A Temporary Respite From the Shit This System Peddles

Reading Jonah Raskin’s article at CounterPunch was like a moment when it all comes back again (“Woodstock Nation Revisited: Abbie Hoffman, Joan Baez and the Culture Vultures of Capitalism,” August 14, 2019). I found the article while looking at the Internet to see whether or not my article about celebrity and politics (“Celebrity, War, and Presidential Elections, “CounterPunch, August 20, 2020) had been cited anywhere. It’s an old habit I picked up from the early days of the Internet’s explosion when articles circulated freely and those with power cared less about limiting access to left Internet sites.

Since I had just written about Joan Baez and the Vietnam War and its aftermath, I read Raskin’s article voraciously because of his discussion of Abbie Hoffman’s book about the Woodstock festival and the festival’s impact and implications (Woodstock Nation,1969, revised 1971) in a generation that spanned the cultural and the political as no other generation has done since. Hoffman got it right: “It will never happen again.” We are dinosaurs now, but from a political point of view, we knew instinctively that the end of the Vietnam Syndrome during the first Gulf War was the beginning of the end of a rational view of the world. Both the Renaissance and the Age of Reason no longer meant anything in terms of human behavior for masses of people. The US would become the predatory superpower left standing in the New World Order.

I began a search for Woodstock Nation, which I have never read. Amazon had used copies for around $13 and what I guessed were copies in new or mint condition for around $500 (The 1969 edition is less expensive and available). Not interested in putting out the cash and wanting to read Hoffman’s book, I turned to the library service in Massachusetts that links libraries around the state, including the Boston Public Library, and I was amazed that not a single library owned a copy of the book, including the Worcester library in Abbie Hoffman’s hometown. I finally came upon the book at a site in California called archive.org and began reading the book on an hourly basis (the reading was timed out after one hour), which seemed one of the strangest ways I have ever read a book. It was like taking the SAT, or watching the meter of a taxi in Manhattan to figure out how much the ride would cost at a given destination.

Woodstock Nation blew my mind as we were fond of saying in the heady days of the youth and counterculture movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. I had read lots about the Woodstock festival held in Bethel, New York, but Abbie’s first-hand account was riveting. How could I have missed such an important writing?

Abbie Hoffman treats lots of the important issues that occupied many of us during and after the festival: The tension between the political and cultural; the power of celebrity and music; the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement; the place of the festival as a for-profit venture that was only salvaged to some degree by the production of the movie Woodstock; the cooperation of masses of people at Woodstock to provide food and medical care for the nearly 500,000 concertgoers; and the impact of the momentous festival on neighboring communities and the land. According to some accounts of the aftermath of the festival, the land where the festival took place stunk for years.

When I read Abbie, I can see the incredible mix of forces that would end his life two decades later. In Woodstock Nation he says that he can’t see how he can keep the forces impinging upon him from bringing him down as he struggles with the contradictions of the youth movement and the larger society that were so apparent at Woodstock. He talks about coordinating some medical work at Woodstock, his historic appeal there to free John Sinclair who had been sent to prison for 10 years for possession of two marijuana joints (I now can buy joints and about any other marijuana product in nearly every direction from where I live in Massachusetts, as recreational marijuana has been legal for several years.). I think Abbie would have probably had a good laugh about the latter had he lived and he probably would have seen the great contradictions in having to have vast amounts of cash on hand to open a marijuana shop here.

Even though I worked at a camp for special needs kids during the summer of 1969 in Connecticut, I read and watched all the news that came out of the festival, including the photographs from Woodstock, shots that fueled the debate about Woodstock in a society that could not wrap its arms around the liberating force of this segment of the generation of baby boomers who had come of age (and some among the group who had not come of age, but were at Woodstock). The photos either shocked or informed, depending on which side of the generational divide one was on.

I’m not sure how I would have fared at Woodstock, as my bent was mostly political, but my heart was there and Abbie Hoffman gives as good an account as any of the many contradictions weighing on him and the counterculture at Woodstock and elsewhere. It would only take three seasons to pass for the murders at Kent State and Jackson State to bring the Vietnam War home and the power and weight of the military was already on my mind. I had signed onto a six-year commitment in the National Guard that would be tested when a contingent of those in the Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed students in Kent, Ohio, killing 4 and wounding 9.

It’s strange how something as inanimate as a book like Abbie’s can bring it all home again. It all comes back again and much of a return to events and ideas from those ancient days are positive, but readers may ask how positive can those memories and events be in a society (and much of the larger world) that teeters at the edge of the precipice of fascism? The New York Times was highly critical of the Woodstock festival and is now selling the Democratic presidential ticket as the best thing to come along since the inventions of the wheel and sliced bread. Here are two opinion pieces from the Times about how the Democrats will save us all in 2020. So-called Democratic Party leaders wouldn’t even place healthcare for all or a cut to fossil fuel industry subsidies in its convention plank and this is supposed to be the party that will save us. The Times sells us candidates like it sold the war in Iraq in 2003, and almost every other war, so why should it be different this time? At least some of us have places to go in our personal and collective histories that give some respite from all of the shit this system peddles.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).