The Devil at Woodstock

I was a mere sixteen that Summer day
We all piled in a beat-up car and drove
To Woodstock, or someplace we had been told
That a great spectacle was to occur—
An earth-shaking event where all the stars
That lit a generation’s sky would be
Together, like an astronomical
Alignment—all their energies would merge,
And give voice to the coming brighter dawn
We all felt was awakening in those times— [10]
A spirit free of all the bitter strife
Our parents’ lives had known, and free of all
The forms of tyranny; the little rows
Of doll-houses in suburbs, where the chains
Of smug conformity, in silence grow,
And rigid, time-encrusted old beliefs,
That led the world in mad pursuit of power
To war and to the very brink of doom;
Again sat mute as merchants of that trade
Enslaved the beautiful Promethean fire [20]
Of Reason to their grim and violent ends—
Yes, even as we blithely breathed the air
Of Summer’s freedom in those sunny fields,
Across the world, in steamy jungle hells,
Our brothers bled and died and went insane,
And only last Summer, our cities burned,
When the last one of those great prophets fell,
And hatred, like a cataclysmic storm,
Loomed over the horizon of our lives;
And though we heard the voice of our own kind [30]
Proclaim the god-like feat that had been done,
As they stood on the face of a new world,
Across the radios and TV screens
Of our whole world, the weak and crackling sound
Fell as a lover’s words, when love is gone—
The bygone dreams of days that were no more.
For we were a new generation born
Not for the narrow realm of ordered thought,
The world of soulless men and cold machines,
And empty phrases that no one believed, [40]
But piously repeated, just the same;
Of gods who punished or rewarded men
As they obeyed like herded sheep, or not—
No! We were born to be the golden ones,
Free from all law save what was in our hearts,
And free from Time, but what each moment gave
To pleasure mind and body without guilt
That greatest of the chains of tyranny.
And so we came to the appointed place
And joined the thousands, walking on the roads [50]
Like pilgrims to some mystic, holy shrine,
And I became as if one of that throng
And lost myself in that great, surging crowd,
Becoming like a leaf borne on the winds
That came from where we knew not, but which drove
Our minds and bodies on as with a tide,
Where thought and feeling melted into one,
A moment with no future and no past,
Where I was free to passively observe,
Without the mirror of falsely judging eyes [60]
As if truly opened for the first time;
And I saw many things bizarre and new;
The wild profusion of free-growing hair,
And every possible exotic state
And hue of clothing, or of nakedness;
And people dancing mid the Summer corn
To waves of mystical, hypnotic tones,
And odors of hashish and cannabis
Which sweetly drifted over all that place,
Like incense in some ancient Doric rite; [70]
And just beyond the tumult of this scene,
Upon a path that led into the woods,
I noticed a lone figure sitting there,
With such a placid look upon his face,
Yet so intense, as if by force unseen,
I was drawn to him, and as I came near,
It seemed as if a gentle light played ‘round
His head and brightened with his widening smile,
And I could not resist a certain charm
That seemed to flow forth from his very form, [80]
For he was beautiful in that strange way
That blends the essence of woman and man;
Long, flowing locks and penetrating eyes,
Broad forehead, and that knowing, smiling mouth;
“What brings you here?” he said, as I stood there,
Not knowing what he meant, and so I said,
“Do you mean here with you, or do you mean
The here that is this general event,
Or here upon this earth to walk a time?”
“Good answer!” he replied, and with a laugh, [90]
Invited me to sit down by his side.
As we looked out upon that human sea,
The magic of his speech, like music, charmed
My soul into believing that we were
Above all place and time, and free to see
The hidden truths that guide the human heart.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” he said,
With almost a paternal love and pride,
“No single day in all those ancient times,
No pious rite or pagan spectacle [100]
Of Greece of Rome, no conquering warrior host,
No angry revolutionary mob,
Or zealous movement, marching in the streets
Will change the world as will this day,” he said,
And smiled as he stared far away, it seemed,
And I said, “who can tell what noble dreams
Are sleeping in the minds that gather here?”
“Nobility?” he said, with laughing sneer,
“No, pleasure is the only god who reigns
Today, as it will rule the Age to come— [110]
And he shall raise the Self above all else,
And make the universe revolve around
The sovran being, as if it were God,
And they will drink the power of that wine,
As each to each they smiling pass the cup,
Until they have forgotten that which once
Had bound their souls together, and the words
Which echo from the future and the past,
And even that great being who exists,
In whom they had believed in innocence, [120]
That great, eternal tyrant of the soul,
They will deny, or jealously reject,
As if he were the hated enemy.”
He fell into a long and silent smile,
“You speak of God,” I said, in reverent tone,
More out of fear for where these thoughts might lead,
He said, “He has no power here on earth,
Save what the minds of men have been deceived
To forfeit of their natural, true birthright—
For they are born of that same flesh and blood [130]
As all the creatures of this lovely earth,
And share with them the same deep, primal urge
To live and breathe each moment to the full,
And love and recreate in all the joy
That mind and spirit lend to pleasure’s sway;
And merging with that universal dance
Of Life, they find an immortality
Of joy and pleasure, ever born anew;
The Great Deceiver would have them believe
That they must sacrifice for some reward [140]
That never was, and robs them of the thing
That makes each moment like a paradise.”
And his words lulled my soul like opium,
As I gazed out across the teeming fields;
A myriad of beautiful young souls
Were sharing thoughts and feelings as a one,
All swaying to the same entrancing tones,
As if one, powerful wave that could rise up,
And sweep the world with its all-cleansing force,
And he said, “Yes, and they will come of age, [150]
Inheriting the reins of power in the world,
But still the freedom of this moment will,
Like half-remembered dreams, enchant their souls,
Then cold necessity will intervene,
Few will to their precious ideals stay true,
But rather justify their wild pursuit
Of money and material things, as means
To that imagined earthly paradise
That they believed themselves, alone, deserve;
And some will seek the power to impose [160]
The empire of their will upon the world,
And many will uphold them in their greed,
For they will seem to gain by loyalty,
And from the flattery of their self-love.
But as their power and riches multiply,
So does their taste for greater pleasure grow
In more insipid, mindless decadence,
So that those lords of plunder who exploit
The blood and sweat of the vast, aching world,
Must feed them ever more to satisfy [170]
Their lust and ever more rapacious greed;
And after their own lands have been sucked dry,
They will, by age-old logic, turn to war,
That ultimate corrupter of the soul—
And all will cheer as victims are contrived
And hatred for the enemy inflamed—
Their hearts will harden then, to the most cruel
And bestial methods of the ancient days—
For weakness will become the greatest sin—
But the most passionate in their vehemence [180]
Will be the pious ones who once confessed
That noble faith of human love and peace,
For love had long since vanished from their hearts,
That puling, weak and poisonous idea
Which plagued the world for two millennia,
That all are destined to an equal worth,
And with some innate sacredness are born—
For it was never so in Nature’s realm,
Where strength and beauty are their own reward,
And mankind, lacking this necessity, [190]
Will never rise to all that he can be—
Terrible and beautiful in his might,
Conquering all the universe he sees!”
When he had finished, something in his eyes
Seemed as if burning with unnatural fire,
That I had never seen, yet chilled my soul,
For I was impotent to answer him,
As I stood on the edge of an abyss
Of doubt and fear, for I could not deny
That all he saw existed like the seeds [200]
Of some dark tragedy, already sown
In this bright moment, and my darkest fears,
That often haunted me in feverish dreams—
A world gone mad, in which I roam alone
Among the ghostlike beings, unheard, unseen;
And as I wept, I thought I heard him say,
But only now like a voice from within,
“You will not have the strength to stand alone,
Forever alien to those creatures’ love.”
I walked away, and never looked behind, [210]
But heard him laugh in piercing mockery,
Which echoed in my soul throughout those days
And long into the years that passed since then,
Each time our common folly would fulfill
Somehow again, that fateful prophecy,
I heard that laugh, as I can hear it now,
Out in the street, in churches and in homes,
And in the very corridors of power.



Daniel R. Leach is a poet living in Houston, Texas. He has spent much of his life fighting for the ideals of classical culture and and poetry. His poems have been published on the 21st century classical poetry website More of his writings can be found here.

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16 Responses

  1. Amy Foreman

    Daniel, you created a riveting epic filled with evocative images, horror, confusion, and loss. Masterfully done.

    *change “born” to “borne” in line 54. 😉

  2. D Robin

    Long and harrowing going towards an expected bad but more permeating end. How much of the prophet character was ‘real’ and how much an amalgam of ideas and personalities?

    • Dan Leach

      It depends on whether you consider the devil to be real, as an independent force, or rather the principle of evil which manifests itself in human beings. Either way, the result is real. But no, there was no such person actually there, he was created out of my imagination, loosely modeled on types I had met over the years.

      • Gonzalinho da Costa

        A very provocative poem. I wonder how many are able to rise above the darkness and confusion you describe to arrive at a vision of clarity and light.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Do you know The Rolling Stones’ song from 1968, “Sympathy for the Devil”?

    “Let me introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste —
    Pleased to meet you — can’t you guess my name?”

    It is one of the most profoundly evil songs ever produced by rock ‘n’ roll, and is still bone-chilling.

    • Joe Tessitore

      I’ve read that what may be the devil’s most effective device is to get people to believe that he isn’t real.

      Of course those of us who live in New York State – where we celebrate the fact that we lock newborns in rooms by themselves and leave them to die – know that the devil is real, unless, of course, we number ourselves among the willfully blind.
      I can imagine Nurse Wratchet setting the alarm on her Smart Phone to remind her to go and collect the remains.
      Talk about bone-chilling.

  4. C.B. Anderson

    I haven’t read so much blank verse in many a year. Would you believe that I actually owned a ticket to that festival? Having just completed a 10,000-mile road trip from Connecticut to Mexico, up through California to Seattle and then across the northern border states back to the east coast, I sold that ticket to my friend with the car and the Texaco credit card. As it turned out, tickets were not exactly necessary to get into Woodstock. The most interesting thing that happened on that trip was that we smuggled a couple of pounds of marijuana into Arizona in a tubeless tire the day before Nixon put Operation Intercept into place. The moral of MY story is that there are stupid excesses committed on every side of the political spectrum. By the way, I’ve met that smiling witling many times.

  5. David Paul Behrens

    Although I unfortunately failed to attend the Woodstock event, I was travelling right by the site a week before it happened. I have a couple of friends who did attend, including my wife (before we met), who was there with her uncle, who worked with the crew that built the stage.

    As far as I can tell, there was no devil at Woodstock, only angels. Later that year, the Devil did show up at a festival, which was held at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The Hell’s Angels were hired as security, which turned out to be a big mistake. These “Angels” attacked concert audience members and even one of the performers. One person was murdered during the Rolling Stone’s performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” mentioned in one of the comments above.

    • DPB

      I doubt if this matters to anyone else but me, but I apologize for the misplaced apostrophe.

      • D Robin

        I like the rhythm and rhyme of this sentence:

        I doubt/ if this mat/ters to an/yone else/ but me/,

        but I/ apol/ogize/ for the mis/placed apost/rophe/.
        but/ I apol/ogize for/ the misplaced/ apos/trophe/.
        and a few other variations.

        However, DeePeeBee, the rogue apostrophe took a while to see.
        I think it apt that it got trapped in the end of the Devil’s friend.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Two students who were in attendance at my wife’s high school back in 1969 (a teenage boy and girl) decided to go up to Woodstock for that damned festival.

    They were never seen again, despite months and months of frantic investigation and searches by their family and friends, and by local police.

    I have a strong feeling that there are countless more untold horror stories about that Woodstock fiasco.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Joseph, and yet Bob Dylan receives a Nobel Prize. Can anything get more screwed-up? You bet it can; just stay tuned.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Kip, when that caterwauling guitar-plucker got the Nobel Prize for Literature, I fully realized that we were living in a true Dark Age.

  7. Denise Sobilo

    I almost let this excellent work slip past me; being of the Woodstock generation, but definitely not “with it,” I was not in the mood for a nostalgic paean to the pleasure principle. Then I saw the full title of the work on The Imaginative Conservative website: “The Devil at Woodstock.” That’s more tin line with my assessment of the counterculture experience. Glad I read the poem, for both matter and form.
    Readers might be interested to explore the curious, and disturbing at least to me, connections between the occult and sex, drugs, and rock and roll, as explained in “Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius” by Gary Valentine Lachman.

    • D Robin

      ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ — It seems to me that not only musicians and fans of that psychedelic generation succumbed to excesses of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Contemporary ‘youth’ or ‘popular’ ‘music’ in its many derivations is well dug into sentimental and obsessive sexual encounters, not longterm relationships (even in country music); normalisation and overindulgence in stimulants; and rolls of money and glittering possessions. This goes beyond heavy, thrash, death, or satanic metal bands, or self-harming goths. There are contemporary examples of ‘pop artists’ openly linking to demonic entities.
      I’m not a wincing granny, just making observations from the touchline.

  8. Monty

    Those who were there were always gonna be there; and those who weren’t were never gonna be . . never could’ve been.


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