• From Bethel, to Saugerties, to Rome . . . I’ve been on the Woodstock beat
• The upcoming 50th anniversary concerts? Hell no, I won’t go
• Sorry, no photographs here from the original festival; explanation below
I went to three Woodstocks.
In the summer of 1969, I was delivering pizza in Bowling Green, Ohio. I had put college on hold for a semester or two because of an incident in the spring involving a drug bust, an episode I’ll detail elsewhere. (No collusion!)
The owner of Pisanello’s Pizza was a good boss. His drivers could take time off, as long as they gave sufficient advance notice. The job would be theirs to return to a week or two later; there was no shortage of guys who wanted to haul pizza around town and collect tips that were never recorded anywhere.
In early August, I hitchhiked home to New Jersey, stopped in and saw the folks, then stuck my thumb out at Exit 163 of the Garden State Parkway, destination: Atlantic City Race Course. The three-day Atlantic City Pop Festival – attended by an estimated 100 thousand people — attracted many of the hottest acts of the moment, including Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, the Chambers Brothers, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, the Mothers of Invention, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Joni Mitchell (who left the stage after one song, discontented, boos following her).
As the concert came to an end in the wee hours of Monday morning, an announcer said from the stage, “See you all in a couple of weeks at Woodstock!” I had already seen an ad in Ramparts Magazine for a Woodstock Music and Art Fair: Three Days of Peace & Music. I planned to be there.
First, I had to get back to Ohio and make some more cash driving pies around. As the sun came up, cars and vans snaked out of the racetrack parking lot and I held up a handmade cardboard sign: “Ohio.” My eyes popped as a vehicle with Ohio plates rolled up. It was a hearse. A black, Cadillac hearse of late fifties vintage. Full of hippies headed to Columbus. But – “There’s no room, man,” the guy in the passenger seat said. I took advantage of the crawling pace of the traffic to knock on the back door as it pulled even with me. It opened and I saw wall-to-wall mattresses, with wall-to-wall hippies stretched out, most of them already asleep. I said, “There’s got to be room for one more in here, right, people?” And yes, there was and I was invited on board. I woke up at an interstate exchange outside of Columbus, was dropped off and thumbed the rest of the way in to Bowling Green, fully rested…but badly in need of a shower.
For my next swing back East, instead of hitchhiking, I took my beat-up old Triumph Spitfire. I drove first to Provincetown, on the outermost tip of Cape Cod, where my friend Pete was working in a restaurant. After a few days of beach fun and nighttime carousing, I went to the local record store and bought a strip of three tickets, one for each day of the Woodstock festival. Price: $18. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince Pete to come with me. He didn’t want to desert the restaurant on a peak-season weekend and his boss certainly didn’t want him to, either. (Years later, Pete’s son – learning of Woodstock in a high school textbook – asked his dad incredulously, “Your friend Mark went to Woodstock….and you passed??”)
Coming off the Cape, I saw a hitchhiker with long hair and a bedroll on his back. Pulling up, I asked, “Are you headed to – “ “Woodstock,” he finished my sentence. By late afternoon we were in a line of traffic as far as the eye could see on Route 17 near Bethel, NY, site of the concert which had, much earlier, been denied a home in the actual town of Woodstock. Inching along the highway, we reveled in the party atmosphere as young people spilling out of cars and vans migrated toward the grounds, often walking faster than the cars. My passenger got out as we passed the road that led into the site and I started wondering what to do with the car. Most drivers were simply pulling off Route 17 and abandoning their vehicles by the side of the road. I did the same, wondering if I’d be ticketed or towed during the weekend. I pulled my dad’s old Army Reserve pup tent out of the trunk, along with my backpack, both made of heavy canvas, and headed up the road toward the concert grounds.
Already, on Friday night, the fences were being torn down by those determined that this should be a “free festival.” I was a little miffed about the $18 of hard-earned pizza delivery money I’d shelled out for advance tickets, but rationalized: I had helped “underwrite” Woodstock for everyone’s benefit.
A trail of white Christmas lights lined a path through the woods to a campsite where I pitched the tent. Late Friday night, after the last act of the first day, I returned there and got some sleep. I wouldn’t see the tent again until Monday morning.
What was it like, being at the original Woodstock? Watch Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary. It’s all there. It was like that. The additional sounds and images that stick with me include walking along the ridge road atop the giant grass bowl with a sunset fading into orange and blue to the West, the crisp harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash welling up from the stage to the East….the Who, at 5AM Sunday, interrupted by Abbie Hoffman who picked the wrong time to try to make a political statement and got his face smacked with Pete Townshend’s tuning keys….Jimi Hendrix blowing everyone away at sunrise on Monday.
I spent the last two days of Woodstock on a piece of tarpaulin about a third of the way back from the stage. Never made it back to the tent. If I had brought any food, it was gone by the second day. The concession stands ran out of everything. People shared what they had to eat. If nature called, you made sure to memorize the colors of clothes, blankets, makeshift flags and other landmarks around your spot so you could find your way back through the immense, densely packed natural amphitheater. An enduring regret: I was becoming a photography buff and owned a 35-millimeter Nikon SLR with several lenses. I opted not to bring the gear, as I thought it’d be a pain to drag around and protect from rain, mud or theft. Thus, I have no photos from Woodstock. The joke afterward was, “Years from now, everyone will claim they were at Woodstock.” I have no photographic proof I was! At least I saved one of the tickets I had bought, the Sunday one. It’s framed now, and of course a skeptic could say I bought it on the memorabilia market. But I have the memories; I know I was there. Then again, it could’ve been an hallucination.
In 1994 I was a CNN correspondent covering entertainment news when some of the creators of Woodstock, including Michael Lang, decided to hold a concert to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original event. I was assigned a camera crew, a producer and some volunteers from the staff of Showbiz Today, and sent to Saugerties, NY for the weekend. The roster of performers was more diverse than in 1969; there was a separate “rave stage,” for DJs and electronic dance music acts. The Band, Santana, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were among returning acts that played the original festival. Just as it had in 1969, weather played a role. It rained off and on over the three days and by the time it was over, “Mudstock ‘94” was the nickname. An up-and-coming band, in fact, got a career boost by engaging in a mud fight with fans who tried to storm the stage. Green Day saw its profile rise significantly after that.
Most of my time was spent at a remote camera position on a flatbed trailer down the “third base line” from the main stage. In between live shots, the crew and I just sat around listening to some forgettable bands that were hoping for – but never got – a jolt of career adrenaline from playing Woodstock ’94.
At least we were able to avoid major rain and mud inundation and could drive off the site each night. Someone at CNN had family or relatives in a house nearby and they generously accommodated our whole crew. There was a swimming pool which was a delight after a long day of doing television. After the final set on the final night, we all went out to a bar in the town of Woodstock, about 10 miles away, and had a wild night singing along with a local blues band.
The less said about Woodstock ’99 the better. Again, some of the original promoters, including Michael Lang, put on another anniversary concert, just 5 years later. This time they chose as the venue an abandoned airfield in Rome, NY, about 200 miles from the hallowed ground of Bethel. I drove up with a camera crew on the Friday of the weekend event, shot video footage, interviewed some of the performers, including Sheryl Crow, and returned to NYC to put together a taped package that would air on Monday’s “Showbiz Today.”
Initially, we were disappointed we wouldn’t be doing live shots or staying the whole weekend. It turned out to be a blessing. The temperature was 100 degrees, there was no shade, multiple stages were set up literally a mile or more apart across scorched tarmac.
Concert–goers were not allowed to bring in food or drink, concession prices were high, toilets and water stations were insufficient.
By Sunday, crowds trashed and burned concession stands, set bonfires, and committed violent acts, including reported sexual assaults. So much for three days of peace and music.
At both the latter-day Woodstocks, I interviewed Lang, one of the original producers in 1969 and keeper of the flame. He’s behind the plans for a 50th anniversary concert at Watkins Glen, NY. (Another, smaller event is planned – by different promoters – at Bethel.) I saw Lange at a music club in New York in 2018. He hinted that he was working on an anniversary event and his enthusiasm was infectious. But the more I thought about it – and as I wrote this blog post – I lost interest altogether in attending yet another effort at re-creating the “magic” of Woodstock. It can’t be done and won’t be done.
In announcing the upcoming event in the New York Times, Lang denied that the violence and fires of Woodstock ’99 had tainted the brand. “99 was more like an MTV event than a Woodstock event, really,” he said. “I take some responsibility for that. It was also kind of an angry time in music.”
This being an angry time in America, I’m going to steer clear of a fourth Woodstock. The third time was definitely not the charm.