Woodstock (final of 5) – Day Three, August 17, 1969

But I think you people have proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences. … The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are — a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!”
—Max Yasgur speech to the multitudes

Pictured above is John Sebastian. He wasn’t even scheduled to play but he knew so many of the artists that he was hanging around backstage, partying, jamming and getting high. So the organizers threw him out there and got him to play.

One of the cool things about the festival is how many of the performers were hanging out and jamming in impromptu sessions either around the area or back at the hotel. Somehow Jerry Garcia always seemed to be in the mix.

Joe Cocker kicked off the show at about 2 pm. And just near the end of his set, guess what? Rained again. I personally would have started believing – like some dude in the movie said – that “fascist pigs” were seeding the fucking clouds. I think it was about this time that the crowd started mudsliding and getting into the infamous “No rain” chant. (That part looked kinda fun actually.)

Ten Years After played early Sunday evening and did a totally balls-out version of “I’m Going Home,” which is to this day one of my favorites of Woodstock and in fact, of theirs. “The solo on the movie sounds pretty rough to me these days,” Alvin Lee told Guitar World in 2013. “But it had the energy, and that was what Ten Years After were all about at the time.”

As mentioned previously, Crosby Stills and Nash were a new band and so, apart from their other endeavors, (Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Hollies) no one was that familiar with them as a unit. (Neil Young played with them at Woodstock but not on this song.) This was only their second gig.

“We’re scared shitless, man,” Stephen Stills admitted, “man” being the appropriate term of address for every person, thing, or group. 😀 This fear was not only because of the massive crowd but because people like Hendrix and the guys from The Band were hanging around listening to them.

The guys are a little out of tune here but you know, fuck it. Weather wreaks havoc on instruments. Still a great tune. (The number of bands who thought they did “lousy sets” at Woodstock is very telling of what, their insecurity?)

By the time Jimi Hendrix came on – sometime around 9 am Monday morning – there were maybe 30,000 people left, many of whom hung around just to get a glimpse of Hendrix if not stay for his whole set.

And for those that did hang around, they witnessed perhaps the most iconic of all the iconic Woodstock moments, Jimi’s deconstruction and reconstruction of, and re-education on, the “Star Spangled Banner.” I already posted this in my series on Hendrix. And much as I hate to repeat myself, how else could I possibly end this series?

Nobody expected or had ever heard anything like this. Like any country’s anthem, we are taught to stand when the anthem is played and taught to respect it. But this! This came out of nowhere as far as anyone could tell. A crazy quilt, buzzsaw, distortion and bombs bursting in air, it at first shocked the crowd. Then they loved it. Talk show host Dick Cavett called it “unorthodox.” Hendrix said it was beautiful.

And after Jimi’s performance, after “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe,” after all the peace and love and the Hog Farmers, after motherless children, Abbie Hoffman, Pete Townshend, after nuns flashing peace signs (in the movie!), after skinny-dippers, acid trippers, mudsliders, cross-tie walkers, Motherfuckers and rain chanters, there was nothing left but a few stragglers walking around. And one big honkin’ pile of garbage.

A bunch of people had formed a big peace sign out of the garbage:

Peace sign

And then, like that, slowly. and then all at once, it was over. Woodstock was, literally, history.

Why did Woodstock work? I think the lessons of the Stones at Altamont prove that you can’t just bring a bunch of people together and hope for the best. For one thing the Stones have always attracted a rowdy crowd. For another, they tried to use the Hell’s Angels as security which worked so well in Hyde Park. But they didn’t realize that the Angels here were an entirely different breed. And just as importantly, no one was overseeing, I think, what the tone of that whole thing would be.

In the first post, I quoted Michael Lang thusly: “From the beginning I believed if we did our job right and from the heart, prepared the ground and set the right tone, people would reveal their higher selves and create something amazing.” So Lang and Kornfeld worked tirelessly to get the right security (crucial), and convey the essence of what they wanted the festival to be.

And it seems to me – and I freely admit I was not there and am speculating – that this tone permeated the whole festival from security to Hog Farms to the “kids,” ultimately to the townspeople. Minus that, getting half a million people to assemble for three days of fun and music without pissing each other off is a tremendous challenge. Given what they went through to get there, how many of us in Lang and Kornfeld’s place wouldn’t have said,”Fuck this?”

Epilogue: I won’t bore you with all the details, but after the festival was over, Lang and Kornfeld met with their financial backers. Who were not happy. These guys had indeed taken a financial bath. (Unlike Artie and Michael, they never made it to the site, never shared in the good vibe.)

After some painful negotiations, the backers bought Lang and Kornfeld out. This, I guess, helped to pacify everybody but maybe it wasn’t the best financial decision. Warner Brothers made $50M on the documentary (which won an Oscar), of which Lang and Kornfeld’s percentage was exactly zero.

In 1996, Woodstock, the documentary, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The soundtrack sold really well too but I don’t know where the money went on that one.

They never did build the recording studio.

Lang helped organize two more Woodstocks, one in 1994 and one in 1999. The first worked out more or less without incident, the latter one was marred by violence. Lang admits he allowed bands with a harder edge to play and there were just a variety of things that led to bad karma all around.

Me, I wouldn’t even have done a second one. You can’t recreate what grew up organically and spontaneously. You can’t do once-in-a-lifetime twice.

Michael Lang is still very active in producing movies and festivals. Artie Kornfeld is still active as a music producer and has his own radio show. Max Yasgur died of a heart attack in 1973. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum’s psychedelic tribute to the 1960’s, “I Want to Take You Higher,” Wavy Gravy’s sleeping bag and tie-dyed false teeth were displayed. (The Sixties were weird. Man.)

Several performers have, of course, passed away. Richie Havens died in 2013. His ashes were scattered on the site.

To probably no one’s surprise, there’s talk of a 50th anniversary reunion concert. The media love anniversaries, especially 50th so expect to be bombarded. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could wave a magic wand and have all the original surviving attendees show up? And hey, watch out for the bad acid (reflux.) 😀

Coda: A few months after the festival, Michael Lang happened to be riding around LA where he ran into Stephen Stills. Stills brought Lang back to his house where he had a recording studio.

And it was there that Stills first played to him and sang Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a song he didn’t even know existed. “I was completely overwhelmed,” Lang said. That feeling of hearing the song for the first time that way has remained with me to this day.”

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me…
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m gonna try and get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But ya know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
—-“Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell

For Regina – I know I didn’t get it exactly right. But know that I tried…

2 thoughts on “Woodstock (final of 5) – Day Three, August 17, 1969

  1. The whole Woodstock series was just brilliant! Thank you so much for the shout-out and the whole freaking series! The best part of the series for me was the background information about the musicians. What was going on with them when they were playing, how they were enjoying themselves, who came on and why and how it made a difference in their lives. I didn’t know that Richie Havens had his ashes scattered at the site. For me, he epitomized everything about what Woodstock was for our generation. You have those moments in time in your life that you can see how humanity together can really work. This really happened those three days for many people (excluding your one unhappy muddy guy). 🙂

    My last day was not spent with music at all. Woke up late Sunday morning and found most of the group scattered in different directions. Johnny C., his brother and a friend of his brother were all that were left. Johnny C. asked if I would go with them to a local bar. I couldn’t figure out why Johnny C’s brother was wearing his Army fatigue jacket and dog tags but realized those items would help the locals to be more accepting of us as individuals. He was right. All these older residents accepted us more readily and saw we were not ‘unpatriotic assholes’ as one guy said to me. I felt really comfortable with the locals and was especially pleased I was inside when it started to, again, rain like crazy. After the bar, we caught up with the rest of the group who were packing to leave. They wanted to leave before they got too stoned to drive. Nobody in my car talked very much. I did remember someone saying, “I feel like I am leaving home”. I felt the same way.

    On a sad note, Johnny C. died a few months after Woodstock from a heroin overdose. I was asked to come to the wake, which of course I did. I was devastated. He was such a great guy. When I walked in Johnny C’s mother ran up to me sobbing, hugged me and thanked me for taking care of Johnny C. up at Woodstock. She said he never stopped talking about how I carried him for two miles back to our campsite. Over his coffin in flowers it said, “He Ain’t heavy, He’s My Brother”. This is for Johnny C. I love you and have never stopped thinking about you!


  2. Glad you dug it. I learned a few things myself. I think I had a sense of the community, no idea at all about the trials and tribulations of Lang and Company. Who knew?

    It’s too bad that so many people thought “anti-war equals unpatriotic.” But it wasn’t too much longer that pretty much everybody turned against the war.

    Sorry to hear about your friend. Let’s say that this particular series is in his memory.

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