Sex, acid trips and starvation: 50 years of Woodstock

Sex, acid trips and starvation: 50 years of Woodstock
Crowds at Woodstock

Woodstock 50 has been called off. It’s for the best, says Suzanne Harrington — no one can ever match the original

Fifty summers ago, a confluence of mud, madness and magic gave birth to the modern music festival as we know it.

Woodstock, which happened not in the New York town of Woodstock, but forty miles down the road in Bethel, Sullivan County, in August 1969, remains the mother of all festivals.

The one without which there would be no Glastonbury, no Coachella, no Roskilde, no Primavera, no Electric Picnic.

For it was here, in an event billed as “three days of peace and music”, that the idea emerged of the vibe within the audience being as important as the music itself; that it was the people who made the festival, as much — if not more so — than the performers.

This was not intentional. No, the Woodstock vibe, long considered the defining moment of the hippie movement, was born of chaos, which is why it went down in history.

Everything went wrong.

The organisers had sold 186,000 tickets, but before the festival ever began, there were already 50,000 people camping onsite, which meant that ticketing the event became impossible, and it had to quickly become a free gathering as the ticket barriers were unable to cope with the influx.

News of this free for all got out, and half a million people flooded the site. There were just one thousand portaloos in place — one per five hundred revellers.

Nor had festival catering evolved into the bespoke organic, locally sourced hand crafted artisanal international gourmet experience we expect today; instead there were half a million hungry hippies so frustrated by the lack of food that the handful of onsite burger vans were burned down.

The residents of SullivanCounty, on hearing of the food shortages, rallied with airlifted donations of sandwiches, fruit, rice and veg, and famously, granola.

Woodstock is why granola will be forever associated with hippies; thousands of cups of the stuff were distributed by a Merry Prankster called Wavy Gravy. It saved the day.

“The original festival in ‘69 was a reaction by the youth of the time to the causes we felt compelled to fight for — civil rights, women’s rights, and the anti-war movement, and it gave way to our mission to share peace, love and music,” said Michael Lang, one of Woodstock’s co-founders (there were four in all) in a recent press statement.

Today, we’re experiencing similar disconnects in our country, and one thing we’ve learned is that music has the power to bring people together. So, it’s time to bring the Woodstock spirit back, get involved and make our voices heard.

A 50th anniversary festival will happen near the original site this month, which will feature Santana, David Crosby, and Country Joe McDonald — who all performed in 1969 — as well as Jay Z, The Killers, Miley Cyrus, and oldies like John Fogarty and Robert Plant.

Complaints that the 2019 Woodstock line up features genres far beyond rock and folk were met by a reminder from the organisers that the Woodstock ethos has always been about presenting contemporary music — Santana in 1969, Jay Z today.

Woodstock has been an artists’ colony since 1906, with a long tradition of art, music and performance, although it wasn’t until 1969 that it became part of countercultural consciousness.

With fifty years of planning and logistics under its belt since the original festival, the 2019 event promises to be better organised (despite the highly commercialised event in 1999 to commemorate the festival being chaotic in all the wrong ways — fights, fires, and multiple rape allegations, far from the festival’s original ethos of peace).

A more current equivalent to the chaos of 1969 would be 2017’s Fyre festival; however, instead of tantrumming Instagrammers suing each other, the Woodstock hippies embraced the situation.

They threw themselves into it — literally, as footage of naked people sliding in mud would preclude the Glastonbury tradition by some years.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.

Traffic jams to the 1969 site tailed back miles.

Flimsy fences were flattened, as crowds poured in, and the 32 bands were tiny specks on a distant stage, that only those at the front could hear — this was long before giant screens and proper amplification.

So dense were the crowds the musicians had to be airlifted in and out by helicopter.

Then it rained.

Not just a little, but biblically. So horrific were the conditions – no food, no shelter, no sanitation, hour long queues for drinking water – that the local authorities panicked and declared a state of emergency. And this is where the magic happened.

The hippies didn’t panic, but embraced it. Such was their determination to embrace both love and peace against a backdrop of Nixon and Vietnam, that there was zero violence reported during the three days. Instead everyone shared their food, blankets, and water.

They also shared their drugs — marijuana and acid, rather than anything harder — resulting in much joyful hedonism and love in the mud.

Sex, acid trips and starvation: 50 years of Woodstock

Even as the organisers made public announcements requesting that anyone who had consumed the green acid to please go to the hospital tent right away, the crowd remained mellow, high, loved up.

This is what made Woodstock such a pivotal moment — for three days, love and peace, despite the horrific conditions, really did prevail.

People turned on, tuned in, and danced naked as, in the distance, the music of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, The Who, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Ravi Shankar, and Crosby Stills Young & Nash filled the air. Sly and the Family Stone did an unforgettable set, peaking at 3am with I Want To Take You Higher.

Unlike the much smaller Monterey Pop Festival which had taken place in California two years earlier during the 1967 Summer of Love, backstage at Woodstock was just as chaotic as the rest of the site, as Marty Balin, the singer from Jefferson Airplane, recalled in an interview.

“Monterey was a lot more organised and a lot more about the music,” he said.

Woodstock was about fun ... but we didn’t get to go on till dawn the last day, and by then we’d gotten drunk and sobered up four times. It wasn’t our greatest moment.

Ravi Shankar played his sitar in pouring rain, the Grateful Dead worried about being electrocuted as sparks flew out of their guitars, and Jimi Hendrix did his infamous interpretation of the Star Spangled Banner.

Richie Havens improvised his legendary Freedom as a gap filler when he ran out of songs, playing a longer set as the rest of the day’s line up remained stuck in tailbacks to the site.

Unimaginable by today’s ultra-commercialised standards, there was no merch on sale at Woodstock. Not even a button badge.

Apart from boxes of programmes which remained mostly undistributed and were thrown away at the end of the festival, the only other items branded with the Woodstock logo were the t-shirts and windbreakers worn by stewards.

There are, unsurprisingly, iconic collectables today.

Perhaps the main reason Woodstock is so embedded in cultural history is because director Michael Wadleigh — helped by a young assistant director called Martin Scorsese — made a four-hour documentary, which won an Oscar in 1970.

This is how the world got to see the festival in all its chaos and glory. Its organisers ended up losing $2.4 million, but this has not deterred Michael Lang from doing it all again this August.

Although this time they’ll probably have more portaloos and less granola.

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