Sha Na Na at Woodstock: History Inside of (Fake) History

When you think of a rock star writhing his way through a solo at Woodstock, you think of Jimi Hendrix, or possibly Alvin Lee or Santana. Or, in my case, I think of Rob Leonard, who sang “Teen Angel” for Sha Na Na.

I always loved how the guys of Sha Na Na seemed like they were bursting out of their sequins at Woodstock. I’d heard John Entwistle say on the radio long ago that The Who were miserable there, because they weren’t politically radical at all – Townsend in fact is quite conservative – but also, not least, because they got dosed by acid in the coffee. I mean, you might want to mention to somebody about to go onstage, “By the way, there’s LSD in that.”

I was already familiar with Sha Na Na from 1980s TV,when I heard them sing “At the Hop” in the Woodstock movie. They seemed like a seasoned troupe of doo-wop devotees from deep in the 718 area code finally letting its greasy hair down. It was lovely how they subtly responded to the occasion, yet dutifully hit all their cheesy marks, and the hippies politely paid their respects.

It turns out, that’s not how it went at all. Far from working class musical purists, Sha Na Na had only recently been formed at the time by members of a Columbia University a capella group. The very same Rob Leonard, now a linguistics professor at Hofstra, wrote in a Columbia alumni magazine a few years ago that the explicit purpose of the band was to appeal to a pre-Vietnam War teenage Eden to calm down the bloated rhetoric of intolerance versus revolution that was causing physical fights at Columbia.

Leonard’s older brother George, a founding member of Sha Na Na who was reading Susan Sontag at the time, called the band’s first performance “The Glory That Was Grease” as a reference to an Edgar Allen Poe line, “The Glory That Was Greece.” Grease, as in the male hair product, only became the emblem of that generation after the fact, after hippies had turned male hair into a hunk of cultural vocabulary. No one used the word “greaser” till the 1970s when they were writing imagined stories about life in the ’50s. Touchingly, Rob Leonard’s article is a sort of mea culpa. Scholars are pointing out that Sha Na Na started a wave of 1950s nostalgia that served the political reaction for a whole generation, and Leonard doesn’t dispute that.

The story goes, Jimi Hendrix himself asked Sha Na Na to perform at Woodstock second to last, before his finale, and you can see him in the “Teen Angel” clip, apparently enjoying the set from the side of the stage. You can’t help but suspect that he was using them as a setup, to show how far rock and roll had come in just a decade; these songs were newer at the time than the White Stripes or Norah Jones are now. Or I like to think that maybe he just liked the songs. In my experience, visionary artists are usually respectful of traditions, even the ones that they’ve uprooted. Anyway, to paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can’t shake my ass to Sha Na Na, I don’t want to be a part of your acid subculture.