Woodstock 1969: The music went for 24 hours

A special section – Woodstock Nation. Second of a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 3

August 16, 2009 – The first of the “3 days of peace and music” – and mud – woodstock-posterhad been just a prelude to Rock ‘n’ Roll Survival Weekend.

BY THE TIME CARLOS Santana finished playing Soul Sacrifice Saturday afternoon at Woodstock, he was a major star.

“Every band changed the vibes,” recalls Dena Quilici, one of the many there from southeastern New England. And the crowd came alive for Santana. The by-now broiling sun, the hunger and thirst and mud, the Army helicopters intermittently turning fire hoses on us full-force to cool us off – “all those troubles kind of went away once you just settled down and started listening to the music,” says Ty Davis.

Santana was a salsa band without a contract, who came at the Dead’s insistence. “Santana came out and just blew everyone away,” says Ron Gamache. “We kept saying, ‘Who are these guys?’ We’d never heard such rhythms.”

Quill had opened Saturday’s show about noon. Only Ty Davis seems to remember them, “as one of the totally unimportant bands. But they were one of the first Boston bands to get any notice.”

Michele Keir had a tremendous time at Woodstock, even though she heard only one band and doesn’t recall which one.

Many of us who were there don’t individually remember much of the music for which Woodstock has become a synonym.

The quality of the sound was fantastic near the stage, deteriorating to terrible at about half the depth of the crowd and beyond. And the bands were faraway specks to many, competing with the human kaleidoscope around us.

Musicians had to touch and amplify some powerful human chord just to get our attention.

“You knew you were there more for the experience than for the music,” says Dennis Lemoine.

There were bubbles and banners and weirdly dressed people. Many of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were evolving into the Hog Farmers, members of a New Mexico commune who cooked, and counseled and taught survival skills. Both groups were at Woodstock.

Mel Ash didn’t know who the Pranksters were then, but he later read Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of their bus trip across America playing theatrical cosmic jokes, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. “The next year, I said, ‘These are famous people.’ ”

The experience was intensely visual. The Hell’s Angels arrived, and started ferrying medical supplies.

“I remember one guy with an American flag headband and a flag cape, going around with some sign about ‘If we all coordinate our energies, we can end the war this weekend’ – a very intense wired cat,” remembers John Haerry.

“We were next to a blanket containing a really huge guy dressed only in athletic shorts,” Tom Mulligan recalls, “getting his body painted by his girlfriend. That was my first exposure to body-painting.”

“I don’t remember the music so much as the people, but it was a background,” says Dena Quilici.

“It got so big the music was just a little part of it,” says Walter Williams.

Food lines

We seemed to be spending as much time searching for food as our ancestors had.

Joe Caffey lined up to buy overpriced tomatoes. “You knew you were gonna get ripped off, but you’re starving. And the guy had a 10-gallon can of tuna fish. Then a guy comes out of nowhere, naked, sticks his hand into the pot, grabs a handful and goes off into the woods.”

“Somebody came in with a soda truck and started selling cans for a buck,” David DelBonis recalls. “Everybody got really ticked off, and kind of confiscated the truck, passed out the soda. But they started handing the guy what he should have been selling it for – a quarter, at that time. They just starting throwing the money at him, saying ‘This is what the can’s worth, you got it.’ He tried to scalp everybody . . . but they didn’t steal it.”

I had a half-full bottle of Vin Rouge Superieur left from Friday night, and I desperately wished for a miracle that would turn the wine into water. When the water truck arrived, I dumped out the wine. For two days that empty bottle was my most precious possession.

“There was a premium on cold things,” Tom Mulligan remembers. “People with beer and soft drinks were held in high esteem. Someone nearby had a basket with raw carrots and shared it, but nothing went very far.”

Mel Ash of Providence, a vegetarian, had the foresight to bring about 2 1cans of sardines to barter with. “I hated fish, but they could be opened with keys, so they were convenient. We traded for watermelons.”

At the Hog Farm across a road from the music area, where street signs read High Way, Groovy Way, and Peaceful Way, Woodstock Stew was on the menu. It was a sticky vegetable and grain glop that tasted strange to those of us raised on canned soup casseroles, but was very filling. They served free brown rice and vegetables all weekend, and more.

When Ash went there looking for food, “They were handing out cones of granola, and Wavy Gravy (the commune’s leader) was saying some Zen saying, ‘A day without work is a day without eating.’ So we volunteered to clean the pots. Then we went closer to the crowd at the stage and said, ‘Free food this way, eat all you can, if you can’t eat it, give it away.’ Over and over again for a couple of hours.”

Demand for pay

We settled in to wait for Bob Dylan.

With every helicopter that landed behind the stage, rumors spread that it was Dylan, who lived in Woodstock – the town, not the nation – 50 miles away. He never came. He was playing the Isle of Wight on the English Channel for $87,000, a booking he had before Woodstock asked him to play.

Jimi Hendrix, the highest-paid act at Woodstock, got $18,000. Santana earned less than $2,500. The Who ($6,250) and the Grateful Dead got nervous about the free concert and refused to play unless they were paid in cash. A local banker was roused after midnight and whisked by helicopter to the bank in his pajamas to get $25,000 cash.

The performers didn’t share our physical hardships. Helicopters were delivering delicacies and champagne to the performers’ area. David’s Potbelly Restaurant from New York City catered and offered to ferry them back to the hotel and the party in the bar.

But they had to face the biggest, most distracted crowd in rock history and were looking at major flop sweats.

If other bands griped about facing a crowd too big to reach, Creedence had a different problem. They followed the Grateful Dead at 3:30 a.m. and the biggest crowd in rock history was dead asleep. John Fogerty has said he saw one guy flash his lighter, and played the whole set to that one person.

Power acts

Rock’s power lineup was on Saturday night’s bill, but by then many of us were exhausted. “The music was 24 hours, so you had to pick and choose,” says Mel Ash. “My friend and I took turns waking each other up. There was a lot of sharing of blankets and what not.”

Still, with all the distractions wrenching our attention from the music, among us we have a composite memory good enough to reconstruct most of the action.

To many, Janis Joplin was the only woman really out there on the edge alone. The reigning folk and rock women – Baez, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Phillips of the Mama and Papas, Judy Collins – were romantic figures, and Mama Cass was a 300-pound hot ticket in a quartet. But Janis was beyond the pale, a brazen hussy singing her soul out as she swigged Southern Comfort. A lot of us were rooting for her, but the woman who wailed, “I’m gonna show you that a woman can be tough,” seemed born too soon and too alone.

She is reported to have said, “Me, I was brought up in a middle-class family; I could have had anything. But you need something more in your gut, man.” Her emptiness seemed bottomless, and the more she battled the blues with hard liquor, heroin and one-night stands, the deeper she seemed to sink.

Woodstock isn’t generally considered one of her great performances. She seemed genuinely distraught as she wailed and sobbed in a skimpy dress with spangles instead of her customary feathers. Her band – neither Big Brother and the Holding Company nor Full Tilt Boogie but the Cosmic Blues Band with saxes and trombones – didn’t seem to work with her.

To some it didn’t matter.

“When Janis sang Ball and Chain . . . We all felt tied down like that,” says Carmino Scaglione.

David Weinrebe had plopped down in a ditch to sleep. “I woke up to Janis Joplin shrieking. She was a goddess. To be waking out of a dead sleep to Janis . . .”

When Sly Stone followed, he did something with I Want to Take You Higher, that had the entire crowd on its feet shouting “higher” for 45 minutes.

Dawn Jabari-Zhou remembers Sly for the “enthusiasm and energy it created in concert. Everybody was up, paying attention, shouting and clapping, Sly in a bright white outfit, an Indian jacket with tassels long the sleeves. He almost looked like he was a bird and like he was gonna take off and fly.”

The Who and Abbie

The Who played at 2 in the morning. What everybody remembers is Pete Townshend bashing Abbie Hoffman with his guitar.

Abbie had seized the mike to urge the crowd smoking flowers so freely to mobilize on behalf of John Sinclair, head of the White Panther Party, who was serving a 10-year sentence for having passed a joint to a narcotics officer. Somebody turned the mike off and Townshend made like a bayonet with the guitar and jabbed Abbie in the head and off the stage.

In Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, Abbie wrote, “Townshend, who had been tuning up, turned around and bumped me. A nonincident.”

But Townshend told Rolling Stone magazine, “I kicked him off the stage. I deeply regret that. If I was given that opportunity again I would stop the show. Because I don’t think rock and roll is that important. Then I did. The show had to go on.”

Rico Topazio of Bristol, who now plays in a band called the Pink Cadillacs in Los Angeles, says, “I liked Abbie, but it was the wrong time for Abbie to be on stage. As a guitar player, I knew that. Pete didn’t know who Abbie was. Woodstock wasn’t political in that way. It was as if Bob Hope were at a USO show, time to get away from all that, to see how many of us were together.”

The crowd seemed to agree with Pete that Abbie was out of line. There were no boos or shouts, and The Who continued playing. “The Who were in their prime, not like they are now,” Haerry recalls. “Roger Daltrey still had his voice, and Pete Townshend still had his voice, and they did a hell of a show.”

It’s unfair that Abbie is remembered for a stupid act at Woodstock. Abbie had organized the medical tent, worked in the bad trips tent, and been an extraordinarily competent man to have around. His death by suicide earlier this year, so close to this anniversary, seems to mark the end of yet another era. Wavy Gravy, the man on the record saying, “There’s a little bit of heaven in every disaster area,” suggested to me this week that if we cared, it would be fitting to “do something for the Yipper.”

Just as dawn broke, the Jefferson Airplane took the stage. They had been waiting to play since 10:30 the night before, and Grace Slick played with her eyes closed.

“I remember waking up at about 5 in the morning,” said Haerry, “and all of a sudden hearing Grace Slick out of nowhere, ‘Good morning, people, it’s time to wake up,’ ” BOINGGGGGGGG, Whoa, yeah] and going down to the stage, treading my way through what looked like the aftermath of a battlefield, all these bodies and getting right down to the front of the stage and there was Jefferson Airplane, 25 or 30 feet away.”

“I had to see Grace Slick,” Mel Ash says, “because I was in love with Grace Slick and I thought the Airplane represented at that moment everything the culture stood for.”

Grace Slick in a white fringed minidress in the blue dawn is an image burned in many brains.

“The sun was coming up over the hills,” recalls Carmino Scaglione, “over the campfires of the people who’d been up all night,” and she sang White Rabbit, the song that let the East know what the West had been up to in the summer of ’67.

Do You Want Somebody to Love? sent ripples up spines; hearing only Volunteers on the concert tape is one reason to have been at Woodstock.

It was Sunday morning. Time enough to sleep. BY SHEILA LENNON. Source.

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