More changes probably took place in American society during the 1960's than in any other
decade of the 20th century. Of all the events of those years, perhaps none was more emblematic of the
hippy counterculture than the
Woodstock Music and Arts
Festival, held in Bethel, NY, in mid-August of 1969. I was there, and
I've written my memories here of what had to have been the best party ever on Planet
Earth. I doubt anyone who was at Woodstock was ever quite the
I was a 17-year old high school student studying classical guitar at the time, but was a rock and folk fan anyway. For the past two years I had been delving into the hippy scene by growing my hair and speaking the hipster patois, participating in antiwar demonstrations, and reading the literature of the counterculture. And like most everyone else in the new 'revolution', I was also smoking pot and dropping LSD. Not only was the music going be good, but my friends and I were going to scrape the stratosphere this time.
Nearing Bethel, we hit a traffic jam on Route 17B. Evidently more people were showing up than expected. Traffic was still moving, but slowly, and the party atmosphere was starting already. People were riding on the hoods of the crawling cars, and bantering back and forth in between their vehicles.
We turned right off onto a dirt road and reached Max Yasgur's dairy farm. A gently sloping field on the property formed a large natural amphitheater, and a stage had been constructed at the foot of the hill. The farm had been chosen for the concert after plans to hold it in Wallkill, NY, had fallen through due to intense local opposition.
As we got closer to the site we heard that so many people had already arrived that the crowd had torn down the fences enclosing the festival grounds (in fact they were never put up to begin with). Everyone was being allowed in for free. Tickets would have cost $18 per person for the weekend, but now we could keep our money.
followed the road, which turned to the right and ran in back
of the stage and then up a hill. Finding a campsite, we got out and
pitched our tents. Several of our hometown friends were going to be there, so after encamping we wandered around for the rest of the
evening and eventually located them in the crowd. We then made plans to
meet as a group the next day and watch the concert . One of them, Woody
joined the New Mexico hippy commune the Hog Farm, and I found
him strolling around in a brown woolen monk's habit, rope belt and all.
(The Hog Farmers had arrived in a psychedelically painted school bus,
Road Hog, that was the second such bus ever painted-the first was the
famous 'Further' bus of the Merry Pranksters- and was a piece of
'sixties history all by itself. To their credit, the Hog Farm was to
perform a great service to the festival by distributing free food and
calming down the many people who were having bad acid trips).
In two hours we were all soaring, and everything was just fine. In fact, it couldn't have been better - there I was with my beautiful girlfriend and all my hometown friends, higher than a church steeple and listening to wonderful music in the cool summer weather of the Catskills. After all, the dirty little secret of the late '60s was that psychedelic drugs taken in a pleasant setting could be completely exhilarating.
Richie Havens opened the show, hitting a note of intensity with his improvised rendition of "Freedom." Sometime after that a Hindu monk, Swami Satchidananda, delivered an invocation in which he extolled the concert as a holy gathering in his melodious Indian accent. I listened to him and thought that it was 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. I had been reading up on Yoga and Zen, and I knew the difference between the austere contemplative traditions of the East and what Woodstock was shaping up to be. My attitude towards the festival was destined to change, because although Woodstock certainly was the psychedelic spree of all time, it turned out to be much more than that.
As we sat enjoying the music and taking drags off of the joints and swigs from the wine bottles that kept coming around, the crowd continued to swell. More and more longhairs kept arriving-I couldn't believe how widespread the whole hippy thing had gotten as evidenced by the size and appearance of the crowd. There were guys in tie-dyed shirts and bellbottom trousers, girls in jeans or granny dresses with long hair parted down the middle, and they all looked under 30.
The afternoon wore on, and it became obvious that something completely unexpected had happened. Although the exact size of the crowd was unknown, it was reckoned to be at least in the six figures by the people on the stage as opposed to the tens of thousands that were supposed to have shown up. Later we learned it had been around half a million-the third largest city in New York State had sprung up like a mushroom. What we didn't know was that there were only 12 police officers in the area at the time, and that the squares who were running the state government were quite concerned about the potential for disasters. Route 17 and even the New York State Thruway were now closed because of the huge traffic jam caused by the thousands still attempting to reach Bethel, and it was no longer possible to get in or out of the festival by car.
This was the first revelation of Woodstock-the sheer size that the counterculture had grown to. Every town had its hippies, but now enormous numbers of us had massed in one area. Friday afternoon brought home to everyone there how broad-based the movement really had become.
By this time I was 'peaking,' as they used to say, and the scene before me looked like I was seeing it through a fisheye lens. Arlo Guthrie took the stage high on acid and launched into an insane monologue having something to do with the Pharaoh-what was he talking about? (In February 2007 someone emailed me explaining that Arlo's shtick was really about Moses and manna from heaven. The manna was pot brownies, and the intoxicated Israelites walked over the Red Sea, which never parted.) Joan Baez followed to deliver a set of more down-to-earth folk music. And so it went till the wee hours.
As you might imagine, my recollections of those three days are somewhat hazy (didn't comedian Robin Williams say that if you remember the late sixties, you probably weren't there?). I saw almost every act and can remember the music well, but as to the order in which the bands appeared, when and what I ate, and how much I slept, I can't recall. One thing that I remember was that the crowd was so large that trips to the portable toilets always required an endless stream of apologies as I accidentally stepped on peoples' feet and legs.
As I understand, the police were not arresting anyone for any reason out of fears that a riot would have been impossible to control (however, other sources state there were some drug busts).
None of those worries touched my friends or me, though. We had a great time listening to the music, staying high, and making new friends. And this was the second revelation of Woodstock-the sense of brotherhood that developed as an entire crowd of young people high on psychedelics got acquainted with those sitting next to them or others met in randomly in the crowd. There was a feeling of immediate friendship, and the sense of a group mind at work. And that psychedelically inspired love that so many of the hippies really did seem to have at Woodstock and elsewhere is the probably the thing I miss the most about the late 60's.
I spent Saturday spaced out from the acid bombardment of the previous night and can recall very few details other than the music and the mood of unbroken bliss. The Grateful Dead tried to play, but were hamstrung with technical problems from the rain as well as having to play without stage lighting. All I can remember was aimless riffing from the dark stage as the crew tried to fix things, and no one bothered to explain to us what the difficulty was. As a result, I mistakenly assumed this was the Dead's actual style of music. In fact, I thought they were so bad that I didn't see them again until 1983, when a guitar student of mine put a ticket to a show in Syracuse, NY, in my hand and gave me a ride in his car (the Dead were great, and I became a belated fan).
The concert went on all night, and on Sunday morning the Jefferson Airplane came on. I was walking on the dirt road behind the stage as a very enthusiastic Grace Slick yelled, "Good morning, people!" and as the band launched into their opener, "Somebody to Love," the audience returned her greeting with a tremendous roar.
That afternoon there were rain showers, and the concert ground to a halt. I found refuge under a makeshift shelter of ponchos and tarps that some people had improvised, and the party rolled on. A blond guy with a bag of grass was stuffing pipes with it as fast as he could. He filled up mine, and then another friendly fellow cheerfully crumbled up several chunks of black hashish on top of the weed. I lit up, passed the pipe around, and forgot about the rain.
Other folks were out in the wet weather having fun, though. By now there was mud everywhere. People were sliding around in it laughing, and some were naked. I remember wondering if all the mud spattered nudes were able to find their clothes afterwards.
The show eventually resumed with Country Joe and the Fish. His famous "Fish" cheer got turned into "Fuck":
Joe-"Give me an "F!"
Then, at Joe's prompting, we all shouted out the "F" word together. Some couples in the crowd reportedly started having sex right on the spot.