The 50th-anniversary performances spread out over four evenings, from Thursday through Sunday. The local paper said a hundred thousand people were expected overall. On the first evening, Arlo Guthrie played a wonderful set that I enjoyed more than the one he did 50 years ago. It was followed by a four-hour showing off an updated version of the classic Woodstock movie by Michael Wadleigh. Phil and I watched it on rented folding chairs under a clear and starry night.
The performances on Day 2 featured Blood, Sweat & Tears (minus the desperately needed David Clayton Thomas) and the musical virtuoso Edgar Winter, both of whom played at Woodstock 1, and the cartoonish Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band, who did not.
A Costly Misstep
Saturday, Day 3, was marred for Phil and me by the type of accident that we and most others managed to avoid the last time around. Among the countless restrictions enforced by the well-meaning but sometimes overbearing safety and forces was the prohibition of frisbees.
For Phil and me, who made a rousing Frisby rally one of the staples of our reunion visits to the field, this could not stand. However, neither could Phi after attempting a courageous, leaping catch of one of my throws – on a slope in front of where the stage once stood, no less. He landed awkwardly, landing hard on his right shoulder after taking a tumble. He broke his collar bone and had to be taken by ambulance to the Catskill Regional Medical Center, where he was fitted with a high-tech, Velcro sling. But no worries. We were back in our seats for Santana’s sold-out 50th-anniversary set, which was a phenomenal performance, punctuated by the simultaneous showing of clips from his famous, career-launching 1969 Woodstock set on screens while he played in sync below. (The Doobie Brothers, who suffered from the lack of Michael McDonald as much as Blood, Sweat & Tears missed Clayton Thomas, opened for Santana.)
The last night featured Grace Potter, a mistress of many rock genres but mastress of none; the redoubtable Tedeschi Trucks Band; and John Fogerty, whom I’d forgotten had such an extensive list of hits, and who more than impressed me by having the boundless to perform so many of them with such enthusiasm at 74.
Full Circle, Fresh Insight
At times I was almost painfully aware of how far apart our lives and experiences had diverged starting from the moment we left that shambolic field 50 years ago.
A fascinating phenomenon struck me in the course of the four days Phil and I were together in Bethel. At times I was almost painfully aware of how far apart our lives and experiences had diverged starting from the moment we left that shambolic field 50 years ago. At times I felt the tension and strain of so much separation and disparate influence: living on different coasts, and later living on different continents (I worked as an expat in Switzerland from 2001 through 2016); different professions (education for Phil, corporate communications for me); political views that put us on opposite sides of the center-left (me) and progressive left (Phil) divide; marriages that joined us intimately and inseparably with partners other than each other. And yet, at other times – particularly when we were taking in the performances and commenting to one another on the brilliance of the musicianship or the origins of the songs being played), I felt like no time had passed at all and we were joined once again, like the Siamese twins people saw us as in our youth.
In the end, I believe it was Woodstock that bonded us as brothers for life. From that experience, we entered the rest of our lives with core values that remain with us to this day. For both of us, there’s what seems to be the universal lesson of Woodstock: that in spite of treacherous conditions, and maybe even because of them, people can be at least civil and maybe even kind and generous to one another; for Phil, it’s also a reverence for the perseverance and endurance we needed to get through that experience. For me, it’s the skepticism about authority, the predisposition against rules that hinder me without offering an offsetting benefit, a reverence for honesty, integrity, and principle.
Coming full circle after the 50th anniversary, I’m convinced that life is amazing and totally unpredictable. Relationships are complicated and follow a winding rather than direct path. When I helped Phil through check-in for his flight back to LA, he hugged me hard and told me I was his brother. I felt the same. I guess that’s the way it will be until they spread our ashes, whenever and wherever that may be.