In commemoration of the 46th anniversary of The Woodstock Music & Art Fair for the last three days I have done a daily post about some of my experiences while working there. This is the fourth and final post, a repost of last year’s blog…
DOWN ON YASGUR’S FARM ~ PART FOUR
The gray dawn broke slowly over Yasgur’s farm. It was Monday morning and the once beautiful green pasture now was a field of mud that looked like a huge bomb filled with garbage had exploded and scattered refuse over the site as far as the eye could see. As I picked my way down towards the stage, carefully stepping over discarded plastic sheets, mud soaked sleeping bags, bottles, cardboard, clothes and thousands of other discarded items, I watched a slow but steady stream of people straggling away from the site. Henry Dilz, the official Woodstock stills photographer perhaps remembered it best when he said, “It was just a soggy, muddy field, with piles of wet, soggy sleeping bags. It kind of reminded me of one of those Matthew Brady Civil War photos, a battlefield filled with dead horses and dead soldiers. The wet sleeping bags on this barren landscape looked like they had dead blobs of humanity on them.” I stopped when I got about fifty feet from the front of the stage. Here the crowd was more concentrated, with most of the people standing. A frizzy haired fellow next to me fired up a fat joint and smiling turned and offered it to me. It was Monday morning, August 18th at around 8:30 a.m. and Jimi Hendrix had just walked out onto the stage with a group of musicians. He was about to send the Woodstock festival into history with one of his most memorable performances.
One year earlier I had had the fortunate luck to work helping to set up the equipment for two of Hendrix’s shows in Virginia Beach, the first in April 1968, the night Martin Luther King was assassinated and the second on August 15th. On the first occasion I just helped carry those huge Marshall speaker cabinets and amps onto the stage before and after the concert, but watched the show from out in the audience. In August though, after unloading and setting up that wall of Marshalls along with Mitch Mitchell’s drum kit, and then going with Hendrix’s road manager out to the nearest convenience store and buying up all the beer we could find, I stayed backstage and watched the performance from there. I needn’t elaborate on those shows, other than to say it was an incredible experience seeing him perform up close. Of course today, some 46 years after the fact, I could kick myself for not asking Jimi for his autograph, but he had walked into the venue and then after the show back out with a beautiful blond on each arm, so I’m sure he had other more important things on his mind than being bothered by me. As a band The Jimi Hendrix Experience was at their peak in 1967 and 1968 and the energy and the vibe of their music was unbelievable. Things had changed somewhat by the time he showed up at Woodstock though and he was going through some heavy changes following the breakup of the Experience. But as I stood there in the mud and the garbage at Woodstock I knew that despite “them changes” Jimi was going to blow the lid off these final moments of the festival.
Introduced as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jimi corrected the announcer saying that the name of the band was Gypsy, Sun And Rainbows. Later on, when he reintroduced the band, he called them Sky Church. The audience didn’t care. Call the band whatever you want, it was Hendrix. Opening with “Message To Love” he moved through a typical Hendrix set, rapping between the songs, playing “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and smoking rendition of “Red House” before he let Larry Lee take over on vocals on “Mastermind,” the first of two songs Larry would get to sing. Continuing with “Lover Man” and “Foxy Lady” he then did “Jam Back At The House” and “Izabella” before Larry took over on vocals again for a medley of “Gypsy Woman” and a Curtis Mayfield number titled “Aware Of Love.” At this point there were only about 25,000 people left on the site watching him play. Next up was his classic “Fire” and then he jammed on a medley of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Stepping Stone.” After performing those numbers Hendrix and the band launched into a brief bit of improvisation. And then, on that gray muddy morning, another iconic moment in rock history was created. He played an unbelievable version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and blew the crowd away. “You can leave if you want to. We’re just jammin’, that’s all,” Hendrix told the crowd. After another minute or so of free-form musical expression, it happened: Hendrix launched into his own interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “It was the most riveting moment,” Diltz recalled. “Just that single guitar, so piercing and so pure. At the time, there was just a knot of people on the hill. Those huge speakers bouncing sound off the hillsides, and an eerie, silent, pre-dawn, misty kind of silence. The notes reflected back again.” Going straight into “Purple Haze” after that he then did two improvisations and closed the show with a song that he had begun his career with, “Hey Joe.” And suddenly, it was over. The applause faded and people trudged slowly back to their lives. Three Days Of Peace And Music had finally come to an end.
I turned around and walked back up to the trailer still trying to absorb what I had just seen. For me though, the festival wasn’t over yet. With everyone splitting the management of Food For Love asked me if I would be willing to stay for a few more days to help straighten out their mountains of paperwork and tidy up their area of the site. Since I’d still be getting paid I figured, why not? So I stayed at the site until Friday. The festival had ended but Food For Love’s real problems were just beginning. The New York State Board of health was taking legal action against them for building their concession stands in a cow pasture supposedly filled with manure. That violated public heath laws. For a few years after the festival had ended I would get letters asking me to describe what I saw and did for them as the whole process moved through the legal system. I always took the time to answer those requests and did my best to defend them because they were so kind to me by giving me the job in the first place and keeping me on afterward. I forgave them for their blatant raising of prices because I knew they had all lost their investment and a lot more. I spent the next few days dividing my time between working in the office trailer and helping to clean up the huge mess left behind, stacking the garbage in piles so it could be collected and hauled away.
On Friday morning I got paid something over two hundred dollars for my 10 official days on the job. Cool. That meant I didn’t have to hitchhike back home and could take a bus to Virginia Beach. I gathered up my belongings late in the afternoon, said my goodbyes and got a lift into White Lake and bought a bus ticket. The bus would leave in the evening, so I had some time to kill in White Lake. It seemed strange being back in the normal world. The first thing on my agenda was to get something decent to eat. I had been living on pre-packaged ham and baloney sandwiches and cheap soda pop for what seemed like forever. The bus trip was divided into three parts, from White Lake to New York City, from there to Washington D.C and then down to Norfolk and Virginia Beach. I’m pretty sure I presented a rather grubby appearance. Leaving White Lake that evening I arrived at the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal and discovered that I had to wait until 2:30 a.m. before the next bus would leave for D.C. Great. Have you ever spent the night in the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal? Don’t. As I sat there trying my best to look inconspicuous and catch some sleep, I got hassled by all sorts of characters. The two I remember most distinctly were real zingers. First this short greasy Italian looking dude slides up on the bench next to me and says. “Hey Mon, my Man wants to talk to you.” It took no little amount of talking to convince him that I didn’t want to talk to “his Man.” After finally getting rid of him an old Black man came and sat down beside me, put his hand on my knee and spent an hour trying to convince me that I should go out to New Jersey with him. “I’ll give you money, I’ll treat you real good boy. Just come home with me. Please.” I felt really sorry for this guy, but managed to finally convince him that there was no way I was going anywhere but to D.C. Finally the bus arrived and I got the hell out of Dodge. I did manage to catch some sleep on the way down to D.C.
I arrived in Washington early on Saturday morning and had a few hours of layover there. I called up my girlfriend and chatted for a while, relating some of my adventure and then I went down the street from the bus station and bought three newly released LPs with my hard earned cash, Ars Nova’s “Sunshine And Shadows,” Soft Machine’s “Second Album” and I swear the third was “Clear” by Spirit although Wikipedia is telling me that it wasn’t released until October 1969. Bullshit. I’m sticking to my story. I know what I bought. I finally got back to Virginia Beach and a long overdue hot shower late Saturday afternoon, much to my mother’s relief. She had been convinced that I was the poor kid who was run over by the tractor and killed at the festival. So convinced that she somehow managed to call the festival site on Saturday and have them announce my name from the stage with the message that I should call home. Of course, I didn’t hear it when it was announced. On Sunday afternoon I ran into a friend from college named Michael at the site and he said to me, “Hey, did you hear that they made an announcement yesterday afternoon from the stage with your name and that you should call home?” I sighed, “No I didn’t. That’s so typical of my Mom.” So I had to tramp off to find a phone and call home to let her know that I was fine. Roll of eyes. Somewhere on the miles of audio tape recorded during the concert that announcement probably still exists. Thanks Mom…
Woodstock was a once in a lifetime event. It touched all our lives at the time, for it really was three days of love, peace and music. It could have been a disaster and turned out something like the Woodstock ’99 festival, which was attended by a generation that had little comprehension of what real love, peace or music really were. For those of us who were lucky enough to have been at the first festival in 1969, I would hope that the spirit, the soul and the beauty of what the Woodstock Music And Arts Fair really was has stayed with us all our lives. I know it has with mine. Thank you for sharing in these reminisces. See you at the 50th Anniversary…
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