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Vol. LXIII, No. 32
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
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DVD Review

When One Man Channeled Half a Million: Joe Cocker’s Woodstock Moment

Stuart Mitchner

It was quite an amazing sight as we flew closer and closer. Only a year before, I was playing the pubs in England to like a hundred people …. I never had a chance to get scared, though … I just climbed up the stairs [to the stage] and there was that wall of people.
—Joe Cocker

“There’s just too many people!” cries a visibly overwhelmed young woman in the “Scenes from a Disaster Area” chapter of the 40th Anniversary DVD Edition of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music. The human wall singer Joe Cocker seems to see as a metaphor for the enormity of his mission is all too real for the unhappy girl who can’t find her friends and wants to go home. When she breaks down, shaking with sobs, everyone looks away. No one holds her or comforts her, at least no one we ever see. She’s exhausted, disoriented, as if caught up in a massive misadventure that’s left her feeling lost in a foreign land. How many were too many? Crowd estimates of the here-today gone-tomorrow metropolis ran as high as five hundred thousand.

I had no desire to be at Woodstock and I’m not sorry I stayed away. In one sense, I’d already been there and then some a few years earlier in India, watching the sun come up with a crowd estimated at seven million on the river plain at Allahabad. Though I was in better shape than the troubled woman at Woodstock, I felt no less disoriented and out of place among pilgrims and holy men at the confluence of three sacred rivers, the Ganges, the Yumuna, and an invisible third stream called Saraswati, where drops of nectar are said to have fallen from the pitcher held by the hands of the gods. It’s also said that believers who bathe where the rivers meet can wash away their sins.

No nectar fell on Max Yasgur’s farm 40 years ago this coming weekend, but for campers who made the most of the adversity, the primitive conditions provided some of the down and dirty reality of a third-class trip to India. What did fall on the last day of the festival was a ton of rain that, as it turned out, helped give the event (and Michael Wadleigh’s documentary) a colorful, uplifting storyline that resonated positively nationwide in between the Manson family murders and the Hells Angels rampage at Altamont. After gearing up to portray the gathering as a disaster, the media ended by contributing to the myth of Woodstock, the shining glory of the sixties, the jewel in the crown of the counter culture. Even so, as you watch the crowds of mostly student-age people mud-sliding, skinnydipping, and getting high, it’s hard not to think of the students who would be shot dead at Kent State and Jackson State a little over a month after the March 1970 release of the movie. Woodstock could have been even worse, with the National Guard poised to move in and clean up the “disaster area” as soon as Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave them the go-ahead.

“A Very Strange Man”

When some festival organizers saw Joe Cocker’s name on a list of musicians that included Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez, the reaction was “Who’s he? Why him?” Many in the crowd were asking the same questions as they watched the scruffy-looking character in the tie-dye shirt, striped denims, and star-tipped boots take the stage around 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 17.

According to Jack Curry’s book Woodstock: The Summer of Our Lives, one observer, a local resident not there for the music but to help tow cars out of the muck, “looked over at the stage” and “saw a very strange man at the microphone …. This fellow rasped with a voice most unpleasant to her ears, not at all melodic, and he contorted his body as if he were writhing in pain. His fingers flew around uncontrollably and his head lurched forward and backward as he slurred the words of his wretched song.”

The “wretched song” was Cocker’s gospel-flavored call-and-response reinvention of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the first full-length number on the album that epitomized 1967’s Summer of Love, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Cocker stole the movie the first time I saw it and on the DVD he’s still stealing it, which is quite a feat when you consider the competition: Joplin emoting at the top of her bent, Hendrix taking apart “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Peter Townshend of the Who vandalizing his own guitar, Keith Moon the human cannonball attacking the drums, and Peter Daltrey whirling the mike cord like a lariat, not to mention Alvin Lee’s dizzying guitar runs. But Cocker wasn’t merely performing, he was possessed. Here was this stringy-haired Brit coming on like Ray Charles and twisting himself into the convoluted shapes that may have been as much a set part of his act as Townshend’s vandalism was of his, except that Cocker was the only musician on the scene who appeared to have been truly electrified by the crazy, inexpressible grandeur of the event.

Before Cocker began the song he told the crowd “This title just about puts it all into focus. It’s called ‘With a Little Help from Me Friends.’ Remember it.” While almost every other performer paid predictable you-guys-are-beautiful compliments to the crowd, Cocker articulated what would make Woodstock a legend of togetherness and he did it by discovering and mastering the emotional essence of a song identified with the group that above all others had galvanized his generation. If there were any Mansonian demons haunting the scene, he took them on, using them, absorbing and exorcising them even as they nipped at his heels and jerked him about. At the same time he seemed to know he was letting go for the sake of that “wall of people” packed solid side by side in the field in front of him. Giving play to the world of energy they were sitting on top of, he became all of them, the lifeblood of the Life Force. At the end he turned his back to the masses, and as the last great crescendo came drumming and pounding up under him, he became the mad conductor, the clown, the dancing satyr, the king of freaks.

When one of the interviewers roaming the site asked a citizen of Woodstock Nation, “Why do you call yourselves ‘freaks,’” the young man had no answer. He just accepted the term with a nod and smiled a smile as good as a song. The “very strange man at the microphone” was the answer.

Soon after Joe Cocker left the stage, the skies darkened and the wind picked up. The deluge was at hand and such was the timing, you could imagine that the one-man storm had actually somehow provoked the stormy sky to spill some nectar on the event. As for the girl who broke down under the pressure of “too many people,” let’s hope that things worked out for her and that, like the festival itself, she transcended adversity and found some friends to help her find her way home.

It would be interesting to know what eventually happened to some of the other people we see onscreen. In fact, the 40th Anniversary DVD of Woodstock would have been a more interesting piece of work if the producers had met the admittedly formidable challenge of rounding up and interviewing some of the participants, not just the musicians but some of those bit players and walk-ons in the crowd who had a special moment or two in the film.

At the Library

While the new DVD still does justice to what happened at Woodstock, it has serious shortcomings. As I pointed out, it contains no special features, no interviews, no musical extras, and its one “bonus” item, billed as a tour of the Museum at Bethel Woods, is nothing but a five-minute commercial. Even if you’re willing to plunk down $70 or $80 for the box set, the additional offerings (one featuring Playboy’s Hugh Hefner!) don’t justify the cost. You’re better off seeing the version being shown tonight, Wednesday, August 12, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library.

The Beat Goes On

Taking Woodstock, an Ang Lee-directed comedy about the behind-the-scenes story of the festival, is due to hit movie theaters on August 14. Barbara Kopple’s film Woodstock: Now & Then will run on Friday, August 14 on VH1 and August 17 on the History Channel. On Saturday, August 15, at 5 p.m. there will be a Woodstock 40th Anniversary show on the exact property of the original site in Bethel, New York, with Levon Helm, Jefferson Starship, Mountain, Canned Heat, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Country Joe & The Fish and special guests. New books include Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale; Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World, edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury; and The Road to Woodstock by one of the festival’s organizers Michael Lang (with Holly George-Warren). And of course, you can create special features of your own online, where a July 3 piece by Graham Rockingham in the Hamilton Ontario Spectator provided the Joe Cocker quotes I’ve used.

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