The event was immortalized -- and glamorized -- in Joni Mitchell's classic "Woodstock."
"I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm/I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band/I'm going to camp out on the land/And try and get my soul free."
Now, as American troops once again engage in a controversial foreign war, a whole new generation -- some born long after the era of Woodstock and Vietnam protests -- is headed off toward another popular outdoor concert. It's 2003, and the concert is the 10th annual Music Midtown.
Of course, no one could reasonably liken the counter-cultural milestone that was Woodstock with Music Midtown's hyper-commercialized smorgasbord of controversy-free entertainment (hey, what's going down on the Sanyo/Sprint/Access Atlanta/95.5 the Beat DJ Stage this year?). But, in fact, Music Midtown has its origins in the kind of festivals that defined the spirit of the '60s. In that sense, whatever differences exist between the two reflect changes, not only in youth culture, but also in the aging baby boomers who organized both.
"The festivals are down to a science now," say Bob Weir, who played Woodstock with the Grateful Dead and now appears at Music Midtown with his band, Ratdog. "They've been doing them for years and years. They run like clockwork. The sound and lights are better, and security is a little more relaxed and professional."
In fact, a half-dozen musicians that performed at the original Woodstock will perform this weekend in Atlanta. In addition to Weir: David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, the easy-going folkies who (with fellow geezer Neil Young) recorded Mitchell's "Woodstock" in 1970; Joe Cocker; and Jorma Kaukonen, of the original Jefferson Airplane. Also appearing this weekend is Bob Dylan, once a resident of the town of Woodstock, who was invited to play the original festival but didn't (he played its '94 redux).
"Well maybe it is just the time of year/Or maybe it's the time of man/I don't know who I am/But life is for learning ..."
Music Midtown producer Alex Cooley's long, strange trip to creating his own Woodstock began while on a 1968 scuba trip in Florida. At the Gulfstream Racetrack in Hallandale, Cooley happened upon the Miami Pop Festival, featuring Country Joe, Chuck Berry, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell with Graham Nash, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. Its promoter was a young upstart named Michael Lang, who was already plotting a similar event in upstate New York.
"I remember seeing Procol Harum and Jose Feliciano, and had a great time," Cooley says. "I thought I'd like to do something like that here." So Cooley and partners presented the Atlanta Pop Festival in Byron, Ga., July 4, 1969, more than a month before Woodstock.
Cooley's concert-promotions partner, Peter Conlon, says, "To show you how little we knew about going to festivals in those days, my friends and I all left on Saturday morning, went to the 7-11 and got beer, jumped in the car and headed down I-85. But we got to International Boulevard and hit the traffic. We turned around, came back home and drank the beer. That's my memory of the Pop Festival."
Cooley recalls, "I went up in a helicopter and saw the traffic was backed up all the way to The Varsity. I said, 'My God, what have I done?'"
"Everybody talks about Woodstock," says Conlon, "but it never made money, and it was a disaster. Then they redid it [in '94 and '99] and it was a bigger disaster. But Alex's festival made money. So he felt guilty and did free shows in Piedmont Park with the Dead and the Allman Brothers."
"It was very uncool to make money, so we gave it back that way," Cooley says. Cooley and Conlon's company, which produces Music Midtown and other concerts around Atlanta, is now owned by radio/concert monolith Clear Channel, the music world's most efficient money-maker.
"By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere there was song and celebration/And I dreamed I saw the bombers/Riding shotgun in the sky/And they were turning into butterflies/Above our nation/We are stardust/We are golden/And we've got to get ourselves/Back to the garden."
These days, folks still want to visit the garden, but they don't want to stay all night. "Those festivals like Woodstock aren't workable in today's environment," Conlon says. "People don't want to stand or sleep in a field of mud. They want to come during the day, leave at night and come back the next day."
Jorma Kaukonen, the former Jefferson Airplane guitarist, says, "At Woodstock, there was lots of wacky energy in the air. It was like, 'Whoa, what's goin' on here?' I don't think there's the feeling of community that Woodstock engendered anymore. Now -- and I don't mean to minimize the shows -- they're just big shows with lots of people. You don't get that sense that a milestone is occurring. The energy generated by that kind of crowd is impossible to define, and it brings you to another place."
Conlon points out that, like Woodstock-era festivals, Music Midtown is also cross-cultural and offers a wide variety of music talent. "This year, we have Godsmack and Tony Bennett. That's about as divergent as it gets. It's to Alex's credit. What they did in the old days was: You had Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, but you also had artists you could expose people to."
"It has grown tremendously," Cooley says. "But the basic premise does not change, and that's a lot of music."
Much has changed since 1969, but some of the most basic things have not.
"The audience is the same, as far as I can see," Weir says. "They're there to enjoy the sun and the evening and the rain -- and the music."
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