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Thursday, September 11, 2008


When I was teaching I'd often begin the first class session by asking each of the students to say their name, and tell one interesting fact about their life. When they finished and it was my turn to speak, I'd say my name and then reveal that I had attended the famous Woodstock music festival of 1969. This piece of information usually was met with disbelief and a touch of scepticism, and I would often hear the comment "you don't look like a hippie."

The 40th anniversary of the historic three-day music festival will be next year, so it is not a bad time to tell my Woodstock story.

In retrospect, it is pretty amazing that my conservative parents allowed their 15-year old son to go there alone. I was a huge Jimi Hendrix fan and read that he was scheduled to perform on Sunday August 17th. I had seen the advertisement in the NY Times, and subsequently purchased my ticket by mail for the performances on that day only. The $8 ticket was a little on the expensive side, but rock concerts in general were pricey in those days. Given the lineup of artists scheduled to perform, it seemed like a no brainier.

Even before the music festival got underway, the news media made much ado about the enormous crowd of "hippies" descending on a small town of Bethal NY. The New York Thruway became a parking lot, and the overall handling of the event was beginning to look like a disaster.

But by Sunday the situation had changed. The first two days of the festival had turned out to be peaceful and orderly. The concerts were transformed into an open and free public event because the crowds had overwhelmed the security fence. Local officials were caught totally off guard, and were completely unprepared for the masses of people, which were estimated to reach 200,000. Yet even the local police conceded that everyone appeared to living up to their ideal of "peace, love, and happiness." No one had actually seen anything quite like this before. It was a social phenomenon, and it got the attention of the entire world.

I must have been very persistent. My parents finally gave in, and on Sunday morning my dad drove me up to the concert site just outside Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm. He let me out of the car and said that I should come back within a few hours. I quickly disappeared into the swarm of people.

As I walked down a farm road toward the outdoor natural amphitheatre the reality of the situation struck me. Or, I should say that the "unreality" of it hit me like a ton of bricks. There were swarms of young people, with long hair and 60's attire everywhere. It was a virtual city of alternative culture. And then, as I walked past two police officers who were politely observing the crowd, I broke into an uncontrollable laughter. It suddenly struck me that the new alternative society here was inverted. The "hippie" minority, which under normal circumstances would be very wary of uniformed policemen, was in this context an overwhelming majority. The police had no option but to tolerate things that normally would have been considered illegal in NY State. Things like drugs and public nudity were tolerated, and the police knew they couldn't do anything about it.

Still in disbelief and laughing uncontrollably, I walked right past the two policemen who were standing beside their cruiser and managed to say hello. They smiled at me and must have thought to themselves "This guy is on a really good LSD trip. Is he OK?" That thought made me laugh even harder. I walked on.

I strolled past some interesting sites, including an assortment of old school buses that had been colorfully painted and converted into roving hippie homes. Curtains hung in the windows, and aluminium stove-pipe chimneys sprung from their roofs. You could smell pot in the air. It was a hot humid day, and a nearby small pond was busy with nude bathers. It seemed clear that Woodstock was more than just about music.

I found my way to the open amphitheatre and entered near stage-left - not far from the front. Given the size of the crowds, I had a fairly good view of the stage. The music had not yet begun. There were endless announcements coming from someone on the stage. I think farmer Max Yasgur addressed the crowd. Huge speakers were mounted high on scaffolding and the sound could be heard quite well over the helicopters that would periodically come and go. I found a very small spot where I could fit and sit down, and joined the crowd as just another ant in the humongous ant-colony.

Sitting in the mud with 200,000 strangers in close proximity was an interesting experience. It was a mass of humanity, yet everyone seemed oddly pacified and dazed. No one talked. These people had been there much longer than I, and clearly looked worn from it. The sun was hot, there was not much food to go around, and basics such as toilets and drinking water were in short supply. It felt a little like being in a refugee camp, although I had no idea at the time what that was.

I noticed that a black market had developed - not for drugs since those were free to all - but for food, water, and cigarettes. Someone was trying to sell a watermelon for $5 (inflation adjusted, this would equate to $21.37 in today's dollars).

One of my strongest memories is of the persistent smell of mud. The crowds had turned what had been a grassy pasture into brown wet earth. My brand new red shirt and white pants quickly became torn and covered with it. There was no way of avoiding getting dirty, you just had to go with with the flow.

After what seemed like an endless wait, the music began. British blues singer Joe Cocker was going to perform, but his band started with a few warm up numbers first. I could see Joe Cocker very well, and he looked as if he was having convulsions. His arms would flail around uncontrollably in the air as he belted out his songs (35 years later I would learn that he was actually playing "air-guitar"). It was a good set, and it ended with his unique rendition of the Lennon-McCartney song "With a Little Help from my Friends." You can watch the performance on YouTube...

After Joe Cocker performed the sky darkened, and the sound of thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind had picked up, and we could see that it was going to rain hard. People on the stage were frantically covering the microphones with plastic bags. It didn't look like I would be able to stay long enough to hear Jimi Hendrix, so I decided to return to my father who was patiently waiting by our gold Buick Skylark station wagon.

I never occurred to me that I wouldn't find my way back. I'm not sure how I navigated a crowd of 200,000 people on unknown turf and ended up back at where my father had left me. He seemed very relieved to see me, and wanted to "get the hell out of here." We picked up a hippie hitch hiker on his way downstate, who entertained us with his stories.

By the time I arrived home, I was exhausted and dehydrated. My clothing had been reduced to rags. But I was glad that my father drove me. He had some good stories to tell back at the office the next day.

My Woodstock experience has stuck with me. The concept of a large outdoor venue for music has always been intriguing. Pumping decibels of sound with powerful speaker systems to thousands of people who are communally sitting together in a natural outdoor amphitheater seems like a sensible thing to do. It is just the right setting for musical works of immense magnitude.

A piece such as the Universe Symphony by Charles Ives would be well-suited for this venue. The spacial elements he conceived but couldn't yet realize would work nicely with the audio technology available at a modern outdoor rock concert.

The same could be said of the unfinished work Mysterium by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. At the head of the 20th century, he anticipated multi-media happenings with light shows, a hippie-like mysticism, and experimented with altered states of consciousness induced by chemical enhancement. Mysterium was planned to be performed outdoors to thousands of people in the shadows of the Himalayas over the course of seven days. Oh yeah, it would be followed by the Apocalypse.

Nearly forty years after the fact the vision of Woodstock and what it stood for lives on. There is now a museum, arts center, and 15,000 seat outdoor theater near the site where this historic music festival occurred. It's called the "Museum at Bethel Woods."