KUALA LUMPUR: During a time of social conflict and rebellion in the US, there was Woodstock 1969 – three days of peace, love, music and flowers in the hair.
The marvel of the music festival, from August 15, rests on half a million messy people who turned a muddy, paralysed hay field into a hippie mecca that symbolised peace and love.
The monster event – a generation’s touchstone – still poses questions about the utopian ideals that embraced it and the people’s link to them today.
The threads of youthful dissidence that was in stark display at Max Yasgur’s 240-ha dairy farm criss-crossed the globe and influenced the flower power people of Malaysia as well.
A child of Woodstock was jointly conceived in July 1972 by the late ‘Tiger’ Siva’s Stardust Productions and the Scouts Association at Kem Semangat in the forest off Cheras.
As in other countries where the hippie counterculture sparked cultural upheavals, a new face of Malaysia emerged into the glare provided by the open-mouthed bureaucracy and media.
The Malaysian government implied that the Cheras event was an international conspiracy to weaken Malaysian youth while the media ramped up the debate over drugs, long hair and unkempt foreigners entering the country.
The chorus of voices denouncing the concert centred on the morality of Malaysia to be restored for the nation to survive.
In the US, The New York Times blasted Woodstock as “an outrageous episode” and demanded to know “what kind of culture could produce a colossal mess?”
Woodstock partied while people died in Vietnam and racial tension in the US was rising.
The best song about the festival, ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t there, envisions bomber jets “turning into butterflies.”
Was it an act of resistance by the youth? Or was it a spectacle of innocence by young people wanting to revel in a lifestyle of their own?
Some students who gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 apparently referred to their protest as “China’s Woodstock”, an indication that Woodstock was leveraged on defiance.
FMT caught up with Cheras Woodstock vets, drummer Ruzlan Omar and vocalist A Radha Krishnan, to ask why the counterculture events continue to resonate in popular culture.
Both musicians had to recalibrate their distant memories of the giddy sensation of performing at Kem Semangat and the movie, ‘Woodstock’ they watched as young adults.
Ruzlan, now 68, said: “The Cheras event was more than stoned hippies in the jungle, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it in 2020.
“The concert was an experiment just like the original Woodstock and similar ones worldwide and by sheer luck nothing went wrong,” said Ruzlan adding that the venue was an open grassy area, surrounded by trees, no seats, no tents.
He was 20 when he performed with The Gypsies, the band that would later evolve as his current outfit, Sons of Adam.
Ruzlan recalled that songs performed by his band included Black Sabbath’s ‘Sweet Leaf’ and ‘Iron Man’, Rare Earth’s ‘Get Ready’, Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘Paranoid’, and ‘Moby Dick’ by Led Zeppelin in which he does a seven to eight-minute drum solo until today.
Radhakrishnan, who was emcee at the three-day show and jammed with bands, said some 3,000 people showed up because it was a rock concert, but “many remember it negatively because of the way certain quarters reacted to the unprecedented event”.
“We were not freaks indulging in loose living, rather a community of music lovers,” said Radhakrishnan, 69, then an upcoming rock band vocalist who held a full-time clerk’s job with the Employees Provident Fund (EPF).
Radhakrishnan said the “love, peace and flowers of Woodstock” were sorely missing in today’s world.
He lamented there were no records of the 15 bands who performed 30 hours of non-stop music since media reports focussed on the purported negative aspects of the concert.
Among the bands that played in Cheras were Mushroom Alice, Illusion Revival, Falcons, Ash Wednesday, Owl Status Incorporated, Federation People, The Gypsies and The Wildtimers.
These bands were the archetype of the new, young and rebellious generation making music, said Radhakrishnan.
Ruzlan and Radhakrishnan said there were no hedonistic activities in Cheras unlike that recounted by festival goers at Max Yasgur’s farm.
In Bethel, rural New York, 65 km from Woodstock, people indulged in pot smoking, nude mixed bathing, and endured highly unhygienic conditions.
Still, reports suggested they weren’t selfish and there was goofy solidarity.
In the mud together, most people were willing to laugh off annoyances and share what they had in the pelting rain. The drugs probably helped.
On stage, 32 of the era’s best bands thrilled the shrieking crowd with 76 hours of continuous music.
Richie Havens ignited the musical proceedings and the mixed blend of artistes also featured Ravi Shankar and anti-war protestor Joan Baez. On the second day, a relatively unknown Santana Blues Band, rocked the party crowd with Latin Rock.
The battle of bands involved The Who, Years After, Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane and funk rockers Sly and the Family Stone.
The final day’s marathon was opened by Joe Cocker who drove home the absence of R & B artistes with his gritty voice, flailing arms about with his fingers like epileptic butterflies.
It is often said, a highlight of Woodstock was the British band, Ten Years After, helmed by guitarist Alvin Lee, and known for heavy blues rock, and long guitar and drum solos.
But what could have been a world-shaking performance failed due to technical reasons: the high humidity caused the instruments to go out of tune, the sound recording partially failed, and the camera team was just able to film the last song, ‘I’m Going Home’.
Other bands that impressed on the third day were The Band, a folk-rock outfit that succeeded their mentor and former employer Bob Dylan.
Then, there were Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
CSNY’s recording of the Joni Mitchell song immortalising Woodstock would later become a hit and the recording most associated with the festival.
Jimi Hendrix finally brought it all crashing to a close after playing 19 songs.
In business terms, the greatest freebie of all time was a disaster.
It emptied the pockets of the organisers, 24-year-olds Michael Lang and John Roberts, and Arthur Kornfeld and Joel Rosenman, both 26.
They collected more than US$1 million from advance ticket sales, but crowd control was impossible, and it became a free marathon all-star concert.
The legend of Woodstock flourished when a feature film and a soundtrack were released the following year. They generated US$100 million each.
Woodstock 1969 cannot be recreated. Nobody would want to do it because things would never be that loose again.
Did you know?
It was called Woodstock because the organisers thought it had a rustic ring to it. Woodstock village was also where Bob Dylan, a host of other musicians and the festival founder, Michael Lang, lived.