Musically, the summer of 1969 was rock’s big power chord. Established groups were getting better, and the market was hungry for fresh sounds. Everybody and his brother was plugged into the music. It was the single identifying force of that time. Rock ‘n’ roll was stamped onto the dog tags of our generation.
Before Woodstock, there was the Laurel Pop Festival in Maryland, and Altamont might have been averted if a lesson had been learned the Saturday night of Laurel. I don’t recall any violence, but the weather made the crowd ugly. When the skies opened, there was no Woodstockian chanting, no “take care of the person next to you.” It was cold and wet, and people started busting up chairs and wooden fencing to build fires. That night was a mess, musically and physically. Fortunately, we could leave.
Friday night, the opening night, was different. Reid and I, after wading through the obligatory cow-herd lines (did rock promoters learn their methods from Eichmann?), got settled in time for some tasteful straightforward blues that got the evening cooking.
Jethro Tull won the Oddest Band of the Night Award. Flutist/vocalist Ian Anderson played the crowd perfectly with quick British witticisms and self-deprecations. He looked Dickensian, with ratty hair and beard and a long, ragged motley coat that fell to his calves. Very Aqualung. At one point he remarked about having spiders in his hair. The band kicked butt, and Anderson made us believe in the power flute. I saw the band three times later, but at Laurel there was a freshness to his antics—humming and playing at the same time, goosing himself to reach a higher pitch, using the flute as a sexual instrument. And it was fun. He was a champ—technically excellent, sonically refreshing and visually cool.
Johnny Winter was hands down absolutely the most incredible blues guitarist to pick up an ax that evening. Reid and I didn’t know him from Adam—or Jethro—so we were blindsided by this albino string bean with the gritty voice and blistering speed. Like Hendrix, he carried a threesome, and, like Hendrix and Page, his rhythm playing was nearly as compelling as his leads. Not since the Paul Butterfield guitarist at Baltimore had I heard a bluesman so fluid. But Johnny knew how to be nasty. He hit this E trills like he was opening up with a Tommy gun. “I’m going to Leland, Mississippi, uh-huh, y’all know that’s where I come from.” This guy was one to write home about.
Ten Years After—well, this was their warm-up for Woodstock. More of them later. They played well, but it wasn’t their night for glory.
The real glory and power of the evening belonged to Led Zeppelin. Reid and I were so excited about seeing them again. We were real fans now. The first time we saw them in Baltimore, we had experienced the magic of a new band surprising us with its brilliance. Now we had the magic of a band in its prime fulfilling and surpassing all expectations.
Page, I recall, wore white pants that offset the beautiful sunburst finish of his guitar. It was a Les Paul, of course, and he had it slung low. His playing was particularly choppy—stuttering again—but it was because he was constantly going for it. What a contrast to Winter’s electraglide. Page forced us to listen to each note because we didn’t know if he was going to drop the guitar or rip off some amazing riff (he didn’t drop the guitar). Between him and Johnny, our laugh barometer pegged out that night.
Plant, who before was a novelty of questionable sexual identification, now was a swaggering center man, confident, ballsy and fully the match for Page’s guitar flash. At the end of the show, after Reid and I had wormed through the crowd to within a Frisbee toss of the stage, the vocal mike went kaput, leaving Plant stranded while Page and the others were having a feeding frenzy on “Communication Breakdown.” Damned if he didn’t keep singing anyway, and his voice was so strong we could hear him without the amplification. The moment was transcendent, the real thing. The band was giving it everything, and it, too, was inside the music with the rest of us. It wasn’t, “Here’s this song and I hope you all really enjoy it because we’re up here putting on a great performance for y’all.” It was sweaty, obsessive and obsessed, totally here-and-now unselfconscious rock ‘n’ roll.
As I indicated earlier, Saturday night was a loss. Frank Zappa and his band lumbered for 90 minutes that left his Orange County truck nowhere. Rod Stewart embarrassed everybody but himself with his cocky bull. “Here we are, the band you’ve all been waiting for, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” Or something like that. By then it had started raining, and despite Rod’s enthusiasm (and Reid’s and my eagerness to hear Jeff Beck), the playing was as soggy as the stage. It was unfair to expect anything better, but we did. Beck played only 30-35 minutes, and I remember Ron Wood’s bass playing far better than anything Beck did. Not to belittle him, because he was and is in a class with the greats, It was just a bad night.
Reid and I were miserable, so we left before the headliners, Sly and the Family Stone, came onstage. Perhaps they compensated for the dreary parade of precursors. Perhaps not. We left with mixed feelings about the whole festival. To make matters worse, a VW flipped in front of our car on the way home. Gruesome.
DATELINE: Woodstock, August, 1969.
Wait a minute. 1969. Forty-plus years ago? Jeez. Does it seem that long ago since we squatted on Yasgur’s muddy hillside, packed together so tightly we slept sitting up? I still have my tickets. They’re tattered around the edges, and the golden yellow has dulled over the years, mainly because I carried them in my wallet for a decade and a half. Maybe, as countless people have suggested, I should’ve gotten them laminated, but the thought of having my Woodstock tickets covered with plastic chafes against my romantic sensibilities. Like me, they have aged; like the festival, their pristine freshness has faded; like everything, their meaning changes with the passage of time.
What spurred me and Seth (Bill had changed his name by then) to make the pilgrimage from Northern Virginia to New York was not just the lure of sharing peace and love with our long-haired brethren. It was the music. Of course. Hendrix would be there. He was enough to draw us. But throw in The Who, Janis, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Winter, Ten Years After—what a feast.
So we set off Friday at 5 p.m. By the time we hit the bumper-to-bumper traffic leading to the festival, it was past midnight. And the map showed at least a dozen miles between us and the site. We crawled along through the darkness until the car in front of us moved no more. Just as a gray dawn broke, we pulled to the side, slung a pack and blankets over our shoulders and began to hike the last eight miles. Winding our way between the cars and knots of freaks choking the road, we felt rather foolish. If there were this many people this far away, how close could we expect to get, if we made it there at all? While many of the tie-dyed hippies on the road radiated good vibrations with their two-finger salutes, some were intimidatingly far out. We gave a wide berth to the leathered bikers who slalomed in and out of the cars.
As we continued, our sense of folly increased. Fewer and fewer people were heading toward the festival; more and more were leaving. When it began to rain, my despair grew. What fun! Soaked to the bone, shivering, hungry, footsore, bummed out. Soon, only a single file of people moved in our direction; the rest of the road was clogged with drenched deserters. Had the festival been canceled? They didn’t know, so we persevered.
Finally, we slogged down the last hill. There was the stage, a large wooden platform where puddles stood between stacks of equipment wrapped in plastic. Tall metal towers loomed on either side. Despite the discomfort it caused, the downpour turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it had driven off all but a few scattered clumps of stalwart souls huddled at the foot of the slope. Unsure what to do, we plopped down in an open space about a third of the way up the hill. The rain had eased to a drizzle, and as the morning waned, the clouds began to clear. But no one knew if the music would go on until a man took the stage to announce that, yes, the festival would continue as soon as they could dry things out a bit.
The pasture began to fill rapidly. A blond-haired fellow wearing beads and a white T-shirt sat next to us smoking cigarettes and chatting easily about how great the scene was in California and how psilocybin was such a different high from LSD and that he’d heard that some of the acid being sold here was bad.
Stage hands bustled about as announcements trickled over the PA. So-and-so, meet your brother at the latrines. Billy, Sue says she made it here and she’s fine so don’t worry. Then came the first inklings that this was more than just a bunch of hippies come to hear music. There are more people here than anyone dreamed of. We’ve gotta be careful. We can’t blow it. Share your food. Take care of the person next to you. Be together. The world is watching. Well, OK.
I recall that Quill was the first band to play when things finally got rolling about 2 p.m. Saturday. They were unknown and left the crowd—by now packed elbow to elbow—hungry for more and better music. That was delivered by the Santana Blues Band. We had no idea who they were, nor did anyone around us. But they set the standard: loud, relentless, inspired, feeding and being fed by the energy level—musical synergism. The exotic percussion rhythms had everyone either entranced or dancing. And Carlos Santana played with such passion that he quickly earned a spot in our guitar god pantheon, wresting darting leads from his Gibson SG; his tone was both clear and nasty—completely groovy. Being there, hearing “Soul Sacrifice” for the first time, having it fulfill every expectation of what this new music could deliver, was pure adrenaline.
I yawned through Keef Hartley, a former John Mayall sideman. Somewhere in there John Sebastian, Mr. Tie-Dye Lovin’ Spoonful himself, came out and stumbled through a song or two. We all became cheerleaders when Country Joe McDonald shouted “Give me an F…” then gave a solo rendition of “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” All very amusing, but the music didn’t start to really cook again until Canned Heat’s “Bear” Hite observed “Oh my goodness. I do believe it’s a lovely evening for a boogie.” “Blind Owl” Wilson’s driving rhythm guitar propelled the band, and the crowd, through a wailing set of trademark jams and down-home boogie tunes.
The next highlight was Mountain. Like Santana, they were question marks, unknowns. The odds were stacked against a great set. A chill wind had picked up, numbing everyone’s fingers and whipping the Joshua Light Company’s backdrop like a huge sail at the rear of the stage. But Leslie West, frizzy-haired grizzly of a man wearing a long-fringed leather jacket, was not to be denied, even when he broke a string in a frenetic solo. Mountain was volume, stacks of Sunn amps thrusting a sound so dense it smashed against the blustering distractions. But it was West’s lyrical leads, his strong melodic sense, his fat, juicy finger tremolo, that elevated the band. “Theme from an Imaginary Western” was an eloquent evocation of the pioneer spirit we all felt so intensely.
How many times can your musical soul be squeezed dry before it starts to unravel a little? Great band after great band after great band. The physical hardships and the emotion of the music and the scene began taking their toll. I’m glad the guy next to me didn’t complain when I used his legs for props as I dozed; we were packed so tight there was no room even to curl up on the ground. I snoozed off and on during the Grateful Dead. Creedence Clearwater kept my toes tapping when my head wasn’t nodding. Completely slept through Sly and The Family Stone.
I do recall vividly Janis leaping around the stage like a demon, squealing and crooning for all she was worth. Had a new band, not as sloppy as Big Brother, but not as passionate, either. She grabbed me, held me (weary body and all), sang so desperately, so hard and true, as if every note were her last and you just couldn’t let her down by not feeling it, too. She filled me with both love and pity—to feel the music so deeply as to become possessed by it.
The Saturday night blur ended with The Who. I’d been wanting to hear these geezers for a long time, and they delivered. Crash-chord Townshend leading Smasher Moon and Bomber Entwistle with Swagger Boy Daltrey up front. “Tommy” from beginning to end, theme from an imaginary miracle. It was OUR anthem, all of ours there, yearning to touch and be touched, to feel and be felt. And there came a moment when nature and man were as one—a new day dawning, literally, during the opera’s wham-bang finale. I think it was there, as Sunday’s sun spread its red warmth across the crowd, that I felt that first surge of oneness, that “God’s in His heaven—all’s right with the world” euphoria that made Woodstock more than a music festival. Yes, we were all brothers, and let’s really take care of one another, and have some more of my Vienna sausage, sister.
The Sunday morning service ended with Jefferson Airplane, high church acid-eaters extraordinaire. Grace Slick was feeling her chemicals, chatting about the electric orange sunrise. I was glad she was high, because I’d been through the wringer with The Who’s set.
(Funny aside—being a bass player, I had become a devotee of Jack Cassidy’s muscular playing that undergirded the Airplane’s flights. Everybody got a solo in those days, so I salivated over the prospect of hearing him cut loose. Fatigue, though, battled the anticipation and eventually won; just as the Jack took off, I dropped off into sleep. Missed the whole damn solo. Bummer.)
Sunday mid-morning I got my one and only trip to the latrine. First, rub life into legs. Next, pick way through the crowd without stepping on somebody, slipping or falling down. Make it to the side, then walk all the way to the top of the hill. Numerous naked bodies. One bearded guy, nude, carrying a sheep. Droves of people milling around the crafts, food and information booths. And whattaya know—outside the latrines I ran into Bill Robinson, a guy who lived on the same floor as me at William & Mary. Small world, you say?
When I got back, it was Seth’s turn to leave, so I just sat and watched the beautiful people. So many of them. Flower children. Peace freaks. Headbands, beads and bell-bottoms. Bare feet with mud squishing between the toes. The smell of incense and pot, sweet and thick, just like the vibrations. We were the second-largest city in New York and we were doing it, really doing it. Of course, we were hungry, thirsty and filthy, but what the heck—you can’t have everything, right?
I don’t remember when I first saw clouds come boiling at us from the left. I do recall praying earnestly for them to pass over; I’d had all the physical hardship I wanted, thank you, so just leave us alone. No such luck. Monster raindrops pelted us. We huddled under our old pea-green Army blankets, but they soon were soaked. It rained hard and cold, and I got thoroughly depressed. Miserable. If there hadn’t been a few hundred thousand people between me and the car, I would’ve left.
And missed one of the most uplifting experiences of my life. When I finally peeked from under the blanket, I saw stagehands tossing cans of Coke into the crowd. Soon, scores of soda geysers were spurting in brown arcs. People started laughing. Then people started singing, chanting. As if to say, “Hey, it’s only rain, and we’re only a little wetter than we were before. We’re still grooving, having a good time. We’ll provide the music for a while.” It swept me up and blew me away. From misery to elation. Epiphany of the human spirit.
Well, we amused ourselves until after 7 p.m., when Country Joe and the Fish lit a flame under us with some “Rock and Soul” music. Country Joe, now with his band behind him, was running around, jumping, diving for the microphone, going berserk.
Who came next? Was it Crosby, Stills and Nash (with a side order of Young)? It was their debut. No wonder Stephen Stills said they were scared. You could feel the crowd emanating love and support for them. They were like little boys seeing if their new toy worked, and it did. Oh, those harmonies. And that line in “Wooden Ships” – “Say can I have some of your purple berries?” – really hit home. We were all sharing the berries by that point.
The stage was set for Ten Years After, led by Alvin Lee, another guitar hero. I’d seen him at the Laurel Pop Festival. He was good there, but he was great at Woodstock. Howlin’ the British blues with fingers flying up and down the fretboard of that old red Gibson 335 with the peace decal. We thought the place had been jumping before, but “I’m Goin’ Home” had the crowd hopping like, well, like stoned hippies. Lee was the King of the Fast Lick, Emperor of the Blazing Ax, Woodchopper Supreme.
[Aside: Speaking of stoned hippies, the only time during our entire Woodstock adventure that Seth and I were high was during Ten Years After. Some freak passed a hash pipe our way, and, thank you very much, don’t mind if I do. But no pot and no acid, brown or otherwise. Were we the only ones straight?]
Johnny Winter had been at Laurel, too, and I’d been praising him to the sky since. Although Lee whipped off riffs with lightning fingers, his playing was a fairly predictable string of patterned licks. Winter, however, went for the tough ones, the notes you hear in your head, not the ones your fingers run to automatically. At Laurel, Johnny had soared; at Woodstock, he sputtered. Maybe it was the nip in the air, but he never quite reached the fluid ease that was so amazing. Still, he did proud by his Lone Star heritage.
The Band, Paul Butterfield and Blood, Sweat and Tears took us to morning, as I recall. Hadn’t heard much of The Band before, but they stood out from everybody else, not simply because they were the only band with two keyboard players. Good melodies, good harmonies, good tunes.
As Monday morning broke, we were tired, filthy and still waiting for Hendrix. But first, a blast from the Fifties with Shanana. What the….? If aliens had landed from Mars, the scene could not have been any weirder. Pompadour greasers in shiny suits with bobby sox chicks singing “At the Hop.” And nailing it!!! Way way way too far out.
Finally, finally, finally. Hendrix. But with a new group. Mitch Mitchell was still on drums, but he was the only member of the original Experience. Billy Cox, an old Army buddy of Hendrix, on bass. A second guitarist, Larry Lee, wearing this weird veiled hat. And two guys playing percussion—congas, timbales, etc. Jimi said the group had practiced together only a couple of times, and the playing was rough in the early going.
It became obvious Jimi was revealing something new, something different for the Aquarian age. He was playing so hard, without a lot of the gymnastic pyrotechnics we’d seen before. The sound was totally different—spacey, cosmic. But somehow the band wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
People began to leave. Finally, though, the band started to click as the set moved to older, more familiar material. “Purple Haze,” “Foxey Lady,” “Fire,” etc. He played about 20 minutes without accompaniment. “Star Spangled Banner” was simply incredible. He made us see “the rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” The true greatness of his playing, though, came when he improved this lyrical, haunting melody, almost a lament. I wanted to cry when it was over, because it was over. When he stopped playing, Hendrix seemed depressed. The crowd had thinned drastically. He’d tried to do something different, tried to leave behind the guitar-smashing amp-crashing panache, and many of the fans hadn’t liked it. Rather than the gangbusters finale we’d expected, he ended the festival with a pensive question mark, moody and bittersweet. I remember how somber my mood was when we turned and trudged back up that hill.
Eight miles to go, and we were in the rear guard. Cars crawled by loaded to the brim with hippies flashing smiles and waving peace signs. People in the towns, too, were full of grins. The sun warmed our backs; the exercise warmed our muscles. We began to bubble with good spirits, laughing for no good reason, trying to fix everything in our memories. We were the only ones hiking the last mile or so, and when we finally reached the car, it was sitting by itself on the shoulder just where we’d left it more than 48 hours earlier. Off came the crusty jeans and stinking shirts. I remember one final youngster, probably about 10 years old, standing on an overpass somewhere along the highway, fingers in a “V,” waving happily. It was over.
And now I sit at my computer after trying to fine-tune the memory, to bring it into some kind of focus that doesn’t sound like some old hippie yearning for days past. For that I definitely am not. Yes, certainly it shaped my life and continues to do so. It taught me something about the nobility of the human spirit, of human spirits. And it would be nice if we could all live so peacefully and happily ever after. It was a storybook ending written by a generation that believed in fairy tales. It was a conscious statement, no less a statement than that made by the Establishment when it put a man on the moon that summer. But the moment belonged to those of us with mud between our toes, and that moment can never be totally recreated on film, in magazines or in these feeble words. It was a mandala, created in a moment and scattered in the wind.