1969: The Year Everything Changed
US: Jan 2009
Excerpted from 1969: The Year Everything Changed (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), which is available now as part of the Barnes and Noble “Woodstock 40th Anniversary” promotion.
It was well into the early-morning hours, and out came Sylvester Stewart, aka, Sly Stone, the high priest of rock and funk in 1969. Sly and the Family Stone’s album Stand!, released in May, became the soundtrack for the summer of ’69 in the nation’s steamy urban areas. “Stand!,” “Dance to the Music,” and “Everyday People” were catchy pop songs that seethed with underlying urban unrest. Just two weeks earlier, the group had incited a near riot at the Atlantic City festival, and at Woodstock, in an eight-song joint: “M’Lady,” “Sing a Simple Song,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Stand!,” “Love City,” “Dance to the Music,” “Music Lover,” and the euphoric climax of “I Want to Take You Higher,” Sly had the concertgoers yelling “Higher” with as much soul as was ever found in the Catskill woods. Miles Marshall Lewis writes, “Sly provided one of the undeniable highlights of the star-studded show; the band is historically credited for waking up the massive, lagging crowd.” On a bill that had already featured Canned Heat, CCR, Janis, and the Dead, Rolling Stone said that, “Sly and the Family Stone, apart in their grandeur, won the battle, carrying to their own majestically freaked-out stratosphere.”
And then came The Who. In a year of musical firsts, 1969 had seen the release of The Who’s Tommy, the first “rock opera”—not an opera, really, but more simply a concept album intended for live performance in its entirety. The story of Tommy is, depending on one’s perspective, inventive and genre-expanding or pretentious and silly, or all of these. Tommy is a boy rendered deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing his long-lost father murder his wife’s lover. Tommy achieves fame as a pinball player, becomes the head of a religious cult, is abandoned by his disciples, but ultimately achieves enlightenment. The recorded version—released as double album—begins with an “Overture” with rock drums and guitar mixed with French horns and other classic instrumentation, and includes hits like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”
Tommy had been a pet project of Pete Townshend’s for years, an extended concept that followed in the footsteps of the band’s nine-minute suite, “A Quick One While He’s Away,” from the band’s 1966 record. The Who released the album in May and gave its debut American performance at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom that month. A month before Woodstock, Rolling Stone’s Rick Sanders and David Dalton rushed to find significance in Tommy: “And now we have a double album set that’s probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.”
Summed up Townshend: “It’s about life.”
Performed live at Woodstock, Tommy was pure spectacle. After opening with “Heaven and Hell” and “I Can’t Explain,” the band performed Tommy in its entirety, culminating in the final climax of “We’re Not Gonna Take It (See Me, Feel Me).” With Roger Daltrey in a fringed leather jacket and pre-Godspell curly locks belting out vocals, Pete Townshend jumping about in a white jumpsuit and displaying his windmill guitar assault, Keith Moon delivering his proto-heavy metal attack on drums, and John Entwistle calmly laying down a powerful bass line, The Who showed itself to be cohering like never before, moving from mid-sixties mod-pop to late-sixties progressive rock. At Monterey in 1967, Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix had feuded over which band was going to follow which, and history would say Hendrix had won the battle of pyrotechnics that day. But at Woodstock it was The Who that delivered perhaps the most entertaining performance of the festival.
It was also marred by momentary controversy when Yippie! leader Abbie Hoffman attempted to go on stage just after the band played “Pinball Wizard.” He grabbed the mic and began to yell, “I think this is a pile of shit! While John Sinclair rots in prison—” Already annoyed with the presence of Michael Wadleigh’s camera crew on stage, Pete Townshend cut Hoffman off: “Fuck off. . .fuck off my stage!” Accounts vary as to whether Townshend hit Hoffman with his guitar or merely bumped into him; regardless, he quickly ended Hoffman’s attempt at a revolutionary statement to the Woodstock Nation. Townshend said, “I can dig it,” but moments later added, “The next fucking person that walks across this stage is gonna get fucking killed!”
Jefferson Airplane, joined by legendary session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, took the stage as the sun rose early Sunday morning. Dressed all in white, her normally straight black hair puffed out in a perm, Grace Slick addressed the sleepy crowd. “All right, friends,” she said. “You have seen the heavy groups, now you will see morning maniac music, believe me. Yeah. It’s a new dawn.” The Airplane debuted two songs from their new album: the environmentally themed “Eskimo Blue Day” and the revolutionary call of “Volunteers.” Commenting on Woodstock, Slick told author Jeff Tamarkin, “It was unique in that there were a half-million people not stabbing each other to death. And it was a statement of, look at us, we’re 25 and we’re all together and things ought to change.”
The headline in the New York Sunday News announced: HIPPIES MIRED IN A SEA OF MUD. Thousands had left, driven home by the rain, the mud, hunger, exhaustion, or all of the above. Hugh Romney of the Hog Farm took the stage and announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000. Now…it’s gonna be good food, and we’re gonna get it to ya. It’s not just the Hog Farm either….It’s everybody. We’re all feedin’ each other. We must be in heaven, man! There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.” The menu in heaven consisted mostly of rolled oats and bulgur wheat served with stir-fry vegetables.
In the afternoon, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band touched off the third day’s schedule of performances. Singing soulfully and on the edge of pain, he seemed to embody the lost soul of Janis at Monterey. In his silver-starred boots and long-sleeved tie-dyed shirt, Cocker flailed wildly in a St. Vitus dance of his trademark spastic gestures, a convulsion of sweat and mutton chops and air-guitar as the Grease Band sang high-pitched and out of tune behind him. They put on a five-song set, including covers of the classic Ray Charles hit and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
After Cocker’s set, the rain clouds came again, this time bringing the heaviest downfall of the weekend, along with winds that sent the stage crews scrambling to cover the wires and amps. Country Joe and the Fish were due on next, and guitarist Barry Melton, swept up in “back to the land” mysticism, grabbed the mic and led the crowd in an anti-rain dance chant: “No rain! No rain!” It kept raining. People huddled under plastic tarps and umbrellas. Others set up an impromptu slip-and-slide in the mud. Those given to paranoia spread rumors of a government conspiracy. “I want to know how come the fascist pigs have been seeding the clouds,” one man said to a cameraman from Michael Wadleigh’s film crew. “There’s been airplanes going over twice with all the smoke coming out of them seeding the clouds, and I want to know what that stuff is going down and why the media doesn’t report that stuff to the people.”
One of the original inspirations for the Woodstock concert, The Band followed with a set primarily taken from Music from Big Pink, including “Chest Fever,” “Tears of Rage,” “Long Black Veil,” “Wheels on Fire,” and “The Weight.” (The group’s self-titled second album, which would include classics like “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” would be released the following month.) “It was funny. You kind of felt you were going to war,” Levon Helm would write. “I think we drove down to Stewart Airport [in Newburgh], and they helicoptered us into the landing zone. . . . It was the final day of the festival, and they’d run out of fresh food and water. There weren’t any dressing rooms because they’d been turned into emergency clinics. . . . The crowd was real tired and a little unhealthy.”
The mellow early hours would provide the perfect setting for Crosby, Stills & Nash. Woodstock was only the second time the recently formed supergroup had played live, and as Stills famously declared, they were “scared shitless.” As they had waited at LaGuardia Airport for a charter plane to take them upstate, the band wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. “At the airport, we kept hearing all of these news reports that it had gotten completely out of hand, that there were a million people, that it was very tense, that they didn’t know whether to call the National Guard or drop flowers.”