Parts of this essay appeared originally in Changes magazine, August, 1969. This version is adapted from Chapter 10 in my book of memoirs and essays titled Warbaby: Talking About My Generation, 2009.
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road,
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me.
Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
…My wife and I ended up working together in New York City for an “underground” newspaper, and we both truly enjoyed the time we had at home watching Ian become his own unique person. I was enjoying some real success as a writer and photographer, and I felt I was beginning to leave the war behind me.The social and professional circles we were running in were the “alternative lifestyle” folks whose world-views were largely formed from anti-war politics, anti-establishment values, and the perceptual enhancements of psychotropic drugs. Being a veteran was not a comfortable role for me, so I simply discarded it. I found some comfort in knowing that there were other vets who wanted the war to end—I had attended the first New York rally of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but had remained on the sidelines. Frankly, I was not ready to join any movement, and I seemed to be completely unable to stand in a crowd and “demonstrate.” While I wasn’t very conscious of it at the time, I remember that rally as the first dawning of a nagging anxiety that would soon come to dominate my life.
The Big City can be hard on one’s spirit, so in the summer of 1969, my wife and I decided to take a vacation. As it happened, all the buzz around the city was for the upcoming Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The posters promised “an Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” One simply had to look at the long list of incredible artists who were to be performing at this music festival to know this would be THE greatest gathering of “freaks” since the 1967 Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. It even seemed like almost as many folks would show up for this big deal as had gone to San Francisco wearing “flowers in their hair.” I talked a couple editors into helping pay our way and decided that writing my Woodstock stories would be our ticket out of town. Nothing sounded more soothing to my soul than “Three Days of Peace and Music.”
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog
in something turning
What follows next is the text of the article I wrote for Changes, one of the magazines that had sponsored my sojourn to Woodstock. This article was published in August 1969.
We were on the road very early Friday morning, leaving the city on the way to our first vacation in years. The morning sun bore its way through the valleys of the Catskills and reflected mirror-like on the silver thread of river below. My wife and I were young and touched with memories of a dream reflecting from the valley, passing by like a slow pan through the bus window. Ian, the baby, was sleeping soundly. We wondered how those people alone in the occasional houses growing on the slopes earned their livings. We speculated about how soon it would be before we could leave Brooklyn and the fifth-flight apartment to bring trees and blue skies back into the perspective of reality. Then we slept too, comfortable in the promise of the weekend to come.
I awoke as we passed through a small town. There were freaks and friendly faces everywhere; I figured we were getting close, but was surprised to learn that we still had miles to go. The countryside slowly transformed from naked hills to rolling fields dotted with tents, then unending pastures packed with people and lined with cars. The bus kept rolling. We moved slowly down a narrow dirt road as clouds began to gather in the sky. We stopped for a moment while the driver checked out an empty bus, off the road in a ditch. The sky grew darker. Finally the bus came to a stop and we all got out. As we emptied the bus, the rain came and, along with it, a lot of bitter cursing. As we ran for a wood-frame pavilion with picnic tables underneath I noticed a makeshift stand to the right surrounded by about a hundred people. There were signs advertising sandwiches for a dollar each. Things started to seem a little less perfect.
The rain stopped and the morning sun came through once again. There was a life-flow of people on the road headed toward the festival grounds, so we joined it. We reached the main street where the cars stretched out to the horizon. This was going to be big. Holly carried Ian, and I took the duffle bag with our blanket and extra clothes off to where the action seemed to be. After about a mile’s walk, we decided to look for a john, and found one. It was a small chemical toilet behind a watermelon stand with ten people waiting to use it. Our turn came then the walk began again, up the hill, through trees and past fields. One man coming down from the hill had a canteen full of water from which he was selling swigs to thirsty hikers—for $3.00 a piece. No water around? Impossible.
Just as the duffle bag started to seem too heavy to carry any further, a Ferris wheel appeared over a hilltop like a monolithic symbol from a Fellini set misplaced among the oaks. There was a small amusement park where the rides were spinning and dancing – stupidly empty of people – against the darkening sky. The rides were laughable in their emptiness, but the hamburger, hot dog, chicken and popcorn stands—at 11 o’clock on the first day of the Woodstock Festival—didn’t seem so funny with their sold-out signs. We shared a warm coke and a plate of greasy French fries, which was to be our breakfast and lunch—in fact, the last solid food we’d have for nearly 14 hours. Now Ian had to go to the bathroom, so we asked the girl in the ticket booth where the toilet was. The reply: “Any place big enough to stand without hitting somebody.” That’s exactly what we used. At the festival gate we picked up press passes and noticed that the ticket takers were no more visible than the Ferris wheel riders had been.
People were swarming in from every direction, and no pretense was being made to collect admission. After finding the press tent where I picked up promo material on the performers, we headed down the hillside to the front of the mammoth stage. Once again I thought of Fellini as we took a seat on the ground behind one of the huge light towers. Solid structure had bloomed on the pasture the last few weeks; in the middle of the back-country the light and speaker towers, stage, fence and crane came off like a science-fiction environmental architect’s nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, however.
We passed the waiting hours in sunshine. As we waited, what remained of the country open-air feeling dissolved in the constant influx of people. The city had followed us. The empty hillside became jammed as people no longer walked down; they climbed, crawled and squeezed their ways, trying to get close to the action. But the action was running late. The huge crowd hushed at the sound of technicians working on the stage starting to set up. Something was about to happen. Over the speaker came a conversational voice giving microphone placement designations. “Mic one is on the drum, right? O.K. Mic two is on…” etc. The hillside was silent. “No. 4 is Richie’s voice.”
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair and Aquarian Exposition took a deep breath and came alive with the first of what would be hundreds of thunderous cheers before it was all over. Richie Havens came on and so did everyone else. Havens wasn’t quite together, but he was the first act, and the quarter million waiting freaks knew it had all begun.
Throughout his performance people kept climbing up the light tower directly in front of us, and it didn’t look as if it had been designed as a grandstand. As fast as one group was told to come down, another would clamber up. Richie himself chased one group off the tower, but replacements followed like drilled infantrymen holding a hill. At one point, a wild-haired young stud of about 16, when told to come down, went after the fellow who had told him with clenched fists. Behind him ran a 12 year-old sidekick, unsnapping the sheath to his Boy Scout hatchet. A girl in the audience rose up to tell the first hellcat not to start any trouble, but before she got to him the other pint-sized punk had knocked her down, pulled out the hatchet and told her to keep her hands off his friend. Within the next half hour these two were to be called down off the tower four more times, and were to try to start four more fights.
After Hindu chants by Swami Satchidinanda, the second act, we were asked to observe one full minute of total silence, when “not even the cameras would click.” Instead of silence we got barking, screeching, mooing, and obscenities from a pack of peanut-brained numbskulls—the kind with short hair and long sideburns wearing new Sears and Roebuck denim jackets. Three hundred thousand people lost their minute of silence to half a dozen douche-bags.
The next act was Sweetwater, who came on so bad people were ready to leave. About then more people started up the light tower. This time, when told to get down, they didn’t bother. One guy climbed up about halfway and started shouting “the time has come.” Sweetwater started getting together, and the people sitting next to us handed my wife and me a joint. It was some of the most potent grass I’ve had in months and months. The vibrations were flowing on stage and the grass was seeping into my brain as Sweetwater went into their last and absolutely most fantastic number. The jerk on the light tower went up to the top, partly undressed himself, dropped clothes to the ground, and pissed on the crowd. I couldn’t figure out if he was crazy or just a “Crazie,” one of a rather theatrical band of young New York-based anarchists/street artists.
At any rate we were afraid he wanted to jump and, if he had, he could easily have landed in our laps. I looked back over the hill and the hordes had gone beyond being simply impressive, they had become oppressive. Everyone seemed to be grooving on the stage, the sounds and the great universal connection, but—maybe because of the grass, maybe because of our proximity to too many bad things coming down around us—my wife and I got up and left. We climbed over heads for twenty minutes until we found a spot up the hill by the make-shift restrooms to sit down. Always being one to take advantage of any situation, I decided to use the john once more. They were all full, and I don’t mean full of people.
The rain began once again as evening settled firmly on the hillside, and the music shifted well into high gear. I finally wised up and decided to throw a blanket down in the press tent We parked the duffle bag and decided to go look for some food for the baby. After all the walking we had done that day, a bus coming down the road, stopping and offering us a ride, seemed like the angels’ own chariot.
“Where’s this bus going?” 1 asked the other riders. “Who knows?” was the only reply I got. No one knew until we got there. “There” was back in Bethel where we had arrived that morning. No, the bus wouldn’t be going back up the hill tonight.
Tired, hungry, and disgusted, we only found consolation in a food stand open 24 hours. For two and half bucks we got two small cartons of milk, a ten-cent bag of potato chips, three five-cent doodles and a pack of cigarettes—not even my brand. The land around the tiny town was becoming as jammed as the hillside we had just left. We ate, rested a few minutes, and headed back up the hill where, a few miles away, a blanket, tent, and blessed sleep were waiting.
The rain was merciless. The night rolled on and down it came. There were no crickets, no chirping frogs. The only sounds we could hear were the driving wind and rain, ambulance sirens and occasional strains of Arlo Guthrie, Melanie or Joan Baez. We were warm and comfortable in that tent, feeling pity for hundreds of thousands sitting on the muddy hillside. We needn’t have. It was 3 a.m. when the tractor came and pulled the tent down. They needed to use it for a hospital. Bad acid, accidents, miscarriages. There was trouble. The first aid people couldn’t handle it They needed every shelter they could find, so we sat under a table in the empty field, and still the rain came. A new, smaller tent arrived and we tried to put it up, but some of the posts were missing; there would be no more nice warm press tent. And the rain kept coming. A little after 4 o’clock we fell asleep in the staff tent. We would have to go elsewhere in the morning, they told us. The staff tent was also to be converted to a hospital.
There was no sunrise really. It just slowly became morning. The rain hadn’t let up at all, and there was no more reason to stay. We wrapped the baby in a raincoat and blanket, stepped out into the deluge, and started the 3-1/2 mile trek down the hill where we thought we would catch the first bus home.
Gray is a mood and a temperament. The world was grey on Saturday morning: grey in feeling and in texture. The road was longer and longer with every step. Still the unceasing life-flow moved, both up the hill and down. The first night had washed out thousands but thousands more waited to take their places. The cars stretched out on the main road, immobile. People slept in them, huddled close for the familiar touch of warmth and comfort. Saturday awoke to find itself immersed in grey.
There were no buses. There would be no buses. There was no water. There were no working telephones. There were only thousands of tired people, all sick or disgusted but somehow happy, somehow satisfied in the spirit of uniqueness that had become Woodstock. Radios talked about “hepatitis,” “disaster area,” and “bad trips.” Figures were juggled as if they could evoke the real magic of it all for parents, friends and straights all across the continent. They warned not to come to Woodstock. They spoke in statistics about people, drugs, miles of cars, acres of mud, and hundreds of blown minds. The festival had become like heavy acid. It was elation. It was beauty and joy. But it was heavy and unending. There was no getting out of it once you were in. Everyone spoke in superlatives, but no one ever said it was good or bad. For many it was a beautiful dream they wanted to end, but there was no ending in sight. No buses. No cars. The only things that moved, moved on foot. Newcomers would drop their packs and stretch, telling how they had just walked 8 miles to get here, then look crushed when told they had 3 or 4 more miles to go. They would lift their packs and head off the hillside where they would find no food, no water and no space to sit within half a mile of the music.
The day passed and the sun came out. Through a series of miracles we got out of the area on Saturday and caught a lucky ride to New York with some kids from New England who had decided to spend the rest of their trip visiting the city. The hills rolled back in the angular dusk light and the clouds gathered for another night’s rain. The road reminded me of a scene from Godard’s Week End. The cars lined up, the bodies stoned on the roadside giving up any goal but their heads. Small talk and sharing became the intimate communication of the landscape of a new America. As we rode away from the Catskills, I thought about the people I’d seen and met, from town, from the State Police, from around the country. There had been something there to learn. Still, the A train never moved so slowly as it did that night. The five flights up to our apartment never seemed so long, and Brooklyn—warm in Con Ed familiarity—had never felt so friendly.
Fifty Years Later
We are stardust, billion year old carbon
We are golden, caught in the Devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
As I look back on Woodstock through the lens of fifty years, it is clear to me that the cultural significance of the event is everything we thought it was back then. It really was three days of peace and music. The performers and crowd and the production crew all worked miracles that weekend to stage the first event of its kind in American popular culture history. It was completely understandable that over the next few years our g-g-g-generation became known as “The Woodstock Nation.”
For me, though, looking back on Woodstock shows me clearly something I could not see at the time. I found the whole event to be frightening: literally terrifying. The entire time we were there all I could feel was dread that something terrible was going to happen. I was on high alert the whole time, unable to enjoy the music, relax with the vibe, or go with the flow. I could not sit there in that crowd without seeing every bum trip that entered my peripheral vision: every bad-ass city-bred 15-year-old with a knife and an attitude. I worried that our toddler son would be hurt or get sick. I worried that we’d have to witness nut cases taking nose dives off the light towers. I worried that small verbal altercations would turn into mob violence. I don’t know how aware I was that I was doing all this worrying. It was really more like being back in Vietnam, covered with mud and soaked by the monsoon, where the trick was to push on, do the job, accomplish the mission, damn the torpedoes. In hindsight, my experience at Woodstock was nothing more or less to me than a serious Vietnam “flashback,” a body memory of unending tension and the unending effort required to get through it and survive. I see clearly now that my year in the war had made it impossible for me to relax and enjoy even three minutes of peace and music while sitting in a crowd of half-a-million people.
I am glad I had the chance to go to Woodstock. I’m glad there are recordings and a movie documenting the great performances of many of the greatest artists of my era. And I am glad that I can look back on the experience from my 8th decade and smile and enjoy it now like I could not at the time. But don’t ever expect to see me in a crowd of that size, or even one-tenth that size, ever. I’m a whole lot saner and better grounded now than I was in 1969, but even the wisdom of age does not rewire a brain that has become adapted to war.