It was 40 years ago today ...
This weekend marks an anniversary — of sorts. Back in 1969 on the weekend of Aug. 15-17, some young entrepreneurs threw together a "Music and Art Fair: Three Days of Peace and Music," which has come down through the decades simply as "Woodstock."
The idea was to gather the best contemporary musicians of the era, give them a huge outdoor stage, and invite folks to come on down, spend the weekend and enjoy the whole scene.
In one of those quirky misnomers that abound in history, Woodstock wasn't held in Woodstock. It was set in another beautiful expanse of upper state New York landscape, Max Yasgur's bucolic 600-acre farm.
The fair was long on music and short on art. A few paintings, photographs and sculptures were on display, but the clothing worn on and off stage proved far more colorful. The three days did indeed provide peace with the music.
More than 400,000 people showed up, clogging roads and toilets, entering without paying and arriving for a weekend without bringing any food or water, all in all, providing the potential for some very difficult human interaction.
Peace prevailed. The majority of the attendees were cool. There were tales of a birth or two and a death in what became a spontaneous, self-governing village. We all found a way to make it work. There was plenty of room for everyone and communes helped provide food.
The performers were flown in because the roads were impassible. They proved to be gracious troubadours for what would later be deemed "Woodstock Nation." Woodstock was among the first of the great rock concerts. Rolling Stone lists it among the "50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll."
The weekend kicked off at 5 p.m. with Richie Havens. My brother Tom and I arrived during Havens' set. We were on a chartered bus from Washington, D.C. that took forever to get there. Havens was followed later that night by Sweetwater, the Incredible String Band, Bert Summer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, and Joan Baez.
Saturday began at noon with Quill, the Keef Hartley Band, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who (who started at 4 a.m. Sunday), and the Jefferson Airplane.
Sunday into Monday saw Joe Cocker literally sing up a storm, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Johnny Winter and his brother, Edgar — what a guitar player Johnny was — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha-Na-Na, and Jimi Hendrix, whom we heard as we tossed in our soggy sleeping bags.
We didn't see every band. Because of the rain and the thunder storms and all the microphones and electronic gear on stage, the schedule kept having to be delayed. We gave our food to the Hog Farm commune and headed there for our meals.
My brother still has his tickets which it turns out we didn't need to buy after all: $6 per day. No one at Woodstock texted their friends, exchanged photos from their cell phones or sent e-mails. Those things didn't exist. Neither did CDs, ipods or personal video cameras. That didn't matter. The music was phenomenal. And the experience is indelibly etched into my psyche, even if I can't provide you with a slideshow of it on my laptop.
Those days have been glibly summed up as "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." What's missing from that characterization are the less tangible elements that also sustained that weekend and many of the other ideals that generation strove for. There was a concerted effort to achieve peace, equality, personal freedom and spiritual and political awakening.
Many of us who were at Woodstock have reached the "When I'm 64" threshold that the Beatles sang about. In many ways, the Beatles and their music embodied the essence of what those times were about at their most joyous and their most painfully transformative. While the Beatles were not at Woodstock, they were definitely on our radar — and we on theirs.
Recently my brother and I saw "Beatle Mania Live," a tribute to the Beatles. The four performers wonderfully captured the spirit and musical inventiveness of the Beatles. Hearing those songs again stirred up those old/new feelings of love and hope. We spoke to two of the band members afterwards and the subject of Woodstock came up. It turned out my brother and I were the first people they had met who actually had been there. We made their day. But then, they had made ours. Turns out we all still need each other when we're 64.