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.”
By the time Jimi Hendrix, the final performer and the festival’s true headline act, took the stage Monday morning, all but roughly 50,000 of the festival crowd had departed, driven away by filth, hunger, and exhaustion. “Having waited up all night, the audience understandably seemed as groggy as we were, and it was horrible to see people packing up and leaving as we came on,” Mitch Mitchell said. “Monday morning was back to the grind for a lot of people who’d come, and it couldn’t be helped.”
Hendrix almost hadn’t made it. He and his band had arrived on the festival grounds around 8:00 the night before. While they waited in a farm shack, said one witness, Hendrix was “ill, dosed . . . by drinking the water backstage. He seemed really sick, or really high, and was sweating bullets. I was feeding him vitamin C, fruit, and having him suck on lemon slices. As we sat there, he seemed nervous and didn’t think he could pull it off.” Hendrix had gone into the medical tent and crashed on a stretcher. “We didn’t know who he was. Just a black man laying on the stretcher,” a nurse remembered. “Then everybody started saying, ‘Hey, isn’t that Jimi Hendrix?’ There was a big stir about it. He lay on the stretcher for about thirty minutes before roadies hauled him out.”
Monck incorrectly introduced the group—with Mitchell on drums but Billy Cox on bass, Larry Lee on backing guitar, Jumma Sultan and Jerry Velez adding percussion—under the old name of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix came out dressed in his fringed Native American tribal shirt and jeans and moccasins and red bandana. “I see that we meet again, hmmm . . . ,” he said to the crowd, and reintroduced his new group as Gypsy, Sun and Rainbow.
They glided into a set beginning with “Message to Love” followed by “Get My Heart Back Together” (later, “Hear My Train A-Comin’ ”), “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Red House,” “Mastermind” (a Lee original, with the drummer on vocals), “Here Comes Your Lover Man,” and “Foxy Lady.” With the new lineup, sleepy crowd, and hangers-on surrounding them onstage, Hendrix’s gypsy band struggled through some numbers. They played out of tune at times, and Sultan and Velez were almost inaudible. Sound engineer Eddie Kramer describes, “After the band bludgeoned their way through ‘Foxey Lady,’ [sic] Hendrix sensed his audience’s confusion. ‘I know it’s not together,’ he remarked from the stage, continuing in a mocking tone, ‘You’re tuning up between every song! This isn’t together! That isn’t together!’ Well, you all ain’t in uniform!”
After “Jam Back at the House (Beginning),” “Izabella,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” (Lee on vocals again), and “Fire,” they launched into an epic, thirteen-minute version of the demonic blues number, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” which Hendrix introduced as his “new American anthem until we get another one.” His fingers sliding up and down the bridge of his cream-colored, left-handed Fender Stratocaster, he played the song’s last few demonic wah-wahs, and then the band touched off a sonic avalanche leading into an electric version of the country’s “old” anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Woodstock set showed how Hendrix had moved away from his Monterey psychedelic theatrics toward a serious exploration of electric rock and blues.
For his instrumental interpretation of Francis Scott Key’s patriotic tune, Hendrix pulled out all the stops, bending and torturing the tune’s melody to create an anthem for the land of free love and the home of a brave new world. In his pyrotechnic sound effects, one heard machine guns and falling bombs, the sounds of chaos straight out of the Southeast Asian jungles. David Fricke writes: “If the Experience tried to play power-jazz at the speed of light, Hendrix at Woodstock was a rough prototype for a new black-rock futurism, the missing link between Sly Stone’s taut, rainbow-party R&B and George Clinton’s blown-mind, ghetto-army funk: ‘Dance to the Music’ plus ‘Message to Love’ equals ‘Cosmic Slop.’ ” “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties,” wrote Al Aronowitz of the New York Post. You finally heard what that song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.”
Hendrix would later reflect:
They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback. We’re all Americans, aren’t we? When it was written then, it was played in what they call a very, very beautiful state, nice and inspiring, your heart throbs and you say, ‘Great, I’m American!’ But nowadays when we play it, we don’t play to take away all this greatness that America’s supposed to have. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it? You know what I mean?
The last notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led right into the early Hendrix hit, “Purple Haze,” then a four-minute jam followed by “Villanova Junction,” and then “Hey Joe” to close the two-hour set. He said “Thank you” and unplugged, bringing an official end to Woodstock.
A Microcosmic Disaster Area
The crowding, conditions, and ad hoc planning at the Woodstock festival had created its own microcosmic disaster area. “I can always tell who was really there,” Barry Melton said later. “When they tell me it was great, I know they saw the movie and they weren’t at the gig.” A sullen Joplin said soon after her performance, “I can’t relate to a quarter of a million people.” Garcia recalled, “As a personal experience, Woodstock was a bummer. It was terrible to play at . . .” He would later say, “Playing for four hundred thousand people is really peculiar. . . . We didn’t enjoy it, playing there . . .” Pete Townshend said simply, “Woodstock was horrible.”
Although admitting that the “great bulk of freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well,” a New York Times editorial sensationally declared the whole thing A NIGHTMARE IN THE CATSKILLS. The editorial went on to ask, “What kind of culture can produce so colossal a mess?”
As the festival attendees left Yasgur’s farm, leaving behind garbage strewn across the rustic landscape, it was up to the media and the rest of the country to deliberate on the cultural significance of the festival.
In one sense, Woodstock had been a success for what didn’t happen—more than 400,000 young people had congregated and it did not lead to mass rioting or destruction. The world did not end. The biggest success of the festival was proving that it could be done at all. As one festivalgoer said: “It was like balling for the first time. Once you’ve done it, you want to do it again and again, because it’s so great.” Rolling Stone commented: “And they will do it again, the threads of youthful dissidence in Paris and Prague and Fort Lauderdale and Berkeley and Chicago and London criss-crossing ever more closely until the map of the world we live in is viable for and visible to all of those that are part of it and all of those buried under it.”
Many Sullivan County residents even praised the young crowd for acting politely and peacefully. One farmer complained it had been “a shitty mess.” Another man bemoaned that fifteen-year-old girls had slept outside in the fields.
Three people had died at Woodstock: One person overdosed on heroin, another was run over by a tractor, and another died of a ruptured appendix. Hundreds had died in Hurricane Camille. Many thousands more American soldiers were dying in Vietnam. But to many members of the older generation, the fact that a mass gathering of kids could have a Saturnalian weekend in the woods was more threatening than the lack of emergency preparedness for a storm or the drafting of young men to die in a war on the other side of the globe.
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The subculture that Abbie Hoffman would dub “Woodstock Nation” in his 1969 book of the same name would die almost as soon as it was born. Ironically, while the crowding and traffic jams created by Woodstock had ruined many a vacation for tourists with poor timing that third weekend in August, Woodstock Nation spawned tourists of its own who flocked to its namesake town as if making a pilgrimage to the counterculture mecca. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan remembers: “At one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies. Moochers showed up from as far away as California on pilgrimages. Goons were breaking into our place all hours of the night. . . . I wanted to set fire to these people. These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues . . .”
Van Morrison later told Richard Williams for Melody Maker magazine, “When I first went, people were moving there to get away from the scene. Then Woodstock itself started being the scene.” In the weeks following Woodstock, Van Morrison was working on his follow-up to the classic Astral Weeks. Moondance would become an instant classic, the embodiment of his mystical version of “Caledonia soul,” with songs like “And It Stoned Me,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” and the title track. Soon afterward, Morrison and his wife Janet Planet would pack up and move to California, leaving the Woodstock “scene” behind.
Meanwhile, Madison Avenue observed the whole Woodstock “thing” as an emerging trend and sought to co-opt it. One ad for the Shortline bus line in New York State quoted drivers “rap[ping] about the kids they took to the Woodstock Festival.” One driver said, “I don’t understand why they wear long hair but now I don’t care. It’s a free country. And they’re the most no-griping, no-complaining, patient and generous, respectful bunch of kids I ever met. Come on, kids, and ride with me. It’s a pleasure driving with you.” The headline of a United Van Lines depicting four shaggy young vagabonds played with cultural fears under the clever headline, SOME PEOPLE (EVEN) UNITED CAN’T HELP, but then explained in smaller copy: “If you can pack your possessions on the back of a bike, you won’t have much use for our services.” A new store called The Gap—named after the “generation gap”—opened on a San Francisco street corner in 1969 as a retail store aimed at the counterculture, selling records and blue jeans. The Woodstock Generation was on its way toward becoming the Pepsi Generation.
Yet the legacy of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival would remain. As Michael Lang told NBC’s Gabe Pressman during the three-day happening: “You have this culture and this generation, away from the old culture and the older generation. You see how they function on their own, without cops, without guns, without clubs, without hassles, everybody pulls together and everybody helps each other, and it works. It’s been working since we got here, and it’s going to continue working. No matter what happens when they go back to the cities, this thing is happening and it proves it can happen.”