The voices of Woodstock
“I’m a farmer.”—Max Yasgur
“I’ve got that joint for when we get into the electric set.”—David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash
“We must be in heaven, man! There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”—Wavy Gravy aka Hugh Romney
“The next bleedin' bastard who comes on my stage gets f@#*ing killed! [Crowd cheers]. You can laugh! You can laugh but I bloody well mean it!—Pete Townshend of the Who admonishing the crowd after forcibly ejecting Abbie Hoffman from the stage during the Who’s set
“Marijuana, exhibit A.—Jerry Garcia
A million words have been written in past forty years about the Woodstock Festival. I figure a million more words will be written ten years from now when we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of that august disaster area of a rock concert.
I was only six years old when Woodstock happened. In a few weeks I was about to start kindergarten and I had absolutely no comprehension or understanding about the concert. (I wonder how much of the cultural symbolisms and memories we now associate with Woodstock were associated with the documentary film as opposed to the memories and impressions which were drawn in real time by the observers and participants of the show).
My point is this: Woodstock was not a singular concert event like Live Aid was in 1985. Woodstock was one festival on many rock festivals which took place during the summer of 1969. Almost every weekend from June to August there was a rock and roll festival and many of the acts which played at Woodstock attended those other festivals as well. We remember Woodstock because (like the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967) there was a documentary film of the event along with a wonderful multi-disc soundtrack album of the same. If there had been no documentary film of Woodstock would the show remain such an epochal cultural event or would the show have faded into obscurity along with the other festivals which took place that same year. (Don’t laugh. During my college years, I had a fascination with the 1960s and had an idea of writing a novel called Festival Summer which would feature the adventures and misadventures of two young male hippies hitchhiking across America bouncing from one festival to another; encountering the obscure, the infamous, and the famous along the way; the novel would have had a lot of sex, social commentary, more sex, drugs, much more sex, and a little bit of violence along the way; the two heroes would have made it to Woodstock, and beyond, and the novel would have ended at the infamous Altamont concert in December 1969. Sadly, I never had the guts to write it. I became an archivist instead).
Woodstock was not about altruism either. It was supposed to be a money-making operation. You had to buy tickets to get to the concert. It only became a free concert after the first day when the approaching crowds overwhelmed the crowd control infrastructure set up the organizers. (Early in the Woodstock documentary you can see the late rock promoter Bill Graham giving a Dutch uncle lecture to the festival organizers about their failure to provide proper crowd control to the event).
Getting to Woodstock wasn’t rough solely for fans but for the musical acts as well. I have read many comments and seen film footage of Woodstock artists complaining about the difficulties they had in getting to the area and then getting organized to take the stage. Many acts were late in taking the stage. The festival was supposed to end Sunday evening August 17. It actually ended Monday morning of August 18. Waiting back stage wasn’t pleasant either. The late John Entwistle of the Who once said in an interview that all the drinking water back stage was spiked with LSD and that all the coffee was spiked with STP (a hallucinogenic drug with five times the power of LSD). Simply put you were going to get stoned whether you wanted to or not. (If you’ve seen the documentary film you will see a lot of stoned people. My nominees for the most stoned looking people in the film are Country Joe McDonald and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. Both of whom were severely stoned while they performed). Indeed I have read several accounts from musicians who called Woodstock the worst gig they ever played. Pete Townshend of the Who, Levon Helm of The Band, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival have been quoted as damning their experiences at Woodstock.
(I’ve written this before but if I had a time machine and had a choice of attending the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock 1969, Monterey Pop wins hands down, no contest).
But it wasn’t all about the drugs. Woodstock was a happening as well. One of the reasons for the massive overflow of people was because of the word-of-mouth aspect of the festival. Everyone wanted to attend because rumor had it that the festival would be a real event—in the end it was if you didn’t mind the disastrous side effects of the experience.
My favorite couple from Woodstock is not the lovers depicted on the movie picture poster and the album cover. In 1999 and this year that couple (now married) have been covered in the media. My favorite couple can be seen in the director’s cut of the brown-movie at the one hour, ten minute mark of the film. It’s a blonde-haired male hippie and a brown frizzy haired female hippie, both of whom look like they’re college freshmen. They’re filmed hitchhiking to the festival and then, later, on the festival grounds itself. Their discourse was deemed so fascinating that film director Michael Wadleigh gave them five minutes of airtime in the movie (which is a very long time when it comes to commentary). The male hippie does most of the talking and what’s amazing is that his discourse is not some psychedelic stoned dementia one would expect from a festival of youths freaking out on brown acid. Instead his commentary is thoughtful, insightful, and deeply perceptive. He admits to drug use, communal living, and living in a free love union with his female companion. (Remember People this was the sexual revolution and this was ten to twelve years before anyone knew anything about A.I.D.S. and other STDs). He and his female lover talk about the generation gap with their parents. Every time I see the movie and I am always impressed by what he had to say. I keep hoping every time someone does a Woodstock retrospective that someone would find the young male hippie and his companion and talk to them again to see what became of their lives. The questions would be compelling: Are they both still living? Did they remain together? Did they marry? Did they break apart? Did they find love and contentment with others? Did they succeed in life? What are they doing now? What are their beliefs and ideals?) Their commentary in the film is a microcosm of what the youth of America was thinking and feeling in the summer of 1969. If I were a high-school or college teacher I would show that five minute clip to my students just to show them what youth was like in those days.
And yet despite the traffic, narcotic, and meteorological obstacles encountered at Woodstock there was some truly incredible music played at the show. Over the years I have downloaded my favorite songs from Woodstock and have my own four CD compilation of the Festival. My favorite performances from the festival are as follows:
1) The Who’s entire set
2) Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s entire set
3) Sly and the Family Stone’s entire set
4) Richie Haven’s doing Freedom
5) Arlo Guthrie doing Coming into Los Angeles
6) Santana doing Soul Sacrifice
7) Country Joe McDonald doing I feel like I’m fixing to die rag
8) Jefferson Airplane doing Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
9) Jimi Hendrix doing the Star-Spangled Banner, Purple Haze, the Woodstock Improvisation, and Villanova Junction.
The Who’s Woodstock performance was a breakthrough gig for the band. Before Woodstock the Who was a struggling hit band with a cult following. Woodstock elevated The Who into the stratosphere where they stood alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as epitomizing the best of the British Invasion. What’s ironic is that the Who originally didn’t want to do Woodstock. They had already done an extensive tour of the United States in support of their immortal rock opera Tommy. They badly needed some rest but it was their booking agent who saw the potential of what the Woodstock festival and the impending film and album could do for the Who’s image and earning potential. He wore down Pete Townshend and the other members of the band and got them to agree to perform. Even then their going onstage was not a sure thing. The Who demanded their performance fee and were forced to wait for almost an entire day before they got their money (that’s why the Who performed in the pre-dawn hours). Even though the band for the rest of their lives panned Woodstock their performance became a part of Rock and Roll iconography. The image of Roger Daltrey attired in buckskin fringes and long blond curls singing See Me, Feel Me is an eternal image of Woodstock. Despite being spiked with hallucinogenic drugs; despite their anger at being denied a rest day; despite their rage at being inconvenienced by the prolonged delays, the Who overcame the obstacles and delivered the goods. (The Who film The Kids are Alright features three songs from their Woodstock set. I remember I was fifteen years old at the time and seeing the film with my mother. I remember two of the three songs featured slow pans of the 500,000 gathered screaming their praise for the Who as dawn slowly broke over the lysergic New York landscape. I remember at the time being spellbound, awed, wishing fervently that I could do a thing like that: make 500,000 people absolutely ecstatic with joy—part of me still wishes I could do that some day or at least seeing my nephew Frankie do that because he’s a musician too).
It’s Jimi Hendrix’s performance though which offers the greatest symbolisms (and answers) as to what Woodstock represented to America and the world. Hendrix was the last act to perform onstage at the festival. Interestingly he played to only 50,000 die hard fans who remained the remaining 450,000 people who had been there had left to go home. (If you see the documentary all the camera shots are close-ups of Jimi and the band with extremely few crowd shots and what shots there are of the crowd are very tight close-ups so the viewer cannot see that the vast majority of the people have left).
The Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up the previous month even though he was introduced onstage as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Jimi quickly puts the crowd to rights by introducing his new music musical incarnation: A Band of Gypsies. Hendrix wanted to outgrow his power trio attack and expand his musical horizons. He was experimenting with new percussive sounds and additional musicians, dabbling with fusing jazz and rock into a newer, broader musical universe. His Woodstock performance was to the debut of this new musical direction.
When you listen to Hendrix’s entire performance what you hear are guitar sounds which have never been replicated by any other guitar legend. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eddie Van Halen have never come remotely close to matching the wizardry which Hendrix displayed on that August morning. (What’s even more amazing was that Hendrix was performing under extreme physical conditions. Before he took the stage, Jimi had gone 48 to 72 hours without sleep. Drinking the water and coffee at Woodstock meant that Hendrix was under the influence of LSD and STP. In addition to those two potent hallucinogenic drugs, Jimi was also using crystal meth as well--a drug Hendrix loved very, very much. Simply put when Jimi took the stage Monday morning August 18, 1969, he was in the 99th dimension so when you listen to Hendrix’s rendition of the National Anthem it should be heard in that context).
Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner is an iconic moment in American musical history. There hasn’t been a documentary of the late 1960s which hasn’t featured that singular performance. It wasn’t the first time Hendrix had done the National Anthem (it wasn’t patriotism on Hendrix’s part either. Whenever Hendrix performed in England, he would do God Save the Queen) and yet Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition was rife with symbolism, imagery, and augury. Near the end of the song, Hendrix plays a few bars of Taps. When Hendrix did that he was tapping into a vibe that would take the rest of America decades to comprehend. At the time people thought Woodstock represented a beginning of a new cultural era. That was a lie. Woodstock was the last gasp of psychedelia and the Counter Culture movement as a whole.
Jimi Hendrix was playing the funeral music of the Cultural Revolution. As Hendrix was performing powerful, unseen forces were at work which would sweep away much if not all that Hendrix and his fellow musicians had created.
Jimi Hendrix had precisely thirteen months left to live. Fellow Woodstock performer Janis Joplin would soon follow him in death (as would Jim Morrison). Weeks after Woodstock, John Lennon would tell Paul McCartney that he wanted “a divorce” thus breaking up the Beatles for good.
The week before Woodstock Charles Manson and his followers committed the Tate-LaBianca murders. Those crimes would be used by mainstream America to discredit Counter Culture. Indeed Richard Nixon would be elected President in 1968 and reelected in 1972 because he tapped into Middle America’s fear of the Hippie movement and converted into political power. The present day conservative movement in America arose in reaction to the Counter Culture movement. Ronald Reagan would pick up where Richard Nixon left off and achieve the Presidency in 1980 because he stood in opposition to what had happened politically and socially in the 1960s.
A cultural tsunami of woe followed in the wake of Woodstock: the Nixon Administration’s war on civil liberties and the press; the invasion of Cambodia which sparked the Kent State shootings; inflation and the rise in energy prices; Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.
When Hendrix finished the National Anthem he segued into what I believe is the ultimate version of Purple Haze. The Woodstock version of Hendrix’s signature tune is the most muscular expression of guitar fury and percussive expression in rock and roll history. To call what Hendrix was doing heavy metal or hard rock or acid rock fails to do it justice. While Jimi solos drummer Mitch Mitchell delivers some incredibly explosive drum licks which forms the mortar to Hendrix’s sonic architecture. Not content with conventional guitar chords, Hendrix literally splits atoms as he speeds up the pace of his guitar-playing, causing a melodic chain reaction leading to critical mass which thus culminates in the Woodstock Improvisation. Years ago Rolling Stone magazine made a list of the 100 greatest guitar solos in rock history. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was listed at number one. A fine guitar it was and very worthy of the honor but my vote goes to Hendrix’s Woodstock Improvisation. The instrumental solo is literally a musical journey around the world; Hendrix’s playing is so astonishing the rest of the band stops playing to listen thus leaving Jimi to perform (appropriately enough) the song all by himself. At warp speed Hendrix goes from Spanish flamenco licks to Near Eastern to Far Eastern keys and modes back to hillbilly licks. At times Hendrix makes his guitar emit bird noises and other agonized sounds as he coaxes feedback and other modulations into a sonic vocabulary that the rest of the world still has not caught up with.
In the end Hendrix brings his journey right back to the very roots of American music: the blues. If Villanova Junction proves anything it was that Jimi Hendrix could play the blues and the fact that Hendrix was playing the blues at Woodstock is, to my mind, a reaffirmation of the funeral music aspect of Woodstock. Hendrix plays the slow lugubrious blues to its conclusion, says a subdued ‘thank you’, has enough strength to do an encore of Hey Joe and then collapsed onstage from extreme exhaustion. Hendrix was comatose for 48 hours before recovering fully.
Woodstock was over.
Since then others have tried vainly to replicate Woodstock but have failed miserably and rightly so. If history teaches us anything it is that you cannot replicate a vibe. Woodstock endures because it was such an utterly singular experience.
There was a Woodstock 1994 (famed for its mud fight) and there was a Woodstock 1999 (famed for its crowd riots, random acts of arson, and for Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers performing stark naked save for his bass guitar. If you don’t believe me just go to Youtube and see the clip of Chili Peppers doing Fire. It’s a awesome!)
As for me: we are stardust. We are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.