Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 1: Woodstock: personal memories

The Erickson Report, Page 1: Woodstock: personal memories

I remarked to someone at work a few days before recording this that it is surely unusual for someone to be be able to recall where they were and what they we doing at that moment exactly 50 years before.

But I could. I could because at that time of the morning exactly 50 years earlier, I was somewhere in Sussex County, New Jersey, taking a back route to Bethel, New York and the first day of what was called an "Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music" but which everyone came to know as just Woodstock.

As a self-confessed "aging hippie" I suppose I should say something about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, especially since, um, I was there. Really. I was. Unlike the probably five million who say they were.

I don't want to come across as wallowing in nostalgia but I've realized over the past few days of various remembrances that a few of the things that stick out in my memory aren't among those commonly cited.

In fact, "the mud" seems to be the common thread; for example, the Daily Mail described Woodstock as
a trip of a party [where] increasingly filthy festival-goers danced, stripped and dropped acid in torrential rain.
But "the mud" didn't really happen until after the big thunderstorm on Sunday. Before that, on Friday and Saturday, there had been some rain - I remember Ravi Shankar playing right through the rain and later Melanie having to interrupt her set to move further under cover because the rain was playing havoc with the tuning of her guitar - but it wasn't that bad. It was rainy but going "the mud the mud the mud" just isn't right, especially because there was a hot sun to dry things out between rains.

So yeah, my memories are not the same as some others, so by way of commentary and as a way of opening a discussion of the world in which Woodstock happened and its relevance for today, if any, I'll just tick off a couple of things I recall that haven't figured so much in the "a look back at" coverage:

- One that couldn't make the coverage 'cause it was purely personal: My friend Craig and I - who had tickets, dammit - drove up the back roads, avoiding the Thruway and Rt. 17 and thus the multiple-hours-long traffic jams. We parked within a few miles of the site.

- Coming into the site the first day, there was an entry road, more like a dirt track that was probably used for farm vehicles. The site itself was in a pasture that formed a natural bowl and between that track and the pasture there was a small rise, maybe three or four feet high. You went up that rise and looked down into that pasture and OH MY GOD! THERE ARE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF FREAKS! HOT DAMN!

- Foolishly, Craig and I left that night because we hadn't brought a tent and intended to stay at a campsite shelter for hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which proved to be full, forcing us to sleep outside, yes in the rain. The next day so many more people had arrived that we would up having to park some teens of miles away from the site.

- Walking in the hot sun among the crowds heading to the site, I saw where a family had turned their hose on to offer water to the walkers. (Yes, I know, don't drink from the hose, there could be bacteria and all but this was 50 years ago and no one was thinking about that.) I heard the woman telling someone that they originally had intended to ignore the whole thing but when they heard that a neighbor was charging $1 for a glass of water - again, remember this was 50 years ago; the equivalent today would be something over $7 - they were so shocked that they thought they had to do something. "Charging these kids money for water!" She was outraged.

- Probably the musical highlight for me was Ravi Shankar, with whose music I was then not particularly familiar, but he completely blew me away.

- I remember Abbie Hoffman announcing from the stage that we were page one of the New York Times.

- I remember the several-minutes-long standing ovation given to Max Yasgur (who owned the farm, in case you didn't know) and him saying something about how it should be a lesson to his generation how and this is not a quote but it's close enough "400,000 young people can come together for three days of peace and music and have nothing but peace and music." Yes, of course, there was other stuff going on and there were a few incidents, but overall, that was a fair assessment.

- On Sunday, Craig noticed and alerted me to the big and amazingly black thunderclouds several minutes before the announcement was made from the stage. And y'know, there is a point where you're wet enough that frankly it doesn't matter anymore and you just give up all attempts to stay dry.

- A while after the storm had passed, a number of National Guard helicopters hovered over the crowd. There was sufficient paranoia among the counterculture at the time (not entirely without justification; as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you") that it caused a little ripple through the throng. What's this? What's going on? The doors are opening. What's happening?

And out of the helicopters come thousands and thousands of - daffodils! The National Guard is showering us with daffodils! I tried to catch one but it bounced off my hand and fell into the hands of a short girl next to me who probably wouldn't have gotten one otherwise, so that was cool.

- My favorite memorabilia from the event was not the uncollected tickets (which I might still have somewhere but which I think are now buried in the sands of time) but rather a newspaper ad that came out later: The long-distance bus company that served the area took out an ad expressing how impressed its drivers were with the patience, kindness, and friendliness of the concert-goers who were stuck on the buses for upteen hours due to the traffic. I remember one quoted as saying that as a result of the experience, "A long-haired kid is welcome on my bus anytime." Which in 1969 was music to our ears.

- Or maybe on that account I should name as my favorite memorabilia my sleeping bag, which was soaked through and must have weighed over 50 pounds when I was carrying it out - and which I still have.

All of which raises that Ultimate Question that always gets asked: Will there ever be another Woodstock?

The answer to that question is "No."

The thing is, what made Woodstock Woodstock, what made the whole experience what is was, was that it just happened. It wasn't anticipated, it sure as hell wasn't planned (the organizers were prepared for a crowd of up to 50,000, not eight to 10 times that many), it wasn't something anyone set out to create. It just happened.

So no, there will never be another Woodstock. I'm sure that at some point there will be a [blank] or a [blank] and maybe later a [blank], but each of those will be what they are, existing on their own terms, something that - well, that just happened. And they'll be great. But they won't be Woodstock - they will be themselves.

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