People rest at the campground of the Woodstock Music Festival during the weekend of August 15-18 1969 in Bethel near Woodstock, the US. Picture: AFP/ANNIE BIRCH
People rest at the campground of the Woodstock Music Festival during the weekend of August 15-18 1969 in Bethel near Woodstock, the US. Picture: AFP/ANNIE BIRCH

New York — Hundreds of thousands of people peacefully communing for a weekend of music, free love and mind-expanding drugs — in today’s era of mass shootings, the popular free-wheeling image of Woodstock can seem a bit naive.

Major events in the US now are not complete without metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, bag inspections — and the paranoia that a gunman could be in the crowd.

Law enforcement officials say the chances of a Woodstock-like gathering organically springing up again are slim.

“It’s a very, very different environment than it was 50 years ago,” said Stuart Cameron, the police chief in New York’s Suffolk County on Long Island. An event akin to the original Woodstock is “not something we would allow to have happen”, Cameron said. “We’re concerned about the public safety risks.”

Reports from the era are conflicting, but two people are believed to have died at Woodstock in 1969 — one who was run over by a tractor cleaning up, and one of a drug overdose.

Security at the four-day music extravaganza on a farm north of New York was quaint as compared with today’s standards.

Organisers flew in members of The Hog Farm, now considered to be the longest-running hippie commune in the US. The group served food and tended to festival-goers experiencing bad LSD trips in “freakout tents”, while members of the “Please Force” asked revellers politely to keep the peace.

When food ran out, benevolent local residents started donating provisions.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 festival, one of its original organisers, Michael Lang, had hoped to put on a bash for the ages, with some 80 acts ranging from original participant Santana to Jay-Z.

But unlike in the good old days, he and his team could not just find a farmer willing to host when his original site fell through, erect some semblance of fencing and hope for the best.

The dream of Woodstock 50 morphed into a nightmare and ultimately failed, as this year’s organisers were denied permit after permit over issues like medical care plans, adequate water supply, food safety and security personnel.

“Everyone is very safety conscious in this day and age. Far more health conscious,” said Cameron. “People assume if they buy food at an event, it’s safe to eat — that if they get injured, there will be an ambulance. Back then, I don’t know if that was necessarily assumed.”

Changed society

Beyond issues of sanitation, the rise in mass killings in recent years, including at concerts both open-air and indoors, has diminished the likelihood of another mass gathering like Woodstock from occurring — and the prospect that attendees would even want to attend an event as lax as it was.

Later in 1969, California’s Altamont music festival ended in tragedy, with four people dying, including one killed by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, which had been hired and tasked with securing the event.

A Woodstock commemoration festival in 1999 was marred by reports of violence, looting, fires and rape.

Paris’s Bataclan concert hall was the site of a massacre in 2015 during a coordinated terror attack on the French capital.

In 2017, a gunman sprayed bullets over a concert in Las Vegas, killing scores of concertgoers. That same year, an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester ended in fatal tragedy after what authorities said was a suicide bombing.

“I don’t know that people would aspire to go to an event that doesn’t have adequate security in this day and age,” Cameron said.

The music festival circuit has of course boomed in recent decades — Coachella, Glastonbury and Lollapalooza are all prominent examples — but they are expensive, regulated and fortified with security gates, sensors and guards.

Retired New York police detective-sergeant Joseph Giacalone worked for decades forming detailed security plans for events like the New Year’s Eve party in Times Square.

For Giacalone, over the years, “every dynamic has changed in law enforcement, and how you go about policing these kinds of events”.

“The big thing used to be smuggling in drugs and alcohol, but now it’s people bringing in weapons of mass destruction and killing everybody,” he said.

“It’s not that we didn’t have mass shootings before, but they were few and far between,” Giacalone said, citing the 1966 tower shooting massacre in Austin, Texas, that remained the deadliest such event in the US for 18 years.

“The fabric of society has changed over the last 20 or 30 years,” he said, saying that the perceived utopia of the Woodstock festival simply could not happen again given those shifts.

“It’s never going to be the same experience for people who remember the sixties,” Giacalone said.