Abbie Hoffman’s 1969 Woodstock Nation is an essential read for students of the intersections of rock music and politics. Hoffman wrote it in 1969 while he was awaiting the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial in which he was a co-defendant for inciting the 1968 Chicago DNC riots, and it’s a stream-of-semiconsciousness musing on the state of American youth culture, specifically as of the massive and zeitgeist-altering Woodstock music festival.
That festival was famously full of bummers—rain, the brown acid, goddamned Sha Na Na—and Hoffman himself was one of them, too. He worked hard to establish a “Movement City” on the Bethel, NY concert site, intending to try to radicalize concertgoers. But the tent was so far from the stage as to seem to marginalize politics from the festival. Hoffman, in protest, famously took the stage during The Who’s set to scold the audience for having fun while John Sinclair rotted in jail for having two joints. (In fairness there were probably way more than two joints worth of weed per audience member on that site so he maybe kinda had a point, though he was inarguably a peevish dick about making it. Also, interrupting THE WHO for fuck’s sake seems a poor way to win converts.) Just as famous as Hoffman’s tirade was Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s unequivocally disapproving removal of Hoffman from the stage—by swatting him off with his guitar. That move alone earned a huge swell of applause.
Hoffman targets Townshend in one of Woodstock Nation’s more memorable passages, but what concerns us today comes from “The Head Withers as the Body Grows,” an epilogue Hoffman wrote especially for the 1971 Pocketbooks reprint of the book. Excerpts from it were reproduced in the October 1971 issue of Circus under the provocative title “Woodstock: a Tin Pan Alley Rip Off,” and they offer a poignant view of Hoffman’s disillusionment about the failure of the revolution, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the ascension to complacent millionaire stardom of most of the other important rockers. And the article opens with a terribly sad, elegiac passage about watching Joplin shoot heroin, and what her death would mean, not to music, but to the music business.
Somewhere deep inside the bowels of the monster born in Bethel also lay the kernel for its destruction. Perhaps it was the egocentric greed of the Rock Empire itself. Maybe it was the strain of cannibalism inherited from our parents and exaggerated when cramped into railroad flats in the slums or on muddy shoes in front of the gargantuan stages. The rapes, the bad acid burns, stealing from each other, they, too, were part of the Woodstock experience, if not the Nation. Smack and speed didn’t help. “Shooting up” is more than just a casual expression. It is symbolic of the suicidal death trip, the frustration, the despair. It is another way to bring the apocalypse a little closer.
Janis was the heroine of the Woodstock Nation. Bold and sassy, her energy could ignite millions. I saw her perform all over the country. In the funky old Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, in the Fillmores West and East, on TV, backstage where she would line up a row of twenty studs, in the Chelsea Hotel bar and on the street. She used to drop into our place at all sorts of weird hours when we lived around the corner from the Fillmore East. She was the only person I ever saw use a needle. When she popped in a load and pulled out the works, she’d cluck her tongue making a sucking noise and her face would break out into a shit-eatin grin. The very thought of it makes me shiver. You couldn’t know Janis without knowing her death was near and you couldn’t know the Rock Empire without knowing her death would mean a bundle to the horde of enterprising vultures who choose to pick at the corpse.
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