Published on September 6th, 2019 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden
In his book, Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden, Harkins injects new life into a topic that’s been covered extensively.
When we were both Grad students in the 1990s, Thomas Harkins and I would have some deep discussions about music filled with humor and respect for each other’s tastes. Oh, they could be very different, with me being the punker and him the grunge-lovin’ hippie into Classic Rock. And yet, we found enough common ground to keep our conversations lively.
The FAQ series by Backbeat is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not as the acronym states “Frequently Asked Questions,” but rather more as the phonetic sounding of FAQ / Facts. Like Harkins’ previous book from 2016, Pearl Jam FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Seattle’s Most Enduring Band (co-written with Bernard M. Corbett), he takes both a deep look through a fans eyes, without being too sentimental, yet manages to keep it quite personal at the same time. Feel the love, and light your candle in the rain.
In the introduction to his book, Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden, Harkins rightfully states that Woodstock “is considered by many to have been the definitive sociocultural event of the 1960s. It is also widely considered the most famous concert of all time.” In my opinion, the Monterrey Music Festival was the prologue and Altamont the conclusion, with Woodstock being the body of the text, if you’ll pardon a print-era analogy.
Harkins takes a topic that has been covered extensively and wisely uses a few formulas that work quite well. For example, he starts with how the 3 Days Festival of Music and Art came to fruition, and then discusses each and every band and/or musician who played over those days. In most of other missives I’ve read that are dedicated to the sometimes grueling weekend, there is a ton written about the main players (e.g., Janis, Jimi, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), or they are mentioned right off the bat, and some of the lesser knowns (Quill, the Keef Hartley Band, the Incredible String Band, etc.) tend to fall by the wayside or as a footnote. Here, Harkins thoughtfully goes chronologically through each and every one who performed. Nice touch, as some of the bands that didn’t make the cut of the film or initial LPs are the ones I am less familiar with and want to learn about more thoroughly.
Each of the chapters referring to the bands are usually broken into three separate sections (with rare exceptions, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who each get a prelude). The leadup to Woodstock (i.e., the history of the band and its members) is subtitled “As the Seeds Were Sown,” the Festival experience for that artist or group is “In the Garden,” and the post-experience “The Harvest Reaped.” Each subtitle is followed by a relative quip, such as “Airplanes, Starships, and a Side of Hot Tuna” for Jefferson Airplane’s later period.
What’s also impressive is that inasmuch as Harkins is a fan, he also is not afraid to shy away from disruptive personalities, nor is he reluctant to discuss substance abuses (like, was there anyone there who wasn’t completely zonked on stage, other than probably Ravi Shankar?). It’s in the third, post-concert section where this is especially true, with too many of those falling into obscurity due to their own self-destructive devices and dependencies (or of their management pulling power plays with the filmmakers during the festival, for example).
Despite the number of pages, most bands are given a few and concise sheets to sum up their histories and experiences, which is fine, because as I stated, there has been a lot written about that period, including by performers in their autobiographies, and not all of them match the actual history of certain events, which Harkins also wisely addresses.
The final chapter deals with the aftermath of the Woodstock Festival, including the films and follow-up concerts that were Woodstock-centric (e.g., anniversaries). Harkins is correct to say that part of the lasting legacy of the weekend was the film that followed, more so I believe more than the three-record soundtrack that was released at first (there have been ever expanded versions of the concert that have been circulated since). One testament to this book is that after finishing it, it inspired me to seek out other media sources and find videos of the performances and spent some time with those.
The book is thoroughly researched, and there is lots of information for those of us who just don’t have the time (or inkling) to read the mass amounts of tomes written about the subject. This is a beautifully concise snapshot full of excitement about a topic of love and scholarly fanship.