Said comedian David Steinberg about the event that we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this summer, “if Woodstock was held 5,000 years ago it would today be celebrated as a Jewish holiday.”
Maybe he said 3,000 years. It doesn’t matter. His point is that half a million people sitting in the rain and mud listening to distant thunder certainly is worth eventual celebration with cold fish cakes and horseradish.
My sound bite for this milestone in cultural history was that “Woodstock was the senior prom of the sixties.” After that, cruel fate forced us all to grow up. I plan to offer my own thoughts and experiences in the handful of months to come. I will make you all sick of it. Be warned. I covered it for the Times. We can be insufferable.
One thing the "Woodstock Nation" propagandists left out of the travel brochures is that when you get half a million people braving a downpour to play in the mud of an immense cow pasture while the vaguely heard thump of a rhythm section pounds in the distance like thunder in the next county, what they are playing in ain't exactly "mud." The gee-whiz writers for Look, Time, Newsweek, and God-knows-how-many other mainstream media sources left out the contribution made by the cows. I guess they thought it was more acceptable to Mom and Pop to know that their half-naked children were playing mud pies and not something more lasting (it's damned hard to get pregnant or infected with a colorful disease when there's mud and ... well, think "moo" ... being shoved into your orifices).
Nothing much of an intelligent nature was being said at Woodstock, either. Bill Graham notably remarked that one way to keep the gatecrashers out was to surround the place with a moat filled with burning oil. Wavy Gravy was, oh my. I sat down under a soggy tent at the base of the hill where the helicopters were coming and going, carrying rock stars and reporters, and had a beer alongside Jerry Garcia. We had a typical sixties conversation:
And we finished our beers in silence watching someone play. I don't remember who it was, and like so many of the rockers I knew at that period in history, Jerry's not here to jog my memory.
What shall we make of Woodstock? I hated it at first. It was wet and cold and smelly and there was nothing to eat save for warm beer and stale donuts; the portable toilets were overflowing and there was nowhere to relieve yourself except the woods. Now, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the woods and by the stream, and am fearless about using nature as my toilet. However, it's not the sort of thing expected of New York Times writers, even werewolves like me. With the press badge came certain responsibilities. One is to avoid laying a loaf in front of half a million people.
At the time, I hated it, I said. So did the editorial page people at The Times. Then they reversed course and opined about how wonderful the whole thing was. For three days in a cow pasture in slightly upstate New York, there was the equivalent of the third largest city in New York State and there were no murders, was no crime ... well, okay, I hear you ... nothing but peace, love, music, and a mud amalgam being ground into your assorted holes.
No cops to speak of, but let’s not get picky.
But about three days after the three days of peace, love, whatever were over, I realized that I had attended a certified event. There was a lot of good music, for those who got close enough to hear it, of course. My personal favorite was a nighttime set by the otherwise despicable Sly Stone and his "Family." I'll get around to him one, other than to say that Sly and the Family Stone's performance of "I Want to Take You Higher," with audience members throwing sparklers into the air, was absolutely sensational. Nobody said you have to be a decent human being to make great music.
There were other moments, to be sure. Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Band. Jefferson Airplane, sure. Richie Havens, a friend from the East Village, his festival-opening marathon set is rightly famous. Sha Na Na, fellow fixtures on the Columbia campus who did some early harmonizing in my living room on 113th Street near the methadone clinic and drug building, were good. Independent film distributor and genial soul Richard Lorber lived in the apartment next door, and we flew into Woodstock alongside Joe Cocker in a National Guard helicopter.
Joan Baez, who I sat next to a year and a half before in the front row of the Yippie press conference at which Abbie Hoffman announced plans to demonstrate outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, sang. I didn't see Jimi, because as I recall I was off being huffed at by Janis while he was rewriting "The Star Spangled Banner." And there was the never-to-happen-again chance to have a conversation with Jerry.
Come to think of it, how did festival-goers get dry matches with which to light the sparklers? How did I lose anything resembling dry paper to write on and, thus, was forced to do some classic reportorial stunt writing? I ad libbed a "new top" --in that case, the first five paragraphs of an existing story. I wrote it in my head and dictated it over the phone line straight to the transcriber in Times Square, and it went into the paper without change. Said Dick Shepard, my editor and the paper's designated werewolf trainer, "that means you're a professional."
Thanks, I thought. Can the next gig be someplace dry?
> a lot of people who were pursuing certain things, or maybe just enjoying their youth. It was real,
> and you could feel it, but it didn’t last long—a couple of years at the most. I think that is what
> people associate with Woodstock. I don’t know how much the festival had to do with it, but it
> was part of the zeitgeist of a fleeting moment.
We had to kill it, though. After all, it didn't make the rich richer.
I was only 14 at the time, and the first I actually heard about Woodstock was David Crosby talking about it after the fact on one of the late night talk shows. At that age, I was on the tail end of the hippie generation, and though I thought a lot of the music was cool, and I was against the war, a lot of what the hippies talked about seemed silly and naïve. I was someone who could listen to the Doors and think some of Jim Morrison’s lyrics were great and some were bullshit, even then, and my heros were just as likely to be literary figures and painters as rock stars. I identified more with the Beats, even though they were chronologically contemporary with my parents, because they were more intellectual and realistic, if not cynical, about society.
The year after that, I spent the next three summers working at Silver Bay, a YMCA conference center in the Adirondacks, with my family. Most of the staff were college age, so I had the chance to meet a lot of young adults living on their own and some actual hippies passing through, hitchhiking around the country. (Remember when hitchhiking used to fun?) There definitely was, for a very short time, a spirit of fellowship, camaraderie and trust among a lot of people who were pursuing certain things, or maybe just enjoying their youth. It was real, and you could feel it, but it didn’t last long—a couple of years at the most. I think that is what people associate with Woodstock. I don’t know how much the festival had to do with it, but it was part of the zeitgeist of a fleeting moment.