Why 1969 was the year that shook the world

"Those were the best days of my life, oh yeah, back in the summer of '69," crooned Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, forever etching the chorus and year into our collective consciousness.

Ironically, Adams was only nine years old in 1969 and the lyrics, he later admitted, refer to a sexual position rather than the specific year. But had he taken a closer look at what had occurred during that northern summer, the song may have been a very different foray into nostalgia.

As the Swinging Sixties were drawing to a close, several significant cultural events that would change the course of history forever unfolded. In the Summer of '69, newly elected US president Richard Nixon announced the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam as anti-war demonstrations on the home-front peaked; the first man walked on the moon; the Beatles recorded their final album, Abbey Road; and the gay community rioted after police raided New York City's Stonewall Inn, a watershed moment in the gay rights movement.

Meanwhile, a dark chapter was unfolding on America's west coast, as Charles Manson and his "Family" – a band of misfits and hippies, many of them young girls under the spell of the wild-eyed, Beatles-loving sociopath – went on a murderous spree, slaying seven people over two consecutive nights (August 9 and 10), including Sharon Tate, the actress and pregnant girlfriend of film director Roman Polanski.

"The Manson murders sounded the death knell for hippies and all they represented," the case's prosecuting lawyer Vincent Bugliosi said in 2009. "The '60s, the decade of love, ended on that night, on 9 August 1969."

But the free-spirited '60s still had one final card to play – Woodstock, the most infamous rock festival of all time, which took place between August 15 and 18, less than a week after the Manson murders horrified the nation.

Held on a rented dairy farm in Bethel, in the Catskill Mountains north-west of New York City, this muddy, chaotic weekend is considered to be a pivotal moment in music history, when 32 legendary acts performed before almost half a million drug-addled fans, many of whom had stormed the gates. It was a utopian dream that celebrated free music, free love and free spirits – what Rolling Stone magazine called "a long-awaited tribal gathering."

"As the earth dissolved into slime, the crowd burst into a joyous community," wrote the late music writer Jan Hodenfield. "In the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, everyone was in the same puddle."

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The most celebrated folk and rock stars of the day – including Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane – played against the odds in hazardous, torrential rain or, after being stuck in traffic jams, were choppered into the overcrowded venue at the last minute.

Many gave memorable, superlative performances. Joan Baez sang We Shall Overcome in the middle of a thunderstorm in support of her husband, who had been arrested for refusing to join the armed forces while the final act, Jimi Hendrix, played an acid version of The Star-Spangled Banner at 8.30 in the morning before a diminished, die-hard crowd. The moment was described by the rock critic from the New York Post as "the single greatest moment of the '60s".

Called "the greatest peaceful event in history" by Time magazine, Woodstock has become the most enduring symbol of the '60s; and despite numerous attempts to recapture the magic during subsequent festivals – including Woodstock anniversaries – no concert has ever surpassed it in terms of defining performances and controversy.

Fifty years on, however, it seems that drama continues to haunt the Woodstock name. While the original concert site at Bethel Woods – now a museum and Centre for the Arts – is quietly planning an anniversary celebration featuring live performances from Ringo Starr, Arlo Guthrie, Santana and the Doobie Brother, the original co-founder of the Woodstock concert, Michael Lang, has more grandiose plans.

"The original site in Bethel is wonderful, but much too small for what we're envisioning," Lang said on announcing Woodstock 50, a three-day event featuring 80 musical acts spanning various generations and music styles, headlined by Dead & Company, Jayz, The Killers and Mylie Cyrus.

From the outset, however, Lang's extravaganza has been mired with uncertainly, from permit issues, management problems, venue and line-up changes, and investor drop-outs resulting in protracted legal proceedings. As of writing, tickets for the concert have yet to go on sale; and organisers are still trying to secure a smaller concert venue, reducing audience capacity from the original 150,000 to just 50,000.

While Lang remains firm that the show will go on, comparisons have inevitably been drawn to the notorious debacle of 2017's Fyre Festival, when a proposed concert on an island in the Bahamas collapsed under the outrageous promises of a scam artist.

The legacy of Woodstock surely deserves better.

TWO OTHER WAYS TO RELIVE THE SUMMER OF '69

MOON LANDING PARTIES

On July 21, 1969, the collective eyes of the world were fixed on black-and-white TV screens as astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out of Apollo 11 and walked on the moon, uttering the now legendary words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Various NASA facilities across the USA will be holding commemorative events to celebrate the 50th anniversary. At the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama, there will be a homecoming dinner, dancing in the streets and a Guinness World Record attempt at the most simultaneous rocket launches on July 16 (the date of the Apollo 11 launch), plus a concert on moon-landing day (July 20). The Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be hosting a VIP gala on July 16; while in Denver, the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum will host a regional celebration called Apollopalooza. See rocketcenter.com; nasa.gov; wingsmuseum.org

MANSON MURDER TOURS

In what must be the most ghoulish commemoration of a 1969 event, Dearly Departed Tours will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by the Manson Family with a weekend of special activities, including a tour of the Spahn Ranch grounds (the primary residence of the Family) and a memorial service for the victims. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino's film about the event, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, is released on July 26 and is one of three movies about the event currently in production. Dearly Departed Tours also runs weekly Helter Skelter tours that visit the sites of the tragedy and reconstruct the lives of all involved. See dearlydepartedtours.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/unitedstates

FLY

Qantas, United and Delta fly to New York via Los Angeles daily. See qantas.com.au; united.com; delta.com

SEE

The Woodstock 50th anniversary celebrations are planned for the weekend of August 15 to 18.

For the Bethel Woods event, see bethelwoodscenter.org

For Woodstock 50 information, see woodstock.com

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