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Damn Hippies

January 20th, 2011 by Myrhaf · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

Message to Love — The Isle of Wight Festival is a documentary of the 1970 rock festival released on DVD in 1997. It is a remarkable, if revolting, portrayal of the “Woodstock Nation.” It shows what the Hippies were all about: drugs, socialism and nihilism.

Apart from the music, the film centers on the Hippies who came to the Isle of Wight without enough money to buy a ticket to the festival, apparently thinking they should be let in for free, and were left outside the fences. These longhairs fought like a barbarian horde against policemen with dogs until finally on Sunday they tore down the fence and got in for free. One promoter says 600,000 people came to the Isle, but only 60,000 paid for tickets. At one point a Hippie screams in rage against capitalist pigs as he kicks a fence.

Aside from the Hippie subplot, what about the music? The film has an array of great Classic Rock bands: Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies, the Who, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Taste (Rory Gallagher), the Moody Blues and the Doors. There is also an outstanding contingent of folk singers: Joan Baez, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell. Miles Davis represents the jazz sound and Tiny Tim was there, however you categorize him.

Jimi Hendrix and Alvin Lee show off their guitar wizardry. It doesn’t get much cooler than Jim Morrison singing “The End” with a cigarette in his hand. Joni Mitchell is feminine and beautiful. Kristofferson looks pissed off at it all — or is he always like that? Leonard Cohen looks wounded and vulnerable as he sings “Suzanne.” Mostly they all look young and skinny.

Before his song Cohen says, “It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation, but it’s still weak. It’s still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.” Is this a vague exhortation to revolution? It’s always so hard to tell with poets.

As much as I admire many of the acts in this film, in the context of the Hippie filth and nihilism, they all come off diminished. The whole thing just seems squalid, amateurish and boring. If students in the far future use this film to discover what Rock’n’Roll was all about, they will be baffled as to how such a banal and uninspiring music style lasted so long.

One Hippie, sitting next to his dirt-streaked little boy and chewing on meat like a caveman, tells the camera he gives his child marijuana and LSD. That’s such a good idea.

The most remarkable thing about the movie is how the management was morally disarmed by the Hippies wanting something for nothing. Although the people who wanted in for free never gave a coherent argument as to why they shouldn’t pay, they asserted their right to get in with moral certainty. They wanted it and management had a duty to give it to them, period.

The promoters were uncertain and apologetic from the beginning. Hilariously, at one point a  promoter explains to the crowd that they must charge admission because the artists won’t play unless they get paid first. The film then cuts to an unnamed musician chewing out this promoter for trying to foist the blame on the artists. But you know damn well that musician made sure he got his cut.

After the barbarians finally burst through the gates on Sunday and anarchy reigned, the promoter Ron Foulk, something of a drama queen, tried to patch things up with the crowd. He explained that money had never been the main reason for the event and he asked everyone to hold hands. He appealed to altruism by noting that he was poorer than they were because he still had to answer to creditors. He held his hands above his head in peace signs and got teary-eyed.

Management never had a chance. They were intellectually disarmed by conventional morality. The people wanted free music. What right did Ron Foulk have to line his pockets by exploiting these poor souls who just wanted to hear music and experience peace and love? It was obvious Foulk had never read Ayn Rand.

UPDATE: Slight revision.

5 Comments so far ↓

  • Gloria

    While I can’t agree more about some of the comments made about this documentary, before one throws the baby out with the bathwater, you must also consider the fact that this IS a documentary.

    People make documentaries to illustrate a point of view, and this one pretty much shows the worst of the worst of what happened at that festival. I’m convinced that this was the slant chosen, so you got from it what you were supposed to get: a sad, offensive commentary on the end of the age of innocence, peace and love.

    But if you talk to people who were THERE for it, I guarantee that you’ll find that the film left out how it was for a lot of people, which was just some incredible and historical music history being made, which most enjoyed thoroughly without experiencing any real problems.

    And to damn all ‘hippies’ and cast them off for the poor examples shown in this movie, is anything BUT fair. This was the point being made, perhaps, but I’m convinced it was intentional.

    The IOW festival became the anarchistic stage setting it did mostly because of it’s size, the setting, the organizers who at tims acted as childish as the people who wanted something for nothing, and the power of mob mentalities to swirl in and take over in aggressive ways with little stimulus needed.

    Yet, MOST who were known as ‘hippies’ were still about peace, love and simple living, despite what the film focus is here.

    Give me ANY crowd of 600,000 people, and pick a slant, and you can easily find things to illustrate that slant. On the big screen, a small incident can achieve a vivid upgrade in importance.

    Yes, the vibe was scary there at times. Even some of the artists were upset and afraid.

    So this isn’t to deny what you can clearly see are some sad and dark moments in social history, because the film doesn’t lie, but it certainly is presented and somewhat manipulated to show an inflated yet narrowed and skewed view.

    I also think the way it was presented completely defeated the purpose of watching a concert. The constant interjection of the background with interviews and such destroys the flow, and as so little is shown from each artist’s performances that there’s no way for anyone to get a true sense of the whole.

    It’s ironic, but many of the rebellious anti-capitalists of the day morphed into today’s finest examples of money-mongers, but anytime you take a slice of population, you’ll find examples of the good, the bad and the ugly, and I dearly wish Mr. Lerner had allowed more of the good that happened there to shine, because I don’t feel the overall assessment was completely accurate. The facts are the facts, but the truth is never complete without all aspects being considered. 🙂

  • Jim May

    Gloria: Myrhaf is not damning all, he damns the essence of the hippie movement, in its final form and in its essential collectivist nature.

    While it is true that “all aspects” must be considered in reaching the truth, one such aspect that you failed to consider is that Mr. Lerner did consider all the facts, and then reported the ones that most clearly communicate the facts that he found most essential to the topic. If he merely reported indiscriminately everything he found without assessing each items relative significance, it would be a very long movie — and profoundly useless, as such.

    The evidence concerning the hippies, then and now, is quite conclusive, and the position presented here is accurate. While I “wasn’t there”, my wife was, and the information I have from her confirms what I found in this article and wrote about : the hippies may not have begun as a Leftist movement, but they certainly were quickly and easily co-opted into such, and that is how they are seen to this day.

    If there are any hippies who stood up and spoke out against such a thing for the betrayal it would have to be for such a person, I’d love to see the links. Other than that, the portrayal is accurate, and the damnation deserved.

  • Inspector

    Yeah, Gloria, I mean Myrhaf spoke in a complimentary fashion about the music. I don’t know what more you could possibly ask for.

  • Myrhaf

    Gloria, thank you for your comment.

    I’m sure there were well intentioned Hippies, just as there were good communists. My own Father was so taken by the writings of Jack Kerouac that he would have traveled America in a Volkswagon van had my Mother not been such a bourgeois scold as to insist on feeding the children. At least, that’s how Mom tells the story. Dad is not alive to defend himself.

    Was my Father a leftist? No, just a dreamer. But movements are defined by their premises and their intellectual leaders. I take the premise “tune in, turn on and drop out” to be an attack on middle class values, without the explicit Marxist economics. That was the genius of the New Left, and why it succeeded so well: it attacked capitalist culture rather than economics.

    It is true that the documentary is Lerner’s vision. I’ve read around the internet that some who were at the IOW festival had an entirely different experience from what they saw on film. All I can go by is the film. It does look like Lerner was more interested in the politics and cultural context than the music itself. Lerner’s selectivity makes a profound statement on the “Woodstock Nation.” Maybe he makes it more depressing than it was for those who paid and enjoyed the music, but I think he gets at the essence of the cultural moment.

  • RTJ

    “tune in, turn on and drop out” as an attack on middle class values?! Really?!
    I think Tim Leary was preaching this recommendation as rebellion against an oppressive government that wanted to (and still does) tell people what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
    The other catch phrase from Leary was “think for yourself, question authority” which in a world with increasing authoritarian intrusions into our individual rights, sounds like music to my ears.

    Of course all this is hilariously sad because these hippies grew up to become one of the greediest most “as long as I get mine” generation of Americans.