Thirty-five years later Walt, who now goes by the initials ‘WL,’ his wife, my wife and I sat on the back porch of my home sipping wine watching my three kids playing in the backyard and swapping stories about Woodstock and those daze …
TEN YEARS AFTER
By Howard Smead
There were three of us: Walt and myself, and another fellow whom I met the day we left. His name was John Leisure, memorable for his huge, myopic eyes that seemed to reveal his utter disbelief that we would pay him ten bucks apiece for two film canisters of home grown that was so green it wouldn’t burn. I didn’t know he was going with us until I picked up Walt that morning and he told me about the distressed phone call he had received late the night before. “What the hell,” he counseled. “He said he has dope.” Walt and I were fresh from our first year at the University of Maryland where Walt had pledged, de-pledged, and freaked out all in one year. ‘Walt’ was not his real name, but it suited him better that his eminently pedestrian praenomen, ‘Walt,” or ‘Wild Walt’ as we called him most of the time, also said something about our callous sense of humor. Walt, you see, shared the same surname with LBJ’s ill-fated advisor, Walter Jenkins. Some nicknames take others don’t. In this case even his father started calling him Walt. He accepted it graciously I must say; he was like that, not a contentious bone in his body. I suppose his nicknames bore the same relation to him as ‘Woodstock’ did to the town of White Lake. Both became more real than reality.
White Lake was just a small black dot on our roadmap, fortunately much closer to western Maryland than Woodstock, the real Woodstock. It may have been an unknown quantity but at least we had a destination. That alone was justification enough for the trip. Armed with some canned food, two packs of hotdogs, a ragged tent and high expectations, we pointed ourselves north early Thursday afternoon and closed our eyes. Walt had gone to the Atlantic City rock festival several weeks earlier and I went to the one in Laurel before that. We knew enough to know that anything could happen. When we hit New York we encountered the first signs that ANYTHING was about to happen. The lady behind the counter at the small roadside cafe at Narrowsburg just inside the state line where we stopped to eat was shocked almost speechless by the number of hamburgers she had cooked that day. All she could say to us was, “Where are YOU coming from?” and quickly turn away as though she were afraid we might give her the name of some small town in Russia. Her entire family sat at the counter watching the procession of the dispossessed trouping in and out. After Narrowsburg we shot through Neweiden and took a back road north through the two—door town of Forrestine. Suddenly we were in traffic. We came early but you never would have guessed it in all the confusion. I was able to park unknowingly just opposite the entrance to Yasgur’s farm about a mile east of town. Cars lined both sides of the old two-lane blacktop and people were walking up and down and all around as though this were nothing more than a spontaneous roadside convention. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I sure as hell didn’t expect to see so many people just milling. No one seemed to know where to go. No one had a clear idea of where they really were, and didn’t care. Maybe we weren’t in White Lake? Maybe they cancelled it?
Attitudes changed that fast. The people of Woodstock had obtained an injunction that almost ended the event of the century before it began. If it hadn’t been for one brave farmer (who received a substantial rental fee).... But maybe the good folks of White Lake had pulled a fast one on him as well?
After wandering through the maze of people asking everyone who didn’t first ask us to fill their pipe where we were, we realized that we were supposed to follow the flow of people escaping down that one-lane farm road across from the car. THAT was where the event of the century was supposed to be. It had become so suddenly dark that I worried as we bobbed and weaved along the black, tree shrouded road that perhaps the Pied Piper was alive and well and piping in New York, a real animal picnic. I carried the cooler on my head while Walt struggled with the tent and sleeping bags. We got separated from John and our food, but he turned up later, all smiles. We all felt that way; for better or worse we had arrived.
Setting up a worn out Boy Scout tent can be tricky in total darkness, especially when you first must beat down chest high weeds before even unrolling the damn thing. The good camp sites on what turned out to be the hilts along the lake were taken so we had been forced to crash down off the road into the weeds. After setting up the tent and burning a small, obligatory fire, we crawled into the tent and fell fast asleep, three of us crowded into space enough for two small Boy Scouts. But we were too tired to care.
In the morning I awoke to the sound of voices—all loud and happy— and above that someone rattling the air with John Coltrane riffs. None of us had any idea where exactly we had pitched our tent. We had not seen the famous revolving stage we had been hearing so much about, although over a hill to our right came sounds of hammering that had lasted far into the night. To my dismay, my face and hair were soaked. I had slept in the middle, right under an uneven tear in the canvas. The rain had come and gone like a thief in the night. Yet it hadn’t totally dampened things, the sounds of life were all around us and somewhat nervously I unzipped and crawled out trying to dry myself with John’s shirt. I expected to encounter many more people by day than I had in the groping black night before, and I did, but I was not prepared in the slightest for what lay directly beyond our tent. “Walt, you gotta wake up,” I called to him as though I needed his calm verification to make it so. “You’re not gonna believe this. We camped on the edge of White Lake.
There not twenty yards from the tent White Lake stretched out to the left as far as I could see and to the right 100 yards down past a very cozy pine grove. I had heard splashing sounds while still in my sleeping bag but it hadn’t registered that there was actually a lake in White Lake. To our immediate right a small path led from the road to the water and people were beginning to stray down it, slowly, like they were still asleep. Beyond the path was a large field filled with blues, oranges, yellows and greens of hundreds of tents. Frisbees buzzed over head like low flying birds. John went off to find out how we went about getting tickets and Walt and I went on down to the lake. A large clump of bushes partially blocked our view so we followed the path to the edge, then left along the bank. There was a small slip from which people were jumping into the water. Others lounged in the grass at the side. I turned to Walt with genuine surprise, “Jesus, they don’t have any clothes on.” Walt acknowledged this with his toothy smile and took his clothes off and jumped in.
We found out a little later that the in-coming hordes had overrun the fences early on Thursday and the organizers, who didn’t really care anyway, bowed to the inevitable and opened it up, as free as free could be. It was great news because tickets had sold for $37 apiece and that was more than I had brought along even before I gave $10 to John. The ice had all but melted and when I sat on the fragile styrofoam, that dispensed with the rest of it. From then on it was lake water nothing cool at all.
Word spread that the music was supposed to start at 2. The three of us headed toward the sounds of pounding and sawing and found the huge, wooden monolith of a stage at the foot of a long, sweeping hill— a natural amphitheater. We had walked past it the night before. It had been so dark and the stage down so low that we saw only the faint corona of the work lights. Workmen were still hammering things together when we sat down. The music came 3 hours later but in the pleasant sunlight afternoon conviviality passed instantaneously from one person to like the hastily rolled joints that went through your fingers once then sped away never to return, from one hand to the next before it became a smudge on the last person’s middle finger. It was very easy and very relaxed.
Around 5 o’clock the people on the stage stopped their exhortations that we be patient to announce the first performer. We all stood up and cheered. It was Richie Havens; his first song, Handsome Johnny, crystallized the mood into a kind of celebration of defiance—we would triumph—damn the war, damn the government, damn the politicians, and damn the weather—we were marching off to our own war.
It was fortunate that the swami who was supposed to begin things with a meditation had been delayed. He came on after Richie Havens. The crowd had no desire to repeat his pious incantations and ignored him right off the stage. I don’t know if it was the incessant repetition of ‘ohm’ or the claustrophobic feeling of being walled in by people he had remarked upon several times, but Walt began to complain of a headache later on as the afternoon sky began to fade. I gave him a couple of my grandmother’s Darvons that put him out for all of Tim Hardin. While he slept John slipped my wineskin from his neck and took a drink. Rather than passing it to me, he screwed the cap back on and struck out across the wilderness of people. I didn’t see it or him again until the next morning when he straggled back to the tent to tell us of his good fortune. “This chick is going to split a tab of STP with me tonight,” he enthused,”That is, if I can find her again.”
John may well have returned later that night, but if he did I was in no shape to identify him or make much sense of anything. Sometime during Ravi Shankar a tall guy with a maze of electric black hair piled up on his head in a hysterical imitation of a redneck beehive stopped to share a joint with us. Before he went on his way he stood up and looked down at me and did a very strange thing. He started rubbing my hair in time to the music saying, “You’re doing all right, you’re doing all right, you’re doing all right.” I just sort of sat there trying to figure what the hell he was talking about. At the time it made zero sense to me. I was very well aware I was doing okay. Anyway I thanked him, three times. I’d be the first to admit that much of the conversation probably went right past me. And after thinking about it for about ten years I guess he was congratulating me. I had had my hair cut only five days before and I must have looked pretty callow at that. Needless to say, many a moon passed before the barber’s scissors met my hair again —1973 in fact — but that’s another story entirely.
The rain that became so much a part of Woodstock held off until the very end of Ravi Shankar. When it came people retreated to the dryness of their tents and sleeping bags. Ole Joan Baez stuck it out though, and so did Chip Monck. From that first shower on, he was the man who enabled us to endure. During the times of disaster to come, if there was any one person who kept things together, it was Chip Monck, who served among other things as one of the stage announcers. I don’t know if you’d agree with me or not, but after attending nearly half a million rock concerts I think I can safely conclude one thing about stage announcers——they’re all assholes. Except Chip Monck. He had the kind of voice you’d want your father to have, very well modulated, very calm and knowing. Anyone who listened to him could not help but feel comforted, even as the rain pelted the festival without mercy. Whether he was killing time between groups, telling us not to take the brown acid, giving directions to the first aid tent, or simply telling Joe Blow to call home, he was always in control. There were many others who spoke to us from that vast wooden ship over its Olympian sound system but no one contributed more to Woodstock by his mere presence than Chip Monck.
Before the rain came on Friday night he told us Tiny Tim had suggested that everyone in the audience light a match and hold it aloft. We scurried around borrowing and distributing matches and on his count struck them and held them up. There must have been well over 200,000 of us by that time, enough to produce a shockingly brilliant glow that re-created thirty seconds of daylight over the delighted crowd which showed its approval by erupting into a roar of self-congratulation. A thing of such spontaneous beauty was to be savored and even though it had lasted such a short time, I didn’t want it to happen again, ever. For the first time I knew I was part of something that very few people would ever have the chance to experience. We all belonged.
Saturday morning was wet and miserable; it rained all night long and we woke up soaked to the bone. Believe me, there’s few things in life more miserable than a soggy sleeping bag. I went down to the lake for a quick bracer and decided to walk over to the pine grove to escape the gawking crowds along the shore by the slip. One rather hysterical man stood on the bank shouting at everyone to get out of the lake because it was furnishing the drinking water. A group of four guys and a girl came by in a completely submerged rowboat, stopped to listen- then paddled away, unimpressed. Apparently the unfortunate soul whose job it was to stand there and yell at the swimmers did not know that the pumping system had collapsed during the night. There was no more fresh water until the helicopters brought it.
The pine grove where on Friday I had tried to talk Walt into moving our campsite was a perfect swamp. The few tents remaining lay useless and abandoned. A few disgusted people had stretched their sleeping bags over a fallen limb like snake skins to dry, but it was pointless. Nothing was going to dry out in that quagmire for days. I made a quick exit, greatly relieved that I wasn’t one of the unlucky who’d been rolled and packed in pine water during the night. Back by the dam the water was cool and clear and
just deep enough, so relaxing in fact that I forgot how miserable I had been when I first woke up, almost. I worked my way out into deeper water intending to make an attempt at a serious swim back. Fat Chance! I quickly disabused my self from that foolish notion and idled around until I had rationalized my laziness away. The urge to exert myself wasn’t strong enough. Back on shore, however, someone had an urge he couldn’t rationalize. There like a coiled snake beside my neatly bundled clothes lay a pile of fresh turds. Good morning.
As I was returning to our camp, a middle—aged man clad in a black stretch bathing suit asked me to take his picture. “The boys at the office will never believe this,” he explained as he handed me his Instatmatic and waded out into the water amid several of the less conventionally clad. Holding his arms out to include the glorious totality of the lake and its occupants, he grinned like a mad bomber and shouted, “Okay, now!”
Later that afternoon as Walt and I were trying to scrounge enough dry wood to build a fire, this girl walked past us on her way up from the lake. I tapped Walt on his shoulder; most people dressed as soon as they came out of the water. We watched her walk across the crowded road and on up the hill to her tent. She held her composure almost the entire way but just before she reached the tent, the weight of all those staring eyes got to her; she scrambled into it and yanked the flap down behind her. Her name was Lonnie. Several months later I ran into her at the offices of the Quicksilver Times in DC. I was sitting in front of a battered wooden desk trying to talk one of the editors into hiring me as a photographer when she emerged from the next room. I stared at her with such disbelief that I forgot entirely about the interview. Sal Torre the guy I was talking to, said something to her that she shrugged off and she returned to whatever it was she had been doing. I thanked Sal and left. They didn’t need any more photographers. It was a good thing because the next week somebody broke into my apartment and stole my camera.
In November I volunteered to work on one of the food trucks the DC cops were kindly allowing to traverse their barricades to ferry hot stew to the people braving the freezing weather for the Moratorium. The trucks worked out of a church in Foggy Bottom. Guess whose truck I was assigned to? There, standing on the rear bumper was Lonnie, just as blond and just as beautiful....
The weather and the immense crowds slowly distorted everything to the point where it became impossible to adhere to even the most basic of schedules. If it hadn’t been for changes between day and night, it would have been very easy to loose track of the time entirely. The weekend just sort of slogged on. You ate when you felt like it; rested when you could; and stayed as stoned as possible. The music was continual, better still, all around you people were having a great time, mud or no mud. If you were so bummed out you missed the humor in it all, chances were you didn’t care enough to come in the first place. Some people did get desperate though. Well, at least two that I know of. As we were cooking some hot dogs Saturday afternoon, two washed out guys came by looking for food. We gave them some hot dogs but rather than cooking them they crammed them into their in mouths raw and trundled off. God knows why they hurried away. There was no place to go. People now over whelmed the hill in front of the stage all the way up to and over the road. All the camping was gone. The roads were jammed. And after lunch it became difficult even to get into the town of White Lake, from any direction. I heard the police had closed the highways but what really told me that many more people came to Woodstock than ever saw Yasgur’s farm were the rows and rows of tents in the fields on either side of 17B TEN miles away from White Lake. There was no way Walt and I could get within half a football field of where we sat on Friday; so we didn’t try. You could hear the music most everywhere anyway.
It rained and rained, then the wind blew, and then it rained some more, washing out part of the afternoon show and not a few of the less hardy. Helicopters began buzzing overhead with frightening regularity it was nice to see that Cobras could be put to peaceful use. But it was also disconcerting to see a military presence at Woodstock. Only later did I learn that Woodstock had become a disaster area. Things plowed on of their own momentum. There was nothing really anyone could do to stop it, not that anyone wanted to. Max Yasgur blessed the crowd with his benediction and everything gained an air of besieged respectability.
Indeed, when I returned home late Sunday night, my father who had been obstreperously opposed to such silly notions, had waited up to offer his praise. As I closed the front door, he was just sitting down on the steps. My mother stood at the top of the stairs as though she didn’t know what her husband intended to say or do. He looked at me; I looked at him. “Well, you proved your point,” he said with a wry smile. They had been listening to news reports about us all weekend long. Woodstock was the major story of the day. “If 100 adults had gotten together in that mess,” he said as he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his robe, “they’da killed each other.” Possibly, but I pointed out that 100 adults wouldn’t have gone to Woodstock.
John never did show up again (presumably he found his friend and their motors were still running) and early Sunday morning Walt and I woke up with the tent collapsed around our heads. It helped us decide we had had enough. I took one last tour, stood for an hour or beside the information booth listening to one confused guy asking directions to his own tent. I even ran into some friends from home who had arrived on Saturday. But enough WAS enough. It was great while it lasted. We rolled up our bags, then folded the remaining food — a few cans of baked beans and fruit — into the plastic ground cloth and rolled that up into the tent for John. By then nothing — even leaving — was easy. There was so much mud and so many people that working your way out to the road proved to be as much a hassle as finding a place to sit down. At the highway where the farm lane ended and where our car was parked, we stopped for one last joint. We ended up smoking three and sitting there until dusk watching the stream of people coming and going, all of them weary, all of them expectant.
After popping all the dents out of the hood from people sitting on the car, we loaded up and started to inch our way into the flow. A girl in an unbelievable fishnet top climbed onto the back of my VW and asked through the sun roof if she might hitch a ride down the road to the country store. She held onto the sunroof and pressed herself against the rear window and chatted with Walt who put his head up through the opening. We met her thanks with profuse thank-yous of our own and watched her sidle through the people lazing on the front steps of the besieged store and close the door behind her. I never saw John Leisure again. Walt gave up on college shortly after New Years and went off to LA (where he still lives) to become an actor. I saw him once in a crowd scene in “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
… Unfortunately, Woodstock (and especially its sentiment of naïve optimism and hope) failed to survive its times, which were, as they say, achangin’. Seriously changing. What a long, strange trip it’s been. So strange most of it has been forgotten, or suppressed. It’s been a long, hard three and a half decades with more than a century’s share of disappointments since those optimistic days. Who could have guessed that weekend in August of 1969 what lay ahead of us? War, more war, more domestic unrest, Kent State, Watergate, Iran-Contra, domestic terrorism, Oklahoma City, international terrorism, Clinton’s obscene impeachment, September 11, more war – and right now, more executive branch malfeasance than Watergate and Iran-Contra combined. .
Back then everything seemed possible if you just had the right attitude. Hopelessly naïve. I guess it was a case of closing your eyes and thinking of Christmas.