Lehigh University, Class of 2003
May 2000

The Music of the Counterculture

 “The great rock festivals and concerts were the definitive gatherings of the countercultural faithful.  They were as important to the hip world as any pilgrimages, crusades, or revivals have ever been to their own milieux.  They helped shape rock and provided the best opportunities for massive indulgence in the sacraments: dope, nudity, sex, rock, community.”
                                                           -Timothy Miller (The Hippies and American Values, pg. 82)

[1]     The year was 1969.  The place was Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York.  And the event, you guessed it, was the Woodstock Music Festival.  It was a time of revolution for the hippies.  The whole world had gone to shit, and this was the time to make a stand.  The basis of the counterculture was very simple: dope, nudity, sex, rock, and community.  These ideas were so radical and far fetched from the principles of our failing society that most people looked at the counterculture with one thought in mind… freaks.  These freaks had decided to make their stand, however, and that stand was the Woodstock Music Festival.  To the public eye, the festival was a complete disaster: there was no food, no medical attention, the rain and overpopulation made the place a disaster area.  Yet, to the hippies at the show, this disaster area was the most beautiful place they’d ever been exposed to.  It was their time in the sun; they had proven to the world that even in the worst conditions, it could be done!

[2]     Every element of the counterculture played an intricate part at Woodstock, but the music was the backbone that kept everything else together.  “Dope usually involved inward experiences.  Liberated sex in most cases involved interpersonal relationships on a one-to-one basis.  Rock, however, was communal, and thus it provided a medium for cultural communication” (Miller, pg. 74).  Rock and Roll was the language of the hippies.  It wasn’t just how they communicated; it was how they fought all of the fascism in the ugly world around them.  Rock and Roll music allowed everybody to explore himself or herself along with everybody else in order to decipher the truths and falsehoods of the world.  The music was the bridge that linked the individual with the community in order to create a single power that would be greater than the sum of the individuals.

[3]     The sense of community and togetherness was an important part of rock music, as was dope.  Rock and Rollers followed the jazz musicians of earlier by implementing dope into their music.  Rock and Roll is all about the inward journey in order to better understand the exteriors that were often confusing and deceiving.  As Maynard James Keenan spoke in his song “Third Eye,” “Today young men on acid realize that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration.  That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively.  There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream in with imagination of ourselves.”   The power behind rock music was that it could never be summed up in words, it was something to feel, something to experience, preferably on dope.

 [4]    The uplifting beats and unforgettable guitars were a huge part of rock music, but the lyrics were what ultimately interested the listeners and toiled their revolutionary minds.  While everybody was dancing to the same beat, nobody was taking on the same lyrical impression of the songs.  During an interview, John Lennon said, “It’s like abstract art really.  It’s just the same really.  It’s just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it.  But when you say it, man, you know you’re saying it, it’s a continuous flow.”  Often times with rock music, the writers of the lyrics didn’t know themselves what a song meant at the time it was written.  This is why it was so important for the listener to pop a tab and take the journey within to find their meaning in the words.

[5]     In his film Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, Michael Wadleigh dedicates most of the picture to the onstage performances of the festival.  One scene that I found particularly interesting was that of The Who performing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Summertime Blues.”  This scene gives us a view of the sort of impurities within rock and roll.  The rock industry was run by capitalism, which was itself run by money, and it was the spectacular shows along with album sales that brought in the money.  This brought up a great paradox within the hippie revolution, which was centered on going against greed and money and getting back to the basics.  Most of the performances at Woodstock were very simple and spared the theatrics of the typical show on Broadway.  Many of the performers simply sat up there on a stool in plain clothes with their guitar in hand, and it was the music that was the show.  The Who’s performance at Woodstock was none of the sort.  Stage acts like Townshend’s trademark windmill guitar playing and his guitar smashing didn’t go unnoticed at Woodstock. Like Led Zeppelin and many other rock giants, The Who’s frontman and singer, Roger Daltrey, had the golden locks and sex appeal of an actor.  The camera work during The Who scene added to the spectacle.  Unlike the other scenes of the film, the director used a lot of freeze frame filming and split screens of Daltrey and Townshend wailing away to glorify the appearance of the band.  All these things made The Who appear to be a sell out to the commercialism that was poisoning the rock industry.

[6]     When you look at the music itself, however, it should be quite obvious that The Who were on the same page of the revolution in rock music as the others.  The two fundamental messages of 60’s rock were “Come swing with me” and “Myself a stranger in a world I never made.”  The Who’s lyrics were carrying these messages as clearly as any others.  In the song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the lyrics pretty much speak for themselves; “See me.  Feel me.  Touch me.  Heal me.  Listening to you, I get the music.  Gazing at you, I get the heat.  Following you, I climb the mountains.  I get excitement at your feet.  Right behind you, I see the millions.  On you, I see the glory.  From you, I get opinions.  From you, I get the story.”  This exemplifies the importance of giving yourself up to the music and letting it take you away.  In the song Baba O’Riley, the whole spirit of the counterculture and Woodstock is put into words.  “Don’t cry.  Don’t raise your eye.  It’s only teenage wasteland…  The exodus is here.  The happy ones are near.  Let’s get together before we get much older.  Teenage wasteland.  It’s only teenage wasteland.  They’re all wasted!”

[7]     No matter what the commercial big fish and agents did to warp the music of the counterculture, the real meaning was in the song and there was nothing they could do to rob that.  The music of this time was definitive of a culture that saw past the bullshit politics of everyday life to give insight to the simplicity of life wherein lies the true beauty of this world.  Many rock acts since have mimicked Townshend’s windmill guitar, but their act can be seen right through and read like a book.  The real magic is in the song.