Oxegen v Woodstock

Mon, Jul 13, 2009, 01:00

In the summer of 1969, a teenage PATSEY MURPHYcrept out of her parents’ house in Kingston, New York, and made her way to Max Yasgur’s farm – for a festival that would become one of the defining events of the 1960s. This weekend, she hit Oxegen to see how far things have come in four decades

FORTY years ago this summer, it rained incessantly along the east coast of the US. I know because I was minding two young boys for a month, and we were horribly housebound.

On July 21st, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and a few weeks later, up to 500,000 “kids in disguise” went to the Woodstock Aquarian Music and Art Festival in Bethel, New York, in hot sun broken by pelting rain and omnipresent mud. It was one of the worst organised public events in history. “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” asked the New York Times, rather snottily.

Even at the height of the monsoon this past weekend, Oxegen was a marvel of organisation by comparison, with excellent shelter, entertainment, food, transport, services and security. It was a veritable carnival of fun, even if it did occasionally bring images of a Coney Island freak show to mind, mixed with scenes from a David Lynch movie. The bleary-eyed and the bewildered were everywhere, with hordes of teenagers listing sideways, but isn’t that a primary lesson of the festival experience – that you learn to look after your friends?

Forty years ago, it was a different story. There was no shelter from the storm. It was a legendary gathering of youth singing from the same hymn sheet, but without the infrastructure. We got by with a little help from our friends, but thankfully, we’ve come a long way. The exhilaration is intact – now if only we could get a handle on the drinking.

How I got to Woodstock did not, alas, involve a magical mystery tour in a psychedelic bus. It was a rather more prosaic, illicit drive 50km down the road in my mother’s Dodge Dart. I was 17 and I thought I’d just take a little day trip, catch the groove and meet up with friends who’d gone the day before – sure, I would be back before she even knew I was gone.

But when did this girl ever fool her mother? For starters, there were all those famous traffic jams – tailbacks for 55km on all roads leading to White Lake and no exits from the New York State Thruway.

Once you were there, man, you were there. There was no way out. There was no park’n’ride. I was in trouble. Deep caca. So I thoughtfully abandoned my mother’s car (eek) and walked, oh, 19km or 20km. In flip flops.

The left one broke first. Thwack. Then I hit the mud. Squelch. Which was embedded with broken glass. Ouch. Squelch. Ouch. Foot-sore and fancy free.

The only way to meet up with my friends – no mobile phones, you see – was, well, to pick them out in a crowd that was, lyrically, half-a-million strong. In the dark. Or find the notice board. The notice board!But, hey, did we see Creedence Clearwater Revival? Sly and the Family Stone? The Who? Jefferson Airplane? Janis Joplin? Yes we did. From way, way, way, way back. Did we get stoned? Yes we did. Did we have a love-in at the be-in? Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.

The New York Timesdescribed it as “Nightmare in the Catskills”. And for some of us, it was – no matter how hard we polished up our rose-tinted glasses for years afterwards. But hell yes, we were part of something. Peace and pot. A long march. Paid-up members of the anti-establishment (a phrase we loved to throw around). The Woodstock Nation. It was mayhem but it was our mayhem. Or something.

I didn’t have terribly far to travel. I was already steeped in the hype of the counterculture, although I aspired to being a beatnik, not a hippie. (The difference? Eh, black leotards and attitude.)

At the time, we lived only 16km away from Woodstock, the “artist’s colony” 145km north of New York City that had inspired the festival but politely declined to host it. The town had attracted painters, composers, musicians and writers from the early 1900s and, long before the festival was conjured up, had a well-established Bohemian tradition, with galleries, summer stock theatre, classical concerts and, of course, a rollicking roll-call of A-list residents.

Bob Dylan lived there in the 1960s, as did Van Morrison, all the members of The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Paul Butterfield, Thelonious Monk, Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, to name but a few. David Bowie and Johnny Cash were among later blow-ins. It’s still pretty arty, if commercialised. Una Thurman and Jennifer Connelly are more recent recruits.

At the Woodstock Playhouse, a wooden theatre in the round, there were Monday-night concerts during the summer where folk singers would turn up: Joan Baez and Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Maria Muldaur, John Herald, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Artie and Happy Traum. Pete Seeger launched the sloop Clearwaterthat year and organised waterfront concerts with Don McLean and others in an effort to clean up the Hudson river (it sails to this day). There was an abundance of live music all around the area, the difference being, of course, that the settings were intimate, the artists accessible and the crowds small. The Woodstock Festival was to change all that. Rock concerts, even folk concerts, became big, global business.

Hundreds of thousands of punters in a field? Bring ’em on.

These days my festival of choice is the Flat Lake Literary Festival in Clones, Co Monaghan. It’s suitably quirky and modest in size. So the invitation to this old flower girl to go to Oxegen as a golden girl filled me first with panic, then a rush of nostalgia as I dug out old photographs . . .

Once I got there, it brought me unexpected pleasure and immediate delight. Of course, I didn’t truly belong there – it’s not my soundtrack – but rock’n’roll does produce a shared sense of exhilaration, not least among teenagers just discovering the world.

I kept my shades on and my hat down low, but I still couldn’t avoid peevish glances from some of my fellow travellers wondering who’d let the head teacher on the bus. I got there in a trice, though; the park’n’ride system worked a treat. No traffic saga coming or going. I got to see Fight Like Apes just in time, determinedly finding a voice of their own. I had a peek at Lily Allen, too, and Snow Patrol as night descended.

I loved the tents, the huge screens, jolly flags and the beautiful Ferris wheel sparkling in the background. Solar-panelled pod pads? We didn’t have them at Woodstock. Or thinkcontraception.ie, phone-recharging stations, convenience stores or stalls selling everything from waterproofs and wellies to sunglasses and tattoos. And I’m quite sure I don’t remember anything like the Dirty Knickers stall either.

Food shortages were catastrophic at Woodstock; at Oxegen we had a choice of sushi, seaweed sausages, noodles, crepes, pizza, Captain America burgers, wraps, bagels, sambos, Jaipur curries, chargrilled meat, ice-cream vans and good warming coffee and much else besides. Prices? In for a penny, in for a pound. A few more benches, please, next year. So much walking, all that standing.

Beer tents, mobbed. Rum tent, ditto. The Party Bar selling shots for a fiver amid strobe lights flashing? Nee-naw-nee-naw.

And here’s another thing – a green’n’clean award? You’ve got to be kidding. Just as Max Yasgur’s farm was a heap of garbage by the end of Woodstock, so Punchestown was a sea of rubbish from early into the proceedings. Not cool. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Blame the Woodstock generation, I say. Hedonistic baby boomers. We didn’t quite make it back to the garden ourselves, now, did we. Our legacy? The mudfest, for those who can afford it, as a rite of passage. The merrier the better. As long as you get home safe.

And we’ve left you some great music, which allows me to end on one of the old themes and a high note for me at Oxegen: Tender, by Blur, and the crowd singing in unison. Love’s the greatest thing . . . that we have.

Rock on.