The late Tipp O’Neill once said, ‘all politics is local.’ As a corollary, I believe that all history is personal. That is until it grows and grows and becomes a defining cultural event. Then it is owned by everyone and the memories morph into things almost unrecognizable.
In the summer of 1969, I was a junior at Horace Greeley High School in the small town of Chappaqua, New York – about 35 miles north of New York City. I had a full-time summer job working at a gas station near the Westchester County airport. As a young man of that era, my world revolved around music, cars and girls, not necessarily in that order.
I first learned of the upcoming Woodstock festival on my favorite radio station, WNEW-FM. At that time radio was the best, and almost only way to hear new music. AM stations played pop and top 40, but the new FM stations played a much more sophisticated mix of music, ‘album rock.’ Songs were played in their entirety without DJs interrupting, and FM was broadcast in clear, static-free STEREO. While it may seem quaint to music listeners today, this was bleeding edge technology at the time.
The DJ voices on FM were the opposite of the ‘happy talk’ DJs on AM. FM DJs were serious about the music and spoke in almost monotone voices. My favorite was Alison Steele, The Night Bird, whose smoky voice generated untold fantasies amongst her adolescent male listeners. Early in the summer she mentioned an upcoming music festival that was to feature an amazing line-up of artists. Each week new acts were added to the lineup, and our excitement grew.
I played guitar in a rock band, and during our practice sessions, we eagerly talked of the upcoming festival in the town of Woodstock, NY. Imagine a weekend of Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Sly and Family Stone, Credence Clearwater, Richie Havens, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Who… and so, so much more!
My friend and fellow band member Ray and I were determined to attend. We bought our early tickets for $21.00 – 7 dollars per day. Everywhere I went, people were talking up the festival. As part of my gas station job I routinely picked up auto parts at various wholesalers. Each time I’d stop at a business, the young guys working the counter would talk of nothing else. At a local tire dealer, they had a printed list of the three-day line-up posted on the wall. All summer, I ran into people my age talking excitedly about the concert.
A few weeks later, we learned the festival would not be held in Woodstock, but would take place in Bethel, NY, near White Lake. This turned out to be fortuitous, as Ray’s sister lived on a farm just down the road from Max Yaskur’s, and she invited us to camp on her property during the event.
Ray and I decided to drive up to the concert site on a weekend before the festival to check things out. When we arrived, we saw the massive sloping green field, which formed a natural bowl. At the bottom of the bowl was the giant stage under construction. I had my Super-8 movie camera, and I filmed the flurry of activity. I was surprised to see that the workers were all from our generation. This was unlike most concerts where the major operations were handled by men from our parents’ generation — adults with crew cuts. Here, the bulldozer operators had beards and shoulder-length hair, there were audio guys with dreadlocks, scaffolding builders had giant afros, and they were all our age! This was to be an event of and for our generation.
The weekend of the concert, I took off work on Friday and Ray and I headed upstate. A few days earlier, Ray’s sister called to give him directions using only the back roads to her house, so we could avoid the New York State Thruway, just in case. Navigating with a gas station map, we took the longer scenic route up to Bethel and didn’t encounter any heavy traffic. This was a good call, because hours after we arrived at the farm, traffic gridlock on the New York Thruway was so severe, authorities closed it down for the first time in history.
As we set up our campsite, we could hear the sound checks in the distance from the massive PA system. We drove down the small road toward Max Yaskur’s farm, and soon encountered hundreds of cars parked haphazardly on both sides of the road. We squeezed into a spot and walked the few hundred yards to the concert site. As we got closer, the road became more crowded with people, and the sound got louder. We walked along a row of port-a potties situated on the high ridge, and as we passed the last one, the full concert site came into view.
It was a stunning sight, and I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath. There, in that once empty green field, were hundreds of thousands of people. I felt a momentary surge of fear, as I had never in my life encountered such an enormous crowd. That fear quickly dissipated as everyone we met was welcoming and friendly. We stood there and scanned the area for a place to sit. Unlike concerts today, there were no formed aisles or exit rows, and there were no proctors or security keeping a watchful eye. It was a controlled, friendly free for all.
Most of the three days all merge together in my memory, but the music stands out as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Despite the fact that I watched some of the acts through binoculars, the music stirred my soul like I was at the foot of the stage. Santana had everyone on their feet with their rhythmic drums and searing guitar. I was determined to buy their album as soon as it came out. Sly and the Family Stone gave the performance of a lifetime, only to be followed by The Who on Saturday night/Sunday morning. I still get goosebumps when I hear “Pinball Wizard” and remember Pete Townshend’s pure energy on stage. I so wished I was the one who caught his guitar as he threw it into the crowd at the end of their set.
I don’t remember when it rained. There was mud everywhere, but that never seemed to matter. On Sunday the overflowing port-a potties created a wall of sludge that slowly moved down the hill of the concert seating area. As it approached, those sitting in the last row inched closer to the stage, and the row in front of them would move, and on and on, everyone just scrunched a little closer together thanks to that approaching wall of raw sewage. No one complained.
I saw a lost and found which had a bin full of wallets, most contained cash, according to the girl at the booth. National Guard helicopters were constantly landing behind the stage bringing in food and first aid supplies. They were olive green Hueys, just like the ones in the Vietnam War that were featured each evening on the six-o’clock news. This weekend they were on a mercy mission, helping us.
The concert ran hours behind schedule due to technical delays, weather, and a few extended encores to the delight of the crowd. Ray and I had to leave Sunday night, right after Crosby Stills and Nash, because we both had to work Monday morning. Alas, we missed Hendrix playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at dawn.
On Monday morning, back at the gas station, Les, the owner looked up over his copy of the Daily News and said, “I can’t believe you went to this thing. The whole Thruway was closed! It looks like it was a real mess.”
“It was great,” I said in an understatement. That day I was busy in the service bay doing a brake job, two oil changes and a tire repair, and all the while, White Lake music was still ringing in my ears.
“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me….”
I had a happy glow that stayed with me for weeks after the concert. There was wonderful music – some the best I’ve ever heard in one place – but there was also this sense of lasting camaraderie with 400,000 of my new friends that is hard to describe. We all seemed to share a sense of innocent wonder at the size of the crowd. And it was such a kind crowd. I never witnessed any pushing, shoving or harsh words. Everyone was accommodating when we asked to squeeze into a space on the grass. People shared food and drink, and no one was territorial.
Music was king. While there were a few mentions of politics, especially regarding the Vietnam War, it never came anywhere close to being a ‘political’ event. Even Country Joe’s call for us to sing along was more ironic humor than a hard-edged call to action.
“And it’s one – two – three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn.
Next stop is Vietnam.”
When the movie came out, I didn’t see it, because I didn’t want images from the film to commingle with my own treasured memories. I relented a year later after its re-release in theaters (remember this was well before home video). While it is a terrific film, its powerful images and the passage of time have jumbled my memories. (Did I see that person walking naked through the crowd, or was that from the film?)
The media’s fascination with Woodstock has amplified its influence over the years, and turned the music festival into something between The Most Important Event of a Generation and a marketing cliché. In one telling, Woodstock Changed the Course of History. In another version it was 400K hippies wearing tie-dye, doing acid, and having sex in the mud. Click Here to order your official tie-dyed Woodstock T-shirt.
For better or for worse, Woodstock has come to define the Baby Boomer generation. I believe one of the most important takeaways from the festival is that it worked. It worked incredibly well, and it was free! Despite the overwhelming number of people, primitive technology, and remote location, the organizers (and the audience) did an amazing job of keeping everything going smoothly and with a great deal of civility. Modern festivals could take a lesson from Woodstock. Can you imagine the organizers of Coachella or Bonneroo announcing that their festivals were now free?
I shot about five minutes of Super 8 footage at the event, mostly of the audience and the surroundings. If I had known it was going to be such a big deal, I would have brought more than one film cartridge! That is one of the many lessons in filmmaking I have learned since then.
In remembering Woodstock, I can only say it was an innocent, idyllic weekend of fun, camaraderie, and a lot of really kick-ass music.