Commentary

Music, Love and Mud Provide an Experience Like No Other

By GARY McELROY | Aug 14, 2019
Photo by: Gary McElroy This is the author’s prized 1969 poster, courtesy of a girl he met at Woodstock.

Woodstock hits the 50-year milestone this week, and so does my experience of the festival. Just out of high school in 1969, my friend Julian and I had tickets and borrowed an old canvas tent that could sleep at least 10 and headed off that Thursday afternoon from our hometown, Livingston. Traffic was crawling way before we reached the concert site, but nothing like the traffic jam from Friday on. With between a half dozen and dozen people riding on my car hood and roof, we were able to pull into a field and pitch our tent.

Luckily, it turned out we were only a few minutes’ walk to the concert site. I remember the next day the stream of people on the road leading up the hill to the site and the shock of seeing a sea of people in front of that faraway stage – just incredible.

Richie Havens opened the show with a monologue punctuated by exhalations of amazement at the size of the crowd. The sound system was surprisingly good for how far back we were. Although my memory can’t bring back his entire set, closing it out with “Freedom” is indelible in my mind, as is the joyous roar of approval that followed. You could not help feeling you were a part of something really big.

Huddled with that mass of people, we listened to the rest of the first day’s acts. The sun went down and there was Arlo Guthrie: “The New York Thruway’s closed, man!” Then Joan Baez closed the night as the rain fell. I remember the announcer’s admonition to get comfortable and take care. Fortunate to have shelter close, we headed back to the tent for a night’s sleep.

The next day we joined an even bigger stream of people and an even larger crowd over the crest of the hill. Julian and I became separated and, except for a brief moment, I did not see him again until late Monday morning. He had met a girl, and that was the end of searching for me. It was OK because I was in the friendliest crowd I had ever been in my life. I listened for the first time to Santana doing “Soul Sacrifice,” a music style I had never heard before, and watched the crowd go wild. I had seen nothing like this before, and it was just beginning.

I sat next to strangers who treated each other like long-lost friends. A steady stream of jug wines and joints passed down a row of people that seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions. We listened to Mountain perform and, later on in the night, Janis Joplin tearing it up doing “Ball and Chain.”

After Sly and the Family Stone and “Dance to the Music,” I decided to call it quits and headed back to my tent. Throwing back the flap, I was greeted with a tent full of people in sleeping bags. “Who are you?” someone asked, and I told them it was my tent. A girl sat up in her sleeping bag. “Cool, you want to get stoned?” she asked and proceeded to start rolling a joint for two or three others who sat up in their sleeping bags. And so continued my adventure with 400,000 new friends.

Julian did show up a bit later that night with his new girlfriend. I’m sure he had every intention of booting me out of the tent to sleep in the car, but owing to the passed-out bodies, the two retreated to the car for the night.

The next morning my new buddies and I walked back to the concert and eventually the torrential rains. We hunkered down, got poured on, endured the rain and kept listening to the music: Country Joe and the Fish and “The Fish Cheer” and Ten Years After and others. That evening by the time Crosby, Stills and Nash came on, I was much farther down the slope of the hill, now part of a crowd from Ohio State who had been sitting in that spot in the field since Friday night. I heard for the first time and instantly liked “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” “Three days, man,” Stephen Stills said. “You people are amazing.” And we were.

The rain, the mud, the chaos – I was 18 and could handle all that. It was nothing I had ever seen before, and it was fun. Woodstock, for me, was the most friendly, convivial crowd I have ever been in before or since. Not a harsh word did I hear all weekend. Nor did I see overdoses or freak-outs, although I’m aware there were some.

The music continued all that Sunday night. I kept getting closer and closer to the stage as spots opened up with people leaving. Sunrise found me only a few yards from the stage. I watched Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at around 8 a.m. Then it was over.

I trudged back up the slope of deep mud and back to my tent. No one was there except for Julian and the girl, whose name to this day I do not remember. She needed a ride back home to New York City. I remember all of us recounting what a great time it was, her in the back seat holding a rolled-up poster. We drove back down the Thruway, detouring into Manhattan to drop her off somewhere on the Upper West Side. I don’t remember where we dropped her off, but I never saw her again and I am not sure whether Julian ever did. When I pulled into my parents’ driveway I did find the poster in my back seat, obviously forgotten.

So there I was back home in the New Jersey suburbs. I had told my parents I was going to a concert in upstate New York, and they had said have fun, none of us even remotely anticipating the event. At dinner, my father with his characteristic sense of humor, midway through the meal, looked up and said, “Gladys, did you hear about that concert in upstate New York this past weekend? A half million jerks stood in the pouring rain listening to that God-awful music and one of those jerks was your son.”

In the five days I was there the thought did not cross my mind once to try to contact my parents. I am sure they worried, but they readily admitted they were not panicky because they had raised me to know how to take care of myself. I didn’t disappoint.

All these years have passed, and I will never forget and always treasure those five days. The poster I found in the back seat was thumbtacked to the walls of a number of rooming houses I lived in while in college. I’m sure I bored a fair amount of people with my recollections, but that’s OK. It was too good a time not to rehash it.

I’m not one to make outlandish claims about my time at Woodstock. I didn’t achieve enlightenment and didn’t devote myself to washing the feet of the poor. I roamed around on my own, making the acquaintance of strangers who for a brief time were like old friends. I believe most of us there felt that way. I did learn that you could find kindred souls in this world, and I also learned that a shared experience could be as valuable as any commodity you could buy.

In 2009 for Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, Richie Havens put on a show at City Winery on Varick Street in New York City, only blocks from where I now live most of the year. I was fortunate enough, through a friend who knew Richie Havens very well, not only to get tickets for the show, but also to hang out backstage afterward.

As far as I’m concerned, if anyone embodied the spirit of Woodstock it was Richie Havens. I had met him a few times, and he was a kind, gentle man with a great talent. That night backstage all I could think of was how great it was 40 years later to be able to hang out with the guy who kicked it all off in 1969. I have a poster of that show, inscribed by Richie to my wife and me: “To Gary and Susie, a friend forever, Richie Havens.” Can’t beat that.

Richie Havens died in 2013. I returned to the site of the Woodstock festival for his memorial service. How could I not pay my respects to a man who had been such a part in an event I felt so privileged to attend and be a part of?

The service was incredibly moving. One of his recent band members did an a cappella rendition of “People Get Ready,” and another did a smoky-voiced version of “Woodstock.” Danny Glover and Louis Gossett Jr. gave moving tributes to their friendships, and the latter told a great story about co-writing “Handsome Johnny” with Richie Havens. There were other musical tributes from attendees: John Sebastian and John Hammond (“The Angels Done Stole Him Away”) and Jose Feliciano (“In My Life”) and others. All were heartfelt and moving. At the end we all walked out to the field where we watched a small plane circle the site three times, scatter his ashes as he requested, and then tip its wing as it flew off.

I sat in the field afterward, musing about where those 44 years had gone since I last sat in that field. Now at the 50-year mark, I am still here with what I hope are my mostly reliable memories and still in awe of those days. I have lost touch with my friend Julian. I sometimes wonder where the girl he met at the festival is and whether Julian or I ever cross her mind. It’s more likely she’s still wondering what happened to her poster.

I like to think it’s in good hands. Somewhat like me, it’s faded and deteriorated, but lovingly framed and hanging in my hallway, reminding me as I pass it every day what a unique experience I shared with so many. Peace.

Gary McElroy has a home in the Cedar Run section of Stafford Township.

 

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