"By the Time We Got to Woodstock": After Fifty Years

    Fifty years ago this August, I and five other intrepid adventurers climbed into a Chevy II Nova and drove all day and all night from River Falls, Wisconsin, to one of the defining events of our generation, what was then known as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, but which time quickly shorthanded as simply Woodstock.  Over the years I tried to condense the events of that sprawling, quintessentially counter-cultural weekend into the space of a poem, and finally, about ten years ago, decided I'd done well enough by my experience.  Putting the cart before the horse, here's the poem as it's settled out:


That August morning fifty years ago
in Wisconsin, we six mismatches,
refugees, and orphans piled into Linny's
Chevy Nova with no food, no change
of clothes, almost no money, though lots
of reckless, desperate, spontaneous
youth, and drove all night to upstate New York,
where, becalmed in traffic to Yasgur's farm,
we joined a seven-mile foot caravan,
passed joints, drank jug wine laced with only
God knows what, got separated, rained on,
and didn't find each other again
until it was over.  For three days we lived
hand to mouth on whatever came to us,
got lost, got found, befriended others who were
wandering.  The first night I shared a tarp
with some Philly hippies, the second an
Army surplus tent with a girl from a New
Hampshire commune, her feet dirtier than mine.
Our movie stood in awe of its own soundtrack:
Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone,
the Who, fringed Daltry twirling his mike like some
golden god of the dawning Woodstock nation.
When on Monday morning Hendrix blasted
his scorched reveille, we found ourselves still standing,
victors in some improbable battle,
though it might have ended differently
had a particular Pennsylvania state trooper
known two kids in the car were underage.  
(One whiff of our gear and he hastened us
on without searching the trunk where our stash
lay swaddled in debris of the pilgrimage.)
Straggling back to tell the tale to small-
town friends--our nerve-endings, it may be, set
permanently tingling--we split up again
and this time didn't regroup for decades,
though when we did, we understood that each
had in his or her own way smuggled
back home a tiny piece of the Garden.
Now I think, what a crazy, lucky,
right thing it was for us to do.
We didn't keep our adventure waiting.
We didn't worry how we'd get home.
We just jumped in that Chevy Nova
and drove.  That time will never come
again, though for us it will last as long
as we need it to, the rest of our lives.  

For Linny, Leo, David, Carol, and Mike

    Of course no such brief accounting can tell the definitive story of so complex a happening as the phenomenon of Woodstock.  And after the passage of fifty years, muddled memory isn't going to supply any very complete picture either.  Still I and my fellow Woodstock veterans have spent enough time retracing our individual steps and missteps that I think it would be fun to literarily muck around that trampled ground at least one more time.
    In the world of 1969, long before the instantaneous connectivity of social media, hippies, "freaks," and rebels of various stripes managed to communicate by means of an underground network of local, regional and national print publications.  In order to keep up, one had to read.  If we hadn't been at least a nominally literate generation, it wouldn't have worked.  We'd clipped a coupon from an ad in Ramparts, the leading national radical-left magazine of the day, and sent for tickets by mail.  Postmarked New York on Monday, they reached my address in River Falls on Thursday morning.  Somehow we six were gathered and ready to go, a feat of timing that still somewhat baffles me.  Leo Sanders from North Dakota had met up in the Twin Cities with Linny Siems, the owner of the Chevy Nova and her younger sister Carol, who'd also brought in tow from their hometown of Cumberland, Wisconsin, Mike Tappon, the kid brother of an older hippie friend of ours, John Tappon (who also attended Woodstock, though I never encountered him there).  These four pilgrims and the River Falls contingent, consisting of myself and Dave Wallin, converged on my house on Dallas Street and without further ado hit the road.
    With the energy and exuberance of youth, we drove straight through until Friday afternoon, off the expressway amid the astonishing freak caravans jamming the country roads leading to the actual site of "Woodstock," Max Yasgur's farm near White Lake, New York, we had to abandon the car and hike a distance of what turned out to be about seven miles to the festival site.  Up until that point, I think it was anticipation of the stellar musical line-up that had energized us, but by the time we fed into that psychedelically-hued river of hippie foot traffic, finding ourselves among so many like-minded was a high in itself beyond any other circumstance of our gathering, be it righteous weed or music.  "Woodstock Nation" was quickly taking shape, and it was exhilarating to be in the majority for once.
    Camaraderie was instant and effortless in that mind-blowingly vast crowd, and I'm sure it was the overall friendliness and gregariousness that contributed to our inadvertently splitting up and not finding each other again until it was time to leave on Monday morning.  It would never happen that way in our present moment of universal smart phones, but in 1969 "by the time we got to Woodstock," our little band of six was thoroughly factionalized with high mathematical odds against reconstituting our ranks in an ocean of nearly a half million souls.  
    Today I marvel at how little anxiety this fragmentation of our party seemed to generate.  Maybe it was the "go-with-the-flow" ethos of the times, but so far as I can remember, no one was very worried about having lost the others.  Maybe the whole gathering was so essentially trusting and peaceful that such worries just didn't find sufficient emotional ground for taking root.  However it went (and almost none of us are too sure, after the passage of a half-century), we were able to roll with it and have a good time.
    Much has been made of the availability and use of drugs at Woodstock.  It would be disingenuous not to admit that in that counter-culture a casual attitude toward drugs prevailed, but for our crew ultimately it was the music that rightly took center stage.  How thrilling the line-up with its pantheon of 60s giants:  Joplin, Hendrix, CSNY, the Who, the Band, Credence Clearwater, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, Ravi Shankar, the stuff of dreams!  To add speculative fuel to the fire, the Woodstock site was virtually Bob Dylan's backyard.  Would the great genius himself make an unadvertised appearance?  I believe that the perceived possibility, inflated by desire into likelihood of a rare showing by the reclusive Dylan was a prime motivator for many a Woodstock pilgrim.  
    Whatever the controlled substances being consumed, I retain many vivid instants of musical bliss vividly in memory, and it's hard to separate their intoxicating effect from the general chemical ambiance.  On the low-keyed end of the spectrum, I sat with less than a hundred others before a little outdoor stage back by the Hog Farm's kitchen listening to a relaxed Joan Baez sing and chat in the most intimate setting imaginable.  On the high-voltage side, I can still recall the body-rush of Pete Townshend's windmilling power chords as the Who blasted out an abbreviated version of Tommy, one of Woodstock's most transcendent performances.  These memories, among a galley of others, are clear and unmuddied, leading me to suspect that drugs informed them far less than the sheer excitement of the music itself.  
    Sorting out the sequence of events with my fellow Woodstockers, I've become acutely aware of how spotty and incomplete our memories of even peak experiences like Woodstock can be after fifty years.  There's a certain comedy in our general lack of agreement or clarity as to who stuck with whom during the initial split-up.  Dave remembers stopping at a roadside grocery to buy a bottle of wine and getting separated from the rest of us.  Somewhere along the way, I lost the main group too, but who with -- or without -- I no longer recall.  Leo remembers some of the same Friday events I do but not my being a part of them.  And I can add, vice versa.  We both remember coming into the main concert area during Tim Hardin's evening set.  Apparently on Saturday there was a hike back to retrieve some things from the car with another Wisconsin friend, Charlie Uehlin, but I know I wasn't in on that.  I was still "lost" on Saturday.  In one of my few jottings from the trip, I noted that by the time the Who hit the stage in the wee hours of Sunday morning I'd sat through 18 hours of previous acts.  
    From our comedic attempts to reconstruct our adventures that weekend, it occurred to me that maybe we keep the most fixed memories of people we know best.  In fact, some of us had hardly known each other at all before setting out.  Three of our crew --Linny, Leo, and Mike -- were completely new to me.  I had previously met Carol, who had occasionally visited River Falls, and Dave I knew best, from our college proximity in various bands to which we'd belonged.  When Dave dropped out of sight on the way in, I lost my familiar moorings and from that point on it was all unexplored territory.  Our group split into three and possibly four separate factions, but exactly who and how many we still haven't collectively pieced together.  It makes me wish I'd kept a better journal in those days, but at age 21 I tended to record fantasies rather than facts.  I had not yet shed the self-involvement of adolescence; that development would take a while longer, in fact a lot longer.
    Meanwhile, what can I say at this late date that would shed any new light on that massive gathering?  My story is the story of thousands, hundreds of thousands.  By the time I reached the festival gates, the fence had already come down and anyone who had made it that far was in, paid or no.  That's why I still have my pristine set of Woodstock tickets, $6 for each day, printed with their red images of, respectively, a right-slanting diagonal line, a five-pointed star, and a crescent moon, kept safely in the envelope they arrived in with its purple version of the now iconic bird-and-guitar Woodstock logo.  
    By that time, food and drink were being freely dispensed by the festival organizers.  Leo remembers Hostess fruit pies handed out.  I availed myself of the Hog Farm's free vegetarian meals.  And of course, in the hot August sun, beverages of every description were passed from stranger to stranger, and one soon gave up worrying over what surprise ingredients they might contain.  This could well have developed into a disaster; the miracle of Woodstock is that it didn't.  Only a short time later, the Altamont festival in California devolved into murderous violence, but Woodstock occurred in that brief grace period before the darker forces moved in on the counterculture.  Notably short on incidents of violence or the uglier mishaps that might have resulted from such a large concentration of immature human beings in a small space, Woodstock did pretty much live up to its advertised goal of "3 days of peace & music."  
    One dissonant note not recorded in my poem (and in fact generally not known because it took place at a break in camera work for the film) will serve to round out this reminiscence.  On the internet you can now read about this incident, which occurred in the middle of that legendary Who set.  The Who's hour-plus-long performance was heavily front-loaded with a shortened version Tommy, which, by its omissions became even more potent than it was on vinyl, every moment stirring, the songs memorable, the performances spine-tinglingly electric, especially considering that the Who opened at around 5 a.m. after waiting all night to perform.  The Who had held the audience rapt for the first ten selections, through Tommy's great hit, "Pinball Wizard," when, between songs, it happened.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a lanky, leather-jacketed figure with unruly curly hair grabbed one of the mikes.  Whoever he was, he had only a few seconds, just long enough to snarl, "I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison!" before Pete Townshend, like a maddened bull, head down and guitar neck extended in bayonet position, rushed from (to our orientation) the right side of the stage, and struck him in the back with his weaponized guitar, sending the interloper sailing into the pit.  It was a deeply un-peaceful display of vintage English working class hostility, and made by far the most uncomfortable moment of the official program.  Gradually word got around that it had been Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman who'd briefly commandeered the P.A. to plead for imprisoned White Panther poet John Sinclair.  Townshend was actually sympathetic to Sinclair, who'd been busted for possession of a mere two joints and was widely viewed as a political prisoner.  But no one, no matter on what side of the issues, violated what Townsend later called "the sanctity of the stage" with impunity, not on the Who's watch.
    At the time, it was possible to speculate that what I'd just witnessed was a calculated piece of guerrilla theater, and in a sense it was.  But only one person on that stage was in on it.  Townsend, wielding his aggression so nakedly, challenged the peace-and-love vibe of Woodstock to its core.  Coming at a time when revolutionary rhetoric was running feverishly high, the "Abbie Hoffman incident" (so-called by Wikipedia) exposed a fault-line of our generation's contradictions.  We imagined we could have a revolution without the hard, dirty work of revolution.  In a way, Townsend's successful ejection of Hoffman represented a triumph of passive entertainment over active engagement.  The relief I felt when the Who tore back into their set after Hoffman's thwarted interruption didn't prevent me from going on to righteously proclaim "Free John Sinclair!"  Such were the times and our ambivalent loyalties.
    Woodstock was, when all is said and done, people, people, people, endlessly shifting masses of them, a sea in which for a while our tiny individual drops lost themselves and were still OK.  Getting anywhere in the vast bowl of the natural amphitheater itself was to learn to step carefully across an infinity of blankets and outstretched limbs.  Attendees were enormously patient and polite with the complicated maneuvering it took just to get to one of the long ranks of porta-potties.  Only younger bladders could navigate those multitudes without fear of humiliation.  As Linny said in a recollection of her own, "I don't remember going to the bathroom once in the whole weekend.  Do you?"
    However it happened, on Monday morning after the crowd had begun to thin, all six of us were together again.  Woodstock magic!  I have a feeling that by Sunday I'd run into at least a couple of the gang.  We must have had a plan, or else luck was on our side.  Maybe both.  As if our six weren't enough, we even picked up a hitchhiker, a hippie improbably named Kit Carson, who needed a ride back to the city.  I had never been to New York before (I don't know whether any of us had) and we ended up at an apartment strangely bare but for floor-length red velvet curtains on the then-ungentrified upper West Side, kept by Kit's father, who, as Linny recalls, peeled off a couple of big bills to send us out for provisions.  We bought jug wine and fixings for spaghetti, eaten sitting on the floor, and hung out in nearby Central Park before moving on to Philadelphia to visit Mike's brother John and Charlie Uehlin, who had also been at Woodstock.
    Then the trek home as chronicled in my poem, and years and years of not seeing each other again.  Linny and Leo reconnected in the 80s, but it was around the mid-90s when Linny noticed my name listed at a poetry reading and called the bookstore.  This soon led to our first group reunion, 25 years after the fact.  How wonderful to discover that we were all alive, all well, and eager to rehash that intensely concentrated long weekend we'd spent together, more or less, on the road.  Now it feels as though we've all been friends forever, a special bond having risen out of experiencing that generationally defining, crowning event of the Sixties.  
    To conclude, let me flash back to the last morning of Woodstock.  Exhausted, I didn't make it to Jimi Hendrix's set at the very end, though I do have a half-memory of hearing distorted strains of his guitar in the groggy morning-after distance, maybe his iconic "Star Spangled Banner."  (Hendrix's manager insisted that, as headliner, he play last; consequently most Woodstock-goers missed him, since only about 40 or 50 thousand are said to have remained on the grounds by that time.)  Gathering myself out of the canvas Army surplus tent I'd ended up in that night, I unceremoniously set out in search of my comrades, piqued by the urgency of finally having to locate each other for the trip back.  
    As more and more people left I could see, besides the familiar wasteland of littered turf and mud that had been Yasgur's pastures, a copious scattering of green-covered program books, and stopped to slip one of them into my backpack.  With the foresight to harvest a few dozen, I might have financially eased my golden years!  The 50-page program read like a cross between an issue of Rolling Stone and a volume of bad stoned poetry.  Each act or artist had a page, with an arresting graphic and a few lines that read (as in the Grateful Dead's entry) thus:

"purity with the dead" in
reach frisco tokay atman
the last molecule madness
maybe the final fillmore upanishads . . .

No blame, as the I Ching would say.  The program bard was hardly alone; we were all writing like that in those unfocused, undisciplined days.  (The program's one real poem, by imprisoned John Sinclair, was in a different league altogether.)  I learned only recently that the programs didn't make it to the festival site until Sunday, and that whole bundles just got carelessly dumped along the way. Though I lost my original Woodstock poster in a move a couple of years later, I still have my program booklet, in good shape despite the rough-housing of travel.  I keep it in a thousand-pound safe surrounded by a piranha pool and electrified razor wire in an undisclosed location.  


    One of the most pleasurable aspects of writing this remembrance was the participation of my five fellow Woodstockers in supplying forgotten details, correcting those I'd gotten wrong, and generally helping to put the memory house in order.
    This involved dozens of emails in which wonderful and quotable things were said by all.  Ideally we should each be writing our own account for posterity, be it for relatives, friends, or the simply curious who would like to deepen their understanding of the Woodstock experience.  What I found most disappointing in the process of writing was the paucity of my own recording of that trip in my notebooks from 1969.  That lapse somewhat shakes my confidence in my own memory of Woodstock.  At the same time, it makes me realize that what I think of as "my" memory of Woodstock is actually part of a group memory built up among us Woodstockers and reinforced by our many conversations over the years.  Neuroscientists know that revisiting a memory changes it, and so in a very real way what I present in this prose is a composite story the six of us have built and polished together in the fifty years since the relative innocents we were ventured with half a million others onto the rural highways of upstate New York.  This story belongs to all of us who've had a hand in creating it.
    While I was putting the finishing touches on these paragraphs, an almost impossibly marvelous thing happened.  Mike emailed, reporting that in a book his wife Karen had given him, Michael Lang's Woodstock:  3 Days of Peace and Music, he had discovered a photo of Linny, Carol, Leo, and himself sitting on the side of the road to the festival site.  I remember how in the year or so following Woodstock, all of us who had attended obsessively combed the group photos in hopes of spotting ourselves in one of them.  No one I knew had any luck.  And now here, clear as day on page 61, were the majority of our party, photographed all by their lonesome by Rolling Stone photographer Baron  Wolman.
    "On the way in or the way out?" someone asked.  Mike answered, definitely, the way in.  "I knew that because the big canvas sleeping bag in front of me didn't make it back with me.  It was my Dad's and had survived North Africa, Italy and France in World War II, but was swallowed by the mud of Max Yasgur's farm!"  Both Linny and Dave, it turned out, had also lost sleeping bags at Woodstock, evoking a vision of dumpsters full of sodden, abandoned gear hauled to the nearest landfill.  
    And so we continue to build our story of Woodstock.
    After several email exchanges had made the rounds, Carol wrote:  "It's all like a sweet dream to me."  Good words to end with, for now.

Recent Entries

The Strange Genius of Dr. Evermor
On Monday, March 30th, one of Wisconsin's great strange geniuses passed away in a nursing home in Sauk City, the…
"By the Time We Got to Woodstock": After Fifty Years
    Fifty years ago this August, I and five other intrepid adventurers climbed into a Chevy II Nova and drove…
In Her Own Way: Remembering Mary Oliver in Minnesota
Around 1988 -- I am trying to fix the date, so if anyone knows, please get in touch --…