Thursday, August 13, 2009

Woodstock "Get Together" - Part 2 of 3

(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)

I went to Woodstock for the same reasons everyone else went. To hear music. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was already the stuff of legend, and this was going to be our East Coast version, featuring many of the same bands. D. A. Pennebaker's documentary, Monterey Pop, had been released in April that year, and I was one of the first in line at the Circle Cinema, just outside Boston, when it opened on April 30, 1969. The movie was great and it was in STEREO which was even better. I became obsessed with the idea of attending something like that.

All during the summer, the line up was changing day by day. Of course, for me, Jefferson Airplane was the big draw. I thought my life could not go on if I didn't hear Grace Slick sing live. It had been two years since Surrealistic Pillow had been released and I couldn't wait any longer. I only recently learned that they were the first band signed, and it was their name that opened the floodgates.

Music had been pretty great that year, so far. I was really into the Days of Future Passed album by The Moody Blues, and they were originally on the bill, so they were a huge attraction, as were Creedence Clearwater Revival who had three of the best singles that year with "Proud Mary", "Bad Moon Rising" and "Green River". I think everyone wished Led Zeppelin were playing because their second album was all anyone played earlier that year. Sly and The Family Stone, Santana and The Who all had big hits that summer, not to mention The Beatles' "Come Together" and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", which seemed like the greatest Stones song ever.

In July, that year, I had seen two local concerts in Cohasset Massachusetts on two consecutive Sundays. The first was July 13, Arlo Guthrie, because I liked "Alice's Restaurant" and the movie was set to come out on August 20. The second was on July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I was already up there to greet them because I had seen Joni Mitchell earlier in the day and she put me into orbit. Both artists were a huge draw for me as well.

Traffic became very heavy before we exited the N.Y. Thruway around 11 A M, on Friday, August 15, 1969. We still thought we had plenty of time to get there. But once we ventured onto Rt. 17, we discovered a country road that would lead us to the festival grounds where traffic moved like a parking lot. But somehow, nobody seemed to mind. I don't recall one cross word or flared temper, though it could certainly have been a most exasperating situation.

The two lane road quickly became one way, then three lanes, then four lanes...all in the same direction, using the shoulder of the road as lanes three and four. Further off the road, cars would just stop and not go any further, the occupants, climbing on the roofs to watch or joining the flow of walking humanity...all in the same direction. It got amazing pretty fast and the feeling was intoxicating. There were so many of us! We'd never seen so many of us. This was an occasionally residential route, where, between the fields and forests, we'd come to pockets of houses. The residents had assembled on lawn chairs in their front yards and gawked, amazed at the endless parade of hippies and freaks flowing past.

They gave water and drinks to anyone who asked and appeared, not at all afraid, but fascinated, flashing peace symbols back at anyone who flashed one first. The spirit of community and camaraderie were already in evidence everywhere you looked. Even in 1969, hippies and members of the counter culture were not commonplace outside of major metropolitan areas, so they really stood out against the cookie cutter culture of the time. This was a time when there were only car radios to provide any music for this rolling caravan of the soon-to-be Woodstock Nation. So everyone tuned their radios to WABC out of New York City. Everytime "Get Together" by The Youngbloods came on, all cars turned their volume up full blast and the hills rang with "Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, got to love one another right now..." What could have been sappy and calculated was, on the contrary, such a natural outgrowth of the circumstances, it was completely spontaneous and highly inspirational. I've always associated that song with Woodstock more than any other, even though it wasn't part of the festival itself. That Dino Valenti song was even part of Jefferson Airplane's early repertoire.

It probably took us six hours to go 15 miles to where we decided we'd better park or we would reach grounds that were already full and there would be no way to turn back. I recall a beautiful flat green field with lines of very tall trees forming the borders between lots. We parked next to a row of trees which probably afforded us about a 15 foot square of land for our tent and living supplies.

As soon as we set up our camp, we headed toward the festival sight, probably around 4:00 o'clock, because we walked about two miles to get there and it seemed to be around 5 when we got there. Here is where my memory gets hazy, mixing what I saw in the movie with what I remember seeing. I recall the excitement level rising with each step we took, and the sound of the music's concussive beat getting stronger till we saw what looked like a distant field of flowers through the trees.

Of course, that turned out to be the crowd on the hillside and as we walked along the road directly behind the stage you couldn't help but feel dwarfed by the tall yellow structures flanking the stage and which have become such iconic images of Woodstock.

Discovering that no one wanted to collect our tickets, indeed, there was no place to go to for admittance, we just started up the hill on the right side of the crowd facing the stage. But I think we knew right away that we were too late to get anywhere into the middle of that heaving mass of humanity. I remember we heard most of the set by Sweetwater (at right), who's lead signer, Nancy Nevins, resembles Grace Slick vocally, so I liked that band instantly. John Sebastian had played right before them, but I can't remember if we heard any of his set.

We figured that Friday night was pretty much of a wash, as we couldn't get a spot to sit, we were hungry and thought that, during the night, the crowd would shift. We headed back, thinking that if we came back early enough in the morning we'd surely be able to get ourselves into the audience.

Walking the two miles back to our tent, seeing nothing but masses of smiling, happy people, it was a garden. We ate dinner, chatted with our neighbors. We may have even played cards. While we slept that night, the first rain came. Not a torrential downpour, just a steady, wet rain shower. When it ended, and we woke up around 2 AM, we opened the flaps of the tent and saw a heavy mist all over the glistening field. Then, off in the distance, we heard the sound of a woman's voice...singing. The song was "We Shall Overcome" and the unmistakable voice was that of Joan Baez, so clear, like a bell ringing softly over two miles of hills, carried by the moisture in the air. A magic moment, so fresh in my mind, it could have been yesterday.

Getting up the next morning, we headed back to the stage and the crowd had swelled enormously overnight. Even moving along the road was difficult on foot. The crowd in front of the stage had intensified and we knew getting in there was all but hopeless. We wandered, dazed for a couple of hours, just soaking in all the sights and sounds, part of our psyche's being taken over by the Woodstock notion. Like when you leave home to go to college, or see your first concert, or you smoke your first joint, you know nothing will ever be quite the same again. That was the feeling.

Then the clouds built and the threat of storm became unsettling, thinking about all these thousands of people running for cover. So we thought we'd better head to our distant tent for protection against the elements, whatever they were. When the storm seemed definite we feared the worst and decided to head out while the roads were slightly clear. Our disappointment was palpable, and our uncertainty that we were doing the right thing, made the whole exit a blur.

We were furious with ourselves for leaving, but at 18, with a mother's car, and a 16 year old with us, felt we had to. In retrospect, I feel we did the right thing, because one had to get there at least three days before to even get into the field, and we never would have. We drove through some intense storms, but once the clouds cleared and the sun came out, we realized we'd emerged from some strange rabbit hole only to learn that the whole world's attention was on Woodstock.

Last Sunday I attended a screening of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, which was pretty interesting. I'd read the book last year and had found it fascinating and even moving, and knew if anyone could do it justice, it would be Ang Lee. Unfortunately they didn't really find a focus for the screenplay so it plays like a series of vignettes, but visually and historically, it is very impressive indeed. They really capture the look of the time, without much of the slick Hollywood gloss that usually destroys any recreation of the sixties (remember Forrest Gump?).

There were two moment which really struck me. The first being when Elliot Tiber and his father are observing the nude bathers and suddenly, off in the distance, the deep concussive beat of the first Richie Havenssong is heard and a character murmurs, "It's beginning". The other is when the concert is in full swing and someone tells Elliot go on over a take a look, saying, "Take a look into the center of the universe". That was how it felt. At that time, in that place, it was like gazing into the center of the universe, and, like looking at an eclipse without frosted glass I think our eyes were permanently singed.

next: Back to Planet Earth.

1 comment:

amnion said...

wow brad!
i loved reading this!
it's such a weird thing right?
so happy to have been ushered through your unique experience there like this. Thank you! can't wait for 3 of 3!