The Woodstock Festival (9/20/69)

[Note: the first version of this piece posted here earlier today featured a section of writing not actually by Greil Marcus. It has since been removed, my apologies for the confusion — swoods]


It was Sunday afternoon and Joe Cocker and the Grease Band had finished their powerhouse set and suddenly the sky turned black and everyone knew it was going to rain again. It did. The ground on which two or three hundred thousand kids were sitting was begging to be turned back into mud and it got its wish and it couldn’t have mattered less to anyone. The wind hit then, too; it seemed to come from some half-forgotten Biblical apocalypse but no one was ready for the Last Judgment so we turned calamity into celebration.

“Cut the power, cut the power,” they shouted on stage, and the kids yelled “Fuck the rain, fuck the rain,” but it was really just another chance for a new kind of fun. Odd gifts of the elements, our own latter-day saints appeared out of nowhere. In front of the bandstand a black boy and a white boy took off their clothes and danced in the mud and the rain, round and round in a circle that grew larger as more joined them.

Moon Fire, a kindly warlock, preached to a small crowd that had gathered under the stage for shelter. A tall man with red-brown hair and shining eyes, barefoot and naked under his robe, he had traveled to the festival with his lover, a sheep (“call her ‘Sunshine’ if you’re a vegetarian, ‘Chops’ if you’re not,” he said). Off in a corner was his staff, topped by a human skull, the pole bearing his message: “Don’t Eat Animals, Love Them/the Killing of Animals Creates the Killing of Men.” He carefully explained how sheep were blessed with the greatest capacity for love of all animals, how a sheep could actually conceive by a man, though, tragically, perhaps because of some forgotten curse, the offspring was doomed to die at birth. Albert Grossman, his pigtail soaking wet, was standing nearby and Moon Fire ambled over to lay on his blessing. Grossman dug it. Rain simply meant it was a good time to meet new people.

The rain had been coming down for a long time now, but it seemed safe, and the stage crew put on a record. Creedence Clearwater’s “Born on the Bayou” went soaring out of the great sound system and over the enormous crowd and suddenly the Battle of the Bands of the night before had turned into American Bandstand. Three hundred thousand people jumped up out of the mud and started to dance. Bopping their bodies and shaking their hair to the beat, hopping over and into the new puddles of garbage and mud.

The crush of more than a quarter of a million people sitting down had been some sight, but this was almost more than anyone could believe. Fris­bees began to sail out of the crowd toward the stage and the sound men jumped forward to throw them back. Then a football, then oranges, sandwiches, whatever was close at hand and friendly to throw at other people. Country Joe and the Fish had been scheduled to go on next and Barry Melton cornered the head man and announced that the band wanted to play. “You can’t play now, you’ll all get electrocuted!” “We wanna play, man, we wanna play now, we don’t need electricity.” “They want to play,” said one staffer to another. “You tell them they can’t. Not me.” The Fish played. In pouring down rain, good old never-say-die-and-never-down Country Joe and the Fish got up and pantomimed their music for the crowd that had turned them on. Barry grabbed a mike with no cord and Mark Kapner hoisted his little ukulele and Joe handled the footballs that kept bouncing onto the stage. Greg Dewey, their new drummer, brought out his kit and sat down and pounded out a loud, fast, dancing drum solo that kept the audience moving and grooving. It was certainly the only drum solo I’ve ever dug, and by the time three or four others had joined Dewey on his cymbals he was into it all the way, a musician making music for the people out front. A tall fellow jumped on stage and began to dance across the board, while everyone cheered. Then he flashed and pulled off his pants and danced naked in the rain, grinning wildly, holding out his arms in a big gesture of welcome. Someone passed a bottle of champagne into the audience and then all the food that could be found on stage, and the Fish kept on playing and Joe kept on smiling. They reminded me of the brave rodeo clowns that run into the pit when a rider’s hurt and the bull, ready to trample him. They came through. But nobody was scared.


The Last Traffic Jam

Friday was the first day of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, now moved to White Lake near Bethel, N.Y., a hundred miles from New York City and fifty miles from Woodstock proper. The intrepid Rolling Stone crew thought it would be bright to beat the traffic, so we left the city early in the morning and headed up. When we got to Monticello, a little town eight miles from the festival, the traffic had been light. Then we hit it. Eight miles of two-lane road jammed with thousands of cars that barely moved. Engines boiling over, people collapsed on the side of the road, everyone smiling in a common bewilderment.

Automotive casualties looked like the skeletons of horses that died on the Oregon Trail. People began to
improvise, driving on soft shoulders until they hit the few thousand who’d thought of the same thing, then stopping  again. Finally the two lanes were transformed into four and still nothing moved. Fat, bulbous vacationers (for this was Jew­ishland, the  Catskill, laden with chopped liver and bad comedians) stared at the cars and the freaks and the nice kids, their stomachs sticking out into the road. It was a combination of Weekend and Goodbye Columbus. Here we were, trying to get to the land of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, all the while under the beady eyes of Mantovani fans.

There wasn’t any traffic control. We sat still in our car and figured out all sorts of brilliant solutions to the transportation problem, everything from one-way roads to hired buses (a plan that failed at the last minute) but we still weren’t getting anywhere and it had been four hours now. This was the road on the map, right? No other way to get there? A lot of kids were pulling over and starting to walk through the fields. Beat-out kids heading back told us nothing moved up ahead and that we had six miles to go. It was a cosmic traffic jam, where all the cars fall into place like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle and stay there forever.

The police estimated that there were a million people on the road that day, trying to get to the festival. A million people. 186,000 tickets had been sold and the promoters figured that maybe 200,000 tops would show. That seemed outlandish, if believable. But no one was prepared for what happened, and no one could have been.

Perhaps a quarter of a million never made it. They gave up and turned back, or parked on the highway and set up tents on the divider strip and stuck it out. Shit, they’d come to camp out for three days and they were gonna do it. Many had walked fifteen miles in the rain and the mud, only to give up a mile or so before the festival and turn back, but they were having fun. Camped on the highway with no idea where White Lake was or what was going on, they were digging it, making friends, dancing to car radios and making their own music on their own guitars.

“Isn’t it pretty here, all the trees and the meadows? And whenever it gets too hot it rains and cools everyone off. Wow.” “Yeah, sure, but you paid eighteen dollars and drove all the way from Ohio and you can’t even get to the festival. Aren’t you disappointed? Or pissed off?” “No, man. Everyone is so friendly, it’s like being stuck in an elevator with people when the power goes off. But it’s much nicer here than in an elevator.”

It was an amazing sight, the highway to White Lake: it looked, as someone said, like Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow. It looked like that for three days. Everywhere one saw tents and campfires, cars rolled into ditches, people walking, lying down, drinking, eating, reading, singing. Kids were sleeping, making love, wading in the marshes, trying to milk the local cows and trying to cook the local corn. The army of New York State Quick-way 17B was on maneuvers.


A View of the Second Day

Thinking back to Saturday, one image sticks in my mind, an image that I doubt is shared by many but one that I will never forget. Friday night the folk music had been played, Joe Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Sweetwater and Ravi Shankar, but by the next morning the future was unclear and rumors that the area had been declared an official disaster seemed quite credible. Many left Saturday morning, oppressed by water shortages and ninety degree heat and ninety-nine percent humidity and the crush of bodies.

“I love all these people,” said a young girl, “they’re all beautiful, and I never thought I’d be hassled by so many beautiful people, but I am, and I’m going home.” Faces were drawn and tired, eyes blank, legs moving slowly on blisters and sore feet. The lack of water, food, and toilets was becoming difficult, though everyone shared, and many simply roamed the area with provisions with the sole purpose of giving them away. But it got hotter and hotter and a boy was running toward the lake in panic, cradling his little puppy in his arms. The dog was unconscious, its tongue out of its mouth but not moving. The boy thought the dog was going to die, and he was scared. He kept running and I stared after him and then I left the festival and decided to go home. I couldn’t get a plane and I was lucky to stay, but that dreadful scene was real and it too was part of the festival at White Lake.


Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young

Everyone in the country has seen pictures of the crowd. Was it bigger than it looked? Whoever saw so many people in the same spot with the same idea? Well, Hitler did, and General MacArthur, and Mao, but this was a somewhat better occasion. They came to hear the music and they stayed to dig the scene and the people and the countryside, and at any time, no matter who was playing, one could see thousands moving in every direction and more camped on every hill and all through the woods. The music became something that was going on there, and it was terrific, but it was by no means the whole show. The magnificent sound system was clear and audible long past the point at which one could no longer see the bands, and some were discussing the bass player in Janis’s band even though they hadn’t the slightest idea of what he looked like.

The reader will be spared a careful, critical analysis of the performance of each group and of the validity and impact of their sound, music, stage show, and demeanor. The outstanding thing was the unthinkable weight of the groups that played. Take Saturday night and Sunday morning (the music was scheduled to begin at one in the afternoon and run for twelve hours, but it began at three or four and went until the middle of the next morning). Here’s the line-up: Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, the Band, Johnny Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears, Crosby-Stills-Nash & Young, the Butter­field Blues Band, Sha Na Na (a knock­’em-dead group from New York that does beautiful versions of fifties hits), and Jimi Hendrix. It’s like watching God perform the Creation. “And, for my next number…”

The scene on stage Sunday night was a curious one. Three groups were hanging out there, performing, setting up, digging the other musicians: the Band, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Paul Butterfield. Now there was no doubt that in terms of prestige the Band was king that night, to the other musicians if not to the audience. As Helm, Danko and Robertson sat on amplifiers, listening to Johnny Winter, stars of the past and the present came over to say hello, to introduce themselves, to pay their artistic respects. David Clayton-Thomas, the young Canadian lead singer for BS&T, flashed a big grin and shook hands vigorously—a man on the way up, his group outselling everyone in the country and impressing the audience far more than the Band did that night, but still very much in the shadow of the men from Big Pink who play real music that comes out of real history. And then Paul Butterfield came over. Regardless of what one may think of the quality or the relevance of Butterfield’s music in the year 1969, his impact on rock and roll is incalculable and he is very much a father of the modern scene, as crucial to the emergence of San Francisco or Bob Dylan as anyone in the country. Butterfield’s first band and his first records broke down the doors and brought hundreds of musicians that are now famous into the light, and if his star has faded now and his albums sell only moderately, the jovial respect the Band showed him that night was simply more proof of his dignity. He’s a dignified fellow—black tie shoes, beat-up jacket, his hair cut in the style of Chicago’s hillbilly ghetto. He was, in fact, the only bluesman on the stage, and the way he carried himself provided a sense of what that word really means.

Some time around four in the morning the stage crew began to assemble the apparatus for the festival’s most unknown quantity, Crosby-Stills-Nash & Young. This was not exactly their debut—they’d played once or twice before, but this was a national audience, both in terms of the factual composition of the crowd and the press and because of the amazing musical competition with which they were faced. They followed the Band, Winter, and Blood Sweat & Tears.

It took a very long time to get everything ready, and the people on stage crowded around the amplifiers and the nine or ten guitars and the chairs and mikes and the organ, more excited in anticipation than they’d been for any other group that night. A large semi­-circle of equipment protected the musicians from the rest of the people. The band was very nervous—Neil Young stalking around, kissing his wife, trying to tune his guitar off in a corner, kissing his wife again, staring off away from the crowd. Stills and Nash paced back and forth and tested the organ and the mikes and drummer Dallas Taylor fiddled with his kit and kept trying to make it more than perfect. Finally they went on.

Crosby, Stills and Nash opened with “Judy Blue Eyes,” stretching it out for a long time, exploring the figures of the song for the crowd, making their quiet music and flashing grimaces at each other when something went wrong. They strummed and picked their way through other numbers, and then began to shift around, Crosby singing with Stills, then Nash and Crosby, back and forth. They had the crowd all the way. Many have remarked that their music is perfect, but sterile; that night it wasn’t quite perfect and it was anything but sterile. They seemed like several bands rather than one.

After perhaps half an hour Neil Young made his way into the band and sat down with Steve Stills, and the two of them combined for an extraordinary acoustic version of “Mr. Soul.” Stills pushed stinging blues out of his guitar and Young’s singing was as disturbing and compelling as ever. And from that point they just took off. They switched to rock and roll and a grateful electricity—Nash, Stills, Crosby and/or Young on guitar, Young and Stills trading off on organ, and two terrific sidemen, Dallas Taylor on drums and Greg Reeves on bass.

Visually they are one of the most exciting bands I have ever seen, the six of them. David Crosby finally looks exactly like Buffalo Bill, his flowing hair and twisted moustache twirling in the lights. Steve Stills, from Canada (it was a night for Canadians), seemed as Californian as a beach boy, with page-boy blonde hair, a Mexican serape fitting the Baja Peninsula groove he’s so fond of. Graham Nash appeared as one of these under-nourished-in-childhood English kids, weighing in at maybe seventy-five pounds, and Neil Young, as usual, looked like a photo from Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, dust bowl gothic, huge bones hung with very little flesh, all shaped by those odd, piercing eyes that have warmth even as they show fear. And Taylor! This is a drummer. He plays his stuff like P. J. Proby sings, shaking his head wildly, the most cataclysmic drummer I’ve ever seen. Well, they hit it. Right into “Long Time Gone,” a song for a season if there ever was one, Stills on organ, shouting out the chorus, Neil snapping out lead, Crosby aiming his electric twelve-string out over the edge of the stage, biting at his words and stretching them out, those lyrics that are as strong as any we are likely to hear:

There’s something, something, something
Goin’ on arrrround here
That surely, surely, surely
Won’t stand
The light of day
Oooohhhh!
And it appears to be a long time…

I have never seen a musician more involved in his music. At one point Crosby nearly fell off the stage in his excitement.

Deep into the New York night they were, early Sunday morning in the dark after three days of chaos and order, and it seemed like the last of a thousand and one American nights. Two hundred thousand people covered the hills of a great natural amphitheater, campfires burning in the distance, the lights shining down from the enormous towers onto the faces of the band. Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young were just one of the many at this festival, and perhaps they wouldn’t top the bill if paired with Hendrix or the Airplane or Creedence Clearwater or the Who or the Band, but this was their night. Their performance was a scary brilliant proof of the magnificence of music, and I don’t believe it could have happened with such power anywhere else. This was a festival that had triumphed over itself, as Crosby and his band led the way toward the end of it.


The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Woodstock

The big cliché of the festival, heard more before it began than afterwards, came down to this: If Monterey was the beginning, Woodstock was the end. Al Aronowitz, writing in the New York Post, spoke for many when be called the festival “a wake.” But Woodstock/White Lake was not a wake, but rather a confused, chaotic founding of something new, something our world must now find a way to deal with. The limits have changed now, they’ve been pushed out, the priorities have been re-arranged, and new, “impractical” ideas must be taken seriously. The mind boggles. The festival constituted the third largest city in the state of New York. To call it over was like saying that the entire population of Minneapolis had to pack up and leave, right now. To convey the meaning of it one must chase after ultimately useless metaphors about stars in the sky or the people in China. Well, if you laid ’em all in a line. they’d reach around the equator five times. Got it? But everyone there was a rock and roll fan and knew how to dance and had their favorite groups and called out for their favorite songs. People just like those everyone hangs out with, but this time it seemed as if they were all in one place at one time. They weren’t though—not yet.

The logistical problems we will have to face in the coming rock and roll years are at bottom emotional ones. There were hundreds of thousands of people, over-flowing toilets, garbage and not enough food mainly because the music is exciting and because the kind of life one could live for a few days up in the Catskills is more attractive to huge numbers of kids and retreating adults than any other mode of existence. Janis Joplin and Creedence Clear­water are more important than most would have guessed not because they carry some arcane political message but because when people hear them they get excited and ecstatic and feel more alive. This feeling is one that people must have, and to achieve that feeling hundreds of thousands will endure all sorts of privations and sufferings that they would consider intolerable in the ordinary circumstances of city or suburbia. And the music and those who perform for the huge crowds are now so well established, so impressive and so magnificent that those who come to hear and see no longer have to vent their frustrations or their anger on each other, but rather the people can now take the stars as benchmarks and move out to close frontiers and build their own instant communities—for a weekend, for a few days, they can live on their own terms with no thought of rebellion.

I think this is an important point. At the festival thousands were able to do things that would ordinarily be considered rebellious, in the terms of whatever current nonsensical sociological theory one might want to embrace. Selling and using all kinds of dope, balling here, there, and everywhere, swimming, canoeing or running around naked, and, believe it or not, staying up all night—one could do all of these things simply because they were fun to do, not because such acts represented scoring points against parents or Richard Nixon or Reader’s Digest.

The Woodstock festival provided a setting and a context in which all these things and many more were natural, seductive, and obvious. The now famous Dope Supermarket is a case in point. Off in the woods, on the crossroads of “Groovy Way” and “Gentle Path,” right next to an over-priced bead shop, a dozen dope dealers called out for their wares. “Hash? Acid? Really good mescaline?” “Who’s got opium?” “He does, he does, the cat in the red jacket.” “Who’s got grass?” “One lid left, man, come an’ get it…” And on and on and on. R. Crumb’s dream come true. It was an amazing spectacle simply because it made so much sense—a lot of people wanted the stuff so a central trading post had been set up where everything was available.

A photographer came by. “Hey,” yelled the guy with the opium, “take my picture.” There was no sense of cheating the cops out of a bust. Kids who had their first taste of dope or sex or nudity at Woodstock might remember later that these were acts that at least somebody thought were wrong, but at the festival it was as natural as cruising Main Street or catching a subway.

This is not to say that repression has vanished overnight, or vanished at all, but rather that the festival created and provided a place of freedom. The promoters laid the roads and brought in the music and built a Babylonian hanging garden sound system and the kids did the rest. The problem now is to find a way for such festivals to continue, with a clear knowledge that the audience cannot be limited by sales of tickets or by anything else.

We could cut back. We could have festivals with one or two “headliners” instead of festivals where everyone and no one is a headliner; we could categorize it, with “folk festivals” and “jazz festivals” and “blues festivals” and local festivals. All of these possibilities are good ones and all will take place, but after Woodstock they have to be seen, at least to some extent, as mere devices for holding down the number of people who will want to be there. The true challenge is to recognize that Woodstock was truly the Land of Oz and that those who were there will want to find a way back and that those who heard about it will be there to follow. Woodstock initiated all-night concerts with a staggering line-up of bands—a truly national festival, a hemispheric one, really, since Canada contributed much of the best. Great music from afternoon to morning, just like concerts in India, except here one could see virtually everyone and all at once. One could sit and dig the finest groups in the world, and if Ike and Tina and B.B. King and Aretha and Sam and Dave and Blind Faith weren’t there, they will be, and if Bob Dylan and the Stones and the Beatles weren’t there, they will be, if such a festival can be held again, and again.

The logistical problems are the minor ones. Everyone knows by now that the people must be bussed in from satellite parking lots; that the festival should last a week—perhaps two or three days before and after each main concert; that there should be two or three stages instead of one, with entertainment taking place simultaneously on each of them. And garbage and water and food and so on. These problems are minor not because it will not take tremendous effort to deal with them but because they are essentially simple. The true problem is the audience.

All over the nation and the world kids are moving to rock and roll. It’s the most important thing in their lives. Janis Joplin’s new album is more important than landing on the moon. If two thirds of the country can watch the moon landing then some equivalent production must take place to allow the rockers to bear rock and roll. Plan a festival like Woodstock for 150,000 and you get nearly a million. Plan next year for a million and you’ll get ten million. And plan and plan and plan and you’ll go deeper and deeper into the hole. Ticket sales will not do it. Getting the bands to play for free will not do it. We are, for better or for worse, beyond those sorts of solutions. We also cannot revert to electrified fences, police dogs, tear gas, and the rest of the contemporary American paraphernalia in an attempt to keep the “legitimate” audience separate from the rest of the rock and roll population.

Probably an attempt will have to be made to get the record companies to finance the next national festival, whether it’s held in Woodstock, Mill Valley, or Toronto. It has to be considered in the same light as the Olympic Games, which is exactly what this festival was, yet more like the Games of 2500 years ago than those of today. If we cut back, if we cut back to a festival that is really little more than three bills from the Fillmore East sandwiched together, then we will also be cutting off the greatest possibilities of rock and roll.

Three hundred thousand people taking whatever went down all around them and a new challenge to their guts and their ingenuity, sitting on a great hill all through the night to hear their favorites play and play and play, working for them, making new discoveries about each other and the land day after day, digging it, now Janis! Sly Stone! The Airplane! The Dead! The Who! The Band! Hen­drix—this is just the beginning—or the end—and we must now sit down and figure out how to make it work.


Rolling Stone, September 20, 1969


One thought on “The Woodstock Festival (9/20/69)

  1. Pingback: 50 Years Ago in Rolling Stone: Woodstock | Glorious Noise

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