Woodstock II: Regeneration Gap

[World, August 27, 1994]

1969—Gary Mathewes arrives at the Wood-stock festival with his streetwise, drug-dealing Greenwich Village girlfriend. “I don’t remember buying a ticket, or anyone asking for a ticket,” he says. “I don’t remember much, except spending a lot of time lying on the ground.”

1994—Father Gregory Mathewes-Green stands at an altar covered with gold brocade. “Holy things are for the holy,” he intones. “One is holy,” the people sing back, “One is Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Twenty-five years after Woodstock, twenty years after he insisted on a vegetarian spread at his wedding reception, six years after he first reluctantly voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and a year and a half after he left a comfortable pastorate in a liberal mainline denomination in favor of the Eastern Orthodox church, the one-time hippie is sit­ting on a sofa watching “Woodstock ‘94” via the safety of pay-per-view. It’s been said that “a neoconservative is a liberal with a 16-year-old daughter.” Mathewes-Green’s 17-year-old daughter, Megan, sits on the floor nearby, also studying the screen.

The story of the two Woodstocks is in many ways the story of two generations, often labeled “Baby Boom” and “Generation X.” The dividing line hits just under the age of thirty. While the first Woodstock was a diffuse and giddy “happening,” Woodstock ‘94 was minutely scripted—and pricey. Tickets for the first were $18, the equivalent of four LP’s; tickets for the second were $135, with the minimum purchase a block of four. The original festival had nothing to sell but music; the second was showy with official cigarette lighters, refrigerator magnets, even specially labeled condoms. The first concert was aimed at 16-to-25-year-olds; the second was also aimed at 16-to-25-year-olds, but with more business savvy. Two different market studies told organizers which bands would siphon the most Generation X dollars.

The younger Mathewes-Green is not particularly happy with this generational role. “It seems like the baby boomers in the media are always telling us that the hippies were the greatest thing ever,” says Megan, “that they were so cool and wonderful and we should imitate them. We’re supposed to wear the clothes they wore back then, and peace symbols and stuff. They just want our money, and they want us to spend it on their old recycled hippie culture. It’s like we don’t even have our own identity. We’re always celebrating some Boomer anniversary. Our whole present is just Boomer past.”

Spin, the Generation X rock journal, voices some of this bitterness. “Young people have been force-fed Woodstock’s monumental importance—its hipness, its bigness, its wow-ness, its nowness—until it has become an official gospel of the rock ‘n’ roll church.” In contrast, the present younger generation has no defining passion, no idealism, no role except consumer. The “Generation X” label itself is resented, transformed into “Generalization X.” Where the Boomers were groovy peaceniks, the Xers are called cynical nihilists. In the film Reality Bites, college valedictorian Winona Ryder fumbles the cards for her speech. ”The answer is simple,“ she begins. ”The answer is…“ she falters, ”I don’t know.“ The students cheer this desolation wildly, then leave to celebrate by getting stoned.

This background makes one aspect of some young bands more understandable: their affection for Charles Manson. The hideous Manson Family murders took place the week before the original Woodstock, a death’s head counterbalancing all the smiley-faces. Seven victims were stabbed 169 times, the walls painted with their blood, the pregnant Sharon Tate ripped open with a fork. ”Given the option between Woodstock’s and Manson’s subtexts,“ writes Spin’s Mike Rubin, ”—love or hate, peace or war, tastes-great or less-filling—young people are making a surprising choice, perhaps not even fully certain of who Manson is.“ Guns N’ Roses released their version of a song written by Manson last December; Evan Dando of the Lemonheads has been recording Manson songs and rolling in the Manson aura since 1988 (”Charlie is just like really, really good black humor,“ Dan-do says).

In 1994, Manson comes to Woodstock. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (a band honored with main-stage, prime-time scheduling) rented Sharon Tate’s murder house and built a recording studio in it that he named ”Le Pig.“ (”Pig“ was the word written on Ms. Tate’s front door in her blood.) He cut an album there, but was unable to complete a video shoot (too much ”bad karma,“ according to a crew member). USA Today’s Edna Gunderson raved that Nine Inch Nails was the ”clear winner“ of the festival’s Saturday lineup, and admired Reznor for ”autistically pounding his head with the microphone, smashing speaker boxes and mike stands, emoting like the Terminator on PCP… NIN turned in a devastating barrage of industrial techno, from speed demon disco to creepy metal dirges, all infused with Reznor’s unbridled rage and self-reproach.“

The two Woodstocks had several things in common-dope, mud, nudity, sex-but one aspect unshowcased at the first was ”unbridled rage and self-reproach.“ The original Woodstock movie looks sweetly naive, dressed in dreamy watercolors. As the soggy campers awake, grizzled jester/emcee Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm commune announces, ”What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.“ Gravy had earlier promised that the Hog Farm, charged with concert security, would keep the peace with nothing but cream pies and seltzer bottles. Arlo Guthrie laughs with astonishment, ”The New York Thruway’s closed, man!“ John Sebastian is so blissed out he forgets his lyrics. The spirit of Woodstock Nation may have had shallow roots, may have been the doorway through which many plagues surged that still torment us today. But, as an indulgent parent might say, it meant well; it really was trying to do something good. It’s hard to say the same of Nine Inch Nails.

”It’s important not to overlook the complexity of the original Woodstock era,“ says Father Gregory. ”I wouldn’t want to sentimentalize it; all in all, it was a disaster. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few threads that we can pick out of this fabric and find worthwhile, that even suggest Christian virtues.

“For example, there was a yearning after community-ironically, even in the heart of a time that also exalted individual freedom. But there was an element of valuing community even over the individual. Also, while the previous era had been very materialistic, there was a renewed openness to spiritual experience. You can get in deep trouble with that real quickly, and a lot of people did. But for some of us it was the first step in a journey toward faith in Jesus Christ.”

A Boomer and an Xer, father and daughter, watch as the pay-per-view service suddenly snaps on in the middle of the first performer’s first song. Joe Cocker is working hard, pushing his smoky voice through bluesy, tender, and rocking tunes. In the Life magazine spread on veterans of the first Woodstock he is pictured in his library, standing in front of dark velvet drapes and rows of leather-bound books, and looking every bit of fifty. “I’m not sure what it was about, really,” he says, and admits that “some parts of my singing I’ll never recover-the high falsetto tattered from cocaine and booze.”

Cocker has saved “A Little Help from My Friends” for his finale. The voice can’t quite soar as before, but he works the song hard, like he’d shovel coal. At the end he jumps in the air a few times, something rehearsed to show youthful exuberance no doubt. His vertical clearance is about five inches. Soaked with sweat, he leaves the stage to rolling, loving applause.

The group that seizes the stage after him, Blind Melon, is from another generation. Lead singer Shannon Hoon leaps, twists, and runs maniacally around the stage, all the more impressive because he’s wearing a slim white gauze skirt. Hoon has two plastic bar-rettes in his shoulder-length auburn hair, heavy streaking eye makeup, and enough earrings. He moans, shrieks, lies on the stage, throws drums into the audience, screams (sings?) “Let me out! Let me out!” Toward the end he pulls off his underwear, and during the last song pulls on a rubber glove, crooning and gesturing with his fist.

“I’m scared,” says Megan quietly. This is about all the Woodstock these two can stand, and Dad snaps off the TV The original Wood-stock, a feast of groovy good intentions, was the prelude to a world sickened unto death by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Woodstock ‘94 added rage, contempt, and meaninglessness. Stay tuned for Woodstock 3.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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