more musically seminal festival. Given my druthers, I would much rather have been present at Monterey than at Woodstock. BTW, if you buy the Woodstock deluxe set at Target, you get DIFFERENT extra performances on that bonus disc. : (

Tim Lucas said...

Sam, I thought you and your regulars might enjoy the following comments I made about the 2CD set JEFFERSON AIRPLANE - THE WOODSTOCK EXPERIENCE on the Airplane's 2400 Fulton newsgroup mailing list. The set is one of five such sets now available on CD, collecting the group's entire Woodstock set and the album which was contemporary with their performance. In the Airplane's case, that album was VOLUNTEERS and actually was a few months away from release at the time of the festival. At 2400 Fulton, one subscriber responded to my following comments with: "Finally. The review that will guarantee that I buy this."

Here goes...

The first 2:30 of "The House at Pooneil Corners" is freakin' HILARIOUS! In all my years of listening to live JA tapes, I have never heard any performance go so gloriously off the rails. When -- after three missed cues, a monitor dropout, and a three-part harmony she ends up singing solo (inadvertently tossing in a line or two from a completely different song!) Grace Slick finally gives up and says "Take it, men!" and not one of the guys picks up the baton, I just about fell off the couch in hysterics. Then as Paul Kantner gamely carries on with the next chorus, Marty Balin crashes in by trying to start over from the top, crooning about "all the boo-shit around us"... and I DID fall off the couch in hysterics. It's a blistering performance once they all get in synch, but what fun it is getting there! Ghod bless all involved for letting this historic tape out! I am going to listen again as I type the rest of this.

This one ragged set closer aside, I have to agree with Craig Fenton's earlier description of the performance as "a blowtorch." This is mostly a pretty searing set, and it's remarkable that it is finally revealed as such after 40 years of bad rap and rep about the performance being lackluster,
the band being dosed, and even stories about them playing an abbreviated set. This now turns out to be one of the longest sets, if not the longest set performed at Woodstock, and drummer Spencer Dryden plays his little butt off, saving one or two songs from falling apart. (He and bassist Jack Casady seem the only two
members readily aware they are playing "3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds" rather than following "Somebody to Love" with a second go at the same song. I can imagine Spencer thinking "Fire THIS!" as he tears off one masterful drum roll after another.) Kudos too to Marty Balin who, though clearly tripping his
balls off, sings throughout like his life depends on it -- "Volunteers" particularly. And who'd've thunk that a 20minute "Wooden Ships" would
pretty much work?

PS: The WOODSTOCK EXPERIENCE sets are available individually or in a boxed set. The other artists represented are Santana, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone and Johnny Winter. The Sly set cooks from start to finish.