In 1989, as the twentieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair approached, Life magazine asked attendees to submit a personal remembrance of the event. I had never written down my recollections and realized if I didn’t do so soon, I might forget everything. The following is the essay. (Life used a paragraph in their anniversary issue.)
Twenty Years After Ten Years After
Summer 1989 reminiscences
Friday, August 15, 1969
Tony Tufano and I were short-haired rock and roll no drinks beardless buddies living in pre-Springsteen Jersey and on our way to engineering degrees that I would never get and he would barely use. We were also on our way to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
The fame of those scheduled to appear was as wide then as now; everyone was someone somewhere. The radio advertisements had said to come with a Frisbee and a few bucks. A weekend of craft displays, art stands, games, music, and camping were all appealing. We had gone over to Village Oldies the week before and bought tickets for the Saturday and Sunday shows. $7 a show.
Friday afternoon’s news reported that the roads to Bethel, New York were congested so our trip began late Friday night to avoid traffic and get there in time for Saturday’s show. We brought sleeping bags, a borrowed camera and binoculars, and meal money. If time and ticket availability allowed we planned to return home Sunday morning and bring my girlfriend up for the final day. Tony’s recently re-transmissioned Oldsmobile was running fine and the 65+ mph ride up the NY Thruway and Rt. 17 was a breeze. But on 17B there were cars parked on both the road’s shoulders and soon the line appeared: the twelve mile car line.
The night was warm and humid with occasional rain. There were cars everywhere and the two-lane country road had become a one-way gridlocked city street. Inching up hills, the transmission began to slip and eventually Tony parked in front of a tiny restaurant that had closed for the night. We could not go back, did not know what was ahead, and heard from some that the festival was cancelled. Standing in the 2 AM drizzle, we postponed a decision by trying to sleep in the car. It was a restless sleep filled with the sounds of slow-moving cars, partying shouts, frustrating murmurs, and raindrops.
Saturday, August 16, 1969
The 6 AM scene was four lanes of parked cars pointing toward the festival. Tony and I slowly gathered our stuff, stared a moment, and started walking, indecision alongside. There were as many people walking away from the site as towards it. Incessant questions and monotonous answers:
“How far it it?”
“How was it?”
“Is it still on?”
Still determined, we hiked through the fog and past people in cars, on cars, with cars, and without. The sleepers and the singers, the wasted and the walkers: all had become a part of the tail of Woodstock.
The sun burned away the fog and the crowd moving forward finally outnumbered those retreating. “Just ahead” said the local folk as they sold A & P hot dogs and soda at Yankee Stadium prices. Some hikers shook their hungry head, grumbled, but paid. Tony and I kept looking. Farmers posted signs alongside their fields: Cattle corn, do not eat.” Up and down Sullivan County’s hills. It was noon. Friendly State police said, “Just ahead.”
Gradually fields of tents, campfires, walking musicians, day-glo painted buses and vans, and flags appeared. An entrance appeared. Tickets tightly in hand, relieved, confused by the lack of ticket takers, but unconcerned by thoughts of how to get back to the car, whether it would be there, start or get us home, that phones, food stands and facilities seemed nonexistent, and what would happen if it rained again, Tony and I stood in the middle of Max Yasgur’s muddy field which sloped down to the stage a couple hundred yards away. The smell of wet hay, the sounds of thousands of people, and the sight of tents surrounded us. Nappers rested under the warm sun. We had arrived, tickets still in hand.
The music began around 2 PM and the next 26 hours would be our role in what became Woodstock. The guy and two girls who sat in front of us were from the west coast and they passed the pipe while Santana played, highly recommending both. We said no thanks to the pipe. I took a picture of them. Most would be of the applause which rolled like a wave and felt like a group hug. I snapped a picture of a woman with the largest Afro I’d ever seen. I shot pictures through our binoculars. It seemed that everyone in the world who should be there was and everyone else was at home hearing about it. All was fine.
During the Incredible String Band’s set, Tony and I tried to find food. Nothing was available, but some people nearby gave us some of their oranges.
The evening had bigger names and as the music got stronger, the songs longer, and the lights brighter, more people moved into the crowd. The scent of grass overpowered the smell of hay and Tony and I likely got a contact high. Shoulder to shoulder, the smoke thickened, the applause realigned vertebrae. I sat back, closed my eyes, and must have slept. Creedence’s set is the memory of a great dream. I stood for the entire “Tommy” and danced for Sly. People kept tramping up and down the field usually avoiding walking on the sitters, but I hollered at two guys who stepped on a sleeping Tony. The night went well but the vision I will take to the grave will be of the Airplane’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover” accompanying the Sun’s rise. We had pulled the all-time musical all-nighter.
Sunday, August 17, 1969
Another nap. Some of the crowd dispersed, but many remained on the hill. Tony and I never saw Life magazine’s Woodstock. Smoke shops, muddied children, farm animals, free food, nude bathing were stories heard later, part of the movie. We stretched out, watched others, listened to the NY Times account of our party, briefly used a porta-john, and began to realize how big and messy the event had become.
Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help From My Friends” and the rain storm chant make up Sunday afternoon’s departing memories. Ignoring hunger and fatigue, we tried to stay dry by keeping a sleeping bag over our heads, but Sullivan’s storm soaked all. Mud sucked off Tony’s sneaker’s soles and a 46 hour fast took its toll. Our decision to leave was made knowing who we would miss and wanting still to stay. Dylan had not yet shown. It was the weekend’s biggest rumor.
Our trip back to the car was far easier than the one from it. The rain stopped, the roads opened, and we hitched by riding rooftops. We were dry by the time we reached Tony’s car which started and gave us a trouble free ride home.
Though my parents knew, they had hoped I hadn’t gone. I got yelled at for getting the sleeping bag dirty and they told me to clean it myself. I went to the laundromat and while waiting grinned at the “Stop the Draft” graffiti sprayed on a nearby wall. I also looked forward to listening to my just-purchased 8-track of Creedence’s “Green River.”