By Michael Hill / Associated Press
BETHEL, N.Y. — They helicoptered over crowds into the Woodstock festival and hiked in past abandoned cars. They danced at dawn on a muddy hillside and dodged drenching rain. They barely slept, phoned Mom to say they were OK and marveled at their sheer numbers. They left behind sodden socks and sleeping bags but gained an enduring sense of community.
Fifty years later, memories of the anarchic weekend of Aug. 15-18, 1969, remains sharp among people who were in the crowd and on the stage for the historic festival.
Here are their recollections of the Woodstock festival.
Going up to the country
Woodstock was staged 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of New York City on a bucolic hillside owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur. It was a great spot for peaceful vibes but miserable for handling the hordes coming in by car.
Rock photographer Henry Diltz got to the site early during the setup: “All these hippie carpenters were sawing and hammering, building this huge plywood deck right at the bottom of this big, green hillside. It was like being on an aircraft carrier. The green alfalfa was waving in the breeze … It was all wonderful. It was like summer camp … And then suddenly one day there were people sitting up there on the hillside and at first I thought, ‘What the hell are they doing up there?’ and then ‘Oh yeah, right, I forgot. There’s going to be (a concert).’”
Ilene Marder, an 18-year-old traveling up from the Bronx: “People were abandoning their cars — not on the side of the road, but ON the road … I was very responsible then. ‘You can’t just leave your car in the middle of the road!’ But everyone did … There was an immediate sense that something was happening that never happened before.”
Singer Nancy Nevin’s band, Sweetwater, was supposed to open Woodstock, but they got caught in traffic: “We got out of the car and kind of glared at each other. And there was no one in charge. You have to remember that everything about Woodstock being chaos is the truth … Some guy was running around with a t-shirt and walkie-talkie, and he looked like he knew what he was doing. We talked to that guy and he said, ‘Well, I’m going to ask for helicopters.’”
With a little help from my friends
The enduring story of Woodstock is that more than 400,000 people jammed into an area of about a square mile without a disaster.
Nancy Nevins first saw the crowd from a helicopter: “It didn’t even look like a crowd. It looked like a carpet. It didn’t even look like people, it was a big spread, multi-colored as far as you can see. And Alex (Del Zoppo, Sweetwater’s keyboardist) says to the pilot, ‘What are those crops, man?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Those aren’t crops, dude, those are people.’”
Kevin Rheden was an 18-year-old from the Hudson River Valley: “I’m meandering up through bodies, you know, smiling faces and feeling this overwhelming feeling of comfort. I can’t describe it except to say that the hillside was just like a waterfall of love … It’s like I’m not alone. There are other people out there that think like me, dress like me, look like me and live like me.”
Henry Diltz : “Late the afternoon I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to walk through that crowd to the top of the hill and turn around and take a photo looking over the crowd down the hill at the stage.’ And so I did that and it took me quite a while to get up there, and by then it was just getting dark and I’m looking down and taking a picture and I hear … ‘Ladies and gentleman, Crosby, Stills & Nash,’ And I go, ‘Oh s—! There’s my friends, and I’m way up here!’ It took me half the set to get back through the whole crowd and get back up on stage.”
David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash: “I saw people tear a sandwich and share it. Being nice to each other gave us hope. There is the significant thing. For a minute, we were hopeful. For a minute we were not facing the Vietnam War. For a minute, we were not facing losing the Kennedys. For a minute, Dr. King’s death wasn’t hanging over us. For a minute, we were behaving like decent human beings.”
Annette Nanes, who drove to the festival with a college friend: “You know what they call good vibes? It was an incredible experience with all these people and was very peaceful and just listening to great music. Everyone was really friendly and helpful.”
Country Joe McDonald, performer: “I never saw a fight. At one point from the stage, I saw the crowd kind of separate … and two guys were circling each other waving their fists like they were going to fight about something. And then somebody handed them a joint and they each took a puff off the joint and then they kind of laughed and hugged each other and then they sat back down.”
Rainbows all over your blues
Little went as planned. Fences came down. It became a free concert. The show ran late. Food was scarce. It rained.
Lighting director Chip Monck was told by promoter Michael Lang that he had an extra job: “Michael just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve neglected to hire an emcee and you’re it because you don’t have anything to do in the daytime.’”
William Tindale was among the state troopers dispatched to Bethel: “We just didn’t know what was going to happen. We just sat in a car. It was pretty boring. But we were just concerned about them getting into a riot or something.”
Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and the band arrived Saturday for an evening performance. They ended up playing Sunday: “We got there in the morning. We were supposed to go on at like 6 in the evening. So we had a whole day to kill. Guys had little minibikes, I like two-wheeled things with motors on them, so we got to do that, and just hanging out with our friends.”
Ted Neumann, college student: “The closer you got to the stage on Sunday just meant you were almost underwater, because there were literally streams going down the hill.”
Debra Conway lived nearby and would drive in and out via back roads: “By Sunday, it was really disgustingly muddy and smelly and steamy. It was not the big glamour myth. We weren’t high, so maybe it was different for people who were.”
Ted Neumann: “The only way to communicate was to stand on line at somebody’s house and wait for use of their phone and give them a dollar … The field that I parked my car at, there was some farm house there and there was a line of 20 or so people. And you just waited on line and used the woman’s phone. So I called my mother, told her where I was and told her I was safe.”
Dance to the music
More than 30 acts performed, and a few had career-defining moments. Because the concert ran into Monday morning, many missed Jimi Hendrix’s iconic set.
Country Joe McDonald performed an impromptu solo set that was tepidly received — until he led a now-famous foul-mouthed cheer: “I walked off stage and nobody even noticed that I left. And I went over to (tour manager) Bill (Belmont) and I asked him if he thought it would be OK if I did the cheer and “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” the song about Vietnam, because I was saving it for that evening to play with the band. And he said, ‘Well, nobody’s paying any attention to you. What difference does it make what you do?’ And I thought, ‘Hey, he’s right.’ So I walked out there and yelled, ‘Give me an F!’ And they stopped talking to each other and they looked at me and yelled ‘F!’”
Ted Neumann: “It was just one (act) after another. Just talking to each other in the field and saying, ‘Well, it can’t get any better than that.’ And then the next thing seemed even better … When Jefferson Airplane came on, it was sunrise, essentially, and hearing Grace Slick say, “Good morning people!”
John Fogerty waited a while with Creedence Clearwater Revival to go on after the Grateful Dead, who finished around midnight: “It was just pitch black. I couldn’t see anything except a couple rows right here, I think, where the stage lights were spilling over. And the people there, it looked like one of those paintings of the souls in Dante’s Inferno. They’re all intertwined, and they’re all naked, and they’re all asleep, muddy … They’re not moving and, you know, we’re rocking out … And finally I begin to realize that’s why I’m not hearing a big response from the darkness: they’re all asleep, a half-a-million. The Grateful Dead had put half a million people to sleep!”
Jorma Kaukonen: “Carlos Santana’s performance was an eye opener because we’d never seen anything like that. I remember that to this day as being one of the great live shows of all time.”
Henry Diltz: “I had my rented station wagon parked behind the stage … I woke up Monday morning to … “Ladies and gentlemen, Jimi Hendrix” … I leapt out of the back of that car and ran up on stage … When he played the Star-Spangled Banner … I remember my first thought was, ‘Why is he playing that? That’s the song of the government that we hate for trying to send us off to war … That’s their song. No, wait a minute. That’s our song. He’s reclaiming it for us.’ … In that quiet of the dawn, it went out from these huge speakers and it echoed against the bare hillside because many people had left. It just reverberated in the air. It was so riveting and so amazing everyone was standing there with their mouths open.”
I’m going home
The people who left behind a trampled, littered hillside knew they had been through a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Ilene Marder: “I do remember looking out upon the sea of sleeping bags in the mud. It’s all I could see — it felt like to the horizon. I’m sure it wasn’t. You just saw these hulking shapes in the mud and you knew that they were sleeping bags or collapsed tents. There were shoes. There were socks. There were water coolers, every kind of article of clothing. But mostly sleeping bags or blankets.”
Annette Nanes: “I went to work on Monday and I was working in a very prim and proper office. And they knew that I went to a concert and they had heard about, you know, this whole Woodstock thing over the weekend. They said to me, ‘Annette, YOU were at Woodstock!?’ They were incredulous. I said ‘Yeah.’ And I went back to my work in my little skirt.”
Marty Miller on his uncle Max Yasgur, who died in 1973: “It changed him in many respects. He became more reflective and because he became more known, people would reach out to him … to reunite families, kids that had run away, things like that. He spent his last years doing a lot of that.”
Jorma Kaukonen: “I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter and I took her to the museum of Woodstock last year. And we looked at all the stuff and she found it appalling that we went out dressed like that. But aside from that, I will never see an audience that big, as a performer, as long as I live.”
Kevin Rheden: “I found a meaning. I knew everything was gonna be alright no matter what I did or where I was going to go. It wasn’t just my long hair or the clothes that I wore. It was something in my soul that I connected with other people. It’s a memory that I have and the older I get, things fade. But that feeling inside me has not left me.”
AP reporters John Carucci in New York and Marcela Isaza in Los Angeles contributed to this report.