Home > Woodstock, Handmade
By David Glenn Cox
It is funny how sometimes you start out to write one story and end up writing another. I have been doing research on Woodstock and as the old joke goes, “If you remember it, you weren’t there.”
I remember it well enough and I wasn’t there, but as I watched the You Tube videos I began to remember details long forgotten, plus some things that I’ve learned since. I was watching a video of the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in 1969, playing "Honky Tonk Woman." Yes, I know the Stones weren’t at Woodstock, but it was 1969 and one of the You Tube commenters said, "Mick Jagger sounds like shit!"
The level of technology then was completely different from today. Jagger is standing on a small stage in front of a wall of huge amplifier cabinets. Standing in front of just one of those cabinets with the volume cranked would make you question your own mortality. I was playing in a garage band, and as a joke we turned up the bass player’s Marshall cabinet to ten. When he hit the first note, plaster dust rained down on us from above. So Jagger standing in front of a dozen cabinets and trying to sing without even a monitor to hear himself is pretty damn amazing.
Some of you know who Tom Dowd was; the rest of you have heard his work without realizing his place. Tom Dowd was a master recording engineer who helped reinvent sound recording after World War Two. He recorded everyone from Ray Charles to Lynard Skynard. Remember Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla?” That was Tom Dowd’s work.
Dowd created the modern soundboard and sixteen-track recording. Before that the performer stood in front of the mike and they moved it closer or further away. All the tracks were live. Les Paul and Mary Ford began overdubbing and were followed by Buddy Holly. Tom Dowd went to England to meet with the Beatles and George Martin because the Beatles wanted to build their own state of the art studio. He was shocked to find that the studios were still using four-track and eight-track tape recorders.
So, for a quick example, say you sing like PeeWee Herman. I can take your voice and overdub it onto eight tracks and then condense it down to one. Suddenly you have a strong, powerful voice like Pavarotti. Then I do the same to the background singers. Then underneath the guitar I put a digitized guitar that you can just hear if you listen really close. Then keyboards, and then maracas, and on and on until it becomes an overproduced piece of garbage. I believe it may have been Picasso who said, “Art is knowing when to stop.”
Yet, as we gaze back at Woodstock we see live performances that were superior to studio recordings. These were first live performers who were recorded as opposed to being studio players who sometimes played live. Riche Havens used to play the same coffeehouses that Dylan played at in New York, and after each performer played they would pass the hat. Dylan said, “No one ever wanted to play after Richie; he sucked all the money out of the room." Havens was twenty-eight that day on the Woodstock stage. He was there because people heard his talent and wanted to hear more. Today, in many cases, demo tapes are listened to and popular music is formulated to make you think that you like it.
Carlos Santana did “Soul Sacrifice” at twenty; his drummer was nineteen. Alvin Lee was twenty-one, and his keyboard player was nineteen. Arlo Guthrie was twenty-two; Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were twenty-six years old. The list just goes on and on, young adults making music for young adults. In every golden age of music there are record companies getting out of the way and then following the pack.
After the Beatles were a hit the record companies went looking for any English boy who could play the guitar. After Nirvana was a hit all you had to do was to be from Seattle and own a flannel shirt. The music business is about creative people trying to be heard and understood by non-creative people.
Watching the Who’s set at Woodstock I remembered how the twenty-four-year-old Pete Townsend and twenty-five-year-old Roger Daltry were unhappy with the performance because of the technical quality of the setup. Yet when we watch it today we see this massive talent that shines through bad lighting or poor sound quality.
We see Janis Joplin or Alvin Lee pour out from the stage and across the world with a music that spoke to people and was about people and was for people. Songs about love and loss, life and hope, peace and war and what that means and why that matters.
Today it’s about pimps and hoes, my ride and my crib and how much money I got to spend. The performances are all monitored by sound engineers and lighting specialists. Millions are spent on elaborate stages with a choir of backup singers and an army of dancers lit with flash pots and laser lights. It is about show and not about music; it is about flash and not message, about technology and not humanity.
Music is the bridge we use to vent our emotions and reach out to each other. Some of the Janis Joplin video’s on You Tube have four and a half million views, with eight and nine thousand comments. Not from old Geezers like me, but from kids who have heard of her and then listen. “Oh Wow,” they say. “That was amazing!”
Or, “I’m fifteen and I want to be a singer just like Janis.” Can you imagine Janis with legions of sequined dancers behind her? She needed that like an elephant needs a pocket comb. One comment was made and I don’t think that English was their first language, but it hit the nail on the head. “There will never be more women like her.”
This show and these performances were handmade, with musical instruments and voices and very little in between. Today our music is pasteurized and processed until what should be fine comes out like a cheese doodle, a product. Boy bands, teen girl bands, truck loads of equipment and lighting with choreographers and stage directors, with backing tracks and in-ear monitors. Then they wonder what it is that is missing?
The young people in this generation are just as talented and creative as they were in 1969. The difference is in the business that tries to manufacture, with technology, the next big act instead of going out and looking for it. It’s now just a machine that spits out cowboy-hat country singers and tattooed rock singers and prepubescent teen singers, all from the same office.
Then it all falls flat because without genuine talent, a genuine message and genuine humanity, everything else can be overlooked. Good music is about reaching an emotional threshold, not a technological one.
I think this one comment summed it all up:
“I typed god into you tube and look what came up :)”