By BARRY MAZOR
June 24, 2008
Bethel, N.Y. -- The first time John Sebastian set foot on the grounds
of Max Yasgur's upstate New York farm in August 1969, he had just
left the Lovin' Spoonful, the "good time music" pop band he'd
fronted. He arrived at the Sullivan County site as an attendee and
roadie for some friends but was drafted, suddenly, to sing to the
half million or so people gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art
Fair when scheduled acts were delayed trying to get to the
now-storied festival. He was back in the same place some 39 years
later, on May 28, among the performers and executives heralding the
June 2 opening of The Museum at Bethel Woods, a multimedia salute --
and examination -- of Woodstock, the '60s, and what they might mean
for people today. How did the smiling singer-songwriter feel when he
saw himself included in the museum's exhibits?
"It is tremendously odd," he admitted, as he stood beside what has
already become one of the new museum's more discussed attractions --
an indoor replica of a "Merry Prankster" psychedelic bus with
back-projected festival scenes on its windows that simulate, quite
effectively, the "by the time we got to Woodstock" experience. "It
has an element of humor to it for me," Mr. Sebastian continued.
"Obviously, what we were doing was not something we necessarily
thought would be memorialized in any way -- if maybe remembered fondly."
The museum is housed in a striking, warm, eight-sided wood-and-glass
edifice that at once suggests the buildings that housed Chautauqua
gatherings in 19th-century rural America and the state-of-the-art
exhibition space it actually is. The new year-round attraction joins
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts' Pavilion Stage, established in
2006 at the site as a summer venue for live acts from Crosby, Stills,
Nash & Young (no surprise) to, this season, the New York
Philharmonic, Tony Bennett, Cyndi Lauper and Rascal Flatts.
The museum takes visitors on a multiscreen, multiroom, often
interactive and immersive audio-visual tour of the Woodstock
experience -- the celebrated (and occasionally decried) three days of
often rain-drenched youthful festivities. It features giant-screen
performances by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Joe
Cocker and Santana -- many of them never seen in the "Woodstock"
film, released in 1970, that made the event a world-wide phenomenon.
There are, by design, substantial efforts to place the festival in
the late '60s context in which it was staged -- the unraveling
Vietnam War, racial unrest, assassinations and the landing on the
moon, just for starters.
"When I sat down to think about how to do this," says Michael Egan,
senior director of the museum, "I began to look at what was going on
that 37 years later people were still coming, on their own, to see
this spot. What is that about? People don't go back to the site of
Lollapalooza -- and that happened a lot more recently.
"We came upon the idea that this was a culminating event of a decade
-- and that to really portray it we needed to tell that story. . . .
Everybody knew, then, that when Richie Havens sang a song called
'Freedom,' he was talking about the civil-rights struggle. . . . Now
we have to take people on a journey to make that clear. I'm not aware
of another institution in the country that's looking back at the '60s
in such detail, but we took great pains to connect with today. We
don't want this to be a shrine to aging baby boomers. Sure, we'd like
them to come and say this is cool, but we also want everybody else to
connect with it."
The Bethel Woods Center organizers were aware, the exhibits
demonstrate, that it was no given that "everybody else" would
automatically respond to their theme -- not after decades of
Woodstock interpretation by everyone from Gen-Xers dubious about the
"boomer-era corporate rock" that took hold at the time to cultural
and political conservatives as likely to use "Woodstock Nation" as a
symbol of chaos and decline as others have been to latch onto it as a
representation of a peaceful, communal ideal. A whole section of the
museum is devoted to an examination of the impact and
reinterpretations of Woodstock since the festival. Played down,
however, are the two more sensational aspects of the "sex, drugs and
rock 'n' roll" trio that was so emblematic of Woodstock and its times
-- saved, the managers suggest, for future temporary exhibits as the
museum becomes more established.
It may well have taken the calming perspective of nearly 40 years to
be able to revisit Woodstock as the new Museum at Bethel Woods does,
quite entertainingly. Vernon Reid, leader of the provocative 1980s
band Living Colour, was only a child in 1969, yet he is a key
commentator in two of the films shown to museum visitors. In speaking
to us of having been inspired by such Woodstock performers as Jimi
Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone, he nails,
uniquely, the connection between the Woodstock Festival experience
and the lasting musical style of those celebrated acts:
"To me, Woodstock was about the triumph of the improvisational. It
was about being where you are, in the moment that you're in, and
making things happen as much as you could in that moment. That's
something that's not tied to any one time period; that's a value.
When my snare drum gets torn, when things go wrong, what do I do
next? Woodstock, from beginning to end, was a series of things
exactly like that -- a production that ran on spirit, will and
Sullivan County-raised Alan Gerry, who made a fortune when he built
and later sold Cablevision Industries, got the entire Bethel Woods
Center enterprise under way in 1996 when he and his family formed the
Gerry Foundation and purchased Yasgur's farm, the festival site, with
economic redevelopment in mind. The area, once famed for "Borscht
Belt" resorts such as Grossingers' and The Concord, had fallen on hard times.
"At that time," he recalled, "Sullivan County was the second most
depressed county in the state of New York. So in 2000-2001, when we
got serious about designing the center, we bought an additional 2,000
acres, so we'd have the freedom to do what we wanted -- to build an
important destination site to bring people back up to this part of
the world. Summer traffic alone from the Pavilion musical
performances would not support the lodging we need to see here, but
having this 12-month venue in the museum should go a long way towards
that. We've already provided a tremendous economic boost to this
area, and we have room to do many things. You can look at
Tanglewood/Lenox in Massachusetts as an example, but you have to walk
before you can run -- and we're walking pretty good right now."
Mr. Mazor covers country and pop music for the Journal.