Years ago, I worked at a radio station in small-town Illinois. An on-air discussion about Woodstock prompted one of the sales reps to collar me in the hall afterward. “I was there, you know,” she said. “Really?” said I. “You should come on tomorrow morning and we’ll talk about it.” I was pretty young and remarkably naive, so I didn’t question her assertion. But it became clear to me during the interview that something was wrong. She attributed her lack of interesting personal detail about her experience to being stoned all the way through it, but I eventually guessed that she was one of the millions who claimed to have been there but was not.
By the summer of 1970, the supposed recollections of those who were not could be lifted from two significant documentary works: Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling concert film and its equally sprawling soundtrack album. The effect of the two on festival memory is pretty powerful. Nobody remembers that the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Grateful Dead were there because they aren’t seen or heard in either, although there’s a brief interview with Jerry Garcia in the film. Nobody remembers that the Who did all of Tommy, because only the finale appears in the original film and on the album.
The Allmusic.com review of the album mentions that the source tapes were “problematic at best,” and that if you want the best possible sound, the 2009 Rhino Records reissue is the one to get. But that’s a double CD. The original album was three discs in a gatefold cover, and the experience of opening such a bounteous package can’t be duplicated—the weight of it, the delicate balancing act you’d do with the discs as you removed them from the sleeves, and the smell of them. Also not duplicated by CDs: the original album configuration, which put side 6 on the back of side 1, side 5 on the back of side 2, and so on, so you could stack it up on your record changer and hear it in the proper order. However, what you get in any format, when its at its best, is pretty damn good: Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” the Hendrix pyrotechnics, Sly & the Family Stone taking everybody higher, and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.”
Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More hit #1 on the Billboard 200 on July 11, 1970, and reigned four weeks. It would be knocked from the top by another band present that weekend but not heard on the Woodstock soundtrack or seen in the film. They’re in our next installment.