Since I was 9, I have been fascinated with the reality and myths of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. I’ve seen the movie on HBO, VHS, the 1994 director’s cut, the PBS and MTV edits, and the recent edition with footage previously unseen. I have yet to see it on the big screen at a proper movie theater, but that’s on my bucket list. I guess it’s the idea of 500,000+ people gathering to see and hear music, but I’ve learned that it was much more than that. Maybe the weekend was a bum trip due to the weather, but people wanted to find others like themselves, and themselves. Maybe the movie helped to create a myth, but the real side of what lead to it, what happened, and its influence is documented in a number of books. I’ve read a lot of them over the years and continue to place new ones I’ve never heard of on my want list. Woodstock: A New Look (The Writers’ Collective) by Greg Walter and Lisa Grant was released a year before the festival’s 40th anniversary, and at the time I wasn’t able to pick it up. A few weeks ago I saw that it was going for a mere penny (yes, one American cent) at Amazon, so I decided it was the perfect time to check it out.
The core of the book is Walter sharing his memories of the festival, from being a young kid in the summer of 1969 with not much to do, to finding himself at a musical festival in Bethel, New York. Along with his story is “never-before-seen photographs” taken by him, or so says the cover. This story is quite interesting, for it speaks about the Vietnam war and what the United States was like, spoken from the view of the young man he was. As I’m reading, one is supposed to look at the photos, beautifully shown in full page form. I’m someone who doesn’t mind the gritty photos, because these are views from someone whose “eye” of the festival has not been widely seen. I don’t mind the professional pics, but I want something that’ll show the muck of the mud, the wet blankets on the fences, all of that. It’s also great to see long distance shots of the stage and the crowd, as I found myself thinking “if I was there, this would be my view”. That might sound incredibly corny, but I think the movie has helped to show a moving perception, but many of the photos here are from the eye of someone either stationary or someone walking around and experiencing and smelling everything that was going on. The photos are very cool.
However, parts of the story seem like they were taken from other sources, or as if someone had listened to the soundtrack or watched the movie and just transcribed things. That’s not to take away from anything else in the book, but at least try to write it differently. Also, I’m not sure if Lisa Grant served as the editor or co-writer in some fashion of the book, but how do you put Janis Joplin on the cover and spell her name as “Janice Joplin” in the book? Or the fact that Walter says he did not get a chance to see “Jimi Hendricks” because he left the night before. Hendricks? There were also a few grammatical errors in the book, and maybe that’s me being a nitpicky editor but I’d like for the flow to be smooth and correct and not have to bump into errors that should have been corrected before publication.
Before I wrote this review, I went to Amazon to see if anyone else felt iffy about Woodstock: A New Look, and there I noticed a 1-star review from Jean E. Pouliot:
When an author releases a full-color coffee table book promising that it “contains never-before-seen photographs” of a cultural touchpoint, I expect something new and amazing. This “Woodstock” was anything but. Worse, its promise is deceptive, quite at odds with the peace and love ethic of the time, but just in time to cash in on the event’s 40 anniversary.
Aged 17 in 1969, author Greg Walter helped build the stage at the Woodstock music festival. Between menial jobs, he shot some slides. Then after the concert, he stuffed them into a box under his bed where they remained for 40 years. Now, Walter and co-author Lisa Grant have assembled these long-lost treasures into a book, along with his stories from the era.
Problem is, half the pictures in the book (the good ones) are not Walter’s. Many are from the AP Images collection and are credited only in the front papers. These include shots from the Chicago riots and from inside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Even the cover shot of Janis Joplin is cribbed from another photographer. The pix that are Walter’s are not very good — they are badly lit, incompetently composed, grainy and uninteresting. The accompanying text is banal, with only a few interesting descriptions of events that went on around him — Abbie Hoffman pushing past him to rush the stage during the Who’s set; a rigid LSD tripper; a shocked young man who had accidentally run over a concert-goer. Given the level of honesty in the pictures, I wonder whether these stories are real.
Avoid this book — on principle if for no other reason.
The fact that Walter had taken pictures at Woodstock, developed the roll, put them in a shoebox and had forgotten them is an interesting story. His memories are just as valid as anyone else. I would have loved to have seen more photos. I’ll also see photos of various artists and those aren’t his, they look too professional compared to Walter’s own. The book definitely has its faults, but was it worth my penny? It’s worth a bit more than that, but I’m glad I did buy it now instead of the $34.95 list price, because I probably would have felt duped if I bought it from an online merchant. It’s more of a photo book with a brief story than anything that is deeply researched, and at times the memories from others who were also at the festival were more interesting. If you go to the library and see Woodstock: A New Look, it’s worth borrowing and you could probably read it in less than an hour.