Fifty years ago this summer I graduated from high school: Woodrow Wilson High, Class of ’69. I just got an invitation to the reunion, but don’t plan to attend. The 30th was great, but another 20 years have passed and I feel I’ve lost the connection. But the Woodstock 50th? That’s another story. I’m going. But I’m not sure how I’ll feel when I get there.
What was then an intense collective experience for the 400,000 or more of us who were there has transformed over the years into a profoundly personal one that has shaped my sensibilities, values, and principles.
Next month, my friend Phil and I plan to be at the field in Bethel, N.Y., where the defining rock festival of our generation took place, and where we experienced our right of passage from adolescence to adulthood. We met when we were 11 and together in our teens discovered the counter-culture, underground music and mind-altering drugs. We also spent three unforgettable, mud-covered days – from Aug. 15 to 17 – on the alfalfa field at Max Yasgur’s farm. We came away influenced for life, but each in our own way. What was then an intense collective experience for the 400,000 or more of us who were there has transformed over the years into a profoundly personal one that has shaped my sensibilities, values, and principles. At the time of the 40th anniversary, a reporter for the in-house magazine of the company I worked for asked me, “What remains of the legendary spirit of Woodstock that’s still valid to you?” I thought for a moment and said, “Rejecting blind obedience to authority; fighting narrow-mindedness and rigid social norms; openness and friendliness to all people, regardless of skin color, religion or status; a lifelong interest in self-examination and self-discovery.”
Now, 10 years later, as we approach the anniversary, I find myself pondering the essence of the times and circumstances that drew my friend and me to Woodstock, and the ways the experience affected both of us, in the short and much longer term.
Setting the Record Straight
First, a few important misconceptions to correct:
No.1 – The festival did NOT take place in Woodstock.
Many people think the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was originally billed, took place in the town of Woodstock, N.Y., where many folk and rock musicians of the ‘60s had homes and studios. It did not. After having nervous neighbors and skittish bureaucrats put the kibosh on several planned locations, the organizers reached an agreement with a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur to hold the event on his 103-acre property in Bethel, N.Y. – about 105 miles, or a drive of a little over two hours, from Woodstock. The festival kept the name of the investment group that backed the event, which was called Woodstock Ventures.
No. 2 – Not everyone who went to Woodstock slept in tents or out in the open enduring horrendous conditions.
Phil and I stayed in luxury accommodations. I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Manhattan and had a beautiful summer home on White Lake, about a two-mile walk from the festival stage. We were able to walk back, get a good night’s rest and freshen up before each day’s program.
No. 3 – People think the Woodstock 50th anniversary reunion has been canceled. Not exactly.
The “Woodstock 50” event planned for Watkins Glen, N.Y., and organized by the historic event’s mastermind, Michael Lang, has indeed fallen through because of glitches with permitting. It was to feature a huge list of acts including both Woodstock ’69 alumni and current stars. But Phil and I always had our sights on the original location, which has housed an amphitheater, performing arts center and Woodstock museum since 2006. Called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, it’s featured a whole summer’s worth of commemorative activities, but will close the site to all but Golden Anniversary ticketholders, who’ll be able to see a special showing of the Woodstock documentary, and buy seats for concerts by Ringo Star, the Doobie Brothers, ’69 legends Carlos Santana and John Fogarty, and some other acts. “Same place. Different Time. Still Historic.” That’s how Bethel Woods is advertising the experience it offers.
I’ve visited that same place multiple times over the past five decades, sometimes with Phil, sometimes by myself – once with my wife when we first started dating. It has always been special to me as if the land itself had become my birthright. This was not only because my adult self was forged on that field in the summer of ’69. Nearly a full decade before that, my aunt and uncle had bought a summer home in the area that I visited throughout my childhood, engraving my memories of the town and its surroundings all the more deeply in my mind.
Same place. Different time. Indeed.
Not too long before Phil’s parents, and then mine, settled into steady, early ‘60s suburban lives in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a bedroom community of Philadelphia, the National Guard had to be brought in to keep the peace when the first black family moved into the neighborhood. Our elementary, junior high and high schools were integrated in theory but segregated in practice. There were a fair number of black kids, but they always stuck together in the cafeteria and in the auditorium. Our parents had nothing against black people. We just had little occasion to associate with them. And many of our white friends were less open-minded – some, a lot less.
In 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We were in 7th grade. In 1968, when we were juniors in high school, Martin Luther King was killed. Bobby Kennedy was shot to death a couple of months later.
The Vietnam War was killing our contemporaries and hovering like an evil presence that could summon Phil and me, too, if there was a change in the wind – if we failed to get into college and win a military deferment, or flunked out, or if the nation’s mood turned toward stronger support for the war. And with the government lying as egregiously as it was, who knew what was possible?