It’s August and every year around this time, at least for the 40 years since I was there, I remember what it was like to be a part of such a huge cultural touchstone. It certainly didn’t start out that way. It was the summer I was graduated from high school – such a perfect moment full of promise of the future all untapped and unfolding, and, of course ultimately unlike anything that really happens.
There were four of us: Joyce & Tim, some guy that Tim knew & me. We’d heard about the concert & thought that Dylan lived near Woodstock & so it was only natural that he would be there, so we bought tickets for all three days. I had my 1962 baby blue Pontiac Tempest (with the high beam indicator light shaped like an Indian’s head in full-feather headdress, & the two-tone blue, horizontally striped seat fabric–such a stylin’ car!) ready to roll. We headed north on 95 the night of August 13th.
We puled off the Jersey Turnpike at the Joyce Kilmer (I think that I shall never see . . .) rest stop because my driver’s side windshield wiper failed & then, flew off, leaving me blinded, yet somehow able to get us to a gas station & a new wiper. All with enough time to find some food & drinks and finally route 17 further up the road.
By this time traffic was so congested that it seemed like virtually everyone who lived along 17 or near 17, had come out w/ lawn chairs and picnic tables and they were just watching the non-stop parade of crazy hippies headed for god knows what up the road a ways. Some folks were actually selling water, and toilet paper, whatever they could think of that we might need. What a hoot! How very American to seize on this instant opportunity to sell, sell sell!
We finally arrived at our campsite early the next morning. We pitched out tents & walked to the concert grounds, and found a place to sit on the far left of the stage, midway up the hill that formed a natural piazza. The next time we thought to look around us, there were a gazillion more people behind us. It was stunning. Everywhere you looked people were still coming, streaming in all around us. Fences were coming down, but the music was starting up – Richie Havens just battering his old Guild as he danced on to the stage singing Freedom. It was magic.
The highlights are a blur of time, and not necessarily correct sequentially, but my favorite was Sly and the Family Stone, who played on Friday night. I loved all their songs, but especially Hot Fun in the Summertime – a hit that summer – that just perfectly described the moment. They brought everyone up to dance & sing along. I think Janis Joplin came on next. Sly was the proverbial hard act to follow, but Janis draped herself along the edge of the stage with her mike and a bottle of Jack black and just kicked it back a few notches. Someone was passing around a half a watermelon–spiked w/ who know what & joints were moving through the crowd freely. The media described Sly’s performance and the crowd’s reaction as evoking the call and response of Hitler and his followers. How lame was that?
On Saturday, the 15th I remember Joan Baez going on and on about her husband David who had been arrested. But It was the wrong place & time for Joan, an icon from another era only a few years earlier, but everything was changing. The best part of Joan Baez was the end (sorry Joan) when Arlo Guthrie came on . . . “comin’ in to Los Angeleees . . .” Then the Who, singing songs from Tommy.
By Sunday morning it had rained so much that people had started sliding down the length of the piazza on Max Yasgur’s farm. The entire bowl was one big puddle of mud, and yet everyone was so superbly civilized: there were no fights in a make-shift city with half a million wacked out kids, covered in mud and soaking wet. We were polite, we waited in line to slide in the mud or go to the port-a-pot. Just the fact that there was a mud slide tells you there was order of a kind in the midst of all that chaos.
That morning Joe Cocker played. He was perhaps the most electrifying performer at the concert. The band could not have been tighter, and Joe was moving as if he was in the grip of an epileptic seizure, yet had the ability to break back into complete consciousness at will, and always on the downbeat. I can still feel the power of Leon Russell’s piano playing on Feelin’ Alright. And you know what, they might not have even played that song. And by Sunday it almost didn’t matter anymore. We – me, I had just been to the most amazing concert ever. EVER. Okay, Dylan didn’t come, the Beatles or Stones weren’t there, but their absence spoke to a larger truth about the power in numbers of this generation. That somehow this gathering of scruffy nobody’s in upstate NY, impacted culture on a par with the biggest stars in music. Or maybe not.
There were other moments that I’ll always have: Hearing my best friend from junior high mentioned by name (will Melissa Goll please meet your party at . . .), calling my parents from a pay phone in the small town of Bethel, NY. My mother was so worried. She told me that the concert was all over the news, and wanted reassurance that I was really okay. Of course there wasn’t anything she could have done to rescue me. This was our first inkling of the proportion of this gathering. Later that night, or maybe it was Saturday night, we heard that the NY State Throughway was closed! You could understand how Route 17, a rural 2 lane road might be closed, but the NY St. Throughway. Wow.
Anyway that was my exciting summer vacation in 1969, the year men walked on the moon. I never saw the Beatles perform in concert, or the Stones, and it would be years before I saw Bob Dylan at the Capitol Center in Largo, Maryland. Our seats were not even remotely close to the stage, and when Dylan finally walked out – this hero to me, to my generation – he was only a small speck of a man moving across the stage toward the microphones.