Woodstock: Music, Peace and Love

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In a post that could possibly make a bunch of us look old (primarily because we are old), I want to point out Woodstock occurred 54 years ago. Because of the album and movie the influence and community spread across the country and around the world. No other generation produced such a sweeping cultural event like the 60s generation — Baby Boomers — at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY, August 15-18 1969. Sadly, we have mostly squandered the progressive ambition of the counter culture. I did my part to squander it, so there’s no pointing fingers without having three pointing back at me.

The promise and potential of Woodstock is now remembered as a great weekend music and art fair. It felt a lot more important at the time. Woodstock was not the first music festival. There was the Monterey Pop Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, which had been occurring since 1959.

The seeds of Woodstock were thrown into the soil of rock promoters and industry movers alike. Michael Lang who had co-produced and managed the Miami Pop Festival which drew 25,000 people over the course of two days.

The other Woodstock organizers were Artie Kornfeld, and the two money men, Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. Woodstock Ventures wasn’t official until January 1969 and the hunt was on for a location, preferably at or near Woodstock, New York.

That didn’t happen.

In early July the promoters found a location just over 40 miles southwest of Woodstock: Max Yasgur’s farm just outside of Bethel, NY. The publicity posters already said “Woodstock Music and Arts Fair,” and an “Aquarian Exposition.”

You have to be a Baby Boomer to fully understand why they called it an Aquarian Exposition. Think of the play/film, Hair — it was the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Hell, you have to not only be a Baby Boomer to fully understand Woodstock, people needed to be part of the tribe, the hippies, who were dodging the draft while protesting the Vietnam War, with the men letting their hair grow long, often with long beards.

I have always preferred Joni’s version of this song.

From the Summer of Love (1967) on, my dad was giving me grief about my hair growing so long. 1 was 11 in January 1967, already soaking in the counter culture, primarily through the music and when possible the clothing.

Jimi Hendrix was a big influence. He was all over the counter culture radio stations, like WTOS in Milwaukee, WI. and then WLPX. On WTOS they would play entire albums, with a break to turn the album over, letting us go use the bathroom or get more popcorn or (hopefully) load another bowl and smoke some fine Mary Jane, dope, weed, pot — marijuana.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1969, February or March, to the best of my recollection, that I “turned on.” I had obviously “tuned in,” but my parents being old people prevented me from “dropping out.”

To be honest, I’ve never actually dropped out, not even a little. I have used way too many street drugs, like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms — Magic Mushrooms. I dabbled with cocaine, heroin, and a variety of pharmaceutical drugs, like speed most frequently during high school. Along with all that, five years after Woodstock I enlisted in the U.S. Marines. That was about as distant from the Woodstock vibe a person could get. To be honest, my years in the USMC have had as much influence on my life as the Woodstock generation.

Just a brief aside: I stopped using all drugs and alcohol in September 1984, with the exception for the meds the V.A. gives me for gout.

By June of 1969 my freak flag started waving. I hung around with the other “hippies” at Alexander Bell Junior High as we sat in a circle listening to groovy music and pretending to be high. I don’t remember any of us smoking pot, but I was turned on by a classmate who paid his dad’s bill for the early morning Milwaukee Sentinel, which I delivered six days a week. The dad owed $4.50, so the son, a classmate, wanted to pay the bill, but only had $2.50, most of it in change. For the rest he gave me two joints in lieu of the rest. That was a great deal! I can’t remember the exact address, but it was one of those cool homes north of Cleveland Ave on either West Jackson Park Drive. or West Andover Road, or this one, which I believe is the street: West Jerelyn Place. I looked at it on Google Maps, but I’m just not sure which house turned me on that winter evening.

I don’t wish to dox anyone, so maybe it’s a good thing I can’t remember which house.

That got me started and I began looking for marijuana dealers.

In 1969 it was difficult for junior high aged kids like me to find bona fide pot dealers, but once I did it was on. First with nickel bags, then dime bags and then lids! After that I was only buying full ounces. My friends and I smoked a lot of pot during our high school years. Plus, we did LSD — acid — Magic Mushrooms and a variety of uppers and downers and whatever else we could get our fingers on. That’s what the Term, “Age of Aquarius” mean to me: getting wasted.

At any rate, I knew two guys who were going to Bethel, NY for the Woodstock festival and they asked if I wanted to tag along, roughly 850 miles away. I told my parents I was going. I didn’t ask. My dad informed me that if I went he would beat the crap out of me when I returned. Had I said we were going camping near the Wisconsin Dells, everything would be hunky dory, but a hippie music festival in New York? No way, Jose.

At any rate, I was in Milwaukee, WI on August 15, 1969, the first day of Woodstock. Just a month earlier, July 20, we saw Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin walk on the moon, Man, that was more than exciting — it was breathtaking,, even if we were only watching it on TV.

“Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” And the most famous words from Apollo 11 mission commander Armstrong, “It’s one small step for man … one giant leap for mankind.”

While hundreds of thousands of people were preparing to attend Woodstock, something gruesomely different was happening in the Los Angeles area. The Manson Family were busy committing murders in Beverly Crest and Los Angeles.

The murders happened,  but it took months for the police to catch a break when one of the Manson women spoke to a jail house informant about taking part in the murders.

I would like to return the term “Helter Skelter” to the Beatles. Charles Manson and his followers were — are — an aberration, an abomination. Leslie Van Houten is out of prison, paroled after 50-plus year in prison.

We didn’t know anything about Charles Manson and his “family.” Not on the weekend of August 15-18.

When the album came out we hurriedly bought it. I went to the old Arlan’s, which had been on Forest Home Ave. When the movie came out we were disappointed to see the R” rating. We couldn’t go unless we were accompanied by an adult. Thankfully, many of us knew adults who were accommodating. Still being minors we were all turning on and tuning in, but we couldn’t truly drop out, had I tried to drop out … On the other hand starting in 1971 I began working on Uncle John’s farm, in Rio, WI.

Woodstock was a defining moment in the world. Many of us had our thoughts and thinking processes altered and it wasn’t just because of the “trendy chemical amusement aids,” as Frank Zappa once put it. Hell, Frank had an even bigger impact on me than Woodstock. Yet I wonder: Would I have even explored the music of Frank and the Mothers without first experiencing Woodstock?

I had listened to many of the bands that played Woodstock, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and others. But it opened many of us up to musicians and bands we had never heard of, like Santana, Ten Years After —

— Richie Havens … what an experience he was, even if it was on vinyl or celluloid.

Max and Mimi Yasgur, the couple that hosted the festival were very happy to have it on their farmland. Max said it best when he stood on stage and told the approximately 400,000 people assembled, “You’ve proven something to the world. The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children who are older than you are — half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and God bless you for it!”

Yasgur was a rock-ribbed Republican, a Nixon voter … who believed in freedom like few of us do today. Part of the reason the Yasgurs said yes to the event was because of a neighbor who put up a sign that said everyone should stop buying Yasgur’s milk (it was a dairy farm) because he was negotiating with hippies. Max got a bit upset about that.

Ten years later Elvis Costello and the Attractions released a song, “(What’s so funny about) Peace Love and Understanding” Musically, Elvis Costello had very little in common with the bands that were at Woodstock, but in that great song is this line, “And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?”

That came out 10 years after Woodstock, when disco and punk rock were having a great influence on music and Woodstock was the butt of many jokes. So I asked then and I ask now: What is so funny about peace, love and understanding? I’d like to believe Max and Mimi would have gotten along with Elvis.

August 15-18: that was a great time, a brief moment in a momentous summer filled with technological wonder and great music. It is something that sticks with me to this day. I sat in a movie theater to watch the documentary film for the first time and it was magical. Even though Richie Havens was the first act to perform at the festival, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Canned Heat open the movie. Both of those acts appeared at Woodstock as well.

Trying to encompass 3.5 days of music and happenings into a three-hour movie is impossible, so the producers had to make tough choices. The Grateful Dead don’t appear on any recordings because their performance was so horrific to them they didn’t want anyone else to see or hear it. But there’s Jerry Garcia inviting us to share a doobie with him, right before Arlo Guthrie sings “Coming Into Los Angeles.” “Bringing in a couple of keys.”

There was so much great music experienced that weekend, starting with Richie Havens and ending with Jimi Hendrix, the Gypsy Son and Rainbows, we could easily overlook some of the great performances caught on vinyl and celluloid, like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

After that the bands from Woodstock began showing up at the fledgling Summerfest music festival that takes place every year in Milwaukee. One year there was George Carlin — who was promptly arrested for saying the seven words we couldn’t hear on radio or TV or music festivals. Also appearing that year were Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seager. We saw Santana and Sly and the Family Stone and so many others.

By this point 54 years ago the festival was long over. Jimi and his band had left the venue. The only people there were the promoters and some staff, and volunteers, cleaning up the mess. Crowds of 400,000-plus can leave a lot of debris. More than that, the 400,000-plus attendees, the 32 musical acts, 163 musicians and promoters who decided to make it a “free” festival, rather than getting hostile to the people streaming on to the farm; The people of Bethel and the surrounding area who pitched in to provide food and beverages, the New York National Guard who used their helicopters to get the sick and injured to hospitals — the breadth of this event, this moment in time, can never happen again.

Lollapalooza was (is) a pretty good music festival, as are Bonnaroo, Coachella and Burning Man. They all have their place in musical history, but there will be only one Woodstock. I’m very grateful to have lived in a time when this occurred and I was able to experience and enjoy it.

Enjoy the weekend. Listen to some music, whatever you like. We are free to enjoy every kind of music, so, go be free.


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