Friday, August 14, 2009

Woodstock - I Wish I Had My Camera

Forty years ago this weekend my friend David and I hitchhiked from Rochester, NY to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. We were both 17, soon to be starting our senior year in high school at McQuaid Jesuit. We had been planning all summer to go to the concert and had seriously considered pre-purchasing 3 day passes which I seem to recall were $25. We procrastinated and never did buy the passes, which famously were not needed for what became a free concert. Of course our parents didn’t approve of the hitchhiking, but they wouldn’t let us drive the family cars and they had no intention of driving us the 200+ miles to the festival site. My mother did however drive us to the entrance of the NY State Thruway where we found the first of our two rides that took us to this once in a lifetime event.
As I recall the first ride we got was in a VW microbus, I think I saw my first dreadlocks. Given the age of the folks already in the van when they picked us up, I expected they would be going all the way to Woodstock, but they dropped us off near Syracuse. The second ride was two college co-eds who were going to the concert, we were as good as there.
When we arrived, I presume it was Thursday afternoon/evening, August 14, I believe, we parked about a mile from the concert site and set up camp in the parking lot. We had brought a tent and basic food supplies for the weekend, and we had cash for food and tickets. We started the partying in the tent and by evening moved outside to watch the steady and endless line of traffic flowing into the festival area. Clearly the crowd had exceeded the capacity of the highways and planned for parking. You might expect people to be grumping, but everyone took it in stride. The incoming traffic became a slow winding pot party on wheels. Concert goers walked along side traffic and would jump in and out of cars for a toke or to share a toke well into the evening.
Saturday morning we woke in expectation of a day of music. Early on that morning, we heard the concert organizers had decided to forego tickets and make it free for all comers. Around lunch time we made our way to the concert stage. I seem to recall there was still a little bit of traffic, but it was really at a standstill. There were a few state troopers on hand, but their role was diminished by the size of the crowd, they stood and watched on. Pot, drugs and nudity were all accepted in the new town of Woodstock, already be proclaimed as the largest event of its kind ever. News was viral flowing mostly on rumors, but a consistent message that dominated the weekend was “this is a peaceful gathering”.
At the concert site, something of a natural amphitheatre which was a transformed cornfield on Yasgur’s farm. At 5:07 p.m. on Aug. 15, 1969, Richie Havens stepped onstage, played the opening cords of “High Flyin’ Bird,” and the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was under way. I really do not recall the order of music, it would have been great to have had a digital camera. Events I recall following Richie Havens were Joan Baez singing about the governor of California Ronald “Ray Guns”, Jon Sebastian, Ravi Shankar. There may have been more, but they are dumped into the Saturday bucket in my memory. After the concert we found our way back to our parking lot tent through the meandering and still peaceful crowd.
After breakfast on Saturday we joined a large group headed off to find a place to swim. Some people were talking about people getting sick, but these seemed more rumor than fact. People would walk off into cornfields and liberate a few ears of corn (cattle feed corn) and eat it on the spot. We finally found the pond and joined in a swim. Perhaps needless to say with this crowd, but clothing was optional and not many were clothed. I really don’t remember if I was skinny dipping or not .. oh for that camera. After the swim David and I headed kind off on our own (if you can be on your own in that kind of crowd) and eventually approached the concert stage from what seemed like a stand of trees. Santana was playing at the time and the music sound tribal as if we were coming on a village in the jungle. We found a place in the crowd and sat down to enjoy one fabulous day of music. Shows I remember for Saturday included Country Joe McDonald and the Fish – he had us all singing a version of 1-2-3-4 what are we fighting for in a peaceful but vocal protest to the Vietnam War. Following throughout the day were Joe Cocker, Edgar Winter, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone – with a Gonna Take You Higher sing along and probably more.
By Sunday we were exhausted along with a whole lot of folks. There was some rain so we stayed close to our tent or other cover. It may have been that the concert was postponed for the rain. We did not make it to the concert site until the evening. Through the night the crowd slowly started trickling away and still sleepy I found myself dozing as the music played through the night. I recall Paul Butterfield (Dave Sanborn was playing with the group at that time) and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. I know there were other performances that night, but I they are only in my dreams. And in the early morning hours of Monday, August 18, Jimi Hendrix and his newly formed Band of Gypsies made it to the stage, the closing act for the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival.
When the music ended we were a weary and diminished crowd, more survivors than celebrants, passive, perhaps stunned, in small groups in the muddy fields and hills overlooking the stage. It was as if I had lived a dream where a city of a half a million people had come together with a common purpose and a message of peace and celebration, and we got the attention of the world. Woodstock was three days in the garden and I am proud to have been a part of it.
As I recall David was barefoot and shirtless at the end of the concert. The tent was gone, perhaps a conscious decision to not go back and get it. As we strategized on how we would get home we ran into a school friend who unbeknownst to us had driven to the festival and had room in his car. Go figure.
When we got back to school from summer vacation our first assignment was to write on what we had done that summer. I know I wrote about Woodstock … I sure wish I had that essay along with a few digital pictures. My only Woodstock memento is the Woodstock bird which my mother embroidery on a Levi’s pant pocket. The jeans are long gone, but the embroidered bird sits in a box on my dresser, a treasured memento of a younger day when I learned how to make a dream come true. My Woodstock trip was a dream come ture.
“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” CS&N

1 comment:

Ada said...

What a wonderful story Mike. I bet it was incredible to be there and I also wish you had some pictures of the event... but I'm glad you still have the memories and are able to share that experience in words!