Riot, redemption and rock'n'roll

For the past five years entrepreneurs have been trying to cash in on the spirit of Woodstock
IN THE Sixties, those hippies who had enough working brain cells to read by - a tiny, underground elite - took as one of their key texts Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, a fascinating reflection on the nature of humanity when considered as a mob. "The crowd particularly likes destroying houses and objects [writes Canetti]: breakable objects like window panes, mirrors, pictures and crockery... the noise of destruction adds to its satisfaction; the banging of windows and the crashing of glass are the robust sounds of fresh life, the cries of something newborn. It is easy to evoke them and that increases their popularity. Everything shouts together; the din is the applause of objects."

Those with long enough cultural memories might have thought of this on hearing of the latest news from Woodstock. Woodstock, man? Wasn't that, like, 30 years ago? Yes, my grey-bearded and loon-trousered old friend, it was. But for the past five years or so, entrepreneurs have been trying to cash in on, I mean revive, the original spirit of Woodstock, by cramming as many youngsters into an open space as they can and getting them to pay for the privilege of looking at tiny figures in the distance playing guitars. Here is what has been happening at Woodstock '99. Quotes are from the Associated Press report.

"Tents and booths were destroyed, concert light stands and a speaker tower were toppled and a mob tried to destroy a radio station truck over several chaotic hours beginning late Sunday." Said the promoter, John Scher: "It's a great shame that this happened because in so many ways it was so uplifting. It puts a permanent blemish on what happened here. I think the kids made a mistake. They did not intend for this to happen."

Hmm. It is true that these things can happen by mistake. Who among us can put their hand on their heart and say, with complete truthfulness, that they have not burned down a radio broadcast truck when they had, in fact, been attempting to do something completely different, such as nipping out to buy a coffee and a snack?

In fact, snacks are important here. The price of a pretzel at Woodstock '99 was, apparently, $4, and while this country is the spiritual home of the outrageously priced, inedible amuse-gueule, in America they don't like that kind of thing. (Think of the Boston Tea Party.)

Two other factors make me look on the rioters' actions with a less stern and unforgiving eye. The first is that it happened during a set being played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They, if you don't know them, are a band of indescribable awfulness, a kind of softened-down pseudo-punk act (ie third-rate heavy metal) who appropriate the vocabulary and postures of rebellion while enjoying, courtesy of their record company, a life of extreme wealth and luxury. That they were playing a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" at the time undoubtedly added to the crowd's sense of outrage.

The second mitigating factor - and I think that this is the clincher - is that while this insult to musical and political history was being enacted on stage, a group called Pax were handing out "peace candles" to the audience.

Now, just writing those words down has made me go a little berserk, and I am a calm and gentle man. Imagine the effect of such a demonstration on a red-blooded late-adolescent, fired up on an obscure sense of aesthetic violation, and $4 down on a - presumably - indifferently prepared pretzel. You can tell Pax where to shove their peace candles, man.

The description of the violence that followed has, even in the tersely effective language of AP, a sort of poetry to it: "The rioters, who used pieces of the plywood wall surrounding the site to fuel the fires, also pulled down a large T-shirt stand, looted a trailer full of hardware and tipped over a car and burned it. All around, tents and booths were destroyed by the light of a nearly full moon."

Now this really is rather good. Rock'n'roll was always meant to be dangerous, and it is a good thing if T-shirt sellers, hucksters and shyster pretzel merchants think twice before hitching their wagons to this cavalcade again. I would go further: even if the riot was prompted not so much by righteous indignation as sheer mindlessness, it goes at least some way towards redeeming the contemporary spirit of rock from its bloodless, apathetic, government- approved state.

Or, as Canetti put it, thinking of other T-shirt stands, other audiences: "The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognised. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances." Right on.