“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong/And everywhere
was song and celebration”
– from “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell
There has never been a shortage of folks to talk to about being at Woodstock. While the estimated
half million-plus who attended the legendary festival at a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, in August of 1969 were a staggering congregation in their own right, there are an extra million or several who lay claim to having been there and supposedly have the bell-bottoms, tie-dye, and memories (or flashbacks) to prove it. Even Joni Mitchell who wrote the quintessential song commemorating Woodstock wasn’t actually there. She knows about it second-hand through media and stories like the rest of us. And that’s part of what makes Woodstock and its lore an intriguing phenomenon. Most of us know only a little about what actually occurred at Woodstock, and yet we are all quick to agree that it was the greatest music festival in history. But, in doing so, are we faithfully preserving the memory of those days and nights of music and mud, or are we neglecting the true essence of what made Woodstock so unique and still worth reflecting upon generations later?
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with multiple people who were at Woodstock, and they’ve each taken different approaches to describing the experience. However, at some point during the interview, each invariably utters something analogous to “You had to be there.” While I can appreciate surreal experiences that beggar description as much as the next person, I also have to say that “You had to be there” doesn’t do a whole lot for someone like me who, in fact, wasn’t there and wasn’t even a twinkle in his mother’s eye. But, still, maybe they have a point.
So, with Woodstock now 40 years in our collective rearview mirror, I thought it was about time for me to finally “be there” and make the pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s old farm and see where promoter Michael Lang’s brainchild was born during the dog days of summer in 1969. Of course, there was no real way to get to the Woodstock. My Honda CR-V struggles to negotiate highways let alone the space-time continuum. But as anyone with a historical bent will tell you, places don’t simply shed their pasts. No, history lingers, and I hoped that by sitting on the same spot where thousands once spent that wild weekend I might connect with something remnant in that bowl-shaped field and better understand. Unfortunately, I ran into the same cruel foil that has ended many a great traveler’s journey prematurely: car trouble. I didn’t make it to Woodstock…AGAIN.
A bit disheartened (not to mention, facing a deadline), I turned to the music to try and identify what made Woodstock special. And to tell you the truth, it wasn’t really there to be found. There wasn’t anything in those performances that wasn’t present at Monterey or Miami, two earlier outdoor festivals that provided the template for Woodstock. The sets were a veritable mixed bag. For every moment like Richie Havens’ moving rendition of “Freedom” on Day One and Jimi Hendrix’s epic version of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, played for the mere 40,000 who remained for his headlining slot early Monday morning, there were completely forgettable performances from bands as hallowed as Grateful Dead, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“Some people made their careers at Woodstock, but we’ve spent about 20 years making up for it,” reflects Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Bandmate and Dead drummer Mickey Hart echoes Weir’s sentiments saying, “It was the worst we ever played. It was pretty chaotic.”
Neil Young, who was at Woodstock as a member of the newly formed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was far more scathing in his review of the event and his band’s set.
“Woodstock was a bullshit gig. A piece of shit. We played fuckin’ awful. No one was into the music. I think Stephen [Stills] was way overboard into the huge crowd. Everybody was on this Hollywood trip with the fuckin’ cameras. They weren’t playin’ to the audience as much as to the cameras…I could see everybody changing their performances for the fucking camera and I thought that was bullshit. All these assholes filming, everybody’s carried away with how cool they are…I wasn’t moved.”
Tell us what you really think, Neil. No sugarcoating.
But to be fair to the musicians at Woodstock, conditions made it nearly impossible for artists to go on stage and do their normal thing. The traffic jam surrounding the site — more than 20 miles in radius — not only made it impossible for as many as 250,000 additional fans to make the gig, but it also meant the bands often couldn’t get to the site either. Incessant rain caused further delays, and electric acts weren’t able to go on due to the danger of plugging in while standing on a rain-soaked stage during a downpour. (During the Grateful Dead’s set, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were regularly shocked when they touched a microphone or guitar.) Add in even more delays due to technical issues with the stage and sound system, and time slots basically got thrown out the window. Nobody knew when they’d be going on. Some bands went straight from a helicopter to the stage. Other acts had half a day or night to wait in the elements before playing their sets. The result was almost every artist being more loaded than they normally would be for their performances (sometimes in no condition to perform at all) and bizarre moments like Creedence Clearwater Revival playing a roaring 1:30 AM set to half a million slumbering hippies.
“I never thought it was an amazing musical experience. Just like in the movie, the music was only part of the entertainment. As for the event itself, you feel proud to have been a part of it…But as a musical experience for The Band, we were like orphans in the storm there.”
– Robbie Robertson, The Band
Clearly, something significant must have happened beyond the music. If Woodstock had only been about the music, we’d probably not be talking about it with any degree of reverence forty years later.
One aspect of Woodstock that tends to get overlooked is just how bad things got and how easily danger could have escalated. We all know from famous photographs and headlines that Woodstock turned into a “sea of mud” due to heavy rains, but that’s just scratching the surface. Half a million people showed up, which was three-to-four times the expected crowd. So, not only did you have an entire city worth of people dealing with constant exposure to the elements, but you also had severe food and water shortages, inadequate sanitation, and people coming down, sometimes disturbingly, from every possible high you can imagine. To make matters worse, the terrible gridlock that existed made it impossible for any help to arrive quickly. After the first day, authorities had to declare the entire county a disaster area, and even the National Guard was called in.
But it’s the overwhelming response to so many people being stranded in such hellish conditions that starts to get us closer to Woodstock’s finest legacy. When crisis set in, heroes, both regular citizens and concertgoers, came out of the woodwork. The Hog Farmers, members of a California commune who were brought in to help with the festival, set up kitchens and medical tents to feed and care for attendees. (Over 1,300 pounds of food was flown in by helicopters.) Max Yasgur donated dairy products. A local Jewish women’s group and a convent made and distributed over 30,000 sandwiches. Even musicians got involved. John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful), Rick Danko (The Band), and Bobby Neuwirth played acoustic concerts for the people coming down in the “freak-out” tents.
But the regular concert attendees were the determining factor-the reason Woodstock didn’t turn into an Altamont or worse. Half a million people subjected to those conditions is a riot waiting to break out, but that didn’t happen. There weren’t fights, rapes, or other acts of aggression towards one another. Instead, many crowd members became volunteers in the kitchens and medical tents. Others shared the little food they had and helped keep the peace.
“We arrived by helicopter and, yes, organizationally it was a disaster area. Anybody who had food was sharing it. All the freeways were closed for almost fifty miles radius. It was like one of those Orson Welles movies where time just stood still. Cars parked all over the freeway, everything just abandoned. This is why, to this day, it shocks the straight world that such a thing could have happened. And no fights.”
– Carlos Santana
People have often tried to politicize Woodstock, making it out to be some sort of massive protest or collective act of defiance. Activist Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party certainly saw it that way and even went so far as to jump on stage during The Who’s set to deliver a political diatribe. The crowd roared their approval when an angry Pete Townshend shoved Hoffman off the elevated stage and into the press pit. It’s true that most of the crowd shared anti-Vietnam sentiments, and clearly the war would have been on their minds. After all, their friends and brothers were the ones fighting and dying in the controversial conflict. But there’s no reason to believe the gathering at Yasgur’s farm was overtly political in nature. If anything, Woodstock may have offered a welcome distraction to the increasingly divisive news of the day.
Others saw Woodstock as more of a cultural revolution-an example that an alternative society based on ideals of free love, experimental drug use, and communal living was feasible and our country’s future. Clearly, a mindset that elevated peace and brotherhood did aid in preventing Woodstock from turning tragic, but there are conflicting opinions on just how appealing the Woodstock utopia actually was. The Who’s Pete Townshend offers one of the harsher and more comical commentaries on this alternative society.
“All these hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day on. As a cynical English arsehole, I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them, 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 laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then fuck the lot of them.”
Do you think Townshend and Neil Young hung out together?
The more I learn about Woodstock the more I begin to understand and appreciate the inevitable response I get when interviewing those who were actually there. “You had to be there,” while frustrating and cliché, is precisely the point. Perhaps the most definitive thing one can say about Woodstock — painfully obvious as it may be — is that nothing quite like it will ever happen again. So many elements came together to make it the inimitable weekend that it was: the legendary musical acts, the overwhelming crowd, the wretched weather, the sociopolitical climate of the day, the drugs, the acts of charity, and a sense of brotherhood and community too rarely seen.
I choose to remember Woodstock in the following manner. It was a social experiment of the highest order — one with real people and real consequences. With the entire world and a nervous, small community looking on, there was every reason for things to get ugly when everything came undone and went wrong. Maybe during that weekend in the summer of 1969, the people who descended upon Max Yasgur’s dairy farm for a music festival were just optimistic, naÃ¯ve, and high enough to be better people than the world had come to expect from one another.
In other words, you had to be there.
Looking to work on your Woodstock high?
- Woodstock.com, the official website for the Woodstock community, is now hosting an Ultimate Woodstock 40th Anniversary Sweepstakes. The prize pack contains the following:
- The Woodstock Experience (Limited Edition Complete CD Box Set)
- Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (40th Anniversary Ultimate DVD Collector’s edition)
- Ang Lee autographed Taking Woodstock Poster
- Autographed copy of The Road To Woodstock
- Woodstock – 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm box set from Rhino.
All you have to do to enter is sign up at Woodstock.com.
If that’s not enough, here are some more goodies…
- Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked The World (Sterling), a new book edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury, is now available and features full-page photographs, quotes, and setlists, as well everything else you’d ever want to know about Woodstock. I highly recommend picking it up.
- On August 28th, Focus Features releases Taking Woodstock, the latest film from acclaimed director Ang Lee. The film features a cast of Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, and Eugene Levy among others and tells the story of interior designer Elliot Tiber’s unlikely role in making Woodstock happen.
And how about a little soundtrack for your weekend?