Woodstock 50 years: I was there

Woodstock 50 years: I was there

On this day fifty years ago, West Cork-based Jim Fielder was on his way to play at the music festival that defined an era. He tells Ellie O’Byrne about his  memories of the event, and stints with the likes of Frank Zappa

Bass player Jim Fielder has performed and recorded with everyone from Tim Buckley to Frank Zappa to Neil Sedaka. He has moved to Ireland just in time for the 50th anniversary of the legendary Woodstock festival, which he played with his band of the time, multi Grammy award-winning jazz-rock outfit Blood, Sweat & Tears.

While a dispute over royalties — participating bands were only offered a flat fee to appear on film — meant that Blood, Sweat & Tears didn’t make it into the original cut of the Woodstock documentary, footage of the band’s performance has recently emerged.

Before joining Blood, Sweat & Tears, Fielder had also played with Buffalo Springfield, the launchpad for Neil Young and Stephen Stills’ careers, and Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

The lead-up to Woodstock:

“I was 21. Blood Sweat and Tears had had a couple of number one singles and our second album, which would later win a Grammy, was doing well. That album had three songs that hit number one in the charts. So for the Woodstock festival, we were regarded as one of the top acts: we’d play the final night, on Sunday.

Woodstock 50 years: I was there

“We’d played somewhere else the night before, so there really wasn’t much time; we didn’t get to go and hang out in the crowd at all, or anything fun like that. But conditions were pretty terrible at that stage anyway; it was just a sea of mud.”

Arriving at the festival:

“They put up all the acts at a hotel, and during the day they ran a helicopter back and forth to shuttle the musicians and their gear to the stage. But they closed that down at nightfall. By then, the entire festival was running well behind schedule because they’d had so many delays for rain. When we got there, they had to drive us in from the hotel. It was a drive of maybe two or three miles and it took an hour and a half, just from the hotel to the backstage area.

They had a tent set up backstage for the bands and I got to meet some old friends; David Crosby and Stephen Stills from Crosby, Stills & Nash were due to go on after us, so I got to hang out with them for a while.

"My relationship with Stephen Stills goes back to Buffalo Springfield, who I was with as a bass player for a short time, so I knew them and Neil Young pretty well.”

Our set:

“It was about two in the morning when we got on stage. It was kind of hard to see what was out there, but I’m pretty sure the crowd had thinned considerably because of the weather conditions. A lot of people had given up and gone home. I’m guessing the crowd was under 100,000, even though I believe at its peak it was about 250,000. It was the die-hards who hung around to see us, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and of course Jimi Hendrix, who closed the show.

It was still the single largest crowd we’d ever played for. You had a feeling being in front of that many people that you’re the centre of the universe for your time on stage. It felt like the whole world was watching. When we launched into our first tune, the adrenaline was flowing; I think we played the song about half again as fast as we ever played it. We were feeling the excitement of the moment. We got through the show, though, and everyone loved it and we did an encore that felt pretty special.

“Woodstock was the first of the festivals and kind of a steep learning curve; I think they found out very quickly all the things they should have done. We played others, one in Atlanta the next year, 1970, and others, but Woodstock was the first. It’s still really amazing to be able to say, ‘hey, I was there, up on that stage.’”

Woodstock 50 years: I was there

How I started out, and playing with Zappa:

“In 1966, I had graduated High School and decided there was so much going on in the music business that I would throw my hat in the ring and see what happened. I lived 35 miles from Hollywood, and LA was where the rock scene was centred. A High School friend of mine was Tim Buckley; we had gone into a little studio and recorded 12 of Timmy’s songs.

“I was teaching music in a music store in Anaheim. A guy came in who wanted to teach drums: this wild looking guy from El Paso, Texas. It was Jimmy Carl Black, the drummer from the Mothers of Invention. He told Timmy and I to come to Hollywood to meet their manager, so we went with our little demo tape. Within months, we were in the studio doing Timmy’s first album. That was my first taste of the business. I was there to stay, and I knew it; I figured I could finish college another time.

One thing led to another and there was an opening in the Mothers. Frank Zappa called and asked if I could play guitar and I said yes, and joined. To me, he was a mentor. He was completely anti-drugs, which was really unusual for Hollywood at the time.

"His purpose was to protest politically; this was after Kennedy’s assassination and politics in the States was a mess. He said if you did drugs, it’d make you goofy and you wouldn’t be able to do a credible job of letting people know your political leanings.

“I think he was pretty hurt when I left. I got the offer to play bass with Buffalo Springfield and I really wanted to play bass very much. The one Mothers album I recorded on was their second, Absolutely Free. By the time it came out, he had removed my name from all the credits, so I’m not mentioned, but the front of the album was a photo collage and my smiling face is in it.”

How I ended up in West Cork:

“My wife Alyse and I always talked about moving to Ireland. I played with Neil Sedaka for 42 years, since 1975, and he was getting older and playing less. We decided it was time to move.

Woodstock 50 years: I was there

"We started looking at houses and coincidentally found this house near Bantry owned by a musician; it was (uilleann piper) Brendan Ring. We made friends, and at the point where I was going to come over to view the house, he said, ‘Bring your bass and we’ll set up a jam session for while you’re here.’ I did, and we played the Blue Loo in Glengarriff and met loads of great people.

“It’s great playing in the pubs here. People are so attentive; they’re really there to hear the music. It makes a great environment to play in. I bought an acoustic bass a year ago that’s just wonderful, like a miniature string bass, and I’m loving playing that. It fits with the generally acoustic set-up of music in the pubs and I’m having a great time. Now, when they know I’m going to be there, I even have some people coming out to see me play, and that’s very gratifying.”

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