A personal reflection from the thick of the Woodstock weekend 50 years ago
So much of Woodstock weekend is a blur. We arrived very late Friday night/Saturday morning, missed all the first day’s music, dropped our sleeping bags on a far-off hilly part of the field, and crashed.
After that, what? Where did we eat, go to the bathroom? You’ve seen the drugs and nudity in the movie, so you know that part. The music, well, condensed into split-screen highlight-reel chunks, it looks pretty exciting, right? But imagine trudging through all that upstate New York traffic, abandoning the car, and walking and walking to a farm, getting a few hours of sleep, waking up, waiting another few hours, and the first thing you hear is the sound of Quill. Meanwhile, back in New York City, where we might have stayed, Nina Simone and B.B. King were playing for free at the Harlem Cultural Festival. A week earlier, my friends and I had seen Jefferson Airplane and Santana in Central Park, and just since that May we’d caught Sly &the Family Stone, The Who (already taking up the majority of their set with Tommy), and Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Fillmore East. Why did we make the grueling schlep up to the Catskills, anyway? To get stoned in the great outdoors? To see pubic hair and the Keef Hartley Band?
We bought advance tickets and went because everyone we knew was going, and because it promised a significant level of grooviness, which as history has told us, was achieved. People got along (whee!), pot was plentiful, food wasn’t, there were long stretches when nothing was happening on stage, and people jumped in the lake. There was rain. It was kind of boring. After Quill kicked things off on Saturday, Country Joe McDonald, without his Fish, got on stage to kill some time, and I realize that “Country” is right there in his name, but that doesn’t give him license to sing “Ring of Fire” and “Heartaches by the Number.” Santana livened up the proceedings, followed by an acoustic John Sebastian set, the aforementioned Hartley ensemble (if they’d been third on the bill at the Fillmore East, we’d have wandered off to the lobby to look for hippie girls in peasant blouses), the Incredible String Band, Canned Heat, and Mountain. I know: impressive! Who wouldn’t crawl 120 miles from the Bronx to Bethel to hear Canned Heat boogie and Leslie West sing “Stormy Monday”?
At last, at I’m guessing around 11:00 p.m., the Grateful Dead. We liked the Grateful Dead, and were stoned enough to appreciate them if they’d been in any mood at all to be the least bit musically engaging. Maybe they’d mistimed their psychedelics kick-in schedule, because a more desultory Dead set you could not imagine. Even the audience was cranky. “Sit down!!” one contingent yelled. “Stand up!!” another countered, like at every dumb concert you’ve ever been to. Like it made a difference, down, up; from where we were, it sounded as though they were rehearsing and had no idea a few hundred thousand people were already struggling to stay awake. Bob Weir attempted “Mama Tried,” always good for a laugh, and then there was a long break—just what this concert needed was downtime—and confusion. “We can’t hear your voices!” someone shouted (he wasn’t missing anything). “We’re working on it!” Were they? Country Joe, for some reason, is sent on stage to make an announcement about some sketchy LSD being passed around. “Stop takin’ it,” Country said. “That’s called common sense.” Terrific, take away one thing that might have made this bearable.
(I don’t remember all of this, obviously, but the audio is out there, and I subjected myself to it to refresh my memory. You’re welcome.)
Finally, the Dead get back to business. A little “Dark Star,” and a new song, “High Time.” A very slow, depressing new song. You can actually hear the audience drifting off. Then Pigpen takes center stage and the band starts “Turn on Your Lovelight,” the Bobby “Blue” Bland song, and that’s how the Dead spends like the next forty minutes. Somewhere in the middle, Pigpen recommends molesting whomever is unlucky enough to be around you, because free love = mass groping! It is excruciating. Thank God for Creedence Clearwater Revival, who sounded like the world’s loudest jukebox, and for Sly and the Family Stone, who had a firm grasp on the concept of entertainment and how to engage the people who were watching them. The crowd, even way up on that hill, rose from the ground and seemed startled. Oh, this is what music is like! This is fun!
The energy level stayed high for The Who (although not at the kind of peak they’d hit earlier that summer at Fillmore East) and, at what would have been breakfast time if there was any breakfast, Jefferson Airplane, who were in their “up against the wall, motherf***er” phase, but mitigated that with the piano playing of Nicky Hopkins. “We are volunteers of America!” they proclaimed, which was very right-on of them. And with that, our long day’s journey into “White Rabbit” was over, and it was nap time. The music didn’t pick up against until mid-Sunday afternoon. We’d been able to move forward into a more advantageous position on Sunday morning, and we were prepared for Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. In May, we had caught them at the Fillmore East when they played on a bill between The Jeff Beck Group and NRBQ, so we knew what was up, but after the show at Woodstock, no one would ever see them second on any theater bill again. To most of the people grazing in the grass, this was something unanticipated; With a Little Help From My Friends had come out only four months earlier, and hadn’t yet seeped into the rock mainstream. Cocker wasn’t anything like a marquee name, and that’s why he was given that early-Sunday slot, before all the real heavyweights. He was riveting.
Après Cocker, le déluge. A punishing rain, and we’d had enough, so, drenched and tired, we made our long way back to the car. We missed some good stuff, like The Band, but we also missed Country Joe, with the Fish on hand, doing “Rock & Soul Music” (“Soul Music”! Ha!), and David Clayton-Thomas fronting Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Sha Na Na. (I know Tim Sommer has a few things to say about Sha Na Na, so I yield theNV floor to him in that regard.) Back in New York City, the festival was already a print-the-legend type of situation, and some of the Woodstock participants sat at the feet of Dick Cavett and testified to its heaviosity. Joni Mitchell wrote a song about it, and so did Melanie, whose “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” rhapsodized about the attendees who “bled inside each others’ wounds,” her idea of a good time.
The Woodstock Myth is so potent, such an iconic idea of youthtopia, but that’s an awfully rosy view. It was a cultural climax, certainly, and it was fine musically. But it might not have been even the best music festival of the summer of 1969. It was probably the least musically diverse. No real R&B or soul artists—Sly, Hendrix, Richie Havens and members of Santana were the most prominent African-American musicians on stage—no jazz, and blues was in the hands of Canned Heat, Ten Years After, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The Atlanta Pop Festival in July had Booker T. & The M.G.’s, the Staple Singers, Dave Brubeck with Gerry Mulligan; a Seattle fest that same month featured Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Ike & Tina Turner; one in Texas had B.B. King and Sam & Dave, along with Sly and the Family Stone and Led Zeppelin. Two weeks before Woodstock, Atlantic City, N.J hosted a festival that had some of the Bethel headliners (Joplin, Cocker, Creedence, Santana) along with Booker T.’s group, plus Hugh Masekela, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Little Richard, Dr. John, and the Sir Douglas Quintet. I’m not unhappy that I went to Yasgur’s Farm, but that lineup in Atlantic City the weekend of August 1–3 sure looks like a gas. No stalled traffic, no brown acid, the M.G.’s playing “Time is Tight,” and we could’ve grabbed an excellent sub sandwich en route. Hold the Wavy Gravy.
VIDEO: Woodstock fan footage