Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music And Art Fair. To commemorate this legendary event, over the next three days I am re-posting the blog posts I first published in 2014 with some updates and a new photo. That I was lucky enough at the age of 19 not only to attend the festival, but work there, I felt that it would be enjoyable to share my memories. It has been said “that if you remember what went on at Woodstock you probably weren’t really there.” I beg to differ. I recall quite a lot of what I experienced there, as you will see in these blog posts. As I write this I am 69 years old and have been kept busy over the last month doing a number of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Most often I am asked what has stayed with me from Woodstock over these 50 years. That is easy. Along with the music, the most important thing was the spirit of Woodstock, that feeling of “WE,” the togetherness of mind, energy and brotherhood that defined my generation. We were all there for each other and to show the world we were a force to be reckoned with. The music of Woodstock was the soundtrack of my generation. And within me there still lives the free spirited, politically and environmentally active 19 year old rebel that I was back then. It always will…
DOWN ON YASGUR’S FARM ~ PART TWO
I slowly opened my eyes. As the haze began to lift and the gray interior of the trailer began to come into focus my first thoughts were that it was early. Way too early. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled on my jeans. Yesterday, along with my Staff Pass, I had been given an official T-shirt with the Woodstock logo on it. As I looked through my duffel bag for it, I couldn’t find it and realised that someone had probably nicked it while I was out last night. Bummer. I put on a purple T-shirt and picked my way over the sleeping bodies in the two rooms and went and stood in the doorway. Where most of last week I had looked out over a green pasture with the stage down the slope in the distance, I now looked out over a literal sea of humanity. Here and there was a bit of movement, but most of the people who had spent the night in the natural bowl shaped area in front of the stage were still long lost in dreamland.
When I made my way over to the office trailer I found one of my working colleagues, whom I only knew by the name of Topper, already on the job. He wore a top hat for the duration of the festival, hence his name. I think that he had been up all night speeding. “One of the first things we have to do is persuade people to come out from under that badly leaning truck trailer. They’ve breached the fence again and have been crashing there,” he told me. Not a good situation because the truck was filled with thousands of cans of cheap no name soda pop and had sunk even more into the soil because of the rain. It was leaning rather precariously to one side. “Give them some time to wake up,” I suggested, “then we can re-erect the fence and hope that they stay out this time.” We both knew that they wouldn’t, especially if it rained again today. The thought of that trailer falling over and spilling thousands of cans of soda pop was not an appealing one, the thought of it crushing a few festival goers even less so. We waited a while and then managed to persuade the sleepy intruders that it was in their best interest to vacate the premises. We weren’t winning any popularity contests. This was the kind of stuff we’d be doing all day.
Overnight the Woodstock Music And Arts fair had become a nationwide news story, probably worldwide. All routes to and from the festival grounds were blocked, highways had become parking lots for miles around and the performers had to be brought in by helicopter. Personnel from the nearby Stewart Air Force base were assisting in airlifting the performers to and from the site. Woodstock was turning into a disaster area. Though I’m getting ahead of myself, by Sunday morning the New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was on the phone with one of the festival’s organizers, John Roberts, threatening to call in 10,000 New York State National Guard troops. Roberts was able to persuade the Governor not to do it. Sullivan County, in which Yasgur’s farm was located, had already declared a state of emergency. The overwhelming influx of people was straining the ability of the festival promoters to deal with the situation. Once the residents of the surrounding area heard that there were beginning to be food shortages they collected food, drinks, canned goods, made sandwiches and saw to it that they were delivered to the site. From their initial opposition to the festival, the residents of Sullivan County put aside their feelings and did everything they could to help. With the news reports talking about an impending disaster, America held its breath to see what would happen next. The some 450,000 kids at the festival saw it differently from the inside. They were having the time of their lives. One hell of a huge party. The only negative thing was the fickle late summer weather.
Around noon, as the music started to get under way with Quill doing a half hour opening set, I decided to take a break and have a look around. One of my more clear memories is of walking down one of the access roads at the festival entrance at around 1:00 p.m. when Country Joe McDonald took the stage and did a solo acoustic set that ended with the “Fish Cheer” and the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.” Standing there in the midst of that huge sea of spectators and hearing them reply to County Joe’s shout of “Gimme an F, gimme a U, gimmie a C, gimme a K, what’s that spell?” epitomized the true spirit of the gathering. One element of Woodstock was that it was telling the nation that the youth were sick of the War and weren’t going to remain silent about it. I hung out and watched Santana and John Sebastian do their sets. I really enjoyed John Sebastian’s acoustic set. I had worked equipment for the Lovin’ Spoonful back in 1967 when they had come to Virginia Beach for a concert and he was one of the nicest laid back and mellow musicians I had ever met. I am still of that opinion today, so many years later. After that I started back to the trailer and ended up stopping and chatting up a nice looking young lady named Frances. When I told her that I had a bit of opium she didn’t need any persuasion to accompany me back to the trailer. I got out the pipe I’d made out of a soda can, loaded it up with that sweet black sticky manna and we proceeded to get down to some serious smoking. Opium is a very physical drug so naturally it wasn’t long before we took off our clothes and started balling on my sleeping bag. We made love for about an hour, climaxing, coming down and climaxing again and again before we both drifted off into an opium haze. Meanwhile outside on the stage the Keef Hartley band and The Incredible String Band were providing the entertainment. Subconsciously I’m sure I absorbed some of their performances as they unfolded in the distance. At some point I gradually realised that I was regaining consciousness and became aware that there was something very pleasant happening. When I finally was fully awake I found myself staring up at Frances. She had woken up, aroused and mounted me and was balling her round little ass off. She had her head thrown back and was squeaking with pleasure as she bounced up and down. In that opium haze it was a most beautiful way to wake up. After a while we rolled over and continued for a spell until we both drifted off once more. When I came to again she was gone. No telling where she had wandered off. I never saw Frances again. But she did leave me a small present that I ended up taking back with me to Virginia. The crabs. Oh well, sex, drugs and rock and roll. You’re only nineteen once.
I had to get back to work. Canned Heat was doing their set when I popped into the office trailer. Things were not looking good. Food For Love was about to become Food For Rip Off Prices, as my three bosses decided to try and raise the prices at their hamburger stands. Not the wisest thing to do under the circumstances. In yesterday’s post I said that I’d talk a bit about the Food For Love enterprise. In his book “The Road To Woodstock,” Michael Lang, one of the festival’s organizers wrote, “We originally thought locating a food vendor would be a no-brainer and that this would be a big profit center for us. As it turned out, the large food-vending companies like Restaurant Associates, which handled ballparks and arenas, didn’t want to take on Woodstock. No one had ever handled food services for an event this size. They didn’t want to put in the investment capital necessary to supply such a huge amount of food, on-site kitchens, and personnel, plus transport everything upstate. And what if we didn’t draw the crowds we projected?” Lang turned to a company called Nathan’s Hot Dogs, a well known vendor at Coney Island in the hopes that they would supply the concessions, but there were initial disagreements about the wages and staffing. And when the original site for the festival fell through and everything had to be relocated to the site in Sullivan county, Nathan’s pulled out completely. Now desperate, and with only two weeks to go before the festival was supposed to start, the organizers turned to three guys who had very little experience in the food services business, Charles Baxter, Lee Howard and Jeffery Joeger. They called themselves Food For Love, and they were my employers. Things got off to a bad start when, on the day before the festival began, Jeffery got into a fist fight over the deal with Peter Goodrich, one of the festival’s organizers. Another issue was that the food stands weren’t even completed yet. By the time the festival was underway the Food For Love concessions were overwhelmed. By Saturday night the festival goers had lost patience with the long lines and the suddenly inflated prices (a hot dog that had sold for 25 cents now was costing a dollar) and took things into their own hands, burning two of the stands down. Power to the people. Fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that insurrection for at the time Topper and I were back to trying to keep people out from under the tilting trailers. I’m getting ahead of myself again, but on Sunday morning one of the festival announcers, Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, tried to calm things down a bit when he told the crowd, “There’s a guy up there, some hamburger guy, that had his stand burned down last night. But he’s still got a little stuff left, and for you people that still believe capitalism isn’t that weird, you might help him out and buy a couple hamburgers.” But it was too late. Food For Love ended up having to give their remaining food away and in the process lost their shirts. But that was only the beginning of their problems. More on that issue later.
Mountain took the stage around 9:00 p.m. after Canned Heat and they were followed by a disastrous set by the Grateful Dead. At least the Dead thought it was a disaster. Jerry Garcia always maintained that the Dead just didn’t have it together at Woodstock for various reasons. The crowd seemed to enjoy it though, at least until the Dead’s amps overloaded during their performance of “Turn On Your Lovelight.” They were grateful to get off the stage at around midnight. At this point things were really starting to run late. The Creedence Clearwater Revival took the stage and played a long set for about an hour. Then there was a short break of about a half an hour before Janis Joplin and The Kozmic Blues Band was scheduled to play. The fine line between when I was supposed to be working and when I wasn’t had become completely blurred. Earlier in the day the guy who was the assistant security manager had flipped out and disappeared so I got promoted from security stooge to assistant security manager in his place. I wasn’t having any problems doing all the dope because I just didn’t let it get to me. If I hadn’t learned how to function relatively normally when I was totally blitzed I’d never have made it through college. On Sunday the security manager for Food For Love went AWOL, so I got another promotion. But I digress.
Already blitzed out on opium and weed I dropped one of Topper’s speed capsules to keep from dozing off and we watched from the top of the hill while Janis Joplin delivered an incredible set. Despite the speed though I went to the trailer and half nodded off for an hour while Sly and the Family Stone cooked up a good set of funk for the audience. Topper came in around 4:00 a.m. and shook me awake. “Come on,” he said “Let’s go down the hill a bit and watch The Who, they’ve just started their set.” 4:00 a.m. I thought, looking at my watch. Damn, they were supposed to go on much earlier. That didn’t faze them though, they played most of their new rock opera “Tommy” and then did a four song encore set that included “Summertime Blues” and “My Generation.” Following the song “Pinball Wizard” political activist Abbie Hoffman somehow got on the stage, grabbed a microphone while Pete Townshend tuned his guitar and said: “I think this is a pile of shit! While John Sinclair rots in prison…” Hoffman was trying to protest the imprisonment of the leader of the White Panther Party and manager of the left-wing hard-rock band the MC5, John Sinclair, who had been convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison because of marijuana possession. Townshend, really pissed off that someone had invaded his stage, screamed, “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!” He then smacked Hoffman with his guitar chasing him off stage. So much for peace and love.
After The Who’s performance there was a break of almost an hour before the Jefferson Airplane were supposed to take the stage. Topper and I decided that, under the circumstances, we no longer had to be “on the job” and were going to take a break. We figured it would be worth going down behind the stage and, using our Staff Passes, try to get on stage for the Airplane’s set. The only difficulty was that our passes had FC written on them, which meant, of course Food Concession, and therefore weren’t supposed to give us access to the stage area. But what the hell we thought, it was worth a try. We walked down to the fence and passed through one cursory pass check and thereafter no one gave a shit. We walked over the bridge-like ramp that led on to the stage and stood off to the right hand side, looking out at the multitude. We couldn’t believe our luck. The Airplane were just getting their stuff together, tuning up and sorting things out. Nicky Hopkins was with them, sitting behind a large piano. It was around 6:00 a.m. and the sky was already well into the dawn. Now the Airplane had originally been scheduled to go on around sometime after 9:00 p.m. on Saturday but things were really running behind schedule and they were many hours late. The spectators didn’t mind, but the Airplane had one slight problem. Supposedly the story goes that they had dropped acid sometime earlier in the evening in anticipation of peaking around the time they began their set. At this point they were still feeling the effects but were starting to come down. That’s why at the beginning of their set you hear Grace Slick say, “Morning, people, you’ve seen the heavy groups. Now you’ll see some morning maniac music. It’s a new dawn.” Grace many years later elaborated, “Woodstock was basically a mess. We really didn’t get to see anybody. We were in a hotel and the roads were all clogged, so they sent a helicopter to pick us up and drop us back stage a half an hour before we were to go on. Things kept getting screwed up. ‘You’re not on now, you’re on in a half hour,’ then they’d say, ‘you’re on now; oh no, now you’re not.’ We originally went to the stage at 9.00 p.m. and didn’t play until the next morning. We hung out all night, backstage and around the sides, so all I saw were people’s butts. The speakers weren’t aimed back at us, so all we heard was this massive barrage of sound. But hey, we were in our 20s. You talk to people, take drugs, eat grapes, smoke dope. It wasn’t all as bad as it sounds, but it was off-putting because you get your mindset to go on, then they say no. Finally at 6:00 a.m. I walked up to the microphone and said, ‘Now you’re going to hear some morning-maniac music’ because I had no idea how we were going to sound at that point.”
They sounded incredible, especially from where Topper and I and others were standing on the side of the stage. From that vantage point, looking out over that vast multitude of gathered humanity the true impact of what Woodstock was hit me. In my own performing with many different bands through the years I have been onstage hundreds of times, in front of some large audiences and have felt something similar on a much smaller scale, but the vibe and the energy of that moment was unlike anything else I have or ever will experience. I saw the true spirit of the Woodstock Festival in that instant and it has stayed with me all my life.
It must have been around 8:00 a.m. when the Airplane finished their set with a cosmic rendition of their classic “House At Pooneil Corners.” Topper and I hung out a bit on stage and then walked back up to the trailer for one final pipe of opium before we crashed. I looked for 23 years for some sort of photographic evidence that I really was on stage for their performance. Without success. That is, until the Jefferson Airplane Box Set came out in 1992 and I bought it. Imagine my surprise when I opened the booklet and there, staring out from behind Grace Slick in the background of one Woodstock photo is my much opiated face in my purple T-shirt with one of those ‘glow in the dark’ necklaces around my neck. I had forgotten all about getting one of those from somebody. Much later on, when the movie was released in a director’s cut on DVD, if you slow down the frames, I can be seen for a few seconds. My fifteen seconds of unintentional fame preserved for posterity…
To be continued…
An onstage photo of the Jefferson Airplane I just recently discovered. I can be seen standing in the background wearing my purple t-shirt behind a lady with blond hair, between Paul Kantner and Jack Cassidy. Photo © by Michael Frankel.
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