My sit-in, cash-in, spongin' generation

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The Independent Online
I NEVER enjoy Sixties nostalgia; it makes me feel something of a freak. I was a young teenager at the end of those supposedly riotous and hedonistic days, but somehow failed to get to Woodstock or even the Isle of Wight festivals; I never saw the Beatles in concert; never cavorted at a love-in, be-in or sit-in; never protested in Grosvenor Square; never had long hair, never wore beads and psychedelic clothes; never experimented with soft drugs (well, hardly).

And then the decade was gone, finished, and it was straight into austerity, miners' strikes and three-day weeks. No one said at the time: these Sixties years are the ones they'll be making television programmes about in 20 years' time, so get out, make the most of it, demonstrate, fornicate, abuse your body, and you'll dine out on it for years. Or become President of the United States.

Was it just me, I sometimes wonder, or are there hundreds of thousands more around who, with a sort of shuffling embarrassment, know that instead of indulging in a seminal moment in social history they merely went to school, did their homework, watched television, took O- and A-levels, played a bit of sport and a lot of records?

I suspect there are very many; if truth be known the hippies and free lovers were a small, highly organised band of psychedelic stormtroopers who stationed battalions at key festivals and had regional offices in Carnaby Street and Haight-Ashbury.

But the myth persists that it was a universal lifestyle, and that myth is about to have yet another boost with a two-part 25th anniversary celebration of the 1969 Woodstock festival. First we have the re-release of the film, plus extra footage, though I seem to recall it being more than long enough first time around, and painfully long when watching a late-night showing. This time it comes under the cryptic but all-pervasive fashionable excuse that it is 'the director's cut'. Aren't all films directors' cuts?

And, second, there is, with depressing inevitability Woodstock '94, another concert, not at the same Woodstock (which as it happens was near to but not at Woodstock anyway); but with a line-up of rock bands, the magical W word and the all too inappropriate Nineties rock-concert paraphernelia of high ticket prices, ticket agencies, merchandise and executive packages.

With a delicious irony the Oscar-winning, director-cutting director of Woodstock the movie, Michael Wadleigh, has accused the organisers of the anniversary concert of corporate greed.

He has a point. A three-day ticket in 1969 cost dollars 18. Adjusted for inflation that would be dollars 72 today. But the Woodstock '94 ticket price is dollars 135.

Wadleigh cites the price, the dollars 20m involvement by corporate giants such as Polygram and new restrictions, such as being able to leave the site only once between Saturday and Sunday, in his complaint that the organisers have 'no other interest in peace and music, except to make a buck off of it'. (He seems surprised. He must have spent too much of the Eighties in his cutting room.)

The American press, which seems to be taking a cool view of the anniversary concert, points out correctly that without the backdrop of the Vietnam war, civil rights and the love-bead culture, this time around it's not an event, still less an experience, but just a concert.

Thomas Sugrue, history professor of Pennsylvania (it's a sobering thought that Woodstock now comes under history on the curriculum), told the newspaper USA Today: 'There isn't that sense of urgency or navety that somehow going to the concert is going to change the world.'

But, perhaps even more pertinently, he adds: 'Kids were tripping and partying on their parents' subsidy. You could party and hang out and drop in and drop out in the Sixties without having to worry that much about lost-term cost to economic future.'

There is the bottom line. The hippies, bless their cotton kaftans, were in essence parasitic. Secure in their parents' income, they found it not so much vulgar but a global irrelevance to talk or even think about an economic future, be it the country's or their own, when there were bigger worries in the world. It occurs to me that the slogan 'Peace and love' was never once accompanied by 'prosperity', now the staple aspiration, not to mention soundbite, of every politician who grew up in that era.

The ideals of Woodstock do not strike a chord today for the reason that the dustman Alfred Doolittle gave in Pygmalion. When challenged, 'Have you no morals, man?' he replied: 'Can't afford 'em, guv'nor.'

The Woodstock generation's ideals were certainly in part inspired by the anti-Vietnam movement and the growing civil rights struggle, but they weren't half helped by the monthly allowance. Not for nothing was the B-side of The Beatles' record 'All You Need Is Love' a song called 'Baby You're A Rich Man'. You had to be one to believe the other.

The problem for the Woodstock '94 generation is how to be idealistic with money worries, limited job prospects and parents who face, fear or already experience unemployment. But I'm not convinced the concertgoers in New York State next week will ponder it too much as they stroll between the food booths and the corporate hospitality tents. If the late Sixties prove anything it is that the prime condition for idealistic youth is to have well-off parents.

Anyway, the Woodstock revival is a bit of a daft idea. No decade can be recreated, or its spirit recaptured by seizing on an event and hoping its name will revive a flavour of the original ethos. Plus, it's a selective flavour.

Not long after Woodstock came the Rolling Stones at Altamont, Hell's Angels going berserk and a knifing in the crowd.

Any promoters, multinational corporations and entrepreneurs want to recreate that little party? And if you want one small but genuine insight into the whole hippy culture watch the film of Woodstock very carefully. After the music of Hendrix, Joplin, The Who and the rest, after the sex in sleeping bags, after the mantras, there's a shot of overweight American adolescents weeping in the mud, unable to find telephones to summon mom and pop to come in the car and pick them up.

This time around I guess they'll have mobile phones.

James Fenton is on holiday.

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