Comment By Zoran Panović

Half a Century of Woodstock

Rock culture is a historically young phenomenon. It is a forgotten fact in marking the half-century of Woodstock that all the headliners were young. Even Johnny Winter was only 25 at the time!

We don’t know what many of them would have been like if they’d grown old: would grandpa Jimi Hendrix – like Eric Burdon – come to Belgrade’s Union House and perform a concert, with the media recalling that he’d once been one of the world’s best guitarists, whose morbid rendition of the American national anthem closed Woodstock in front of the most persistent 40,000 attendees remaining of the nearly half a million who’d gathered in 1969 at the Max Yazgur farm, making a pilgrimage and creating a myth and parody of pastoral provincial scenes.

All subsequent rock festivals and stadium tours would carry in them something of the ‘criteria’ of Woodstock, which would enter into colloquial speech as a metaphor for almost every mass event on a meadow, including political gatherings and folklore performances.

Joe Cocker did then sound and look proletarian, but – despite its anti-system stance – Woodstock could only have happened in the capitalist West, with all of its class divides and other contradictions. The ‘Exit Tribe’ is also a direct consequence of the ‘Woodstock Nation’ as ideologue Abbie Hoffman entitled his book. Capitalism inevitably absorbed the rock culture, turning it into an industry, which doesn’t have to be interpreted so cynically: the fact that you’ll have clean and neat toilets and bars doesn’t mean you can’t also have a clear political stance.


Old men don’t have the charisma of those who died prematurely, like Hendrix and Janice Joplin, but they have longevity. In 2015, in Padova, I saw Crosby, Stills and Nash (without Young), who had a notable performance at Woodstock. They essentially still represent a protest band.

The fact that we today live in a world without utopia doesn’t mean that it isn’t a strong idea of better people and a better world. Their music represents an important part of the soundstage of America’s entire anti-war movement, which was launched in response to Vietnam. Many young people at the time got the picture of that in a roundabout way, with delays, and mostly watching the cult 1970 film The Strawberry Statement, which was translated in Yugoslavia as ‘About strawberries and blood’.

All subsequent rock festivals and stadium tours would carry in them something of the ‘criteria’ of Woodstock, which would enter into colloquial speech as a metaphor for almost every mass event on a meadow, including political gatherings and folklore performances

Yekaterina Furtseva, a member of the Soviet Politburo with a strong influence on the culture there, was dismayed by BITEF. This was also made clear as an ideological remark to BITEF organiser Mira Trailović. But the fact that ‘Hair’ was performed in Belgrade doesn’t mean that it was easy for members of the ‘Woodstock Tribe’ around the provinces. Freedom had to be won by conquest.

My friend Mitat The Beli, who is today unfortunately no longer with us, experienced harassment at the factory where he worked. The Beli was inspired by Woodstock, both its look and the music. In protest, he donned a Serbian folk costume and in 1975 headed to Belgrade for a Deep Purple concert, where he was welcomed with a standing ovation. Fortunately, due to a pact between Tito and Bregović, rock was viewed – with some subsequent (following Tito’s death) dramatic exceptions (‘The Marshal Croaked’ – Nele Karajlić, ‘Fools die for ideals’ – Bora Đorđević etc.), with indulgence, so gradually The Beli also gained ‘legitimacy’.

I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2014 in Vienna. That was the first and only time in my life that I received a free T-shirt from a performer: with the message “We’re Saving the Earth”. Ecology is also Woodstock. And is more current than ever.

In his book The Sociology of Rock, Simon Frith recalls that the term ‘youth’ was often used as an ideological term, and that middle-class children deliberately adopted the mannerisms and values of the lower classes, including cruelty, in conscious opposition to the values of their parents, as opposed to teenagers of the working class, who simply had fun on the road to a conformist life. But those considerations are actually closer to punk, rap and metal than the hippie movement.


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