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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Twenty-Five Years After

Last weekend, all of America -- young and old alike -- celebrated a return to the nostalgic memories of the turbulent 1960s. Just like 25 years ago, the biggest stars of rock and roll appeared at a festival near Woodstock, New York -- "Two More Days of Peace and Music." As at the first concert, Carlos Santana performed, having aged somewhat over the last 25 years. Joe Cocker reprised his timeless rendition of "With a Little Help from my Friends." It even rained again.


The organizer of Woodstock '94 was the legendary Michael Lang, who was the artistic director and one of the main producers of the 1969 concert. Ten years after the original "Three Days of Peace and Music," Lang said: "I am often asked to put on a second Woodstock. But to me that festival was a unique event and it would be a big mistake to try to repeat it."


It is hard to tell what has made him change his mind in the last 15 years. Organizers of Woodstock '94 say that "Today's music, culture, energy and mood all are reminiscent of the spirit of 1969." Cynics note the commercialization of the remake.


The three days in August 1969 brought the decade of the 1960s to a beautiful conclusion. After the idyllic "summer of love" in 1967 and the student unrest in Paris and the bloody demonstrations in Chicago in 1968, the original Woodstock was the peak of the "peace and love" movement. When it rained, all 400,000 fans stood hand-in-hand chanting "No rain!," just part of the unique atmosphere that -- according to many -- inspired the bands to give the greatest performances of their lives.


From the beginning, though, the festival clashed with the authorities. Witnesses claim that the number of spectators might have been twice as great had the authorities not closed the main highways. The day after the festival American newspapers ran headlines such as "Our Children Have Become Animals" and "The Young Are Dying of Drug Overdoses." An editorial in the New York Times declared that the festival was "an outrageous event," and asked "What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"


A greater threat, though, was the death of the spirit of Woodstock. First, one after another, the major figures of the rock movement -- Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison -- died. Then, as the sinister 1970s began, rock and roll became increasingly commercialized. The rules of the game changed forever, a feeling that was captured when Pink Floyd sang "Welcome to the Machine."


Rock music also became part of the Cold War political game. Nearly 10 years after Woodstock, the Soviet press announced a rock festival to be held in the center of Leningrad, featuring such American performers as the Beach Boys, Santana and Joan Baez alongside various Soviet stars. The papers reported that the concert would feature "American and Latin-American folk songs." That story, though, ended tragically as the concert was cancelled and a huge demonstration of disappointed fans was broken up by the police.


Russia never really had its Woodstock, moving instead directly into the world of sterile, commercialized music. In August 1989, the Moscow Peace Festival -- held in the 100,000-seat Luzhniki stadium, decked out with anti-drug and anti-alcohol posters -- featured such groups as Skid Row, Cinderella and Motley Crue. The atmosphere reeked of big business. The music was that of people who have everything and who are unwilling to take any risks either with their music or their image.


This is not to say that the spirit of the original Woodstock never touched Russia. It did, in the Moscow suburb of Podolsk in 1987. Only 4,000 fans were present at a little-known concert featuring 20 of the best bands of the stagnation era. For three days, these bands performed together, despite the rain, the opposition of the authorities and the lack of money to pay the performers. There was virtually no politics, and the Soviet press wrote almost nothing about it. Nonetheless, the true spirit of rock, the spirit of freedom and the spirit of escape ruled.


I think it was Frank Zappa who once said something like, "If it weren't for the damned present, what a beautiful past we would have!" After all, the first Woodstock, which has become ever more and more of a myth, by now has become an event that -- according to people who were there -- changed the life of virtually everyone who participated.


It is hard to imagine the second concert having such an effect. Tickets for Woodstock '94 cost $135. The festival grounds had such a strong police presence that one spectator described it as "the last communist country in the world." Other fans characterized the site as "a prison town."


Both festivals shared another curious fact that sheds light on the mentality behind the organization. To some extent, the free-spirited atmosphere that dominated Woodstock '69 was not a spontaneous phenomenon, but a product of the promoters. Several years after the concert, they admitted that they were overjoyed to receive the news that the group Iron Butterfly, which was one of the most unpredictable and unrestrained groups of that time, had turned down its invitation. Of course, organizers did not even consider inviting such a gloomy band as The Doors. The same spirit dominated Woodstock '94: Pearl Jam and REM -- in my opinion, the best bands in American music today -- did not perform at the concert.


Times have clearly changed. "Psychedelic" has become merely a style rather than a way of living. The "here and now" movement has become "there and then." The idea of "sex, drugs and rock and roll," which was so forceful a novelty -- a symbol of freedom itself -- in 1969 has been fully absorbed into the mainstream of society in the West.





Alexander Kushnir is a rock promoter and journalist and author of the book "Golden Underground: Unofficial Rock Journalism in Russia, 1967-1994." He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.