Thursday, August 13, 2009

Woodstock: I Want My Tape Back!

Two days from today, my wife Linda and I will be heading a couple of hours south of here to relive (in a second-hand way) one of the great experiences of my life. It is billed as "The Heroes of Woodstock," a 40th anniversary concert on the site (well, on the next hill over) where the original concert took place over the weekend of August 15-17, 1969. It doesn't matter that most of the performers this time around have earned their "hero" status merely by surviving for another 40 years, while we all know that the true heroes in 1969 were the half-million (give or take 100,000) attendees. Of whom I was one.

I skipped the Friday night lineup of mostly folk singers plus Ravi Shankar, and drove the 90 minutes from New Jersey on Saturday morning. This was the summer after I graduated from high school, only two weeks before I escaped into college life. I'd been attending concerts all summer, including the Newport Jazz Festival (which had finally begun adding rock groups to the lineup, in this case Ten Years After and Jethro Tull) and eight or nine great two-band concerts at the Wollman skating rink in Central Park. The Woodstock lineup looked irresistible, so I purchased tickets for the Saturday and Sunday concerts (at $7 apiece). I was ready!

Well, not so ready as it turned out. I didn't bring anything with me. I figured I'd sleep in the back seat of my mother's Plymouth, and I didn't bring any food. Not even a backpack full of goodies. I didn't own a backpack; I'd never gone anywhere except for Newport, where I did sleep in the car. Apparently my parents had even less idea of what to expect than I did. They let me go.

At 9:30 AM, I reached exit 104 of I-17, the exit for the Monticello race track. The exit was closed. That was the first broad hint of things to come. I wasn't turning back, and there were dozens of cars parked on the shoulders and the highway median. I drove around a bend, found a parking spot on the shoulder, and headed west, joining a growing parade of marchers seeking Woodstock.

I had no idea how far I was from the concert site. Nobody else did either. We didn't know that the Friday concert had ended early because of a thunderstorm. There were hints along the way on what turned into the most surreal part of the weekend. There were thousands of people walking west on Highway 11-B, patiently making our way up and down hills and around curve after curve. There were also thousands of people walking east, away from the concert, though not as many as the westbound tide. Many of them told us, "don't even bother, man. There's no concert. They called it off. It's just a sea of mud out there." I don't know what stories these defectors have told their grandchildren, but we didn't believe them. Sure, it was hard to ignore the evidence that they were leaving--why would anyone leave if more music was on the way? After awhile, our parade had a tinge of morbid curiosity. Okay, there's nothing there but a sea of mud--but have you ever seen a sea of mud? Hey, let's go look at the sea of mud! You say the Hindenberg already burned to the ground? Well, I've never seen a huge pile of ashes before, and I've come this far. . .we kept walking.

The natives didn't quite know what to make of us. Some of them yelled at us that we were crazy (or worse), while others gave us water and snacks. And directions. Not exactly. I lost count of the number of people who said, "it's just over the next hill" or "go around a couple of curves and you'll be there." We got this information from natives and defectors, and they were all wrong! It was never over the next hill. I'll cut to the chase on this one. I wound up walking 11 (eleven) miles from Exit 104 to the concert site. When I visited the new (and terrific) museum at the old Yasgur farm in Bethel last year, I clocked the drive: 10.6 miles. There were just as many hills as I remembered. It's still quite rural, with farms, scattered clusters of houses, and summer camps and resorts. If you ever have five hours to kill, try walking it.

So we kept walking. I think some people did turn back, taking the advice of the defectors that there was not much to see and nothing at all to hear. As it turned out, I reached the concert site about 15 minutes before the Saturday concert began. And the rest was history.

I won't pretend that my Woodstock experience was typical. For one thing, I didn't do any drugs. In fact, that was the first time I even saw drugs, but when someone passed me acid or a joint, I passed it right along. No doubt I got a "contact high" along the way, but more of that later. I didn't have sex either. I didn't hang out with any particular group, nor did I make any friends for life. In 44 hours, I never strayed from the hillside where the music was. I spent some time on Saturday checking out the crafts fair on top of the hill (I think they billed it as an "Aquarian" fair), and walked around and around the site to take in the various views. Pretty soon I decided that I wanted to be down near the front, as close to the music as I could get, because after all that was what I had come for. I didn't go there to be part of a political or generational movement or statement. Going to Woodstock, for me, didn't represent anything else but a chance to see a lot of great rock groups perform.

The high point for me was the nearly two-hour set by The Who, who went on around 3:30 AM. "Tommy" was still relatively new, and it was a thrill to hear them perform the whole thing, sandwiched by their greatest hits. The most memorable event occurred midway through The Who. The excellent museum which opened at the site last year has a label which says that this event was "alleged" to have happened, but I can assure you, it did. You just had to be standing in front of the stage with your eyes wide open at 4:45 AM to witness it. It happened because of Abbie Hoffman, the rabid radical whose main cause at the time was rallying support for John Sinclair, the White Panther Party leader who had been busted in Michigan and given a 30-year prison sentence for possession of two joints. Hoffman, whose targets for derision and protest included materialism, got pissed at The Who because they refused to perform until they got their fee (around $8,000) in cash. This presented a problem for the promoters, who were cash-poor over the bankless weekend, and was the reason the band didn't hit the stage until 3:30 AM. Hoffman decided to protest by racing onto the stage to interrupt their performance. They say timing is everything, and his timing was dramatic. He chose a moment when Pete Townshend's microphone was unoccupied--Pete was back by the tall banks of Marshall amps, doing his solo on "Pinball Wizard". Hoffman grabbed the microphone and screamed "How you can people be listening to this fucking music when John Sin--" That's as far as he got. Townshend took a running start and speared Hoffman in the back with the neck of his guitar, literally sending him flying off the stage and into the photographers' well, right in front of me. Townshend muttered into the mike, "if you do that again, I'll fookin' kill you!" and went back to finish his solo. There were no more yelps of protest from Hoffman, who got his payback with a long rant about The Who in his book "Woodstock Nation". "Alleged" my ass!

The low point was the big storm Sunday afternoon, just as Joe Cocker was finishing his leadoff performance. Everyone saw the menacing black clouds moving in, but there was noplace to go. When the rain began, I joined a lot of other people seeking shelter beneath the counter of an abandoned food stall. The stall was covered but it didn't matter. The wind whipped the rain in driving sheets which soaked us to the bone for almost an hour. When it let up, we heard an annoucement saying that there would be more music, they just didn't know when. That was enough for us. People built fires in garbage cans, and we took turns standing close enough to the flames to dry off. It took a long, long time. But we had nothing but time. The storm began around 4 PM, and the concert didn't resume until after 9, when Country Joe and The Fish went on. I was not one of the people you've seen in the movie, merrily sliding on their bellies through the mud in defiance of the storm. You really didn't have to go out of your way to enjoy the mud.

You've heard about the youngsters who were so maniacal about the music that they slogged through the boggy hillside to stand ankle-deep in mud in front of the stage while the musicians performed. I was one of them. For most of the last two days, I was right there, in the first few rows of people standing within 25-30 feet of the performers. In front of the stage was a shallow photographers' well, then a short fence, and then us. That was my spot for the following groups (I can still name every group I saw there, pretty much in order): Mountain, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and The Who on Saturday night, and Country Joe & The Fish, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on Sunday night.

After that, it wasn't Sunday night any more. Butterfield left the stage around 6am Monday morning, at which point the crowd was thinning out considerably. I hadn't gotten much sleep since my arrival. I rested a lot, but I doubt that I slept more than 5-6 hours the whole weekend. There was time for cat-naps between groups, as the stage crews took a long time to switch the equipment from one group to the next, and I'd find a spot to lie down and listen to Chip Monck or whoever it was reading announcements from the stage ("stay away from the brown acid" and "meet your friend at the medical tent--you have his insulin" were popular refrains). Eventually the next group would start tuning up, and when they were introduced, almost every time my reaction would be "jeez, I'd better get down there so I can see them!"

Have you ever slept on a wobbly plank suspended between two garbage cans? That's what I did Monday morning after Butterfield's set. It was too far to slog through the mud again to the little hill on the side where I'd gotten occasional rest on one of the hay bales brought in after the Sunday afternoon storm. So I found this foot-wide plank, sat on it, dropped my head, and nodded off. Then came an odd sound: "Tough! Tough! Tough!" almost spat into microphones. That was how Sha-Na-Na tested the mikes. I'm not sure how many people there had heard of Sha-Na-Na. I know I hadn't, and they remain the most incongruous performers at the festival, a campy doo-wop group singing 50s hits while racing around the stage. Coming out of a semi-sleep after two long nights of rock 'n roll, I thought I was dreaming while they performed.

Another long break followed, another shallow snooze on the plank, and another guitarist warming up. But not just any guitarist. This was Jimi Hendrix--alas, only a name to me at that moment. Two and a half hours later, he was much more than a name. If his performance the previous year at the Monterey festival put him on the map, his Woodstock marathon defined the sizable portion of the map that was his alone. Only weeks before, he had formed a new group with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They played everything they had rehearsed; that took about 45 minutes. Following that was another 45 minutes of old Hendrix songs that they all knew how to play. "That's all we know," Hendrix apologized at 9:30 AM to the thousands of stragglers like me. "If you wanna stick around. . ." We did, and they kept playing. That's when he unleashed the scorching version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" which remains the festival's anthem (along with Country Joe's "fish cheer" from late Saturday afternoon). They jammed for another hour, playing until 10:30 AM, a scintillating performance that topped and capped the near three dozen performances which preceded it.

And then it was over, and time to face reality. For me, that meant 11 miles back to Monticello, where I didn't expect to find my car because the word got around that they had towed all the vehicles parked along the interstate. I think it was at that point that I realized how poor my condition was. I hadn't eaten--all I had in the previous 30 hours was one lukewarm hotdog and a lukewarmer soda. Somehow I missed the "breakfast in bed for a half-million people" that Wavy Gravy trumpeted in the movie. I was weak, sleepless, and disoriented (as Blind Faith would put it a year later, "wasted and I can't find my way home"). I had called my parents Sunday morning to let them know I made it and was alive, but I didn't stop to call them Monday morning. I just tried to get to Monticello. That wasn't very easy. People with cars were giving rides, which meant hopping on the hood or roof elbow-to-elbow with other unfortunates, but there were a lot of cars abandoned along the road which prevented drivers from getting through. So the whole trip back involved long walks up and down those damn hills, interspersed with occasional, brief lifts from soon-stymied drivers.

It took more than three hours to get to Monticello, and sure enough, there wasn't a car in sight. I walked around the curve where I thought I'd parked the Plymouth, walked and walked until I was sure I'd gone much further than where I could possibly have parked. There was nothing to do but call home. By the time my father drove the 90 miles to rescue me, I learned that there were four big yards where the tow trucks might have taken the car. My father, who masked his dismay at my condition by expressing his relief that I was still alive, took us around to all four. No luck. If it wasn't the victim of a tow truck, what then? We took the back road to Ferndale and the regional highway patrol barracks, where we reported the car missing and/or stolen.

From there it was back on good old I-17, three exits west of Monticello. Three exits later, my father pointed. "What's that?" he chirped. Oh, just my mother's car--right where I had left it two mornings earlier. It was the only car we saw along the road, and I couldn't explain why it alone had apparently been spared by the tow trucks, just as I couldn't explain how I had failed to spot it in the first place. Trust me: my father busted my balls about that one the rest of his life.

No doubt I was physically exhausted and mentally disoriented from the wear and tear of the weekend, not to mention the contact high. My father was alarmed--and smart--enough to forbid me from driving home. So my mother's car stayed along the shoulder for another day while my father hurried me sullenly back to New Jersey.

I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder in my room, and since I was too exhilarated and wired to go to sleep, I grabbed my own microphone and started talking. And talking. I put on tape everything I could remember about Woodstock, and didn't stop talking for more than three hours, filling both sides of the tape. That winter I transcribed about two-thirds of it, and I still have that transcript somewhere. A lot of it is simply set lists; I tried to recall every song I'd heard by every group.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the tape. Two years later, while I was away at college, my parents had a garage sale and sold it (yeah, along with my baseball card collection and a few other treasures). Trust me: I busted his balls about that one for a long time, too. Somewhere out there, someone has three-plus hours of a wide-eyed adolescent's hour-by-hour account of Woodstock. So please do me a favor. Start asking everyone you meet if they've ever heard this tape. I want it back!