"By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong…”—J. Mitchell, 1970
Well, kids, we’ve reached the 40th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Music And Art Fair, which took place over the long weekend of August 15-18, 1969. I was only five years old when Woodstock happened, and I was oblivious to it, apart from the hit song “Woodstock”, which I interpreted something like this:
"We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”—J. Mitchell, 1970
"Madison Square Garden?”—B. Holland, 1971
It wasn’t until my late teens when I saw the documentary film back in the days when the old KY-102 used to sponsor Midnight movies at local theaters around K.C. I remember watching it with my good friend Tom, who actually dozed off during Ten Years After’s marathon “I’m Goin’ Home”! I was fascinated by the whole thing, though, and have absorbed as much as I could about the festival over the years.
This behemoth grows more and more mythical as time goes on, and those who claim to have attended Woodstock probably outnumber those who were actually there by about tenfold. Furthermore, many of those “attendees” make the festival out to be some sort of idyllic paradise, which it clearly wasn’t. I’m not trying to put it down here—Woodstock is unquestionably a landmark event in Rock (and pop culture) history—but I think its Utopian qualities have been grossly over-hyped over the years. To wit, things weren’t nearly as groovy as the aging hippies want you to believe it was. The people who put on the concert had to be the luckiest SOBs in the world, too. They initially lost a shitload of money in their little venture, but managed to recoup quite bit of it with the subsequent documentary film and album(s) released later on. And as well-intentioned as these guys were, they were also very naïve about what they were getting into, and their short-sightedness and poor planning left them flirting with disaster at nearly every turn—they were damn fortunate that Woodstock didn’t turn into a major tragedy instead.
The Woodstock Music and Art Festival started off innocently enough as a means to build a recording studio in the spring of ‘69, by some music business dudes in the town of Woodstock, NY, and before they knew it, the concert had taken on a life of its own. They intended to put on a Rock show and art fair in Woodstock, proper, but met with resistance from the townsfolk who (rightfully so, based on results) feared a mass invasion of hippies into their quiet little hamlet. Several other sites were considered, including nearby Wallkill and Saugerties, before one Max Yasgur offered up his dairy farm near the town of Bethel (about 120 miles WNW of New York City), which already had a natural bowl suitable for an amphitheater-type setting, for $50,000. By the time they secured the site and proper permits and such, it was a race against time to put up the stage, ticket booths, concession stands, fencing, etc., and they lost the race. They also didn’t take into account that they would need decent access for everyone (performers included) into and out of Yasgur’s farm. What roads they had weren’t adequate enough for the 50,000 or so they were expecting, let alone the half-million people who did descend upon poor Bethel and vicinity, thus creating the world’s largest traffic clusterfuck in the history of mankind. Most people just drove as far as they could and left their cars on or alongside the road and hoofed it the rest of the way to the festival, and most of the musical acts who were slated to play early on in the show struggled to get there. The almighty helicopter eventually became the sole mode of transportation for the performers.
Chaos reigned almost from the get-go, as the ticket booths weren’t finished in time for the show, and it wasn’t long before folks figured out how to crash the party and get in without paying the whopping $8 ticket price. Btw, eight bucks?!? That won’t even buy you a freakin’ beer at a concert today, but I digress. Another thing the promoters didn’t account for was providing adequate food, drinking water and sanitation for everyone, and it wasn’t long before the infrastructure was totally overwhelmed—squalor soon took over around the grossly (pun partially intended) overmatched Port-A-Potty area.
And then there was the little matter of a totally inadequate (and overworked) sound system, which caused almost as many delays as the monsoon rains that hit on the second day. People at the top of the hill could hardly hear what was going on way down on the stage, and considering the limitations of 1969 technology, it probably didn’t sound all that great even down front. There was also little or no lighting in the areas surrounding the venue, so I would imagine it was quite an adventure being in or near those woods after dark without a flashlight. You also had to feel sorry for the locals in the surrounding area who suddenly found themselves dealing with thousands of strangers knocking on their doors asking for food and/or water or a place to crash for the night. Hell, because of the traffic situation, these poor townspeople were basically trapped in their own homes for the weekend, and couldn’t even get out to pick up the bare necessities. We’re talking FUBAR City, boys and girls!
One area where they were thinking ahead, however, was the “Freak-Out Tents” where those who got a hold of the “bad brown acid”, et al, were treated and talked down out of their bad trips. The tents were manned by members of the “Hog Farm” commune, whose leader was counterculture hero Wavy Gravy, whom I’ve always viewed merely as a tree-hugging hippie clown, but apparently he and his people actually did do some good throughout the festival. Early on in the proceedings, Indian guru Swami Satchadinanda spoke to the new “Woodstock Nation” and gave an invocation. One Woodstock attendee was quoted as saying Mr. Swami “was extolling the concert as a holy gathering in his melodious Indian accent. I listened to him and thought it was all bullshit. This was going to be a huge drug party, pure and simple, and to masquerade it as a spiritual gathering seemed phony to me.” While there was indeed a palpable spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood unprecedented for such a large mass of humanity, it appears this guy was pretty accurate with his assessment of the situation. From the sounds of it, the drugs that were so readily available to everyone there somehow managed to mellow the crowd out just enough to discourage violence and keep them from killing each other when the food and water ran short. We all saw what happens when people are deprived of food and water after x-amount of time in the wake of Hurricane Katrina four years ago, and things could’ve turned ugly real quick at Woodstock if not for the communal nature of the event. Speaking of hurricanes, while all this was going on, Camille was busy mangling New Orleans and vicinity almost as badly as Katrina did.
Things at Woodstock could’ve also turned even uglier thanks to Mother Nature, which of course, the promoters had no control over. One fool in the Woodstock film tried to claim the storms were a government conspiracy by which they seeded the clouds just so it would rain like hell on the concert—that’s right, the U.S. Government has time to worry about a Rock concert. Then again, we’re talking about the Nixon administration, so who knows? Anyway, the torrential rains turned the festival site into a major quagmire (and we ain’t talking Glen Quagmire), which provided some attendees with a natural Slip-‘N’-Slide to play around on, but had those precarious sound/spotlight towers or if the rinky-dink stage been toppled by high winds, there could’ve been major carnage. Also because of the rain, some performers received minor shocks while grabbing microphones, playing guitar, etc.—someone could easily have been electrocuted on the stage. Who knows now many people might’ve been killed instantly, or how numerous the casualties might’ve been because emergency personnel would’ve had great difficulty reaching the site. Like I say, the guys who put Woodstock together were some lucky som-bitches in that there weren’t more deaths than just the handful that were reported at the festival. For another dissenting opinion about how beautiful Woodstock was, I direct you to this fine Newsweek article.
In an effort to impress the locals while pitching their festival idea to them, the promoters tried to make it sound like Woodstock was going to be an art fair with some music on the side, but they should’ve known better that the music would be the primary focus—even though it was rather unfocused at times. The roster of acts that played Woodstock was a strange mish-mash of big-time contemporaries like The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Jimi Hendrix, etc., along with up-and-coming acts like Santana, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, The Band and Richie Havens thrown together with several nobodies like Quill, Bert Sommer, Sweetwater and the Keef Hartley Band. In the case of Quill and Sommer, the only reason they were on the bill at all is because they were managed by two of the guys in charge of the festival itself. And what on earth was Sha Na Na doing there?!? They were about as out-of-place at Woodstock as a “Family Guy” rerun would be ABC Family Channel (right after “The 700 Club”). If anything, the talent lineup for Woodstock was a bit too ambitious, thus three days of peace and love morphed into damn near four days, thanks in large part to weather-related and technical delays, as well as the difficulties many acts had in reaching Yasgur’s Farm in the first place.
With that mish-mash of talent came a mixed bag in terms of the quality therein, and for all the truly great performances at Woodstock, there were just as many sucky ones. While some acts like Santana, Cocker, Sly & The Family Stone and Ten Years After played breakthrough and/or career-defining sets, others like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix (except for his blistering version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) turned in either mediocre or poor sets. Joplin was drunk and high out of her gourd, by most accounts, and the Dead was, well, the Dead, but there was at least some excuse for the other two. Airplane had been waiting up all night to headline after The Who, but didn’t hit the stage until around 7:00AM on Sunday, and at least managed to play a lukewarm set—not bad, under the circumstances. Grace Slick could barely keep her eyes open while watching bandmate Jorma Kaukonen sing “Uncle Sam Blues”. Kaukonen himself said he was amazed they were able to play at all. Similarly, Hendrix didn’t hit the stage until it was daylight again on Monday morning (after Sha Na Na, no less) when 90% of the crowd had left and those who remained were running on (dope?) fumes. Jimi looked really tired and bored himself—a mere shadow of that frenetic dude who set his guitar on fire at Monterrey just two years earlier. Sadly, this marked the beginning of the end for Jimi Hendrix. Drugs are bad, mmm-kay?
While I freely admit I’m totally biased because of my allegiance to this band, I’ll still declare that The Who was clearly the standout act at Woodstock. By WHO standards, Woodstock was only a so-so gig for them, to the point where Pete Townshend has blocked attempts for years to have their entire Woodstock set released on CD—only “Pinball Wizard”, “Sparks”, “See Me, Feel Me” and “Summertime Blues” are available on CD or DVD thus far. But if you remember the old axiom: The Who on a bad night was still far superior to most other bands on their BEST nights, and the ‘Orrible ‘Oo blew everyone else on Yasgur’s Farm away with their performance of the brand new Tommy album, almost in its entirety. By the way, if you look real closely in the film, you can see Roger Daltrey’s appendix scar! The Who’s set actually could’ve been one for the ages had they played at their originally scheduled time before their drinks got spiked with acid and if they’d been paid on time. As the story goes, the $12,500 fee for headlining artists was paid in cashier’s checks, locked away in a local bank. The Who (along with The Grateful Dead) insisted on being paid up-front (probably wisely) before they went on stage, so the promoters had to wake up the poor bank president (I keep picturing Homer Bedlow!) in the middle of the night to get him to open the vault and get the cash to pay the bands before they went on—bet he was just thrilled beyond repair with that!
The Who themselves were not happy campers anyway at Woodstock, as Townshend attests: “All those hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day…As a cynical English arsehole I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them and shaking them and trying to make them realize that nothing had changed and nothing was going to change. Not only that, what they thought was an alternative society was basically a field full of six-foot deep mud and laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then fuck the lot of them.” Daltrey added, “That was the worst gig we ever played…We waited in a field of mud for 14 hours, sitting on some boards, doing nothing—and doing nothing is the most exhausting thing in the world.” And when asked if he would be interested in playing at any sort of Woodstock anniversary concert during the ‘80s, the late John Entwistle said something to the effect of “They (the promoters) can go get stuffed!”
Apart from The Who, the truly standout performances were this new guy Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, Joe Cocker’s epileptic fit during “With A Little Help From My Friends”, Sly & The Family Stone’s roof-raising (if they had one) “I Want To Take You Higher”, Richie Havens’ “Freedom” (which he made up as he went along!) and Ten Years After’s ten-minute “I’m Goin’ Home”. Ironically, TYA’s future 1971 hit single, “I’d Love To Change The World” would’ve slotted in perfectly at Woodstock, given the mission statement and general vibes of the event and all. From what I’ve read, The Band and C.C.R. also turned in fine sets at Woodstock, but I’ve not heard or seen enough of either of them to comment. Other unforgettable moments include Arlo Guthrie’s pronouncement, “The New York State Thruway’s closed!”, and what was probably the world’s first obscene public spelling lesson, courtesy of Country Joe McDonald: “Gimme an ‘F’!...Gimme a ‘U’!...Gimme a ‘C’!...Gimme a ‘K’!...What’s that spell?!?...What’s that spell?!?...” This undoubtedly had Mister Rogers, Captain Kangaroo and school teachers throughout the land reaching for their smelling salts when they heard about it…
It’s also interesting to factor in the major acts who didn’t play at Woodstock. There’s no way the promoters could’ve afforded The Beatles, and I doubt if they would’ve appeared anyway, given the dissention within the Fab Four at that point. Just as well—John woulda brought Yoko, anyway. The Rolling Stones were also out of the promoters’ price range, plus they had concerns that Mick Jagger might incite a riot with their more radical new material like “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy For The Devil”. Violence at a Stones concert? Couldn’t possibly happ—oh, wait a minute… Bob Dylan was planning to be there—he actually lived in the town of Woodstock—but his son (Jakob, I’m assuming) took ill that weekend, so he dropped out. The Moody Blues were offered a spot on the bill, but had just returned to England after a U.S. tour, and it would’ve cost them a fair chunk of change to fly back to the States just for one show, so they figured it wasn’t worth it. The promoters tried to get The Doors, too, but Jim Morrison was paranoid that someone would assassinate him on-stage, plus he was already in deep doo-doo for flashing his talleywhacker on-stage in Miami earlier in the year. Iron Butterfly was originally on the bill, but kept making too many demands about transportation and such that they were unceremoniously dropped. Upstarts Led Zeppelin might’ve gotten an even bigger bounce to begin their career in the States by playing Woodstock, but they passed on the gig too, for whatever reason. Deep Purple hadn’t quite hit their stride yet in ‘69 (singer Ian Gillan had yet to join them) and Cream might’ve been an interesting Woodstock act, too, but they’d already broken up by then. And putting aside my personal bias again, wouldn't Black Oak Arkansas have been a juicy addition to the Woodstock lineup, what with Jim Dandy's psuedo-religious Utopian between-song rants? I have no doubt the mud-pie crowd would've ate those guys up, had they come along a couple years sooner...
And then there was the infamous (Sh)Abbie Hoffman incident at Woodstock. This clown was nothing but a counterculture trouble-maker and self-promoter who I frankly think exploited a lot of drugged-out kids for his own cause (as did “Dr.” Timothy Leary). He thought he’d just stroll up on stage right smack dab in the middle of The Who’s set and say a few words on behalf of his buddy John Sinclair, who was in prison for smoking a joint. Real brilliant idea, Abigail! To paraphrase the late Jim Croce, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger, and you don’t interrupt ANY band while they’re on-stage, let alone THE WHO! Hoffman barely got one sentence out before Chairman Townshend sidled over and exclaimed, “(Get the) Fuck off my fucking stage!” and bopped Abbie with his guitar and sent him stumbling off the stage. This exchange can be clearly heard on The Who’s Maximum R&B box set, but sadly, the camera guys whiffed and it wasn’t caught on film for posterity—too bad camera phones didn’t exist back then! Townshend then proceeded to declare, “Next person who tries that gets killed—I mean it!” Pete later admitted he acted badly by giving Hoffman the heave-ho, saying, “What Abbie was saying was politically correct in many ways…The people at Woodstock really were a bunch of hypocrites claiming a cosmic revolution simply because they took over a field, broke down some fences, imbibed bad acid and then tried to run out without paying the band. All while John Sinclair rotted in jail over a trumped-up drug bust.” Personally, I still think Hoffman was a fool, and people like him and Leary and their ilk were total losers. I say again, drugs are bad—mmm-kay? Oh, by the way, Timothy Leary’s dead, ya know…
As I re-watched my Woodstock DVD again last night and looked at all those young people in the crowd and the performers on stage, it made me kinda sad to think that everyone there is now exactly 40 years older—assuming they didn’t O.D.—and even worse, many of them are dead now. Those who endured the entire festival and stayed until the bitter end deserved some sort of medal of honor (or a Section 8, I’m not sure which) and I admire their stamina. Two days, I could probably have withstood, but after that, I’d have been miserable.
I’m glad to see that no one is trying to stage a 40th anniversary Woodstock in light of the debacles that were Woodstock ’94 (which featured more mudslinging than the GOP and Democratic conventions combined) and Woodstock ’99 (which featured various acts of vandalism, pillaging, arson and rape). So much for all that “peace and love” crap, huh? Nothing wrong with celebrating the anniversary of the original festival, but neither of those concerts came anywhere close to recapturing the spirit or vibes of 1969, and it’s useless to try, anyway—you can’t catch lightning in a bottle. Personally, I think all those hippies in 1969 were pretty naïve to think they were going to change the world just because 400,000 people got along swimmingly at a Rock concert over one weekend. As we all know, their bubble would burst three months later at Altamont, but Woodstock is still a fascinating phenomenon, warts and all.
And its legacy lives on in this little guy...
My Top 10 Woodstock moments:
1) The Who’s set
2) “Gimme an F! Gimme a U!…What’s that spell? What’s that spell?”--Country Joe McDonald
3) The Abbie Hoffman incident
4) “The Star-Spangled Banner”--Jimi Hendrix
5) “The New York State Thruway’s closed!”--Arlo Guthrie
6) “I don't know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this…and I God Bless you for it!”—Max Yasgur
7) “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!”—Wavy Gravy
8) Joe Cocker’s epileptic fit during “With A Little Help From My Friends”
9) "This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man. We're scared shitless!”—Stephen Stills
10) “Let Me Take You Higher”—Sly & The Family Stone