I see where Woodstock is all over the news this week. Forty years, but sometimes it seems like...eighty. Or four hundred. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there for it, or at least alive and tuned in to it, can really understand what it was all about. Hell, I was there myself, in a privileged capacity (rock critic) even, and I’m still not sure I do.
Timing, as usual, was everything, and my college roommate Susie Donoghue (who also wrote for my magazine Jazz & Pop and later became managing editor of Rock) and I majorly lucked out all the way. We missed the epic traffic jams (because we knew the back roads from driving back and forth to school years earlier). We had a place to stay off-site (some college friends in a nearby village put us up in their big old house in their two clean,comfortable guestrooms and fed us lavishly and listened to our horror stories). We had a Mustang and a press sticker which got us in and out. We had performers’ passes that admitted us into the musicians’ pavilion, where there was food and drink and drugs in plenty and even not entirely disgusting places to go pee, and let us hang out on the actual stage itself.
I wouldn’t say we enjoyed ourselves, even being the privileged rock princesses that we were. It was too intense for that. And after all, crazed with sugar lust on Saturday night, I did almost pull a hunting knife on Joan Baez for the last dish of ice cream left in the caterer’s freezer. (She graciously ceded it to me, making me feel terrible...my apologies, Joanie, however belated!)
Peter Townshend (or perhaps it was Roger Daltrey) says he always knows when people were really at Woodstock and when they’re just wannabes claiming they were. Because everybody who was there says how mediocre the music was, and everybody who wasn’t says oooh wow outtasight how amazing the music was.
And he is absolutely correct in his assessment. Autohype is a powerful thing, especially in retrospect.
I didn’t get to hear a lot of the music right up close in front, sticking to the pavilion as I did. Oh, I HEARD everything, you could hear it for ten miles around. It was like a background-noise soundtrack, or Niagara Falls roaring along. When it was happening at all. And you really can’t hear the music all that well when you’re right there onstage with it.
So I wasn’t always paying intense critical attention, and when I did, the music always seemed substandard, not their best work—though under the circumstances any music at all was a miracle. But I guess if you were a kid from the boonies who’d never heard those bands live before, it was a total trip.
It wasn’t part of my job to immerse myself in the zeitgeist: I was a reporter, I was there to report. I had to maintain a certain distance, cast a cold eye on the proceedings. I won’t get into it here too much: if you want the whole desperate (and rather amusing, if I do say so myself) story, go read my book “Strange Days.”
I did go out of the pavilion from time to time to wander around, of course. But if you were at all sensitive to vibes, it was like being pinned down in East London under the Blitz. Nobody was hostile, quite the contrary; it was just the sheer tonnage of stonedness that pressed down on your head until you wanted to scream. So I mainly stayed in the pavilion, like Achilles sulking in his tent.
But I remember little things: sitting at one of the tables drinking Moët from a bottle that Bob Weir opened for me (living dangerously, but I watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn't dose it) while some of the Dead and Airplane played with my tiny Persian kitten, whom I was carrying around in a big suede shoulderbag I had made for the purpose. I must have been nuts to bring her, but I’d only just gotten her the week before and didn’t want to leave her home alone so soon. She seemed to weather the weekend just fine (after the first day I left her back at the house with friends Ron and Mary), and nobody slipped her acid when I wasn’t looking. Or me either.
I remember standing on the stage and looking out over the crowd, and thinking ‘Man, this is something I would NEVER want to do for a living.’
Trying not to get that damn sticky red mud all over my nice new dark-brown soft deerskin elfboot-style moccasins; finally I gave up and put some old sneakers on instead.
Shopping! I got a lovely fringed purse and some beads and a big tooled leather duffel bag (which I’m giving to Rennie and Turk, respectively, in the Woodstock book, “Who’ll Stop the Slain”).
Thinking how beautiful Grace and Jimi and Roger Daltrey looked in their white fringey outfits, and Janis in her jewel-color tie-dye.
It was a really bad-hair weekend for just about everybody, especially me, whose hair frizzes in the presence of a glass of water. The humidity was pretty much total, and between that, the rain, the wind, the mud and the looooong delays between sets, nobody was looking their best.
As for all the post-event, grandiose claims I’ve been hearing on TV all week (“Ooooh, Woodstock, we could be ourselves, it taught how to be ourselves even more than we’d been being ourselves! We could be freeeeee!” Oh bite me, you freakin' morons!), not so much.
Yeah, yeah, nobody got killed (but just wait for my Rennie Goes to Woodstock book! I’m going to change all that, oh yes I am!). Nobody starved. Nobody got beat up, really. People on bad trips got the help they needed.
But that was pretty much it. As I say, I wasn’t sitting out there in the mud, with no food, unable to move, sleeping on the ground, peeing in the woods (or ickily elsewhere). So my Woodstock experience was rather different from that of the muddy masses. Kind of like Queen Marie Antoinette, really. Let ‘em eat coke.
So I wasn’t thrilled at having to be there, but looking back, I’m glad I was. As some kind of witness for the prosecution, or devil’s advocate, if nothing else.
And I look at my Woodstock performer’s pass, hanging on my refrigerator door, and I am well pleased. We all did our jobs the best we could. And maybe that’s what it was really all about anyway.