august 2009

Joe Cocker and the Grease Band at Woodstock, 1969
'With A Little Help From My Friends'

The Rain, The Mud and Other Things

Woodstock Summer revisited

by Billy Altman

Let me start out by saying, in the vernacular of the day, that it does kind of freak me out that this month marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It is, after all, the one event most closely associated with the entire '60s generation, and as a then draft card-carrying, now AARP card-carrying member of that generation, as well as someone who actually was there, the ever-vivid memories of that thoroughly incredible (as in truly "hard to believe") weekend in upstate New York can't help but make me feel the full weight of time that comes with the mere mention of the word.

In my mind's eye, I can still see—I mean really see—everything that happened to me at Woodstock, beginning with the journey just getting there. Friday's traffic jam to end all traffic jams along Route 17 found me coming from nearby Monticello, where I'd spent the previous night, in an eight-hours-to-go-10-miles trip that ended with my friend Dave and I abandoning his car on the side of the road, still a mile short of our destination. We arrived on foot, sleeping bags in tow, in the latter part of the afternoon—just as it was being announced that already overrun-with-gatecrashers festival was now a free event. For the record, I came with ticket money on me.

I went to Woodstock not for the scene, but for the music, just as I had for several other high profile music festivals held in that "summer of '69." Over the Fourth of July weekend, I'd been in Rhode Island for the Newport Jazz Festival, which that year decided to "slum" a bit by including among its regular staple of jazz giants such acts as James Brown, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Jeff Beck Group, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. (Best single memory: after Jethro Tull frontman/flutist Ian Anderson took the greatest of pains to brag that his band had covered Roland Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo" on its first album, Rhasaan Kirk himself later took the stage and returned the "favor" by wiping the floor with them in a dazzling performance of the Who's "Pinball Wizard," which he played on two horns, simultaneously.)

Country Joe McDonald, 'Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag,' Woodstock, 1969

Less than two weeks after that, in late July, I'd ventured up to Toronto from Buffalo for Canada's Mariposa Folk Festival, and this time as both listener and participant. I went with my college group, the South Happiness Street Society Skiffle Band—a longrunning local jug band made up of an ever-revolving cast of SUNY Buffalo students that during my four-year tenure on harmonica and kazoo included everything from bluegrassers (guitar/ banjo/mandolin), and Dixieland jazzsters (clarinet/saxophone/ cornet) to blues babies (me and the washtub bass player). While we were originally slated to play several daytime workshops, a late cancellation by another act led to us appearing on the final evening concert. And so, on a bill that included the likes of Doc Watson, Jean Redpath and headliner Joan Baez, our giddy little crew, which had never before played to any crowd bigger than around 500 on the UB campus, found itself performing in front of 10,000 people.

To make things even more surreal, Canada's public television network the CBC was filming the entire festival for a documentary. Needless to say, our entire set was a blur—so much so that when someone later congratulated me and the mandolin player for our impromptu Charleston in the middle of "Coney Island Washboard," neither of us had any recollection that it had even happened; we'd never done anything like that before, but just got caught up in the moment. (P.S.: Out of the hundred-plus acts that were shot, not only did we wind up appearing in the one-hour documentary when it aired that fall, but they used our version of Jelly Roll Morton's "Doctor Jazz" as the program's opening number!) (Best single memory: After a communal performers' dinner the first night, I go for a walk around the island off of Toronto where Mariposa is held. I hear some rustling nearby, and turn around to see none other than Joni Mitchell and her new boyfriend Graham Nash rolling around in the bushes. Second best memory: bluegrass great Don Reno leaving his white patent leather boots outside his motel room after a late night jam session—just in case, he tells us with a wink, any interested women want to find him.)

‘I had just as much time to prepare for that landing as the space program did.’—Walter Cronkite reflects on the first lunar landing and his feelings at watching it take place after having reported on the space program since its inception.

Beautiful: Jonathan King, 'Everyone's Gone To the Moon' (1965); orchestra conducted by Jimmy Saville

For me personally, then, Woodstock was, going in, really just the last festival of the summer. And while many of my friends said they were planning on being there, nobody I know even remotely expected the turnout to be so—to use another word that popped up that summer—astronomical. I'm referring, of course, to the moon landing in late July which, for much of the planet, and certainly for the vast majority of Americans, was hands down the most important thing that happened that year. I can't honestly say I wasn't interested; I certainly watched it. But in my neck of the counterculture woods, where the "space race" as a whole seemed to be being increasingly used mainly as a jingoistic distraction from such frighteningly real on-the-ground problems as racial tensions and the Vietnam War, the entire Apollo program felt mostly like a bizarre (and insanely expensive) novelty. And, as such, it seemed only proper to mark this out of the world occasion by experiencing it in an appropriately altered state. So let's just say that while I do recall the moment when the TV showed Neil Armstrong coming down that ladder and planting his little flag, I have a much better recollection of finding great meaning that night listening to the instrumental "Love is Blue" by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra—fifty times.)

Arlo Guthrie, 'Coming Into Los Angeles'
' was Guthrie's repeated use of the words 'far out' in his hilarious—and as it later was revealed, LSD-influenced—between song raps that really put that term on the map'

Anyway, back to the terra firma of the Woodstock festival, which once it started raining on Friday night, began turning into a thick, reddish brown mud that, I swear, just the mention of which brings back a smell that I can only liken to being on the inside of a piece of wet clay as it's being molded on a potter's wheel. With my sleeping bag pulled over my head for some protection, I made it through the closing sets by Arlo Guthrie (little known fact: it was Guthrie's repeated use of the words "far out" in his hilarious—and as it later was revealed, LSD-influenced—between song raps that really put that term on the map) and Joan Baez before finally crashing along with the other 500,000 or so water-logged but mostly happy campers. How wet was it? When I woke up Saturday morning, I looked around and saw that I was probably a hundred feet downhill from where I'd gone to sleep. Scary.

Crosby, Stills & Nash, 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,' Woodstock, 1969

As noted before, I'd come to Woodstock to hear the music, and being thoroughly soaked and muddied up to my shins wasn't doing much for me or my friend Dave. And so, in our innocence, we decided to leave for the day to try and get cleaned up, with the idea of returning later on for the evening lineup. We trekked the mile or so back to the car, put on some dry clothes we'd left behind, and drove back to Monticello, where I'd gone to summer camp for many years and knew inside and out. However, by the time we'd gotten it together (I even washed my sleeping bag at the local laundromat) we were so mentally and physically exhausted that we wound up staying the night at the town park. As the nearest real town to the festival, Monticello was doing everything it could to help the (as deemed by the Governor) "disaster area" of Woodstock, to the point of providing food and camping shelter to the literally thousand of bedraggled young souls like us dazedly wandering its streets.

As a result, of course, I missed all of Saturday's sets by Santana, Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, Mountain, Credence, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who and the Jefferson Airplane. However, with the noted exception of Santana, I'd seen every one of these acts at some point in the previous year, either up at my college or at the Fillmore East on trips home to Manhattan to see my folks—and that included a Dead show at the Fillmore on Saturday night in late June which ended so late (almost 5 a.m.) that Bill Graham came onstage and said he could lose his license if the place stayed open any longer, and so he asked that we all go home, rest up, and then come to the bandshell in Central Park at 2 p.m., where he promised the Dead would play a free "encore" for us. And that they did, playing for nearly two hours.

In any event, the acts I most wanted to catch at Woodstock were among the groups slated for the final day: the Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Jimi Hendrix. And so, crazy as it sounds, my pal Dave and I decided to go back to the festival. Miraculously, the traffic wasn't bad, and while we still had to leave the car on the road a ways from Max Yasgur's farm, we were able to get there and find a spare patch of ground to sit on not too far up the hill and to the left of the stage area. Still, just to make sure we understood what we'd knowingly gotten ourselves back into, the skies opened up and it started raining again for a while, which pushed all of Sunday's schedule back until things finally cleared up in the afternoon. And soon as Joe Cocker and his band hit their day-opening set high note with "A Little Help From My Friends," everything fell into truly magical place, from Country Joe's "Gimme an F" cheer and Ten Years After's Alvin Lee breaking the speed guitar record on "Goin' Home" to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's ragged but right acoustic/electric two-parter and, as the sun was just coming up, the Paul Butterfield Band's completely appropriate set closer, "Love March."

Right here, though, is where the mythology surrounding the end of the Woodstock festival and the reality of it diverge. Everyone knows Jimi Hendrix was the final act at Woodstock, but not too many people know who the next to last act was: Sha Na Na. How they got booked in the first place—they were absolutely unknown at the time—is a mystery that, even after forty years, I've never heard properly explained. What I can tell you is that they absolutely cleared the festival: When they started playing, maybe 50,000 or so people were still in the rapidly dwindling audience. By the time they finally finished their excruciating set of greasy, gold lame joke/no joke '50s doo-wop covers, I'd say maybe at most a third were left hanging in. All I know is that by the time Hendrix finally performed that morning, I was no more than 75-100 feet from the stage, and with plenty of empty room around me. And watching him that day, playing about as focused and serious-minded a set as he perhaps ever played in his short and amazing life, remains a memory I truly treasure to this day.

Hendrix had clearly planned his Woodstock appearance to try and shed any lasting vestige of the clowning crazyman image that had kept him from getting the proper respect he so richly deserved as a spectacularly gifted and innovative instrumentalist. His set at Woodstock was all about the music, with all the pyrotechnics simply flying out of his guitar. His climactic rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" just sent shivers through me and everyone else that witnessed it. As I've noted elsewhere over the years, it literally filled the air that day. It sounded like the Vietnam War. It sounded like a firefight. It sounded like helicopters. It sounded like machine guns. It sounded like everything that was going on in that country, in our country, and all around the world at that moment in time.

Imagine music being that powerful a force in your overall consciousness, and perhaps from reminiscences like these, you can begin to understand why, forty years on, Woodstock, and the entire summer of 1969, still resonates so strongly for so many of us.

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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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