WOODSTOCK 1969 My own recollections
It was the summer of '69. Since then, Bryan Adams had a hit song about it, but we lived it. I was between my sophomore and junior years in high school, your basically normal 15-year-old suburbanite. My friends and I constituted what we called "The Fairview Gang". We didn't use "Gang" as a negative connotation, it just meant that we were friends, we hung out together, and we were very into music. We played our first gig together at a YMCA pool party in the summer of '68. Two of the Fairview Gang (Dave and Chuck) are now playing music professionally, two are playing semi-professionally (Pat and me), and Jim still plays guitar and is turning out to be a seriously good writer of short stories.
The plan is hatched
We had heard that there was going to be a "Pop Festival" at the Laurel Raceway in Laurel, Maryland. The fact that we were at the time living in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC, we figured we'd to the Laurel Festival (Jethro Tull was supposed to be appearing). Then we heard about Woodstock. We saw the list of bands, which was nothing short of incredible. "3 days of peace and music" was the marketing lure. Watch the music during the day and retreat to the campgrounds in the evening. The problem was, it was in New York and we were a bunch of 15-year-olds. Somehow, we'd have to convince our parents to let us go and then we'd have to find a way to get there.
Well, I think we all said to our parents "well, <insert friends name> parents are letting him go, why can't I go?" For some reason, which I still can't explain to this day (except that our parents ultimately thought we were good kids and trusted us), we were allowed to go. This included me, a very dear old friend Jim, whom I still see regularly, Harvey and Jerry, two of the regular neighborhood guys, and Ricky, who lived in another neighborhood but whom we knew through school (Ricky was able to recite all of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant", which had us in stitches because he did it perfectly).
Soon, more information was released through the local newspapers and we found that we could buy tickets for the festival AND a ticket for a bus that would take us to the site. Jim's mom took Jim and me to buy the tickets. Three days of tickets for an incredible number of bands, all for $18.00! I don't remember how much the bus ticket cost. We had the tickets and we were ready to go.
The Bus Trip
We gathered at a "hippie" clothes store called "Hang Ups" in Falls Church Virginia. It was probably about 7:00 in the morning, but it was already getting pretty warm as it was mid-August. We clambered onto the bus and began our journey. The first part of the bus ride went without incident. We stopped for lunch and re-fueling at a rest stop that is located just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridges. It was then that we found out that the other bus had to return to Falls Church to pick up a bunch of people that had missed the original boarding. This was a delay of at least 3 - 4 hours, of which I remember very little except for being incredibly bored. The bus finally got back and we continued our trip. The one amusing moment I will never forget is passing a sign that was located on the side of a mountain. "Motel on the Mountain" it read. So Ricky began singing "Motel it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere .". We were very mature 15-year-olds.
The Arrival (I)
We arrived at the Monticello Race Track, which was actually approximately 11 miles from the site, which was in a small town called Bethel. The traffic was backed up from the site to the race track. Route 17B was a two-lane highway, with four lanes headed for the festival site (two lanes of the highway with cars headed in the same direction and two shoulders acting as full lanes, headed for the site). At first, the bus driver wasn't going to let us off because he contractually had not delivered us to the destination. After much convincing by the entire busload, he relented and we headed off into history (ok, a little dramatic, but true). We walked and rode on car trunks for the entire 11 miles. This was the beginning of the boggling of our minds. It was hard to actually assimilate the fact that there were so many people headed to the site, knowing that there were probably a lot of people already there.
So, we walked for several hours, passing through the small town of Bethel after dark. Then we finally reached "Hurd Road", a narrow but paved country road that headed off of Route 17B to the festival site. People were everywhere. Campers were already set up, cars parked at every angle, and then we reached the site.
The Arrival (II)
We crested the hill to the site and I will never forget what I saw. A giant field covered with people and in the distance, the stage. On stage was Ravi Shankar, bathed in blue spotlights, playing sitar accompanied by other musicians. To this day, this is one of the most surreal scenes I have ever witnessed. It seems like I must have stood there for quite a while because the scene is burned into my memory.
After "snapping out of it", we began to look for a place to settle in. There were five of us, but we had very little with us; a little to eat, a little to drink, and some sleeping bags. We were not well prepared. We found a place that was essentially right in the middle of the "bowl" that was the field. It was an amazing field, a natural amphitheatre. We settled in and watched Melanie, Arlo Guthrie ("the New York State Thruway is closed man!") and Joan Baez. If you've seen the movie, you can see the steam coming out of Joan Baez's mouth as she sings, because it was chilly. This is something else we weren't really ready for. Yes, it was mid-August, but we were also in the Catskill Mountains and to our dismay, it gets quite chilly at night.
Various announcements were made from the stage. "Please, stay away from the brown acid, we've heard that some people have had some bad trips". Just hearing an announcement like that was a new one on us! I was only 15 at the time and, unlike today, most 15-year-olds at the time were not into drugs, heavily or otherwise. Yeah, we took some hits off of some joints on the way to the site, but we certainly weren't affected in any way. There were people actively selling drugs as they walked through the crowd. "Green acid, marijuana, speed, right here" someone would say. One guy walked by wearing a trench coat that was stuffed with drugs in every pocket. We bought a small bag of marijuana, the first marijuana I had ever purchased. My friend Ricky, who had smoked before, said that it was pretty low quality stuff, and as I remember, none of us even got stoned.
Then there was a major announcement, part (or all) of which is heard in the film. "It's a free concert from now on. This doesn't mean that anything goes, this means that the promoters are going to be taking a bath, a big bath.".
And then, the announcement that sticks in my head until this very day. "And remember, the man sitting next to you is your brother and you damn well better treat each other that way because if you don't, then we blow the whole thing, but we've got it right there." It was, at the time, an incredibly profound message to me as it still is today. And that's what happened. An amazing affirmation of the positive side of the human spirit and even more amazing to be exposed to it when I was just 15. I haven't mentioned yet, but Saturday the 16th, the second day of the festival, was my 16th birthday. Obviously, a 16th birthday that couldn't be topped.
More announcements follow. "Mary, please come to the stage, your brother has your medicine". "John, please come to the stage, your father is looking for you". This went on continuously between acts. Then an announcement that pricked up my ears. "Bob D'Angelo, please come to the stage, your friends are looking for you". Well, Bob D'Angelo is my brother's name and I knew that he was at the festival somewhere. So one of my friends and I headed off for the stage. This was an interesting proposition, because leaving our spot and finding it again would wind up being a challenge. We reached the stage and I actually found the person looking for Bob D'Angelo. She says "Bob D'Angelo, from Larchmont?". I said something like "where the hell is Larchmont" and was told it was in New York. Not my brother. We headed back to our spot, using tents, flags and various other items as landmarks to once again find our friends.
I haven't mentioned much about the music of the first night, but we certainly were paying attention. Melanie was a sort of pop hippie star at the time, known mainly for her song "Brand New Roller Skates". Arlo Guthrie was really enjoyable. He did a long narrative song about a Moses leading his people through the desert, and somehow fit in the fact that some of them eating hash brownies to make the trip more bearable. Joan Baez's voice was angelic.
The show ended for the night probably at about 2:00am. We got in our sleeping bags and tried to catch some shut-eye to get ready for Saturday. We awoke early, probably about 7:00am to a steady rain. This was something else we hadn't planned for. So, I got up out of my el-cheapo Sears $9.95 sleeping bag, which was soaking wet, and got ready for the day. We had a really great selection of food, peanut butter and jelly, Vienna sausages, M&M's and various other healthy and intelligent things to eat. I looked around at the sea of humanity, not quite as crowded because some people had apparently actually gone off to camp sites. Small fires were burning for cooking and keeping warm. A large group of people located a small distance from us where singing "Hey Bungalow Bill" and "Rocky Racoon" from the Beatles' White Album. This is the scene I remember every time I hear those songs.
The clouds broke and it turned into a beautiful day. Then the real crowd arrived. I guess I thought there were a lot of people at the site on Friday night, but this was nothing compared to the masses that congregated by Saturday afternoon.
A band called "Quill" opened Saturday's performance. I believe they were a "local" band from the New England area. The first real musical memory is Country Joe McDonald's now infamous "FISH" call, which was actually "Give me an F-U-C-K, what's that spell, what's that spell, what's that spell". Well hearing several thousand people screaming FUCK back every time he said "what's that spell" was amusing and astounding. This was a prelude to "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" that was a scorching criticism of the Vietnam war, which was pretty close to its height about 6,000 miles away. "Well it's 1-2-3 what are we fightin' for, don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam, well it's 5-6-7 open up the pearly gates, well I ain't got time to wonder why, whoopee we're all gonna die". This belies the fact that the festival was really quite apolitical. It was simply the experience of being there that made it magical.
John Sebastian was next. I found out a few years later when he appeared on the Dick Cavett show that he had done three hits of acid before going on stage. This probably explains his inability to remember the words to one of his own songs. He, possibly more than anybody, personified Woodstock, with his gentle ways, tie dyed shirt, rimless glasses, and speaking of sitting and smoking with good friends.
The next group I remember was Santana. At the time, Santana was not a well-known band except maybe in the San Francisco Bay area. If you've seen the movie, needless to say, they blew away several hundred thousand people. A NEW BAND, that most people had never heard, blew away several hundred thousand people. What an awesome accomplishment. I remember thinking "Who are these guys, my God, they're GREAT". One thing you have to realize is that we were in the middle of the bowl. We saw a good portion of the show through the binoculars I brought. The interesting thing was that, we were far enough away that there was a delay in the sound reaching us from when it was generated. Just a little side-note: for you drummers out there, that means you'd hear the snare drum as the drummer had his stick in the air after striking the drum. Yes, I saw Michael Shrieve's now famous drum solo during "Soul Sacrifice". We were pretty much awe struck.
Again, remember we are in the middle of a crowd of 250,000, no, 300,000, no, I don't think anybody really knew. If I stood up and looked around, I could see a sea of people as far as I could see in every direction. It was also getting hot. Yes, last night we were freezing in the rain and now it was hot as hell. We carefully drank the stupidly small amount of water we had brought with us. Hell, people were selling water for as much as $5 a cup (yes, capitalism was actually alive and well at Woodstock). We also were eating our healthy diet of Vienna sausages, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and M&M's. The fact that we hadn't gone to the bathroom since early morning hadn't really become a factor .. yet.
After mostly just kind of sitting through a performance by "The Incredible String Band" (about which I remember absolutely nothing), Canned Heat hit the stage. It was pretty much the beginning of the "heavy weight" bands that would be coming and coming and coming. I remember really enjoying their performance. Next was The Grateful Dead. I know the heritage the Dead have, but I've never really been and Dead-head and to me, they were terrifically boring. I read after that even Jerry Garcia said they played a pretty bad set at Woodstock.
Feeling really bad
Ok, it was an historical weekend, hundreds of thousands of people gathered, great music performed, wow. Then there was reality. We hadn't left our spot all day and it was now getting dark. I knew that if I tried to make it to the bathroom, well, actually a huge stand of "Port-o-Sans", I'd never make it back to my friends. I also figured that, if they didn't have to go, then I could hold it as well. This is when I stared to get sick. Great. We're in the middle of a sea of humanity, it's getting dark, it's getting cold, I have to piss really bad and I'm starting to feel bad.
I try to sleep, but it's a really light sleep. I wake for a while during Creedence Clearwater's performance (I specifically remember hearing "Green River") and woke briefly to hear Janis Joplin sing "Take a Little Piece of my Heart". But I felt like I was going to die. I had to piss really bad, I had to take a shit, I was hungry, cold, and tired. Boy was I having a great time! I looked up a website that has the order of performers during the festival. One mistake I know they have is that they have Mountain playing on Sunday when I know they played Saturday night. To this day, I still don't know when Sly and the Family Stone played. If they played Saturday night, I slept through the whole thing! Imagine sleeping through "I WANT TO TAKE YOU HIGHER, HIGHER". I managed to be awake through part of The Who's performance. One thing that is not shown in the movie is that Abbie Hoffman, a political activist at the time, jumped on stage and grabbed the mike and started talking some political bull-shit that I don't really remember. What I DO remember is Pete Townshend shoving him OFF OF THE STAGE. Like I said, the festival had a very apolitical tone, despite what you may have thought.
Ok, some of the acts I just mentioned technically performed on Sunday morning, but, by Sunday morning I mean that THE SUN IS COMING UP. Jefferson Airplane hits the stage at approximately 7:00am. Grace Slick announces that it's time for some "morning madness music" and they do their set.
I finally decide that, if I don't go take a piss, my bladder will burst and I will die on the field. One of my friends accompanies me so I can go stand in line at the Port-o-San. I won't go into much detail here, but, the facility was one of the most disgusting 5 minutes I have spent anywhere in my life. I began to piss and I continued to piss and piss and piss. I wondered if I was ever going to stop. Well yes, I did finally empty my bladder, but to my surprise, I still really felt like shit. We went back to our "camp" (yes, we found it again to my amazement). Shortly after, I began to throw up. This was really great. The next person not in our group was probably 3 feet away. I dug a hole in the mud and puked up some seriously yellow gooey stuff. I thought to myself "okay, I'm going to die of renal poisoning". After throwing up for a while, I decided I better go to the hospital tent. My friend Jim accompanied me and I remember while making our way to the hospital tent, Joe Cocker's performance started. Now, from seeing his performance in the movie scores of times, I regard his performance of "With a Little Help from my Friends" as one of the most incredible performances in rock history. And I missed it. I was in the hospital tent. I told the doctor that my stomach was bothering me. He asked me when was the last time I went to the bathroom. I told him "just a few hours ago". Of course, I didn't mention the fact that I hadn't gone for about 20 hours before that. To this day, I wonder why I didn't mention it as I know I could have been really sick. He gave me something non-descript for my stomach and we went back to our camp.
The infamous "Port-O-Sans"
The Final Straw
Joe Cocker finished his performance. I was feeling like I was going to die. Then a tremendous thunder stormed rolled in. Again, for those of you that were there, or even if you only saw it in the movie, the storm was unbelievable. TONS of rain and wind and then, of course, it got cold again. I decided that "no joke Paul, you really will die if you stay here again tonight". I polled my friends as to who would leave with me and Ricky took me up on it. I didn't know it at the time, but we were VERY close to making it into the movie as the giant mud slides that are depicted were right near our little camp. I still remember the "rain chant" as it was really happening. But, I was going to die if I didn't leave. Hell, I had a great time but it wasn't worth leaving the earth when I was only 16. So we left.
Rick and I began our journey home. Thousands of other people, too, were leaving the festival. It was Sunday evening and the end of the weekend. The festival was supposed to be over, but, because of all of the delays, it ran well into Monday morning. Yes, I missed Jimi Hendrix's famous performance. Don't feel too bad for me though, I saw him three times in a two year span, three unforgettable concerts. Ricky and I walked back to route 17B with only a sketchy plan of what we were going to do to get home. I had relatives in Staten Island, so I figured, if we could get to New York City, I could figure out how to get to my aunt's place, then get home from there. As we walked we watched the cars go by. As if a gift from heaven, a car with an Alexandria VA city sticker on its windshield slowly drove by. I reached in my pocket and got out what money I had. Ricky did the same. I yelled at the car "thirteen bucks to Fairfax?". They looked at each other and I think were going to turn us down, but, amazingly they said "hop in". So we gave them our $13 and began our ride home. I remember almost nothing of the ride home because I slept almost the entire way. I know you want to know this, but I finally got to take a shit in the bathroom of a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike. Thank God, I was going to survive. Well, these guys were so kind, they dropped us off at the top of the street I lived on in Fairfax. It was 4:00am. We thanked them profusely, Rick walked home and I walked home. The experience of the weekend had actually changed me. I remember being in a haze (NOT a drug haze) for several days following. I had a job as a clerk-typist at the time, courtesy of my mom working at a local clinic. I remember going to work that Tuesday and hardly being able to bear the reality of being back home after having gone through such an amazing weekend.
I was truly changed by my experience. I was one of many people who thought they were going to go see a bunch of great bands. We DID see a bunch of great bands but I'm sure there wasn't anybody there that was prepared for what we actually experienced. We experienced a truly historical sociological happening. Jim has written an account of his experience at Woodstock and mentioned that I considered it almost a "mystical" experience. He is right. To this day, 36 years later, I still regard that weekend as a truly magical experience, never again to be repeated. I don't know if all people have one experience in their lives that equals a Woodstock. I hope so, but I really don't know. You've read the good and the bad, and I remember the good and the bad. But the effect that Woodstock had on me was immeasurable in making me the person I am today. I still hope that people can get together and get along peacefully. I've done my share of drugs in the ensuing 36 years, but never enough for it to become a problem in my life. I remember being in the bathroom in high school one day overhearing a couple of the "druggies" talking about Woodstock and how many drugs they had done while they were there. I thought to myself "they missed the whole point of the whole weekend". It is said that Woodstock was the "high water mark" of the peace and love generation. We don't look back with nostalgia on those times very much. It's ok to be nostalgic about the 50's, the 70's, and the 80's, but the latter part of the 60's still seems to hurt too much to be nostalgic. Anybody that lived through those times knows that the social upheaval at that time surpasses anything that has followed. Maybe it is because of the war in Vietnam. Maybe it is because the Cold War was at its height. We had suffered three major political assassinations between the years 1963 and 1968 (John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King). There was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. America was divided. All of those things, though, simply were not the point of Woodstock. It truly was three days of peace and music which provided me with treasured, golden memories for the rest of my life.