In high school, we lived in an environment of aggression and violence where teenage boys carried fifths of scotch in their jacket pockets and worked off the alcohol’s effects by picking random fights. Phil and I found our sanctuary in the mellow voices of FM DJs and the peace-infused music of our favorite bands. When we encountered a small but like-minded smattering of kids at the fringes of our high school class, the temptation to join them was irresistible. When plans for Woodstock were announced, that’s where many of us headed – for the music, yes, but also for the chance to congregate with people who were determined to cast off the rules and restrictions, the bigotry, aggression and venomous love-it-or-leave hatred we saw and felt around us.
Loners that we were, Phil and I did not socialize at Woodstock. We stuck to ourselves, each experiencing the historic event part jointly and part purely personally. For me, three memories stand out.
Something Feels Different
After a few moments, everything had changed. Something was gone – a weight, a dark cloud, a sadness that had occupied my brain some six months ago when my first love had broken up with me.
The first was my introduction to what then must have been the world’s strongest pot. Neither Phil nor I had done a great deal of experimenting yet, but when a joint was passed to us in the middle of Ten Year’s After’s set, I took it. I can remember the incredibly pungent aroma and the way the rolling paper felt between my lips as I took a long toke that made my lungs swell with cannabis smoke. I held it for as long as I could and exhaled with a suppressed cough. After a few moments, everything had changed. Something was gone – a weight, a dark cloud, a sadness that had occupied my brain some six months ago when my first love had broken up with me. In all that time, hardly a moment of my waking life had gone by without my being aware of the feeling of loss and teenage grief. But suddenly it had vanished, leaving me feeling light and free and open to life, as if for the first time, and certainly for the first time since the breakup.
My Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes Take the Stage!
The second was the moment when what I had been waiting for finally arrived. Musically, at least, I can summarize my reason for coming in four letters: CSNY. The chaos of the situation had caused them to be backed up in the program repeatedly, until late into the last night, on Sunday, Aug. 17, when the beautiful, grassy field had been reduced by the torrential rains and grungy hordes to a colossal mud pit. Phil and I had slid down to an area near the lower right-hand corner of the stage. David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and their new mate, Neil Young, took the stage and got set to perform. That’s when Stills uttered his famous words: “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man. We’re scared shitless.” Then they started to play, sending me into teenage, hippy heaven.
Jimi in the Distance
The last was when we left. Having seen my beloved CSNY and endured all the mud and stench and the pounding sun of day and the chilly, damp, cool of night, and with a couple of acts I wasn’t so thrilled about (including the very forgettable Sha Na Na) standing between us and Jimi Hendrix, we left. Walking back on Hurd Road toward my aunt and uncle’s place, we watched the sunrise with Jimi’s iconic, screeching, steel-string-searing Star-Spangled Banner echoing in the distance.
Through the Portal to Adulthood
Less than two weeks after that I was in Philadelphia for the orientation program at Temple University, where I’d fortunately been accepted. I wore my red-mud-caked jeans as a badge of honor, a testament to my citizenship in The Woodstock Nation. And as I tried to process all I’d experienced and rejoice in the freedom of the anything-is-possible, if-it-feels-good-do-it ethos of Woodstock, the realization set in that maybe it had not been the harbinger of better, freer, more humanitarian times, but more of a one-off, a joyful aberration, a unicorn of mega-festivals, a cosmic accident where any number of circumstances could have caused catastrophe but none did.
Before Christmas arrived, there had been the horror of Altamont – a Woodstock-like festival held at a speedway in northern California, where the Hells Angels were hired to provide security and someone was knifed to death, Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was knocked cold, several participants died and darkness reigned.
The following August, when Phil and I returned to Yasgur’s farm hoping for a miracle, along with a hundred or so other Woodstock alumni, Max Yasgur himself stood on the back of a flatbed truck and told us, “We can’t recreate the un-recreatable.”
Chipping Away at a Memory
So what can we expect when we return this August, a good chunk of life later? The aunt and uncle that Phil and I stayed with are no longer there. My uncle died at 97 after a rich and full life. My aunt, at 103, is wreaking havoc at an assisted living facility in South Jersey. When I visited her a few months ago, she remembered Woodstock, but she didn’t remember me. The great alfalfa field is now a museum and concert hall. And the lessons we thought the country learned from the ‘60s in general and Woodstock in particular – respect for civil rights; acceptance of all people; caution against extreme materialism; faith that even in the absence of rigid rules, orderly procedures and control-maintaining restrictions, a beautiful harmony can still be achieved – all of these ideals seem to have had their vitality drained out of them.
Same place. Different time. I ask myself how I’ll feel in a month when I’m standing on whatever part of that sacred field aren’t covered by an arts center. And I just don’t know. But when I look back really hard at myself as the shy 17-year-old who was on that field 50 years ago, I’m overtaken by the urge to implore him to be grateful – truly grateful – for having experienced those Three Days of Music & Peace in the summer of 1969, because I know that something permanent and good will endure inside him for a lifetime.