We didn’t see the Dead, the Airplane, the Who, the Band or Jimi Hendrix’s celebrated “Star Spangled Banner/Purple Haze” finale. We likewise missed Creedence, Janis, Joe Cocker, Country Joe, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or Sly and the Family Stone.
So were we really at Woodstock 50 years ago today?
My half-century old tickets — $18 for three days of “peace and music” — don’t prove it. The now-hallowed rock festival’s “management,” oxymoronic and invisible, never took a ticket from any of the estimated 400,000 who showed. Organizers put the beginnings of a fence up around Max Yasgur’s pasture, but soon decided a proper stage was more important.
So the ticketed and ticketless swarmed around, over and through that fence.
There were no cell phones back in the 60s. Even Ma Bell’s trim Princess models didn’t have built-in cameras. And I forgot my Instamatic. Thus: no photos.
But, joined by a pair of college housemates, I did live through one long night of rain, mud and music outside Bethel, New York. No, Pete, Roger and I didn’t dance in flowing tie-dye tunics, skinny-dip in Max’s pond, hug fellow festival-goers, or commune with nature or the stars.
But, early in the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, we did stake a claim to a few square feet of pasture about 50 yards from the Woodstock stage. Then we marveled as a huge crowd built behind us, sprawling to the crest of a distant hill and hundreds of yards to either side. Not surprisingly, a cannabis cloud gathered overhead.
The sheer volume of altered humanity was astounding. Clad in tie-dye, jeans, sandals, flowing dresses, bandannas, cowboy hats and much more, the newly independent Woodstock Nation stretched nearly from horizon to horizon. And, yes, we did get the feeling that this was something much, much bigger than just another rock festival.
“A Biblical, epochal, unbelievable scene,” observed the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, way out of my earshot in 1969, but quite audible in the Woodstock movie – which I just watched.
And the music hadn’t even started. Then, just after 5 p.m., it did.
Richie Havens, who I’m not sure I had even heard of before he took the stage, was leadoff man. And he delivered, with more than two hours of folky, funky, upbeat tunes.
Why did Havens play so long? Other first-night acts were stuck in traffic in the narrow roads leading to the festival grounds. Or waiting for helicopter rides in. So organizers kept asking Richie to play more. And more, and more. No one complained.
Likewise we caught Swami Satchidananda’s invocation, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who I think came on stage at 1 a.m. Saturday.
But I missed much of Ravi Shankar and Melanie. As they played, I was stepping over and through thousands of blissed-out fans amid intermittent rain. My destination: a bank of porta-potties within supposed “walking distance” of our spot of pasture.
During my more-than-hour-long trek, the drizzle turned to torrent. Mud was soon everywhere. And, shortly after I got back to our now-sodden blanket, the three of us decided to leave. Our vote was unanimous.
You read that right: We bailed on Woodstock, leaving behind our generation’s seminal, defining, event without even knowing it. It was like walking out on the Gettysburg Address. Or adjourning to McDonalds for a Big Mac during the Apollo 11 countdown. Or heading for the 2016 World Series exits before the Cubs 10 th inning win in Cleveland. Or something like that.
We three had no idea what sacrilege we were committing. We were wet, muddy, tired and hardly alone. It took us hours Saturday morning to negotiate the bumper-to-bumper departing traffic. And, with word out that Woodstock was now a free concert, the incoming jam was at least as bad.
“Glad we’re not those people,” I remember thinking as the parade crawled past us toward the sodden festival grounds.
Within days, however, it became clear from press coverage that we had fled perhaps the greatest, most wonderful event in recent creation. “What sort of lightweights would do such a thing?” we asked ourselves amid repeated and painful self-flagellation.
Was our karma out of kilter? Our auras rough around the edges? Did we not “have it together?” Had our shameless retreat exposed us as the spoiled snobs Stanford University was known to turn out?
Or had we simply not taken enough drugs?
As the years, the movies, the books, and the key Woodstock anniversaries came and went, I’ve had plenty of time to think about these questions.
First, if my 23-year-old self was magically transported back to that first night at Woodstock, of course I’d stay. I’d be among the 30,000 who made it all the way through Jimi’s electrifying National Anthem closer on Sunday. Then I’d talk about it, ad nauseum and for years, boring friends and strangers alike with my nonstop pontifications.
So aren’t you glad that didn’t happen?
And what if I could take that half-century time trip today? At age 73?
Are you kidding me? Three days at Woodstock with an enlarged prostate??
But back to our early, perhaps ill-advised departure all these many years ago.
I’ve gotten over it. Instead, I look at the big picture. For us, Woodstock was not a three-day weekend with 399,997 of our closest friends, but a final summer free of jobs, obligations, and responsibility for us brand-new college grads.
We bought our festival tickets early, although the three-day, $18 tariff stretched our post-grad, no-job budgets. Then we spent all of June and July getting ready.
This involved buying a high-mileage veteran of the Peninsula Laundry Co., which didn’t cost a lot more than the Woodstock tickets. We pulled the old GMC delivery truck into the driveway of our ramshackle off-campus rental and went to work.
We outfitted our steed with a swinging hammock and a monstrous, floorboard-shaking sound system. We plastered its sheet-metal walls with tie-dye and batik, glued down a used carpet, threw in a bunch of pillows and kept its rear door open to let the inevitable smoke billow out.
Then we painted it blue and stenciled a bright-yellow name on it: Nurjis Glompum, which means “phone booth” in Martian. Explaining its obscure, highly quirky origins would press this story’s word limit, but the name would by turns amuse and infuriate those we encountered on our cross-country trek.
We took Nurjis on several shakedown cruises to San Francisco shows at Winterland, Fillmore West, and the Avalon Ballroom. It worked.
So we lit out for Woodstock in early August, after straggling out of a Dead concert at the Family Dog some time after 2 a.m.
Charged up with anticipation, energy, adrenaline and likely a few more chemicals, we powered our way over the Sierras and to points east. After first stopping for a fellow housemate’s wedding in Louisville (yes, we became hippies dressed up in tuxedos), we wound through the South – where greetings for us long-haired Californians and our weirdo truck ranged from friendly to curious to absolutely hostile.
But we had seen Easy Rider, so we didn’t push our luck.
As we neared Woodstock, we crossed unseen, magical border. There were no walls, customs agents, or luggage searches. But there were asylum seekers by the tens of thousands.
Beards and long hair sprouted as we neared the festival site, and our tricked-out, psychedelicized truck quit getting disapproving glances from passing motorists. Suddenly DayGlo vans, customized rigs with hand-hewn, wooden living quarters, and school buses with chimneys sticking out of roofs were everywhere. We might as well have been driving a Ford Fiesta.
We parked near Max’s farm and suddenly everything was free and wonderful. Then, eight hours later, everything was wet, muddy, dirty and uncomfortable.
So we left Woodstock, not with consuming regret, but dreaming of the sun-dappled Airplane/Dead concerts in Golden Gate Park ahead. And taking hot showers.
Sure, all those glowing news accounts of the magic, wonderful event we had left gave us pause. But we looked at the bright side: Nurjis Glompum was still running, her stereo still cranked, her hammock still swung, we had more than 3,000 miles of westbound open road in front of us — and no jobs were in sight.
Such was life in that magical summer of ’69.
All that, of course, changed quickly with work, responsibility and family becoming integral parts of a fulfilling life. And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, I’m planning for my 50 th Stanford reunion in October.
Yes, I expect Woodstock’s own 50 th will come up at that Palo Alto gathering. And when it does, as I have for years, I won’t say I left early.
I’ll say I was there.
Chris Bateman retired in 2011 after 38 years as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Union Democrat.