Music

Pot, Skinny-Dipping, and Freedom Rock: Woodstock and the Year of the Outdoor Music Festival (Part 2)

Rob Kirkpatrick

PopMatters presents the second part of a chapter on Woodstock from Kirkpatrick's recent book 1969: The Year Everything Changed. Part two covers Woodstock appearances by the Who, the Band, Jimi Hendrix and more.


1969: The Year Everything Changed

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Price: $24.95
Author: Rob Kirkpatrick
Length: 320 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-01
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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 1 of chapter

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.”

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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