Pot, Skinny-Dipping, and Freedom Rock: Woodstock and the Year of the Outdoor Music Festival (Part 1)

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.

Part One

On June 20–22, 1969, the summer festival season kicked off with the Newport Pop Festival at San Fernando Valley State on Devonshire Downs in Northridge, California. A crowd of 150,000, the largest recorded gathering for an outdoor music festival to that date, witnessed a show featuring such acts as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Byrds, The Rascals, the Chamber Bros., Three Dog Night, and Booker T. & the MGs. After what was described as a subpar performance on Friday night, Hendrix returned on Sunday afternoon and jammed with an all-star band that included Eric Burdon and Buddy Miles. A week later, he headlined the bill of the Denver Pop Festival at Mile High Stadium, which also included Johnny Winter, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Poco, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Iron Butterfly, Three Dog Night, Tim Buckley, and Big Mama Thornton.

Both three-day festivals were marred by riots as police battled thousands of gate-crashers, and the attendees went a little wild themselves. At Newport Pop, fans dangled from the front of the stage as they tried to climb up during Hendrix’s Sunday jam. At Denver Pop, police fired tear gas at the crowd during the Experience’s set. The trio was rushed offstage and into an equipment truck. Fans climbed onto the truck and almost caused the roof to cave in while the band was trapped inside. It would be the last gig played by the Experience. Disillusioned by the whole scene and by the new directions that Hendrix wanted to take, bassist Noel Redding left the group immediately afterward and returned to London.

In the first weekend of July, a record 85,000 people attended the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, an event that was perhaps even more controversial than the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan had famously “plugged in” for his electric-rock performance, shocking purists. At the Newport Jazz ’69, avant-garde jazz acts such as Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Miles Davis shared the bill with jazz-pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears and the funk-rock group Sly and the Family Stone, along with straight-out rock acts such as Jethro Tull, Johnny Winter, and Led Zeppelin.

The heavy guitar rock of these acts attracted a younger audience than the Festival had been used to. Unable to afford the price of a hotel room in the city of Newport, many kids attempted to sleep on the beach but came up against a city ordinance preventing public vagrancy. Unruliness and gate-crashing shocked the more “cultured” fans who had come to see Buddy Rich or Bill Evans. George Wein, founder of the festival, called it “four of the worst days of my life.”

At the beginning of August, the Atlantic City Race Track was host to a three-day festival, with artists including Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, the Mothers of Invention, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Chicago, Little Richard, Dr. John, Tim Buckley, The Moody Blues, The Doors, The Buddy Miles Express, and Hugh Masekela. The Atlantic City festival attracted a total of 110,000 music fans, and the facilities quickly proved inadequate. Organizers were forced to bring in water trucks that became makeshift outdoor showers. Those who were desperate enough or simply didn’t care put up with the lack of privacy and stood in line for the chance to take showers as others looked on.

And all this was merely prelude to the three-day happening that occurred in upstate New York later that month.

* * *

The rural town of Woodstock, New York, had become the home of a number of leading musicians. Located in the Catskill Mountains, Woodstock had flourished as an artists’ colony in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and members of both the Hudson River School of painters and the Arts and Crafts Movement had taken up residence there. In the 1960s, leading members of the rock and folk movements flocked to the town, drawn by its rural environment, artistic history, and counterculture vibe. Such musicians as Ed Sanders of The Fugs, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and The Band counted themselves among the residents of Woodstock. Van Morrison moved to Woodstock in February 1969, and Hendrix moved not far away, to Shokan, New York, where he planned to establish a musical commune based on his new vision of a jam band utopia, which he began to call Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows.

A twenty-three-year-old former Miami head shop owner turned band manager named Michael Lang and a twenty-six-year-old Capitol Records executive named Artie Kornfeld hatched plans to build a recording studio in this artistic community. They soon joined forces with venture capitalists Joel Rosenman, a Princeton- and Yale-educated lawyer, and John Roberts, a Wall Street investor, who had placed an ad in the New York Times dubbing themselves, “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business enterprises.” As a way of raising funds for the planned studio, the group came up with the idea of holding a music festival in Woodstock.

Lang himself had produced the Miami Pop Festival in January 1968, which had drawn 80,000 people. Roberts suggested the festival be stretched over the course of two or three consecutive days, and thus was born Woodstock Ventures, Incorporated.

They zeroed in on a possible site in Woodstock owned by a man named Alexander Tapooz. But with visions of the 50,000 concertgoers who were projected to attend, and with the images of recent rock music festivals fresh in their minds, Woodstock residents protested and forced Woodstock Ventures to look for an alternate site.

They arranged to lease Howard Mills’s 300-acre industrial park in the Town of Wallkill, in Orange County, New York. Lawyers for Woodstock Ventures made the case that the cleverly titled “Music and Arts Fair” would focus on arts and crafts, accompanied by some music, primarily folk and jazz. The Wallkill Zoning Board received initial approval, and plans moved forward—until a memo against smoking marijuana that was circulating among the construction crew became public and touched off the fears of local residents; the Music and Arts Fair was, in fact, a hippie rock festival.

The onslaught of “undesirables”

To the older and more conservative members of the establishment, rock festivals meant an onslaught of undesirables: hippies and freaks reveling in sex, violence, and — especially — drugs, the element that was corrupting the youth of America even in its most “straight” families. One of Vice President Agnew’s daughters was suspended from the National Cathedral School in Washington on suspicion that she had used pot, while senators George McGovern and Alan Cranston and California assemblyman Jesse Unruh all had children arrested on marijuana charges. Marijuana, intrinsic to recreational and mind-expanding experiences of the alternative culture of hippies, had become so popular that it had grown scarce, reportedly due to clamp-downs by authorities in Mexico. (One urban legend had it that a Mexican marijuana guild had hired a Vietcong colonel to serve as an adviser to growers beleaguered by police planes that spraying napalm and other defoliants.)

Enterprising weed growers in America were scrambling to fill the void left by the scarcity of the choicer Mexican variety; in Nebraska alone, an estimated 115,000 acres were growing pot plants to be harvested come the fall. One report said that pot had “disappeared from the streets — even in southern California. New Jersey grass, the world’s vilest, is fetching twice the price normally commanded by Mexican ordinaire.” Smokers and tokers could still get their hands on homegrown “Tennessee blue” and “Bethesda gold” (like the would-be swingers in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, who have to settle for “beautiful, downtown Burbank brown” instead of “Acapulco gold”). But authorities said the shortage of kind bud from south of the border was driving users toward harder drugs, such as acid, hash, speed, barbiturates, and especially heroin.

Mills received death threats when news of the rock festival. A town board meeting drew a packed house of people, where someone wondered if Wallkill would become the scene of another Chicago convention. A group called the Wallkill Concerned Citizens Committee circulated a petition against the festival. Confronted by public outcry, the Wallkill zoning board bowed to pressure and obtained a court injunction against Woodstock Ventures.

“More than anything else, I really feel they were deliberately misleading the town,” town supervisor Jack Schlosser later said of the Woodstock organizers. Schlosser maintained that it hadn’t been a bias against rock festivals but simply the sheer number of people that the rock festival would attract that scared town officials. In July, The Town of Wallkill passed a new resolution against gatherings of more than 5,000 people in one place. Al Romm, editor of the Times Herald-Record, said, “The law they passed excluded one thing and one thing only—Woodstock.”

It was four weeks before the festival, approximately 50,000 tickets had already been sold, and Woodstock Ventures was back at the drawing board. “Wallkill died hard,” Michael Lang remembered two decades later. “It was a drag, but it was not a shock. And it was, “O.K., let’s go find another one.’”

Lang took a motorcycle trip along the bucolic roads of Sullivan County and came across a 600-acre farm owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur near White Lake, in the town of Bethel. At the intersection of Hurd and West Shore roads, the land formed a natural amphitheater in a thirty-seven-acre alfalfa field. “It was made in heaven. It was a bowl with a rise for a stage. What more could you want?”

Just the year before, Yasgur had leased a segment of his land to the Boy Scouts of America for its National Jamboree. He’d heard about the legal obstacles that Woodstock Ventures had encountered, so when Lang approached Yasgur about using his land as a concert site, Max and his wife Miriam were receptive to the idea. Not only did they come to an agreement in principle, but the Yasgurs also had enough respect within the conservative and predominantly Jewish community that he was able to help convince unsure members in the community that the concert would be a good thing for Bethel. Thus, the eventual site for Woodstock was found—nearly seventy miles away from the original town that had inspired it.

ROCK RUMBLE IN RIP VAN WINKLE COUNTY read the headline in the local Saratoga Springs newspaper. The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, with its slogan of “Three Days of Peace and Music . . . An Aquarian Exposition”—a nod to the beginning of the astrological Age of Aquarius that was believed to coincide with the approaching new millennium—was scheduled for Friday, August 15, through Sunday, August 17. It was fast becoming not just a music festival but also a cultural event. The directions spread across the nation: Head north on the New York State Thruway, get off on Exit 16, take the Quickway west , and look for the signs to the show. For better or worse, the festival was on, and thousands upon thousands of kids across the country made plans to meet in the rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley for the third weekend in August.

Woodstock Ventures threw a mini concert for the Bethel site workers on August 7 that featured a roster of local rock bands, along with a performance from an acting troupe called Earthlight Theater. The eighteen-member group staged a musical comedy titled Sex. Y’all Come, during which they stripped naked. It was exactly the kind of thing the locals were worried about. About 800 town residents signed a petition to prevent the Woodstock festival, and even discussed forming a human barricade across the Route 17B “Quickway” that led into town, but people had already started flooding as early as the Tuesday before the festival officially began.

In they came—young people from New York City and New Jersey, from Boston, from as far away as Colorado and California, by cars and pickup trucks and station wagons and buses and motorcycles and moon buggies and hearses. Townspeople stood on the curbs in the surrounding villages and watched the music fans roll in . . . a veritable army of hippies and freaks. Monterey Pop had been about colorful clothing and California girls and good vibrations. Woodstock was about backpacks and beards and bandanas and bonfires and tents and tepees. The former had been a be-in; this was a pilgrimage.

The inflow of vehicles proved to be more than the sleepy Sullivan County roads could handle. By Friday, traffic had literally backed up for as many as fifteen miles, creating the worst jam in the history of upstate New York. Hundreds upon hundreds of cars were temporarily abandoned, and many thousands of fans with tickets were unable to make it to the festival. “Automotive casualties looked like the skeletons of horses that died on the Oregon Trail,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus. “Fat, bulbous vacationers (for this was Jewishland, the Catskills, laden with chopped liver and bad comedians) stared at the cars and the freaks and the nice kids, their stomachs sticking out into the road. It was a combination of Weekend and Goodbye, Columbus. Here we were, trying to get to the land of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, all the while under the beady eyes of Mantovani fans.”

As the weekend began, eyes across the nation looked toward upstate New York with curiosity, wondering—in some cases, hoping—that the music festival would turn into disaster. Lang and Kornfeld knew it, but it was their early decision that helped avoid disaster. Given the ad hoc arrangements that had to be made for setting up the Sullivan County site—along with Yasgur’s cows, which needed to graze freely or else they would grow upset and not give milk—the hurricane fencing that was to be constructed around the festival site was not completed on time, and masses were able to gain entrance to the festival without paying. Rather than calling in the police—perhaps an infeasible option given the traffic bottleneck—the organizers made the decision to go with the flow and allow free admission to the grounds. It was a decision that ensured that Woodstock Ventures would dip well into the red. A camera crew caught one advisor despondently telling Lang and Kornfeld, “You are now giving the world’s greatest three-day freebie.”

Meanwhile, the question of how to keep the growing crowd entertained—and not rioting—had to be confronted when the scheduled opening act, Sweetwater, was still stuck in traffic at their 3:00 stage time. A helicopter was sent to search for them. (Helicopters would end up transporting many of the performers onto the festival grounds after the highways came to a standstill.) The crowd grew restless, and, as an added threat, a contingent of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang arrived about an hour later. “I said, ‘Oh, no, here it comes.’ Something had to crack, you know. And I saw them get sort of swallowed up in it, in just the whole spirit of the thing. They went off and found their little area and did their thing . . . And I suddenly realized how strong this was. And that it was going to work.”

Fete on Friday: Freedom, Pot, Skinny-Dipping

FETE ON FRIDAY: FREEDOM, POT, SKINNY-DIPPING, read the local Times Herald-Record newspaper as the sun rose on Saturday. The festival was a scene unto itself, with an American Indian art exhibit, a “Movement City” pavilion where political groups distributed radical literature, a children’s playground, a food service tent provided by the California commune known as the Hog Farm. There was a free stage area for bands, jugglers, and other amateur performers—Baez had been performing there before being told it was time for her performance on the main stage—and several areas in the woods where dealers sold marijuana, mescaline, acid, and hash. At one point during the weekend, stage announcer Chip Monck uttered the famous PSA: “The warning that I’ve received, you may take it with however many grains of salt you wish, that the brown acid that they’re circulating around us is not specifically too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that. But it’s your own trip, so be my guest. But please be advised that there is a warning on that.” There were ad hoc head shops set up in the woods, and volunteers established “trip tents” where people on bad acid trips could go for assistance.

And there were the skinny-dippers. The sense of the normal rules having been suspended was established early on by the thousands upon thousands who had gotten onto the festival site without paying. Now, many attendees—those who lived outside of straight society, and those who were just leaving it behind for the weekend—reveled in the festival’s alternative decorum by disrobing entirely and swimming naked in the lake-sized Filippini’s Pond that ran northward along Hurd Road, or in one of the other two nearby bodies of water. Men and women swam together, baring breasts and behinds and pubic hair as if going au natural in public was, well, the most natural thing in the world. Woodstock town historian Bert Feldman became the unofficial censor, reminding the nude swimmers to cover up when they were in front of television cameras. As storms turned the festival site into a virtual mud bath, some of the Woodstock crowd even shed their clothes on land and walked around naked in the cleansing rain.

* * *

The Grateful Dead was one of the most anticipated acts, their legend as a live band starting to build. In June, the Dead had released their third album, Aoxomoxoa, known just as much for its psychedelic-inspired, sun-and-skull cover design as it is for its transition from the group’s quasi-blues origins to acoustic-leaning jams, as evidenced in classic tracks like “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “Cosmic Charlie.” Surveying the scene in Max Yasgur’s pasture, Jerry Garcia said in awe, “It’s really amazing. It looks like some sort of biblical, epochal, unbelievable scene.” But the band’s four-jam performance of “St. Stephen,” “Mama Tried,” “Dark Star / High Time,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight” would be remembered as a lackluster one—too loose and free-form, years before the tribe of Deadheads would come to expect that of the band.

The main stage had been designed as a rotating platform to allow for the following act to set up on the rear half behind a screen while the current act was performing, but the Dead’s equipment was so heavy that the turntable sagged and stopped turning. The rain was pouring and the wind was so strong against the light-show screen that was fixed to the stage that stagehands feared it would lift the stage up off its foundations. Workers took knives to the screen and cut wind holes. Just as the band went into “St. Stephen,” percussionist Mickey Hart looked over at Garcia and saw how scared he looked, and thought, “Oh, man, we’re in trouble.”

Behind them, workers were warning that the stage was in the process of collapsing. Plus, the band was pretty tripped on LSD: “speckled tablets from Czechoslovakia,” remembers Phil Lesh. Plus, faulty grounding produced shocks when band members approached their mics. “Our sound man at the time decided he was gonna change the ground in the middle of the whole thing,” Weir recalled. “It was not done right or something. Every time I touched my instrument, I got a horrible shock and [Garcia] was getting the same thing.” As the band left the stage, Garcia said to someone, “It’s nice to know that you can blow the most important gig of your career and it doesn’t really matter.”

Following the Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival stepped onstage as perhaps the hottest band in the land. With three Top Ten albums released in 1969, Bayou Country (in January), Green River (August), and Willie and the Poor Boys (November), Creedence signing on to do the festival had added credibility to Woodstock Ventures as they looked to sign acts to the roster of talent. That CCR played Woodstock has been forgotten by many people, most likely due to the band’s absence from the documentary film and the initial soundtrack release. But the band’s “down home” rock made perfect sense in the festival’s bucolic setting, and they churned out a smoking set chock full of hits, including “Born on the Bayou,” “Green River,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Night Time Is the Right Time,” and “Suzy Q.” Fogerty, though, would remember it with bitterness. The band was forced to go on way past midnight after a longish set by the Dead, and much of the crowd was—for one reason or another—unconscious. “We were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn. My reaction was, ‘Wow, we get to follow the band that put half a million people to sleep. . . . These people were out. No matter what I did, they were gone. It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.”

Janis Joplin performed next as one of the festival’s headliners. She had hooked up with a new backing group, the Kozmic Blues Band, in a move away from acid rock toward the tradition of the great Stax-Volt R&B records. Insecure since adolescence, Joplin had taken to a life of dope and sex. At Woodstock, she arrived with girlfriend Peggy Caserta in tow. “I can’t fix in the tent,” Joplin told Caserta during the several hours’ wait for her time to go onstage. “There’s too many people coming and going. There’s no privacy. Come on, let’s go find a place to fix.” According to Caserta, they shot up in one of the stench-ridden portable toilets on the site. When she came on to play, she was clearly on something—booze, dope, maybe both—and people called out to her, asking her if she was high.

Because of her incoherence, it’s gone down that her Woodstock performance was a poor one. But while it might have been an uneven one, footage of her set shows that it was, at the very least, heartfelt. Photographer Henry Diltz said, “She really screamed in agony in those songs. She really meant it. You could see that in the way she contorted her face and her body and everything.” Her renditions of “Work Me, Lord” and “Ball and Chain” show that she had progressed from 1967’s acid-rock leading lady to queen of down-and-out blues and boogie. By the end of the night she was waving her hands in the air, pumping her fists, and rolling her hips with the music like the female lead of a soul revue.

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Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.

Rob Kirkpatrick is the author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed (Skyhorse, 2009) and Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009).