Photo of album courtesy of Amazon. Photo of Woodstock courtesy of National Geographic.
All ideas expressed in this article are solely the opinion of the writer.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. In the popular imagination, the '60s began with the British invasion of The Beatles and other groups, leading to some of the greatest innovations in popular music on both sides of the Atlantic. Between the two poles of London and Los Angeles, classic rock was born and defined a generation and its counterculture.
But by 1969, the year when some of the most iconic performances were recorded, the 60s were not just ending chronologically but also culturally. At its creative peak, the music was already on a sharp decline. Both these movements come to a close with significant events: the release of Donovan’s last album of the sixties and the Woodstock music festival. One of these is remembered as a significant moment both in music, and culture, the other is all but forgotten. What makes Woodstock remembered, and Donovan forgotten? As it was the fiftieth anniversary of these events very recently, I think enough time has passed to ask these questions.
Donovan was a massive star during his time. Scoring a smattering of hits throughout the decade, he started his career in 1965 as a part of the folk revival, and was quickly dubbed “the Scottish Woody Guthrie.” After ditching his original management, and teaming up with hit producer Mickie Most (Herman’s Hermits, the Animals), Donovan started to ditch his pure folkie image, and craft a more orchestrated effort, which would later become Sunshine Superman, a record that not only propelled him into the stratosphere, but pioneered several hallmarks of psychedelic music. After releasing several more quality albums that experimented with his sound, and hanging out with the Beatles in India, he began work on his last record of the Sixties.
Barabajagal is Donovan’s last album during his classic run. The record serves as sort of an overview of the styles he had tried on during his other '60s albums, including the childlike “I Love My Shirt” (the kind of song that would appear on the For Little Ones side of previous A Gift From a Flower to a Garden), the ballad “Atlantis” which wouldn’t be amiss on Sunshine Superman, and “To Susan on the West Coast Waiting” which could fit in nicely on Mellow Yellow. The record is generally a fun listen if you are willing to indulge Donovan on some of his more strange ideas. “I Love My Shirt” is a little bit grating on the ears to someone over the age of ten, but okay if you try not to take it seriously. The record has no real awful duds, and stands as one of Donovan’s great albums, despite it not achieving, in my opinion, the great heights of Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, and The Hurdy Gurdy Man (though it would be hard to top those.)
Nowadays, one would have to be a knowledgeable fan of sixties music to know who Donovan is, despite his level of stardom during his time. Though he is influential to musicians, the average person probably couldn’t even name a single song he wrote. Why?
To me the answer is clear. Donovan is a figure that is hard to mythologize in comparison with some of his peers. His music is generally quieter than other musicians of the time, and he never had a very tragic end. He quit drugs near the tail end of the sixties, devoted himself to transcendental meditation, and continues to live and make music. This is why when the '70s took over, and tried to wipe all influence of the Sixties away, Donovan was easy to get rid of. He can easily be made a stand in for all the positive, idealistic dreams of the sixties, the peace and love, and the opening of one's mind, and the desire to change the world for the better. He never became jaded like Dylan or Lennon, or a majority of the other stars of his time. One could say that if Charles Manson is all the potential for evil that laid within the Sixties counterculture, Donovan was all the potential for good. And this is another reason why he is forgotten. When the Seventies came, no one wanted to remember the idealism of the time, out of guilt for failing in their dream to change the world. They made Charles Manson the archetype of the time, and held him up as a boogeyman, to make all of the Sixties seem like a mistake. A dumb youthful daydream that was destined to fail from the beginning. But Donovan shows that if the youth of the time had made different choices, the darkness that the decade ended in could have been avoided. Because with evil, there is always good.
Just as Donovan is forgotten, Woodstock is remembered, held up as a milestone of cultural importance. The time where all of the magic of the Sixties coalesced into a weekend of wonder. But was it really all it has been made out to be? Why is it even remembered like that?
The Woodstock Festival took place in August of 1969. Performances came from top acts at the time such as the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jefferson Airplane. It is estimated that around a million people came to the festival. How did it all come together?
Behind the scenes, the event was a trainwreck. Because of a violation of the city code, the festival was forced to change venues near-last minute. They were left with the options of fixing the fences around the grounds, or building the stage. Eventually deciding that without a stage, they would most likely have a riot on their hands, they were forced to make the festival free (because people could walk through the fences holes). Had the concert film not taken off, the organizers would have suffered financial ruin. Traffic was astounding, the National Guard was almost brought in, and heavy rains fell, causing disruption in the schedules. To quote a concertgoer, who wrote an article for Newsweek entitled I Was At Woodstock. And I Hated It, “If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat.”
Looking over the line-up nowadays, I find it a little disappointed. Despite the appearance of greats like Hendrix and The Who, many a forgettable act who have not stood the immortal test of time appear throughout the three days, including the eternal joke Sha Na Na (a greased up fifties parody that pales in comparison next to the only other fifties revival group of note in the sixties, the immortal Flamin’ Groovies). Jefferson Airplane and Santana gave good performances, and the Grateful Dead jammed a bunch like always, causing the crowd to get stoned, and fall asleep by the time CCR came on to give a stellar set. (Note to the Dead: no song should be 50 minutes long)
The standout is Hendrix, who obliterates (at the last performance of the festival no less). His rendition of the national anthem is the only truly iconic thing to actually happen at Woodstock, and the rest of his performance is great, jamming on hits like “Purple Haze” and a personal favorite “Fire.”
Many other greats were invited to Woodstock, and the festival would have definitely benefited from a performance from them. The Doors, Frank Zappa, Love, and The Stones were all invited, but all declined. Zappa didn’t want to play in the mud. Love were to busy fighting each other and being hermits. The Stones were busy with other obligations. The Doors thought it would be a second class Monterey, and despite their regret over that thought, I think, in the end, they were right.
In the end, Barabajagal is a mixed bag of the various styles of British Psychedelia going on at the time (with perhaps the exception of the more jammy, heavy psych that Cream, The Hendrix Experience, and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd traded in). Like the man who made it, the album has no delusions of grandeur. It stands the test of time as a quality release in an unjustly ignored artist’s catalogue. Erased from history because he fell out of fashion, and couldn’t serve as a safe, non-political symbol. Because he couldn’t glorify the industry part of the music industry.
Woodstock, however, has been mythologized to no end. Seen as the closing point of the Sixties' counterculture (which it probably was), and the greatest music festival to take place (which it wasn’t.) I can hardly think of a reason why it was so mythologized, and why that image retains to this day. Magic was in the air during the sixties, but I can’t find much at Woodstock. In fact, it almost seems like I can see the magic fading. Many of the great acts that are remembered today couldn’t find the time, or be bothered to come, and the few that did gave in great performances, but not much you couldn’t find at Monterey. As previously stated, possibly the only truly iconic moment might be Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” a clear politicized statement (something generally missing from the rest of the festival) that displayed some rebellion against the conformist American culture (also generally missing). I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that is the only thing that most people can remember from the festival. In general, the event suffers from a lack of eclecticism, and lack of true counterculture spirit. A swan song that ends not with a shout, but a snore.
The performers all seem a little tired. The Grateful Dead must be on.