by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
August 15, 2009
A MIGHTY CHANGE
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 15, 2009 -- I knew the back roads to Bethel, and I still parked 7 miles away from Max Yasgur's farm that Friday afternoon. But if I'd had my way, it wouldn't have been in Bethel, anyway.
I was assigned to cover the stormy meeting of the Walkill Town Council for the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record, a Dow Jones-Ottaway newspaper that served the four county region north of New York City, including Sullivan County, where the Woodstock Music & Art Fair finally took place, and Walkill, in Orange County, where organizers first hoped to stage it.
I don't remember that much about the meeting except that it was crowded, and that the proposal the organizers were making was an important one. Ours was a high-quality newspaper with excellent reporting and writing, and one of the things we inherently had to avoid was to make ourselves part of the stories we wrote. The only first-person piece I got to write there came when a riot erupted after a school board meeting in Newburgh, and a long, lucky throw caught me in the back of the head with a beer bottle - other than a cut, no harm done.
So when I finally mustered the courage to speak at a town council meeting I was there to cover, it was no small thing. But I couldn't hold my piece. "This is the greatest thing that will ever happen to Walkill," I told the council members, most of whom knew me or knew of me from past articles and interviews. "People will be writing and talking about this event a hundred years from now. It will put Walkill and Orange County on the map."
My impassioned appeal made no apparent difference. Blithely unaware of the historic opportunity in front of them, the town council voted no, if I remember correctly, by a healthy margin. What I don't remember is how I wrote the story; I think that I mentioned a Times Herald-Record reporter had stood up and argued for the festival. The paper went on to provide coverage of the story that was the biggest ever in its own back yard.
I even wanted to have it on our farm. We had a long, low slope to a natural bowl where the barn stands on a slight rise, and it would have held the crowd. I put to them at the meeting, but they were doubtful they would have had any more luck with the town council - and they were out of time. They went to Bethel, which for a weekend that is seared into the memory of an entire generation, was Woodstock - the one and only.
This weekend I heard and saw a little of Richie Havens playing. His music had been playing the first time I ever went to my ex-wife's home, a day or two before our wedding, and to me, that meant I was in the right place, finally. He was the first act I heard when I got there, and I missed my other then-favorite, Joan Baez - I think she was the last to play Friday night.
I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & The Family Stone, The Who, Janis Joplin with the predecessors of Big Brother & The Holding Company, and woke up on Monday morning to the long, great plaints of Jimi Hendrix' rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. I loved Country Joe & The Fish's "Spend Your Summer In Harlem," and Arlo Guthriie's mad masterpiece, "Alice's Restaurant." I slept through a lot of the music, as thousands of other people did. On Monday morning, I was lying in a blanket caked in mud, barely coherent, but friends shook me awake and Jimi brought me out of my stupor.
There are a few things that still shine in memory. I remember people screaming in Wavy Gravy's medical tent as she came down from what was described as "horse tranquilizer." I went over to the small trailer the Times-Herald Record had brought to the site, and uninvited - I wasn't assigned to the festival - I sat down and typed up a color piece; five years later I returned by chance to Middletown and found it in the paper on Woodstock's fifth anniversary. It was a colorful piece, probably assisted by the general aroma of burning cannabis in the air (all right, I inhaled!).
It seems like Sly & The Family Stone was the first big act I heard, and I remember the candles and matches lighting up as they played. I recall being worried about the symbolism as hundreds of thousands of people stuck their arms straight out in the air in Black Power-type salutes as Janis Joplin crushed us with her roaring rendition of "Ball and Chain" and other huge hits. I heard Ravi Shankar and Arlo Guthrie, whose music was often in the background at the apartment I was sharing with my wife and several others in Middletown.
The Who were the most remarkable performers I ever saw. From my vantage point near the front-center of the crowd, it looked like their steel instruments were cooking a steamy wall of sound you could see rising up from the center of the stage. And then, somewhere in the middle of it, Abby Hoffman ran onto the stage and began to speak - it was impossible to hear him, and without a word Pete Townshend walked over and unceremoniously clocked him in the back of his head with his guitar. Abby dropped like a dead tree straight into the pit in front of the stage.
I was shocked, and felt badly for Abby, but like a lot of other onlookers I wasn't there for a political harangue. I'd been hearing them since the first March on Washington in 1964, and Woodstock was not about our politics but our music. In retrospect, the politics and the music were integrally related, yet in the rush of the moment they didn't count. Pete Townshend, whose career has been a great but difficult one, should probably have spent a few weeks in jail for what he did, music or no music, and no matter how satisfying it felt to the crowd.
What mystified me about Woodstock is how managed while I was there. I remember trying to buy hot dogs or something, but there was damned little to eat; hunger, though, it not something I remember. I didn't bring a blanket or anything, and except for Monday morning I can't recall where I slept, presuming I did. I do remember getting yelled at Sunday evening when I ran like a zig-zagging fullback down through the crowd, but it was something I was extremely good at - I did it for years in the woods near our home, trying to run top speed down over the rocks and fallen branches; miraculously, I never fell. But this night I stopped, just to humor the easygoing aura of the crowd.
I do remember a minimal amount of nice nakedness in a swimming hole a ways behind the stage, and feeling alone sometimes amid that crowd of nearly 500,000 - on the loudspeakers they announced that we'd overnight become the third-largest city in New York state. I rarely, if ever, saw any police, and don't remember even a single fight. It was really nice that way.
But it came at the start of a long time of being alone. On the day before the Woodstock opened, my wife told me she was going there with other friends. It was the end of our marriage, and after Woodstock, the beginning of a painful but very productive time for me.
Five months later, at Christmas, I went out to New Mexico, spent a month in an isolated Benedictine monastery in Chama Canyon, then moved down to Santa Fe, got a motel room and started writing for a priests' magazine and the Village Voice.
Through Gov. Cargo, I got introduced to Dennis Hopper and hung out with him all Summer, and actually organized a evening of William Shakespeare with him and me and several others at the Greer Garson Theater at the College of Santa Fe. At a party one night, he took me out on the back porch and recited Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If," for me; he was a great human being. I got to talk to James Taylor on the telephone, while he was making Two-Lane Blacktop; between Hopper's "Easy Rider" and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James," they were two of the biggest stars of that time.
I took a drive to San Francisco and on the way spent a day with a Times Herald-Record veteran, Hunter S. Thompson, who was running for Sheriff at the time and drank me under the table that night. I got an interview with Mies Van Der Rohe at the Aspen Design Conference, and got a free room (intended to be a press office) for a week at the Hotel Jerome.
In San Francisco, Warren Hinckle advanced me $1,000 for story about violence in northern New Mexico, and I lost it all in a three-card monte scam before I'd spent another day. The great cartoonist R. Crumb was in his office when I went in to see Warren, and that night we somehow ended up with our rental car roaring off the pier into San Francisco Bay.
I got wild staying a few days with the Ant arm, a commune there, and went up on stage and sang The Impossible Dream, backed by the Grateful Dead, down at Sproul Hall in Berkely. I went to visit a friend named Dan Lamblin who'd been out of touch, and found him living naked in the hills in Redwood City. He demanded I take off all his clothes to prove I wasn't a cop - and he and his wife had been roomates for months. If I hadn't taken a chance and hit a small jackpot in Nevada on the way back, I might never have gotten home.
My stories for the Voice about a trip to Mexico City and Cuernavaca to meet philosopher Ivan Illich. and the man who captured Ché Guevara and his diary, ex-Bolivian Interior Minister Antonio Arguedas. A "kidnapping" incident that the Voice played to the hilt helped me get a mostly free ride at Antioch College's new writing program in Columbia, Md. There I spent an hour with James Rouse, the developer, who had built cities and was to build many more. I won a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference as a Scholar in Fiction, and met Katherine Auchincloss, Jackie Kennedy's niece, and fell too much in love with her for the next two years.
From Antioch, I went around the world on their dime, visiting partitioned states - Northern Ireland, India and Vietnam - as I wrote for the Voice on Antioch's work-study program and tried to do a thesis on "Partition As an Instrument of Foreign Policy." The experience showed me that the end of partition is always war and more war. That lesson stayed with me.
Woodstock was a dividing line in my life, as it was in many others. It set me on an uncertain path that was in no way traditional, and yet, finally, not all that strange. It left me open to many of the things I believed beforehand, and opened me to believing many things I would have rejected before it. It taught me that even very large crowds don't have to be dangerous - as Nobelist Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power had persuaded me they were - and that some events are truly transitional in human history. I am proud to be a man of the Woodstock Generation.
Woodstock transcended its time and place, searing a new template of imagination and love on what had been a chaotic and directionless "movement" of peace rallies and be-ins (I went to the first of those, too, where I met Alan Ginsberg for the first time, in Central Park). You might say that hundreds of thousands of strangers became less afraid of one another, and that gave us all room to grow. As Ivan Illich was to say the following Spring in Cuernavaca, "Have you ever felt that there was a little man inside you, and that someone else had thrown away the key? Other people have the key."
You can't really grow alone. Woodstock made our generation whole.
Resources: Obituary from the New York Daily News: "Richie Havens, legendary guitarist and folk singer who opened Woodstock festival, dead at 72
In 1995, Joe Shea gathered other journalists and founded The American Reporter, the world's first online daily news site (and, some say, the first blog). In 1997, he fought a Supreme Court battle in Shea v Renoto save the Internet from government censorship, and won.