Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Woodstock, Wadleigh and South Africa

A view of the Woodstock festival in August, 1969. With an estimated half a million people in attendance, it is incredible the infrastructure lasted as well as it did. Notice how the crowd seems to press up against a flimsy-looking wooden wall, separating the throng from the performers and backstage organisers.

Michael Wadleigh was certainly a global rock legend – because as director of the feature film documenting the 1969 Woodstock Festival he brought the music and culture of the late 1960s to a global audience, and in so doing helped shape a generation or two.

But he has a few things to explain regarding comments he has made about the release of the film in apartheid South Africa – where I grew up – in the early 1970s.

For instance, he claims the movie was banned in South Africa. Yet I remember clearly watching it, around 1971, in a church hall in Oxford Street, East London.

Wadleigh makes other bizarre claims in a recent book about the seminal Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which saw over half a million fans converge on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York in a unique display of hippie love spanning four days.

Michael Wadleigh today.

I was just 12 when the event occurred, and it featured many of the rock and folk music heroes I had grown up with, including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joan Baez, Ten Years After, Canned Heat and Crosby Stills and Nash. Conspicuously absent were the Beatles, who were in the process of disintegrating, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, who lived not far from the site.

When the triple vinyl album – the world’s first – came out, my generation of rock lovers became honorary members of the Woodstock Nation as we soaked up that momentous occasion. It was all about love and peace, and miraculously passed without any major incidents, despite people battling to obtain food, water and shelter as rainstorms turned the venue into a sea of mud. It was also an overt challenge to the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Of course we had our own “Nam” – a growing insurrection in northern Namibia (South West Africa) – which was another theatre in the Cold War that followed the Second World War and ended around 1990 with the collapse of communism. Kids my age were all facing a long “sentence” of military conscription, which drove us into the hippie, anti-war camp.

A year after the August, 1969, Woodstock festival, Wadleigh and his team of editors had pruned 172 hours of footage to a more manageable 3-and-a-half hour film which would go on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature. The film is a classic, breaking new ground in many technical areas, including the use of split screens.

New York disc jockey Pete Fornatale was among those who actually advertised the Woodstock festival on his show, and has been part of the New York City radio scene for over 40 years. In his 2009 book, “Back to the Garden: The story of Woodstock and how it changed a Generation” – which I have just read – he really puts the whole Woodstock phenomenon into context, with intriguing new facts and interviews with many of the key role players.

In the epilogue, however, I was suddenly struck by an alarming assertion from the film’s director, Michael Wadleigh. Interviewed for the book, Wadleigh speaks about the film’s impact internationally. He says: “The film was banned in South Africa. The film was so popular – we’re talking back in apartheid times – that people in South Africa demanded to see it. Of course, we had these black performers on the stage, which was completely forbidden. You could not have black and white people together at a performance. Or certainly performing on the same stage, even separately.”

Now, as noted earlier, I can’t recall it being banned, but I may be wrong. I do know musicians were barred from performing together, which was one of the big challenges people like Johnny Clegg bravely overcame. But let’s see what else he says: “So I went to South Africa and was greeted by tons of press. They interviewed me, asked me all these questions, took all these photographs, and the next day the press came out and there were no pictures of me at all except from my high school days when I had very short hair. There was an embargo on putting up shots of long-haired people. Then I found out that they nearly shaved my head at my (sic) airport. This happened to me any number of times.”

Are there any people out there who remember these times? I’ve done a comprehensive google search and been unable to find out if the film was banned. I know there was no embargo on publishing pictures of long-haired hippies, although it wouldn’t surprise me if verkrampte newspapers deliberately excluded such pictures at a time when schools, for instance, insisted on boys having short back and sides haircuts.

I can’t believe his story about them shaving people’s heads at airports either. Perhaps someone who was involved in the apartheid era censorship and other repressive machinery could enlighten us.

My gut feeling is that, like so many other left-wing journalists and activists of the time, he exaggerated the whole thing. But let’s see what else he says.

“After giving this huge press conference, the thing that struck me was that I had never been in a country with such power of censorship. They simply had the ability with the newspapers to take out anything. And here all these reporters had asked me all these questions and taken all these pictures. They were completely innocuous comments in the articles. Nothing I had talked about: I had talked about American immigration, I had quoted Martin Luther King – talked about all this stuff. It was completely taken out. It was an amazing, amazing experience for me.”

I doubt – and here veteran journalists may be of help – that there was that sort of censorship of reporting. Certainly not among the more liberal English-language papers, anyway.

Then this contradiction. Earlier Wadleigh says the film was banned. Later he says: “The next thing that was amazing was that they opened the movie and they had cut out all the black performers. And they had cut any audience close-up where you could see a black person. They had ripped out Richie Havens, Sly (and the Family Stone), Santana because there was a black guy in the group. And once again I went to the journalists to say something and it did not work.”

So now it seems the film was indeed shown, but with all the black musicians and fans cut out. Well, not the version I saw back in 1971/2, a highlight of which was the concluding performance of Jimi Hendrix, who was hardly white. But then again the showing I saw may have been done clandestinely by the church where we saw it in a large hall, with a short of David Bowie singing Space Oddity. If there is anyone reading this who recalls the actual events, please let us know through this blog.

Wadleigh’s final paragraph has more than a ring of truth to it, however.

“To make a long story short, I made a couple of films secretly in South Africa about apartheid, and during one of my times there, I was in a Volkswagen with a very famous filmmaker and journalist, and we were struck by a truck. I was in a coma in a hospital and nearly died, as did he. It turned out it was the secret police who had rammed us. While we were in hospital, of course, they took all the film equipment that was in the van, then they went to this guy’s house and took everything. After I was released from the hospital, they put me in jail for a while and said, ‘You can either leave the country or continue in jail’. That was it.”

Makes one wonder who the famous filmmaker was he was with. I wonder if anyone recalls this incident – either from the side of the apartheid state, or those who may have worked with Wadleigh.

If anyone can shed some light on these issues, please feel free to do so.

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