Woodstock 1969: The music went for 24 hoursA special section - Woodstock Nation. Third of a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2
I find most of these commentaries, frankly, unbearably square
BY SHEILA LENNON
Journal-Bulletin Lifestyles Editor
Despite two days of uncomfortable conditions, peace and music are both holding out. Sunday is the acid test.
The storm bore down on us, all hard rain and whipping wind, just after Joe Cocker ended the set that opened Woodstock, Day 3. "The ground was slippery red clay, and then it really looked like Baghdad," remembers Dottie Clark, one of the many from southeastern New England who were there. "People selling the junk of the time were packing up, my friends were crying, and I was laughing. I thought it was funny. I said, 'Someday you'll see that this was something.' "
Cocker had finished his set with what may have been the best live performance ever given: With a Little Help From My Friends.
"I ran into a friend from school standing at the stage when Joe Cocker was performing," says Stephen Schechtman, "and I just remember tears in his eyes, this guy just standing there crying. He was really moved by it."
The storm that followed, with clouds straight out of a Hollywood epic, "was almost like a test from some god," says Kathleen McDevitt. "That was really hard to get through. But I remember being exhilarated. People on stage were saying 'hang in there,' and everybody did."
These people had been too long wet, hungry, hot and cold. Spontaneously, the rain chant began - "No rain, no rain, no rain . . ." When the hour-long deluge stopped, the field was a giant mud puddle. But the Woodstock attitude held: Another bad situation was turned around. With a slight shift of perspective, any kid could see a perfect hill for sliding. The long coast to the stage was fun.
"It looked like a picture from the World War II archives, the refugees after a town had been blitzed or invaded," says John Haerry. "Here were all these people, cold, wet, miserable, hungry, thirsty, but still keeping it together.
"I remember people walking around quietly asking, 'Do you have any spare food, or anything to drink?' At the same time, if people had anything, it was 'Well, we've got a bag of potato chips, here, have some of our potato chips.' "
"To the media it was a catastrophe, but to us, it was the very best life," says Carmino Scaglione.
"There were enormous garbage bags and people sitting all around them," remembers Dottie Clark. "It was Felliniesque."
"It stunk on Sunday," Rico Topazio recalls. "People were burning clothes to keep warm. Then a helicopter came over the field and started dropping things. It was scary, people freaked out, until they saw they were flowers.
"It was like a reward for just being there, and staying," says Kathleen McDevitt. "There was someone somewhere concerned about us."
Lee Blumer, assistant to the security director then, said last week that the gesture had been arranged by Michael Lang, the man who thought up the whole idea of a festival that would bring together the counterculture so we could see how many of us there really were.
A recent reminder
Dawn Jabari-Zhou, who was forced to leave China last month after teaching there two years, said the students in Tiananmen Square in June reminded her of Woodstock. "In Beijing, people did make that analogy: They hadn't seen these many people since Woodstock. People were orderly, friendly, and shared food and shelter. There was a tent city at Tiananmen."
Woodstock also had shadows.
Two deaths were reported.
Without checking underneath, a farmer moved his tractor out of a field dotted with sleeping people. A 17-year-old who slept Friday night under a tractor was killed when the farmer started it up and ran over him.
Another young man died, but it is not clear whether it was from a heroin overdose or a heart attack.
I suspect that Margaret Chevian speaks for many when she says, "At the time people were sucked into being liberal; what you were then and are now is not the same. We went along with the crowd. I don't know why we didn't die from bad sanitation."
And others would agree with Ed Dalton's statement that " Woodstock was a promise unfulfilled because I don't think my generation accomplished what they set out to accomplish: change the world. When we saw all of us, we knew we had force and power.
"I think the whole generation has sold out, and I hope the kids turn out better than we did."
Most of us who were at Woodstock also know somebody who tried to stay there no matter where they were later, and became casualties of drugs and alcohol.
Tom of Providence was 14 at Woodstock, doing drugs. "I regret that Woodstock set me on this path. I wish I'd spent more time studying, learning a trade. Because I was so young and doing drugs, I didn't have a chance to have a real adolescence, to grow up." He's been in AA two years.
One caller from North Kingstown wouldn't identify herself but wanted to say that her parents didn't let her go to Woodstock, and her friends who did all developed serious addiction problems.
Three births and four miscarriages were reported at the festival, but, so far, no one has come forward waving a birth certificate to prove, "I was born at Woodstock."
No unknown garage band
Crosby, Stills and Nash had only played one concert, in Chicago, before Woodstock, but this was no unknown garage band.
David Crosby had been a founding member of the Byrds; Stephen Stills played in Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, and Graham Nash was stolen from the Hollies. Their first album together, Crosby, Stills and Nash, would stay on the charts for 107 weeks. But that night at Woodstock, Graham Nash sheepishly greeted the crowd with, "We'd like to a do a medley of our hit."
Several people named them as a favorite memory, but on Suite: Judy Blue Eyes the harmonies were so badly offkey that the tracks would be redubbed for the album. It didn't matter, except to festivalgoers who swore later they were offkey but couldn't prove it by the movie.
Neil Young joined CSN at Woodstock, and again two weeks later at the Big Sur Festival at the Esalen Institute, where Joni Mitchell first sang Woodstock, the anthem she wrote for the festival without ever having been there.
Mitchell was living with Graham Nash at the time, but spent the festival weekend in New York City with her manager, David Geffen. Geffen convinced her she might not be able to get out of Bethel, N. Y., the town 50 miles from Woodstock where the festival was being held, in time to make a TV appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.
Bulletin board of the air
The stage announcements were sometimes witty, often humorous, and excessive. The bulletin board of the air was full of lost people, headlines about what the world thought was happening to us, happy news, call your mother, come get your medicine, and colorful - if meaningless - warnings about specific colors of bad acid. There were probably fifty shades of green acid, and if anybody had just taken some, this was no time to hear it was polluted.
Cheryl Godek Curran knew people who had taken green acid. "They said, 'Take us to the doctor,' so we went to the bad trips tent. There they said 'If you took it and you're having a good trip, just go back and enjoy the festival.' And they did."
David DelBonis had helped build the children's playground, the hospital tent (which Abbie Hoffman ran) and the kitchens. During the festival, he roamed the crowd, bringing people whose mental circuits had crossed back to the bad trips tent. Rick Danko of the Band and John Sebastian dropped in to play a sort of mellow rock for people who weren't digesting mind-altering substances well.
Del Bonis explains a bad trip as "being with too many people and thinking you can party on LSD. Your brain can't sort it quick enough. You feel scared and paranoid." A good trip: "It's searching; it's kind of like looking for yourself. It's a very spiritual thing."
From his observations, "The drug thing was totally overblown. Certainly there was marijuana used, but not as many drugs as people imagine."
"Not everybody at Woodstock used drugs," Phil Kukielski says, "and people didn't drink much. A little wine, maybe. But this was a place you could safely smoke grass."
For some, the novelty of being able to take a social puff in public was the big thrill. A joint lit up in the crowd got passed all over. "It was nice not to feel worried about the police," said one Rhode Islander. "That was very liberating."
Although there were dealers, most people were wary of what they might be selling. Street drugs could be anything.
"LSD is more dangerous for anybody to experiment with now," says Dennis Lemoine, now a Corrections Officer at the Rhode Island Training School for Youth. "Then it was made by chemists in universities and people with real knowledge of it. People now make it in cellars from a book in the library. They use strychnine (a favorite poison in old murder mysteries) to get a physical effect.
"Back then, the marijuana was less strong than what it is now. The grade has accelerated. People got stoned, laughed, sang and got happy. Now kids smoke it, sit back and nod and that's it. The old Mexican was destroyed with Paraquat. This stuff they're importing has a higher THC content. And they don't stick with pot anymore.
"I know people who did heavy drugs for years on the streets, then crack and freebasing got them in a year. They're chasing that first big high from then on."
"We did drugs, but not the dangerous drugs. We were a whole different generation who cared for each other. We were against war, we had goals . . ."
Last week I asked Wavy Gravy, who ran the bad trips tent, what he thinks of drugs now.
"You need to differentiate between smack, crack and smoking flowers," Wavy said. "Cocaine is horrible. It's nature's way of telling people they have too much money. It makes them mean to their friends and their kids.
"Psychotropic stuff in moderation can lead to extraordinary results. I like to say, 'My father's mush has many rooms.' "
Wiring repairs halt show
There was music through the night, but the sound system was shut off during the storm, which soaked some dangerously tattered wiring. While repairs were made and new wires were laid, the show did not go on.
So the Sunday bands played too late to too few still awake. And the movie crew slept at night, which is why so many great sets are missing. Sha-Na-Na made it into the film only because the crews were getting up to shoot Jimi Hendrix.
"We tried to book Roy Rogers to sing Happy Trails as the closing number for the festival," Michael Lang told Joel Makower in The Oral History of Woodstock. "His agent declined."
Instead, Hendrix insisted on closing the show with the national anthem.
"Obviously, he got the meaning of this thing sufficiently enough to know to play the Star Spangled Banner at the very end," Lee Blumer told Rockfax, a small music paper published in Norwich, Conn. ". . . He saw Woodstock come from out of dust to a nation and he played an anthem."
But not before he tossed off what was probably the strangest line of that long strange weekend: "Maybe the new day might give us a chance, blah-blah, woof-woof."
It was 8:30 Monday morning when Hendrix started to play. He was in lavender fringe with a head band, "letting his freak flag fly," as one member of the group would write.
There were fewer than half a hundred thousand left when he did it. Most people had gone.
Hendrix played in the early morning sun with garbage all over, and he was loud. Too loud, I remember, for my frazzled nerve endings. His guitar seemed to frizz my brain, but I was finally next to the stage, 10 feet from Jimi, and I had to watch his face. It seemed illuminated from within.
I could hear Vietnam in this anthem, bombs bursting on guitar. It flew and dived and made brand new a song that had always seemed to me a war chant. The anthem of Woodstock Nation was the anthem of America loosened, freed of its rigid measures. It was okay to be different.
The song ended at 10 a.m., 65 hours after Richie Havens began it.
We had pulled it off. It was over, and we left on whatever roads have brought us to where we are now.
An invitation to dinner
"On the way home," remembers Tom Mulligan, "we were slogging to the car and noticed some people standing around a house. We walked over and they invited us to dinner. They were making a huge meal for anybody who wanted to come by."
Phil Kukielski and David DelBonis both remember being handed flyers as they left. They read, "Come to Chicago" for the radical Weathermen's Days of Rage.
People stayed for weeks, reluctant to leave, cleaning up Yasgur's Farm.
"On the way back I was bummed out and didn't know why, because I'd had a good time," says Jim Edwards. "At first I thought, 'Every high has a crash,' but then I really felt like I had just attended an Irish wake."
Woodstock's promoters flew to New York to explain to the bankers and lawyers why they threw a free festival and spent the bank's money to drop flowers on the crowd.
So what came out of all that mud and music 20 years ago?
Joe Landry, a Providence native who at 29 was one of the oldest people at the festival, seemed to sum it up: "That it's no good for me if it's not good for everybody."
Footnote: In June, 2003, Sheila Lennon and Joe Landry married in Providence.