John Carnes, a friend of my sister’s who was at the Woodstock music festival with me 40 years ago, witnessed a scene that symbolized for him what that seminal 1960s happening was all about.
A guy in a Volkswagen Beetle has a flat tire on the little farm road leading in to the music. It’s the second day of the festival, and there’s a steady parade of long-haired young people going back and forth along the road. The guy is standing next to his car. He’s got the hood open, looking for his tire jack.
One of the passers-by says, “Don’t bother with that,” and about six of them immediately cluster around and lift the back of the car off the ground. The guy changes the tire and they all set the car back down.
“No jack, no problem,” John says.
The myth of Woodstock — myth verging on reality — was that there were no interpersonal problems at all among the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to Bethel, N.Y., in August 1969 for a three-day concert featuring many of the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll.
The huge crowd completely overwhelmed the facilities that had been set up for about 200,000. There were drugs everywhere, people skinny-dipping in the pond behind the stage, free love. But there was no violence. For a generation fighting to end an unpopular war, it became a symbol and an arguing point: When we take over, we’ll put an end to greed and violence, and bring on an era of love and peace.
It was not an irrefutable arguing point, of course. Bob Reitman, the Milwaukee radio personality who played a leading role in the city’s counterculture during the late 1960s, points out that darker stories soon dimmed the euphoria over Woodstock. Hells Angels bodyguards stabbed a man to death at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California that winter. Clashes over the war and racism became more violent the next year, with deaths in Ohio and Mississippi, and even at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, with the Sterling Hall bombing.
Reitman himself didn’t go to Woodstock — he was in California that week, where the newspapers were full of the group of hippie types surrounding Charles Manson and the shocking Tate-La Bianca murders.
Still, it was possible for us, for at least a brief time, to think of Woodstock in the words of a song playing on the radio that summer: The dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
For me, the greatest music festival ever was never about the music. In fact, I have little recollection of the songs I heard over three days in a muddy field. (In 1989, writing a 20-years-later recollection of Woodstock for the newspaper where I worked in El Paso, Texas, I praised the performance of Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t even there.)
For me, it was all about tribe — the big tribe we all seemed to be a part of, and my own little tribe, consisting of people I’d promised to meet at the festival, right next to the hospital tent. Trouble was, there wasn’t a hospital tent.
Forty years later, my memories of Woodstock are admittedly patchy. But here are some about the state of the tribe back then.
Hearing of Woodstock: I was one of the 186,000 people who actually bought tickets for Woodstock. I’d seen an ad in Kaleidoscope, the old Milwaukee hippie newspaper, at the apartment of a friend who worked that summer with me as a longshoreman at the Port of Milwaukee. I was 20, between my sophomore and junior years of college.
My friend shared the apartment with a couple other guys, one of whom we called Gross, along with a beautiful white dog named Lara, assorted cats — and, in the kitchen, cockroaches. They were Marquette University students, but the apartment was pretty much a hippie pad. A lot of beer was drunk there (this being Milwaukee) but a lot of pot was smoked, too.
Anticipation for the big music festival was high, too. Many of our Milwaukee friends were going, and several of my college friends.
Getting there: I hitchhiked from Milwaukee to Akron, Ohio, to meet a college buddy named Dave, who planned to drive to New York for the festival. (Hitchhiking was the major means of counterculture travel in those days; one of my friends had his best success using the two-finger peace sign to get rides.) I got as far as Cleveland, and then was picked up by a VW bus full of hippies who planned to leave for Woodstock in a few days.
They agreed to take me to Akron, but on the way, they suggested I get stoned with them and go hear the Cleveland Symphony playing the “1812 Overture” outdoors. Sure, I said, and a few hours later they dropped me off, still high and reprising Tchaikovsky on my kazoo, at Dave’s parents’ house in Akron.
Arriving: Dave and I drove to New York and picked up another college buddy on Long Island, then got caught in the huge traffic jam that surrounded the festival. We ended up parking about five miles from the concert. Just as we were pulling over to the side of the road, I looked to the left, and saw a pretty, white dog running by. “Lara,” I yelled, and looked around to see Gross parking his big Plymouth right behind us. The moon was in the seventh house. Jupiter aligned with Mars.
My tribe: One of the people I’d promised to meet at the hospital tent was my sister Kathy, who had just turned 19. She was driving to New York in my dad’s red Rambler with four friends, including John Carnes — mostly people she’d known in high school. Also in the car: John’s dog, Brandy.
When I realized there wasn’t a hospital tent I got in line for a pay phone to call home. There Kathy was in the phone line. My friends and I spent most of the festival with her and her friends, sitting on a muddy hilltop far from the stage and making trips to fetch things from my dad’s Rambler, which was parked in a field not far away, or to search for latecomers.
I found a college roommate, John, walking along the main road; he’d hitchhiked up from New Jersey and was just about to head home, not having found anyone he knew. Another college friend just emerged from the crowd and into our group.
Kathy’s pal John Carnes had dropped out of college and spent the year hitchhiking around the country. He took a contrarian view of the festival’s dominant drug culture and made a point to buy beer. I vaguely remember drinking it out of an old hunting horn John had brought with him.
John also conducted a social experiment. He told everybody he met to join him later in August in Strawberry, Calif. Apparently a friend of his had proposed a reunion there. John thought it could balloon into another massive gathering of the tribe.
The music: I really don’t remember. I think Richie Havens was singing when we arrived Friday — at least Wikipedia tells me he was the opening act. My sister remembers everyone lighting matches and seeing a sea of light while Joan Baez performed. And my college friend John — the one I found on the road — has a vivid memory of the music early Sunday.
Here it is: Saturday night, the music went all night, and John remembers being asleep, and having the singing of Janis Joplin work its way right into his dreams. Later, he woke up and everyone around him was asleep. The Who were playing. He walked down close to the music, stepping over sleeping bodies all the way down.
The band was right in the middle of the climax of “Tommy,” their rock opera, singing, “Listening to you, I get the music ...” They played “Summertime Blues.” The sun was coming up, and Jefferson Airplane came on. They sang “Volunteers.” (“Look what’s happening out in the street/Got a revolution ...”)
“I had all these chills,” John says.
Leaving Woodstock: Kathy, her friends and I left on Sunday, missing some of the best bands — The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the great Jimi Hendrix. But John Carnes wanted to get to the next big counterculture event in Strawberry, and I wanted to go to a friend’s wedding in Idaho. As we walked down a country road away from the music, we passed a skinny, bearded drug dealer seated next to the road, staring straight ahead, repeating in a monotone, “Coke. Smack. Coke. Smack.”
I thought at the time that if I were a reporter for Time magazine, I could end my article on the festival of peace and love with ominous references to cocaine and heroin and the impending doom of the hippie movement.
The long trip home: There were six of us and the dog in the Rambler headed west. The one thing I remember from the trip: When we got to Omaha, a sign gave the population as somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000. It was a big city, with a substantial downtown. I remarked to Kathy that we’d just come from a city bigger than this.
My sister dropped me off in Winnemucca, Nev., so I could hitchhike north to Idaho for the wedding. It took me nine hours to get a ride out of Winnemucca, and I spent part of that time in a bar trying to befriend the locals by playing Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” on the jukebox.
Kathy dropped John Carnes, his dog and his friend in Strawberry, where just two other people (friends of John’s before Woodstock) showed up on their motorcycles for the next big gathering of the tribe. She and her friend, Brena Lachowicz, drove home to Milwaukee through Canada, almost running out of money. My college friends got pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike and spent the night in jail.
Forty years later, my Woodstock tribe and I are spread out all over the country. Kathy — Kathleen now — is a playwright, and teaches play-writing at a state college in Purchase, N.Y. Dave from Akron is a doctor on the West Coast. John from New Jersey is retired from a legal career in Philadelphia. John Carnes does body work (massage therapy and something called Rossiter Workouts) in Columbus, Ohio. I’m here at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, having survived the latest downsizing, and feeling sad about the ones who didn’t survive.
A few weeks ago, Kathleen and her daughter Sarah were in town for my 60th birthday; Sarah’s just out of college, trying out for acting jobs in Chicago, and playing her violin on street corners with her boyfriend, Fed, to help make ends meet.
At a big family dinner, we were talking of the plight of newspapers, and what’s being tried to save them, and Sarah spoke with intensity about what she thought would work, given what she knows about people her age. She reminded me of her mother, who was just as intense in her 20s, but I especially loved hearing Sarah speak on behalf of her generation. That is how we felt back then, that we knew what our generation wanted and could do, and that we’d all be doing it together.
I talked to John Carnes last week and he pointed out that the month before Woodstock, Americans had walked on the moon for the first time, so we all had a sense that we could do anything: End war, eliminate greed, pull off a huge, peaceful gathering with no violence. Got a revolution.
We all know better than that now, of course. We’re not young anymore, and we’ve known tragedy. The world has changed, but it has also been resistant to our efforts to change it. We know that just making a living, raising a family, often takes all the energy you can muster.
Still, it’s worth saying this: Happy 40th, Woodstock Nation. Peace and Love.