It’s 1969 and another hot and humid summer in the city of Boston. Not much happening when, as a musician, you have no gig, no prospects for a gig and no money to speak of. Word has it there’s going to be a happening, a human be-in, a gathering of the tribe of sorts, at some small town called Woodstock in upstate New York. For me, it was to be the biggest rock concert of my 21 years and money or no money, I HAD to make it there some way, some how.
Oh, I suppose I should mention not only was I a little short on cash but had no wheels as well. Not to worry; just like the time-worn joke recants “What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?” (Answer: “Homeless”), my girlfriend Geraldine owned a car and was happy—well, maybe not happy—-but willing to lend it to me just as long as I didn’t insist that she go along. She was a Buffy St. Marie fan & cared not a whit about the likes of Hendrix, Country Joe, Janis or the Who. Little did she know of the magic spell that folk artist Joan Baez was to weave soon enough…but I get ahead of myself.
So now, I’ve got a car, a destination and with John & Howie— two pals from BC (my alma mater, Boston College, where I gave up Catholicism for Lent in 1967, never to reclaimed it)—we headed on our way loaded with our 3-day provisions: a tent barely big enough for two, a loaf of Wonder bread, half a jar of peanut butter-‘n-jelly-in-a-jar, two quarts of chocolate milk and enough weed & MDA to last us through the weekend. Yes indeed, we were ready!!! No tickets, mind you, but we figured we would cross that bridge if & when we got that far. John & I were into it for the incredible music that was sure to follow. Howie, on the other hand, was the editor for the local SDS newspaper/fish wrap and joining us with the hopes of a chance to radicalize the masses. His most prized possession: a press release touting the event as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”
Once we loaded the car, off we trekked westward on the Mass Pike, figuring that with any luck, we’d cover the 200 miles in 3 hours and arrive before the first downbeat. Wrong, oh so very wrong!! With radio reports of traffic backups of ridiculous proportions on the New York State Thruway, I decided we needed to abandon our planned route and take to the blue line highways. There must be other routes that could guide us to circumnavigate our approach to the Promised Land and I was going to find them come hell or high water. I didn’t realize at the time how prescient that was to be. High water, that is.
Nevertheless, 7 hours later, after meandering our way in the dark through western Massachusetts & the Catskills of NY, we finally got to that bridge I mentioned. In truth, there was no bridge. Instead, the bridge took the form of a uniformed rent-a-cop proudly standing in front of a barricade and motioning every vehicle blocking my damn way to creep ever so slowly forward toward him and then forcing all to turn right rather then proceed straight ahead to what must surely be the entry to the late 60’s teenagers’ version of Disneyland—-Woodstock! It was at that “defining moment in time” (with apologies to Barack—he was to have his later, it’s my turn now), as I approached the barricade, that I impulsively yelled for Howie to hand me that press release. Rolling down the window, I shoved it to the guardian at the gate and in frantic desperation screamed “We have to be on stage with Richie Havens in 20 minutes!” Next thing you know, Shazam! Like magic, up goes the barricade, we’re waved straight ahead and in we go! “LOFAO” hadn’t been vernacularized back then but is a pretty good description of the hysterical laughter that convulsed us as I continued our drive—late as it might have been— toward the promised land.
So if you’ve read this far, that’s basically my Woodstock entry story—one I’ve told and retold many times—and the kinship I feel to this day with Richie Havens. What went on while there, well, I’m sure I don’t have to go on but go on I will. It was a pretty big party, not all that many tickets sold, not all that many tickets bought and, ultimately, no tickets needed at all. Come to think of it, no clothes needed either….a good time was had by most. The only person who I knew who didn’t find it much to his liking was my pal Howie, the great SDS organizer. He lasted but the one night, sleeping in the car and hitchhiking out the next morning; too freaked out by the enormous crowd, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To his credit, however, he contributed his part what with his “stage pass” credentials. This managed to get us within 2 miles of the stage—in retrospect, a somewhat remarkable feat— where we parked, John & I hiking in to get closer before pitching the tent in the black of night.
Oh, yeah and that folk singer, Joan Baez—the single performer we could hear from our camp site late on night one. Once the tent was pitched and in our exhaustion from the days tribulations, we climbed into our sleeping bags and were treated to the sound of her singing a version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” At 1 AM, her voice cutting through the night like a shooting star, we were treated to her magic, pure sweet magic.
Until the magic disappeared to be replaced by what seemed the longest night of my life. Gone was Joan’s soaring soprano voice; in its place came the rain. And more rain. What started as a light summer sprinkle, a not completely unworthy compliment to her acapella stylings that hinted at the impending promise of the next 3 days turned quickly into a full-fledged deluge, complete with lightning bolts and thunderous claps that made sleeping a complete impossibility. As the night dragged on, trying to find that sweet spot where the ground below me levelled out, where the persistent nagging of the sharply pointed pebbles below me refused to surrender to my tossing and turning, I became aware of the failure of our tent installation. What started as a drizzle—a drip, drip, drip of rain water—- was now a torrent that permeated not only the tent but my raggedy sleeping bag and its insomniac inhabitant as well. I was soaked. What started with the promise of a music event unlike anything ever experienced before to be fueled by a mass gathering hell-bent on consciousness-expansion, was rapidly turning into a nightmare filled with dread, regret, and no sleep. That is until the next morning when a stranger, completely unknown to me— what we used to call a hippie back then— turned the table on the sleepless night and showed in his small act of generosity the spirit that was representative of Woodstock as an event for the ages.
Giving up on sleeping past the dawn and knowing the rain had finally agreed to a cease-fire, I arose, getting out of my drenched sleeping bag in order to inspect my surroundings. Tents —tents far more securely-erected than mine— dotted the hillside as far as my eye could see with their inhabitants stirring about surveying the scene as well. The aroma of bacon, grilled on small propane-fueled grills started to permeate the air and with it came my own hunger accompanied hand-in-hand by my gnawing uncertainty about what breakfast I might be able to finagle beyond yet another PB & J sandwich. With the newly revived PA system turned back on, Chip Munck, the voice, that great voice of Woodstock, began blaring a steady stream of announcements: “Donna, meet Jim at the staging area,” “Harold Conover, call your mother ASAP, she’s worried about you” and the warnings we were to hear repeated over and over ad nauseam, “It’s your trip but we suggest you do not take the brown acid.”
Just as my rational mind started to plumb the depths of despair—What was there to eat? Who would provide it? When should I drop the MDA and become inured to the dilemma in which I found myself?— bounding up the hill came an unknown hippie, singing a song to himself and all others within his range, stretching out the phrases so as to accommodate his steady chomping on a cucumber. As he came upon me, he offered a bite which I promptly declined. As he started back up the hill, I muttered as much to myself as to him that I had never even tasted a cucumber and like that, he spun around and offered me a whole cuke, letting me gently know how profoundly deprived I was by my self-imposed restriction. To this day, I can’t slice a cucumber for a salad without thinking of that hippee and how he changed my attitude about my time there. What started as a simple act of kindness from a stranger kindled the campfire that was to become a resounding remembrance of my time at Woodstock, much as similar random acts of kindness did for the 400,000 plus of us in attendance—the mind-bending huddled masses yearning to be high and dry.
And dry we stayed on Saturday—until we weren’t. Saturday morning took its time to unveil itself. The overnight rain had stopped but the clouds look as threatening as Keith Moon behind a drum set—impossible to know what lay ahead but exciting, to be sure. Once John joined me outside our shambles of a tent we began to plan our day: what clothes (if any) to wear, how and where to get food, when to carve out our spot at the concert site, when to drop our psychedelics—the sorts of needs that resembled a kind of twisted Maslow’s hierarchy.
Given my more modest upbringing, I decided clothes were a definite maybe leaning more toward a yes, although seeing the naked bathers (“Wow! Do you see what I’m seeing? What a groovy look chick.”) as we trekked on in hopes of finding a morsel of a meal made me wish I could throw caution and my still wet clothes to the wind and join in their fun.
What we found, where we found it and what we ate—I really have no memory of any of this. Once we realized what was happening, that we were part of the single largest one day population explosion in the world, it really didn’t seem to matter that much. Finding a place to sit among our new circle of 400,000 friends became our most important and challenging task; one which we eventually achieved with a minimum of disruption. It’s remarkable what a few “Hey man, I’m sorry about stepping on your toes like that” and “Whoops, I guess I’m a little more loaded than I thought” can do when stumbling your way among a crowd of 400,000 exceedingly stoned freaks.
No sooner had we plunked ourselves down among our newly-found friends to hear Quill, the opening band (“Who are these guys, anyway?”), than the rains came again. This time they crescendoed with a persistent fierceness that normally would have killed the buzz that percolated through the throng. But punctuated by an occasional ray of sun that offered the slighest sliver of hope, a dogged-determination to hear some of our heroes, and the reality there was no good way to gimme shelter (Oh Stones, where art Thou?), we sucked it up and got wet yet again. That is until a bit later in the afternoon when, as if on cue from the heavens above, out came the warming sun to be quickly accompanied by some unknown band from San Francisco. Bursting forth with a driving conga rhythm and playing the appropriately titled tune “Waiting”, Santana laid into their first East Coast performance, ultimately leaving themselves and the adoring audience thrilled and exhausted from the sheer energy exchanged by each. They were spectacular in creating the perfect groove: driving, percussive rhythm; rolling, swirling organ; and the searing, stinging guitar stylings of Carlos Santana—a perfect performance that firmly plant them in rock history as one of the most infectious and important bands of the next several decades. For the hour they played, they absolutely owned Woodstock and Woodstock loved them for putting the event back on its axis.
So, sure there were other bands, some with bigger names and much better known. Many of them I had seen prior to that day in August (Hendrix, Cocker, Sly) and many after it (The Band, The Dead, Janis). Some, like The Who, I saw and heard both before and long after. But this is my remembrance—most of what I have left of it, that is—- and given that, I have to say nothing surpassed the wave of pure energy, the collective spirit that coalesced as the sun shone on us all, providing a measure of respite from the rains, a marked relief that made the comments of the festival’s land owner, Max Yasgur ring true. In his own words for the brief moment in time that will never be forgotten by those who were there Woodstock proved that “a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and God bless you for it!”
And God bless that cucumber, too!