Nowadays, if we had 400,000 American kids crazy on drugs, making love in canoes while people on the shoreline cheered the advent of the Just Say Yes generation ... thrashing naked in the mud, sitting in trees playing guitars, selling dope with the same civic self-congratulation as people selling raffle tickets to support the Fourth of July fireworks ... Of course, a lot of other Americans did panic about Woodstock back when it happened, 20 years ago starting today, but there weren't enough of them that Life magazine couldn't sell a Woodstock special edition, presumably to the same people who now get nostalgic over the "Woodstock Moments" on cable TV. There may even be hand-painted heirloom-quality plates showing people swimming in their underpants, or a Franklin Mint medal cast in honor of the miles of New York state thruway where people abandoned their cars and lit out on foot for the drugs and the music, for the most important place in America those three days, the omphalos, the scene where it was, as we used to say, happening. But we've forgotten the considerable dismay that was also happening over Woodstock among the kind of people who worked in factories and took a certain pride in serving in Vietnam. For one thing, they hadtoo much sense and true class to get involved in a mud-fest fantasy like Woodstock. For another ... Mmmmm, they said, primal forces unleashed by demon rock-and-roll! Mmmmm, armies of the Big Id, soon to be marching out of Haight-Ashbury and the East Village, looking for our women and our canned goods! Mmmmm, George Wallace for President! As it turned out, they didn't have to worry about a lot of what they worried about. Those three days of "peace and music" and "Aquarian festival" became one of those words like Watergate, describing a niche in the American psyche, although it's worth noting we've had quite a few -gates since the first one (Koreagate, Irangate and so on) while nobody ever seems to put -stock after anything. Maybe this is because the Just Say No people have gained some on the people who just said yes. In any case, what we are commemorating is a gathering 400,000 white kids (mostly) of the 1960s college persuasion, a generation with a lot of moves but not much muscle, a generation with all the soul of a glass of water, even if it was the purest of pure mountain spring water, the richest children in the history of the world, these white kids, who never even paused to imagine the possibility that they couldn't find a job. It was a generation for which something had clearly gone wrong -- some valve had gotten stuck on the great steam engine of Dr. Freud during the McCarthy years or maybe it just happened one night down in the rumpus room, watching "Sing Along With Mitch" with the whole family. But it wasn't the kind of grievance that made them dangerous, the way black grievances made blacks a political power -- this was a generation so lame that it couldn't even scare J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, couldn't rustle up a presidential commission or a congressional hearing after three straight days in Bethel, N.Y., violating every law of God, man, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce while the whole country heard about it on television. If these kids had been anybody else, we would really have taken Woodstock seriously, rather than just thinking we were taking it seriously. Or being taken by it, seriously. And we did get taken, particularly by the notion that these kids knew something that nobody else did. The hippies picked up on this right away. Suddenly the Woodstock generation was not wonderfully young, but wonderfully old, somehow, full of wisdom, a kind of Druidic savvy signaled by long hair, walking staffs and face paint accompanied by the thousand-yard squint they'd get after smoking marijuana. There was much wisdom. There was talk about Spaceship Earth, getting back to the land, getting out of linear and into mosaic, quoting Kurt Vonnegut about how you are what you pretend to be or Buckminster Fuller saying, "I seem to be a verb." Fuller seemed to be a genius for designing the geodesic dome, leaks and all, and something called the "dymaxion car," which you can still find pictures of in libraries. Or maybe they didn't talk at all, they were beyond that, and the "power structure" would have to learn to "see the words in a scarf. A revolution in a body-shirt. An encyclopedia in the frames of glasses" -- this last being from the essay in the program for the concert. Anyway, the stoneder they got, the older they were. They weren't Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," they were Walter Brennan in "My Darling Clementine." "Medieval, very medieval," says Paul Kantner in a book called "Woodstock -- An Oral History." Kantner was with a band called Jefferson Airplane. "Perhaps Renaissance, not full blown Renaissance -- muddy Renaissance." Then Kantner recalls a line that was pure '60s in its mixture of mysticism, down-home common sense and utter gibberish. He was at the back of the stage tripping on LSD, he says, and it was decided to clear the stage for fear that it would sink into the mud. "Most everybody went except me, who was just glued to the floor sitting next to a big mound of Roquefort cheese, which was all we had to eat at the moment because there was no food: it was primitive on a level of stagecraft. 'No, I'm not moving, because I'm the person with the cheese.' " Mmmmm, I'm not moving because I'm the person with the cheese ... And the cheese stands alone. (This means nothing -- it's just a line from "The Farmer in the Dell.") The biggest hustle that came out of Woodstock was the idea that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who had been at Woodstock and those who hadn't; those who were over 30 and those who didn't trust anybody over 30; those who were on the bus and those who were off the bus; those who understood and those who did not understand. The problem was, the world is also divided into two other kinds of people -- those who divide it into two kinds of people and those who don't. In any case, the Woodstock generation planned on building a new world all by itself. As Country Joe McDonald (he led the famous four-letter obscenity cheer) said, "These people like to get together and see each other and prove that they are real." As the Whole Earth Catalogue said, "We are as Gods and might as well get good at it." Never mind that they said the snake was right when he tempted Eve, this time around we had seen the future and it was not only a lot of fun, it could be just like James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo playing Daddy, Mommy and Sonny forever in the abandoned mansion in "Rebel Without a Cause," except that they'd never have to leave the mansion. Woodstock wasn't something whose meaning you have to figure out. It was a meaning whose something you have to figure out. Everybody knew what it meant -- a new generation, strawberry fields forever, better living through chemistry, reality is a crutch, peace, love, free John Sinclair (Pete Townshend bashed Abbie Hoffman with his guitar for busting into the Who's set with a speech about freeing John Sinclair, a Detroit radical), we've got to get back to the garden, a gathering of the tribes and so on. But what actually happened? People got stoned and listened to rock-and-roll in the mud. That's what happened. This is why all the recent oral histories of Woodstock bore you after about 10 minutes. Everybody's saying the same thing. You can skip from page to page stringing phrases together: "We were sort of iffy about the entire New York state thruway, and while we were building these little hot dog stands it was declared an emergency. He says, 'You took a little acid and it's going to wear off.' But the rain only added to the mystique ..." You get the idea. If American music had changed or improved since Woodstock we wouldn't be talking about Woodstock right now any more than we'd have been sitting around in 1959 talking about Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert. But it hasn't. It's the same old stuff, the only difference is a dead quality, like the music in the last years before rock-and-roll, the crooners such as Vaughn Monroe singing "Riders in the Sky" or novelty records such as "Open the Door, Richard" on Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" every Saturday morning on radio out of New York. Horrible. As a matter of fact, rock-and-roll is one of the few things that hasn't changed since Woodstock. Rock musicians were the first longhairs, and the first celebrities to run up to documentary movie cameras sticking their tongues out, and they're the last. You missed Woodstock, check out MTV's coverage of the heavy metal festival in Moscow over the weekend. What has changed, in fact, is that you can divide the last 20 years into halves. The first half, you were sorry you'd missed Woodstock. The second half, you were sorry you'd missed Vietnam. It's interesting how veterans of both tell people who went to neither that they missed something, but probably not as much as they think.