Woodstock 1969 Remembered
By Glenn Weiser

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 same afterwards.  

Note-Thousands of people, including me, took psychedelic drugs at Woodstock, and, truth to tell, had good "trips." Literary integrity demands I be truthful about my actions as a teenager - I was just as high as the next kid in the crowd-so I'm quite candid here about my use of acid and pot at the concert. Nothing in this reminiscence, however, should be taken as an endorsement of illegal drug use-LSD in particular can be quite dangerous for some people in spite of proven therapeutic benefits to others. In the decades since Woodstock I've come to believe that spirituality and good health are the real high. - G.W.

(left-original Woodstock poster, by David Edward Byrd)

The Account-
On Thursday, August 14th, 1969, my Argentinean girlfriend, Patty Vaisman, and her two brothers, Claudio and Sergio, pulled up in front of my house in suburban Glen Rock, New Jersey in Sergio's old Chevy and picked me up for a trip to the Catskills. Packing food, camping equipment, and mind-altering substances, we drove north through Bergen County on Route 17. We were headed for the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York, which, judging from the lineup of performers on the bill, promised to be the best rock concert we had ever seen. Advertised were Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Johnny Winter, Santana, Ravi Shankar, Credence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-a Who's Who of late 60's music gods. About 30,000 people were expected to attend the three-day event.

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.

We 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 Vermiere, had 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).

 Early on Friday afternoon about a dozen of us got together and spread out some blankets on the grass at a spot about a third of the way up the hill on stage right and then dropped LSD. I took Orange Sunshine, a strong, clean dose in an orange tab that was perhaps the best street acid ever. Underground chemists in southern California had made millions of doses, and the nation was flooded with it that summer. We smoked some tasty black hashish to amuse ourselves while waiting for the acid to hit, and sat back to groove along with Richie Havens.

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.

Musically, my favorite artists were The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, The Jefferson Airplane, and of course Jimi Hendrix, the undisputed heavyweight guitar champ of the time. But more on him later. The Who played their entire rock opera Tommy-an impressive feat of memorization. Creedence rocked with swaggering grooves, Santana charmed with Latin rhythms and Carlos's serpentine guitar lines, and The Airplane radiated raw exuberance. But these are only the standouts-I think it's safe to say that Woodstock had the greatest lineup of performers in the history of rock.

Problems arose. The announcer on the stage (at first it was Hog Farmer Hugh Romney, a.k.a. Wavy Gravy, then some other guy) kept telling everyone to avoid the brown acid-it was supposedly giving people bad trips. The Hog Farm's tent was getting flooded with acid freakout cases, and there were few facilities to deal with the medical emergencies of a spontaneously formed city of 500,000.

Janis Joplin

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!"
Crowd (in unison)-"F!"
Joe-Give me a "U!"

Got it?

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.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969.

Last of all was Jimi Hendrix, the best musician to play at Woodstock. Most of the people had left on Sunday to get back to their jobs and families, so by the next morning the crowd had dwindled to thirty or forty thousand. Hendrix was in great form, and the crowning moment of his set was his bizarre rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." I had heard that he had played it in Los Angeles earlier that summer, but didn't know what mayhem he had made with the tune. Recognizable passages of the anthem alternated with feedback-generated explosions and banshee wails, and Hendrix's dizzying guitar riffs. It was a stunning performance. 

Jimi finished, and Woodstock was finally over. We'd had the time of our lives. Aglow from it all, Patty, her brothers, and I made it back to Sergio's Chevy, broke camp, and returned to New Jersey.

When we got home we learned the concert had been the top news story of the weekend. And also, something most unusual was reported about Woodstock-evidently there had been no violence observed there the entire time (one fistfight was seen, according to another report). Three babies were born, and two deaths had occurred-about the statistical average for a city of half a million. But a city of that size also would have had a predictable number of violent crimes in a three-day period, and this simply didn't happen. Which was the third revelation of Woodstock - love had beaten the odds. The miracle of a multitude at peace with one another had occurred, and no one who was there will ever forget it.

Albany, NY, August 1999.

(right: My 1970 Glen Rock High yearbook photo. That's a day-glo tie I'm wearing.)

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