In the whole Popular project so far, “Woodstock” represents my biggest turnaround in opinion between hearing and writing about it. On first listen it sounded dreary, sappy and self-satisfied – I had it earmarked for a 2, or even a 1.
I don’t know what exactly changed my mind. Hearing it one hungover morning in late Summer and letting it soothe me? The acquisition of such CDs as The Best Of Bread giving me a taste for wet but beautiful seventies dreampop? Repeated exposure to the Glastonbury Festival? Maybe I just listened a bit harder and felt the fear in the song. “Woodstock” isn’t self-satisfied, or not in the way I thought. It’s full of the dread of a moment passing, energy dissipating, opportunities slipping away. You don’t have to be a hippy to recognise that feeling. It doesn’t come across in the lyrics, particularly, just in the sorrow-laden singing and drifting melodies: the repeated triads in the guitar break being particularly effective at conveying this air of desperate futility.
Learning that Joni Mitchell wrote the song after missing Woodstock explains a lot of this dread. It explains the song’s spiritual vibe, too: legends always grow more in the minds of people who weren’t ‘there’, and this song helped shape and transmit the Woodstock legend, and by extension the legend of the hippy era and movement, turning the Festival (and in some ways the 60s itself) into a sacred, doomed, unrepeatable moment. The song’s sadness becomes self-fulfiling and defeatist – those who came after Woodstock could never recreate it; no route back to the garden ever existed. If you’ve ever given part of yourself to a scene – whether major or minor, vast or tiny, whether you called that lost moment “punk” or “rave” or “The Round Table” or “old ILM” – you might know that defeatism too well.