Everyone in America older than 55 or so knows where they were when the Kennedys and Martin Luther King were shot… And then there was that fateful summer of ‘69 when man first walked on the surface of the moon and half a million hippies declared a nation of peace and love for one LONG weekend in upstate NY.
Memories are often wispy little things that are easily carried off somewhere far away when exposed to the tumult of our daily lives, rarely to be seen or heard from again. But some memories seem to get coated in epoxy and resist the gradual weathering of time or are stored in some underground vault that keeps the fragile contents intact until opened periodically for inspection. My vault is disproportionately filled with entries dated Summer of ‘69. It’s not clear to me why we relish round number anniversaries and tend to seek out those memories and pay our respects at these times – perhaps to dust them off and preserve their longevity. In that spirit, a sampling from the vault…
We arrived in White Lake by thumb after having crashed my bike (bicycle that is, not motorcycle) about 40 miles out of town. It was totally my fault: we were coasting down a long downhill at a great clip and I was gaining quickly on the bike in front of me – after straining up long steep grades on our over packed 10 speed mules it felt like a sin to apply the brakes and waste even an ounce of that energy that I had righteously earned…
The others had just graduated high school and this was a celebratory journey for them – I was a year younger but felt like this trip was an opportunity not to be missed. Little did I know how true that was. Setting off at the start of the summer-long journey, my three friends and I had attempted to travel lightly, e.g., I cut the legs off a pair of jeans and installed grommets so I could wear them as either shorts or long pants by tying the legs back on with leather string (many years later I saw a version of my invention being sold in stores). But to quite the opposite effect, our bike panyards (the old fashioned metal ones that kids used to deliver newspapers with in the old days when kids actually worked to earn spending money) were overflowing with essentials for a two month camping expedition. For example, we were equipped with the world’s smallest stove – a Svea from Sweden that weighed less than a pound – but also carried a gallon of gasoline weighing more than six pounds to fuel it.
Bicycle technology was not nearly as advanced in 1969 as it is today and even if it was, we could only afford bottom of the line, clunkers. So if you add the weight of those seemingly cast iron bike frames (compared to the feather weight composite and alloy frames available today) and all the gear we were schlepping around, we truly felt like pack mules going up the steep grades that pepper the landscape of the Berkshires and upstate New York. On numerous occasions we’d shift down to the lowest gear available, peddle as hard as we could and still wind up having to get off and walk the bikes over a particularly steep crest…
So you can imagine the temptation to squeeze out every last second of downhill coasting possible rather than squeeze the brake handle and stay safely behind. As I impulsively decided to move out and pass the slower coasting bike, all at once I heard the blast of the horn, the breaking of glass, and felt the impact of the car trying to pass us on the left that crushed and bent my handlebar and front fork into a pretzel-like pose. The broken glass was the remains of the car’s right headlight. Miraculously I stayed on the bike and somehow was able to ease to a safe landing on the side of road but the bike was totaled. Rather than launch into a rage about what an idiot I was for such reckless riding, the older gentleman I hit wanted to make sure I was OK and drove us into the nearest town where we could use a payphone to call for help.
We were able to reach a friend who lived nearby and graciously came to the rescue by picking up the bikes to store in his garage while we hitch hiked the final forty miles or so to Mecca. The Woodstock Festival was to be our final destination – traversing throughout New England in no particular order and on no prearranged timetable as long as we wound up at the Festival site before August 15. We weren’t even sure where that would be since the location was changed several times before securing all the permissions at the very last moment to hold it on Max Yasgur’s Farm in White Lake, NY.
Like music-fest bookends, one of our first destinations that fateful Summer of ‘69 was the Newport Jazz Festival when it was still being held in Newport, RI. That particular year the organizers experimented for the first time with the integration of soul and rock music to boost interest. The experiment was a huge short-term success in that more than 30,000 young folks flocked to the outdoor festival and filled it to overflow capacity but ultimately a failure, as many of those concert goers were a bit too enthusiastic (i.e., rowdy) for the likes of the conservative hoity toity Newport residents – the festival was banished to New York city from 1971 – 1981. But that ’69 festival was memorable and included Sly and Family Stone, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears, John Mayall, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, and Led Zeppelin. Add that to the more traditional jazz artists such as Rashaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Bill Evans, Gary Burton, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and R&B and blues acts such as James Brown and B.B. King and you’ve got several days and nights of music to text message home about, but cell phones were still decades off. We camped on the adjoining hillside, partook in the reveling and extracurricular merriment and kicked off the Summer of ’69 in style.
The 1969 Newport Jazz Festival was overshadowed by Woodstock but for those who’d like to read more about the cultural dynamics at Newport, especially the chasm between the traditional jazz afficionados and the rock n’ roll newcomers, check out, Was Newport 1969 the Altamont of Jazz? The role of music festivals in shaping the jazz-rock fusion debate
One Small Step for Man…
In between music festivals we racked up lots of miles and memories. We’d pull into towns with shaggy shoulder length hair flowing in the breeze. Looking conspicuously grungy, we became a magnet for all the local hippies, played the role of Woodstock Pied Pipers, and spread the gospel. In many stops along the way we were greeted as counter culture heroes – living out the fantasy of ultimate freedom and were offered places to roll out our sleeping bags in back yards or an occasional free meal or libation. When on our own, we’d find a local campground, church or cemetery to set up camp. As veterans of Newport we had lots of credibility and stories to share. A bit further down the road we found a campground that actually had a small television set up for everyone to crowd around and watch the first manned moon landing. I still recall sharing that surreal moment – the ultimate culmination of high tech human innovation – with a bunch of strangers around a campfire in the middle of the woods. One small step for man, one more marshmallow for the coals.
Meanwhile, as the days clicked down and miles piled up, the Woodstock buzz built steadily and rumors were flying about who was supposedly booked – the list kept growing as did anticipation. Of course no one had a clue as to what a monumental gathering it would ultimately become but somehow there was a mounting sense something special was about to take place.
After our early arrival at the newly designated Festival site at Max Yasgur’s farm in White Lake, town of Bethel, NY, we bought tickets right away so that we wouldn’t get closed out. In retrospect, we were among the few who actually did have legitimate tickets (my friend Andy had the foresight to hold onto his – they’re probably worth a bundle on E-Bay). We then wandered the expansive Festival grounds which included the famous huge hillside that formed the natural amphitheater where the main concert events took place and adjoining plowed fields that were designated camping areas. Yasgur’s dairy farmland was well kept and it was such a huge space that it was hard to imagine it filled with people.
Due to the last minute arrangements to secure the site, the stages, various support buildings, and speaker towers were still under construction and wouldn’t actually be completed until shortly before show time. I don’t recall any chain link fences surrounding the site when we got there and people moved freely in and out. How in the world would they collect tickets, we wondered? As early as we were, we were by no means the first to arrive and people kept steadily rolling in. Well before the promoters were ready for business they had a village of people occupying the grounds and it would have been a logistical nightmare and potential riot to try and clear everyone out to collect their tickets. In a recent interview, promoter Michael Lang said “We had to choose whether to finish working on the stage or build the fences…” Fortunately, they focused on the stage. An interesting addendum to this anecdote: somebody is marketing jewelry supposedly made from authentic chain link fencing from the Woodstock Festival, so I think that some fences probably were erected but were too little, too late and were ultimately abandoned as promoters officially declared the concert to be free.
Breakfast in bed for 400,000…
We quickly staked out a spot to camp by laying out our tarps and sleeping bags in the meadow that came to be known as “Movement City,” separated by a short walk along paths through the woods to the main hillside performance area. We then headed into the tiny town of White Lake to stock up on provisions. Anticipating that the small local market/general store would soon be overrun and wiped out, we purchased a bunch of goodies like Dinty Moore’s canned beef stew, peanut butter, etc. (our gastronomical IQ was not too high at the time). As it turned out there was lots of free or shared food available and we wound up giving away much of what we bought.
Shortly after we arrived, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic school bus rolled into Movement City and the Hog Farm collective descended to assume their multi-faceted roles for the Festival: running the non-violent internal security force (the “Please Force”), first-aid station, information booth, and macrobiotic free food kitchen. Considering the number of people they were serving the food was surprisingly tasty – lots of rolled oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit mixed up into a kind of Swiss muesli for breakfast and brown rice and veggies for dinner.
Hog Farm leader/activist/comic Hugh Romney, better known by the nickname he was anointed by B.B. King shortly thereafter (Wavy Gravy), took on a major role as moderator and entertainer between acts. While waiting for the next band to set up you heard announcements like, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000; Would the people who have climbed on the speaker towers please get down? It’s really very dangerous up there; If you’re having a bad trip, there are folks to help you through it available at the first aid station at the bottom of the hill; This is the biggest gathering of its kind in history – They’ve closed the NYS Thruway!” Another Hog Farmer, Tom Law led the crowd in collective yoga stretches each morning.
So the festivities and partying began long before the music started and no one seemed to mind that the stage wasn’t ready until late Friday afternoon. Finally, around 5 P.M., Richie Havens was announced and started things off. He immediately electrified the huge crowd with a powerful and extended set that began with High Flyin’ Bird and ended with Motherless Child – his chorus of “Free-dom, Free-dom” booming from the oversized sound system and resonating with the hundreds of thousands of us (and still growing), setting the tone and philosophy for The Weekend of Peace and Love. The energy was palpable. I learned later that the promoters wanted to keep the music flowing continuously to help keep the peace so they asked performers to extend their sets until the next performers arrived. Havens stretched his set to three hours for example.
The rains came and went. We were drenched, we were muddy. The music continued through the wee hours and once the first night’s festivities finally concluded, our attempts to get some sleep were rudely interrupted by stoned out revelers who literally stepped on us as they wandered about in the dark. As the sun returned early Saturday morning, we awoke to Grace Slick’s electrifying vocals and the driving beat of the Jefferson Airplane’s overtly political rallying cry, Volunteers (of America) and a memorable set that included Somebody to Love and concluded with the counter culture anthem, White Rabbit. Following Friday’s mostly folk set, the Airplane set the tone for the decidedly rock-oriented program for the remainder of the Festival
Battered, Muddy and Strewn with Garbage…
Since the roads were gridlocked with traffic and abandoned vehicles, the promoters had to rely on helicopters to get the performers in and out of the Festival site, which tended to add to the weather delays and slow things down even more. So the festival extended well past its scheduled end, straight through the night on Sunday. For example, the Who didn’t even begin their 24 song set until about 3 am on Monday. I have no recollection of their performance and likely slept through it.
When Jimi Hendrix, the last performer of the Festival finally took the stage Monday morning, most of the record setting crowd had departed and it was easy to move up close and get a much better view. But by that point the idyllic farm took on a different look – the neat fields were battered, muddy, and strewn with garbage. Those of us that were left were physically and emotionally spent and the energy that was ignited earlier by Richie Havens and continually stoked for 60 hours had all but vanished. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recently dissolved and Hendrix was experimenting with a new band that had obviously not rehearsed much. Other than a few highlights (e.g., his electric Star Spangled Banner), his two hour set was poorly executed and one of the few disappointing musical experiences of the festival.
Despite the disappointing conclusion however, the reality of what had occurred in that sleepy upstate town one summer weekend in 1969 was impossible to deny. It received instant world-wide news coverage and the stories were told and re-told, quickly assuming the status of counter culture legend. When half a million people sang along with Country Joe McDonald questioning “What are we fighting for?” they added a powerful voice to those working to end the Vietnam War. Woodstock was the lens that focused the many cultural elements born in the sixties into a social movement for all the world to see. Some welcomed it with open arms; some saw it as the end of civilization as we know it. But for those of lucky enough to experience it firsthand it will continue to be a lifelong memory.