by John Hanti with Steven Acker
EVERY TIME I DRIVE down State Route 3 from my home in New Jersey to my studio in Weehawken, I am reminded of Woodstock.
As I come up over the high hill near Clifton, the magnificent Manhattan skyline comes into view, rising from the river like a Hydra from the sea. It was fifty years ago today—August 14, 1969—when I first saw that skyline, and fifty years tomorrow when I woke up at Woodstock.
I'll never forget the excitement of seeing that view for the first time. It was the first of many firsts I would experience during the long weekend ahead.
Our plan was to spend one night in the city, then drive upstate to Bethel, New York in the morning for “Three Days of Peace and Music.”
Sharing this adventure with me were my first cousin and his best friend from back home in Sharon, Pennsylvania. Our chaperones were my aunt and uncle. They would stay in the city to see the sights while we attended the three-day festival. I would be driving their car. That was the plan.
Men plan, God laughs.
After settling into our room at the Travel Inn near the Lincoln Tunnel it was off to Greenwich Village for my companions and me. The Village was ground zero for East Coast hipsters, artists, and the counter-culture elite. Within its fifty square blocks were The Bitter End, the Café Wha, The Gaslight, the Cafe Au Go-Go, The Village Vanguard and more—a whole amazing world unto itself.
Fresh out of high school and naive to the ways of the world, I was in the center of it.
We strolled around the Village, gawking at head shops, hippies, and hookers, The buzz on the streets ran something like this: “Hey guys, I got good weed for sale. Wanna buy some? I got great acid too. You guys going up to Woodstock? You can’t go to Woodstock without these babies.”
I was feeling my freedom and I was an easy mark. “Sure, I'll take some of those babies.” I laughed, “and a hunk of that stuff, too,” (‘that’ being my favorite party enhancement at the time).
Next stop: The Cafe Au Go Go.
In those days, most live entertainment clubs in the city had no liquor license. Coffee, exotic teas, and confectionery concoctions you could get, but no booze. Everybody in the place looked loaded, anyway. My coffee, with its peppermint stir stick, whipped cream topping, and abundance of chocolate sprinkles, was unusually tasty; my own “enhancement” was kicking in, too. The band, a Three Dog Night clone, sounded better and better as the night wore on.
When the Cafe closed, we sat on a bench in Washington Square Park for a while, contemplating our next move. I got the bright idea to take one of those babies I’d bought and drive through the night to the festival. Why wait till morning? My sidekicks were all for it.
A quick cab to the hotel for the car and soon we were on our way to Woodstock.
It was four o’clock in the morning. Traffic was light on the New York Thruway. Driving out of the city, my cousin wondered out loud, "You think anybody is really going to show up for this thing?" Who knew?
As we approached Bethel two hours later, we came up behind a long flatbed trailer transporting a dozen porta-potties. We passed delivery vans and lumber trucks, beat-up campers and worn-out cars, all headed to Woodstock. With a half-mile to go, I spotted one particularly colorful camper parked on the side of the road dressed in Dayglo paint and adorned with flags and flowers.
“This looks like a good place to park,” I said. “This will be our landmark. We can’t miss it.”
Gathering up our supplies for the first day, we started walking. I figured that after the show that night, we could simply walk back to the car to change clothes and pick up fresh supplies for tomorrow.
Men plan, God laughs.
By now it was 7:30 in the morning and the sun was up. A light procession of long-haired hippies streamed past a long line of concession stands and booths. A few free spirits splashed playfully in a pond near the path.
Arriving at the site, we saw no one selling or taking tickets. We did spot a gaping hole in the surrounding fence, though, large enough to climb through, and that’s just what we did. Finding ourselves on a massive, near-empty field in front of an as-yet-unfinished stage. I walked right up to a couple of carpenters hammering nails there.
"What’s happening?” I asked.
“What’s happening? We’ve got eight hours to finish this stage, kid, and not enough lumber. That’s what’s happening.”
I shrugged and turned back to my companions on the field. Pointing to a spot a hundred feet or so in front of the stage, between the two speaker towers rising from its edges, I said, “There it is. That’s our spot.”
We spread our blanket on the ground there, took our shoes off, and stretched out to await the festivities. We’d been awake two days and two nights. Within minutes, we crashed into a deep, sound sleep.
NINE HOURS LATER...
I opened my ears to hear a raspy voice like no voice I’d ever heard booming through the P.A. system in front of me, bellowing “Freedom, freedom, freedom!”
Still flat on my back, I then opened my eyes, I looked to my left, I looked to my right, and I saw no field. I saw only shoes, and they were not mine. I was surrounded. Unsteadily rising to my feet to see who was filling them, I could scarcely believe my eyes. I was no longer in an empty field. I was immersed in a vast sea of people "a half a million strong."
Gone were my companions. Gone was our cooler. And gone at that moment was my mind. Looking up at the stage, I saw that the voice I heard belonged to a bearded black singer dressed in orange named Richie Havens.
I would not see my companions again, or the car, until the last hours of the last day.
Thus, began Woodstock.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN NEW YORK...
The next three days of Woodstock have been amply documented in film and on record. I’ll not cover that ground again. Suffice it to say—yes, Woodstock was all that and more, and I experienced all that and more.
It’s what happened back in New York while the festival was in progress that makes this story fun.
I did not know at the time just how big the news of Woodstock had become. But my aunt and uncle back at the Travel Inn knew. It was history in the making, live and on TV. No food, no water, overdoses, torrential rain, sex drugs and rock and roll. Woodstock was a disaster area—that was the story as she saw it. And her poor baby—my first cousin—was trapped in the middle of it all!
He had to be saved!
In desperation, my frantic aunt dispatched her husband to Bethel in a rental car to find us. It was a fool’s errand. He never did find us, of course. But apparently, he did have the time of his life.
Little did they know (nor did I, for that matter) that her baby needed no saving. He and his pal had hooked up with a gorgeous love child who had come to Woodstock well-prepared. Far from going hungry, they were hanging out in a warm tent with food and provisions. They were dry and comfortable and quite content to let me fend for myself.
In any event, my aunt did not see or hear from her husband again until he finally showed up back at the Travel Inn two full days later, two full hours after we did. By Saturday evening, she was hysterical. Not only was her only son missing, now too was her only husband! I still laugh when I think about it. What a calamity!
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE FARM...
MONDAY, AUGUST 18, SEVEN A.M.
A new morning sun was rising over the final hours of Woodstock. It was no longer half-a-million strong. Max Yasgur’s cow field was now a sea of mud. As I wandered about and wondered what had become of my cousin, I heard his voice!
“John! John! Over here!” And there they were—my cousin and his faithful friend.
After excited greetings and hugs all around, my cousin handed me a can of coke and a cold hot dog sealed inside a plastic bag. I hadn’t eaten since Saturday morning. I was starving and dehydrated. To me, that Coke tasted like fine wine and that cold hot dog was a gourmet meal.
The stench of rotting garbage permeated the air. It permeated me. While they had been enjoying their love child's hospitality, I was covered in mud. My clothes were soaked, I was tired and hungry, and I had not bathed since Thursday.
But I was glad to reunite with them and exhilarated to be at Woodstock.
Suddenly, the announcer (who hadn’t slept in three days either) announced in a bone-weary voice "Now please welcome to the stage, Jimi Hendrix."
The show wasn’t over yet.
Jimi’s appearance at Woodstock was profoundly anti-climactic. He was the headliner, but by the time he appeared at 9:00 on Monday morning, only a third of the audience remained. It was the longest show of his brief career and yet, to me, it was overshadowed by an ominous foreboding I could not explain. I felt kinda sorry for him.
Yasgur’s Farm looked like a battlefield in ruins. The few weary soldiers who survived somehow mustered the strength to shuffle up the hill as the sound of Jimi shredding The Star-Spangled Banner rang through the sky.
When the final note faded away and the last stragglers were finally gone, only 601 acres of garbage, mud, and memories remained.
Woodstock marked the end of the Age of Aquarius and the beginning of a far more sinister age—a socio-political struggle that rages to this day. I felt it coming even then. Woodstock was my great awakening, but only now am I beginning to understand it.
Less than four months later, on December 6, 1969, the first battle of this new war would be fought at a racetrack in California called Altamont. A year later, Jimi Hendrix was dead. The dream was over.
BACK TO THE CITY...
After finding our car (the Dayglo camper was long gone) we headed back to New York, stopping at the first payphone we found to call my aunt and uncle. Only then did we learn that my uncle had been at Woodstock all along, searching for us.
Our call calmed her down a little. Her husband was still MIA, but her baby was alive and well, and that’s what mattered most to her.
My uncle had still not surfaced when we arrived back at the Travel Inn at two o'clock. When he at last reappeared at four, he looked like he'd been dragged through a war, as I did. "The first thing I saw," he told us, "was a hippie girl dancing naked right out in the open."
40-year old steel workers from Sharon, PA don’t often see naked hippie girls dancing right out in the open. Clearly, he'd enjoyed it. A lot.
"She took my hand and started dancing with me!" he continued with a grin. "She was real nice, though. She even offered to help me look for you guys."
He was a working class guy from a working class world, thrust for two days into a strange new universe beyond his imagination. I've no doubt he searched for us dutifully; he was raised to do his duty. The gleam in his eye and that grin on his face told me that his hours at Woodstock were much more than a futile search for his son, though. Woodstock was the highlight of his life.
I think it was more fun for him and than it was for me, or maybe any of us.
25 YEARS LATER...
It was 1994 and I was now living in New York City, running SST Studios and Rentals. The promoters of Woodstock 25 hired me to serve as one of its stage managers and to provide backline for the festival’s south stage. Another memorable weekend and another great awakening.
It was supposed to be an updated celebration of peace and love, but when Green Day took the stage, it took an ugly turn. I know. I was on the stage with them.
“What is this free fucking hippy love shit? How are you doing, you rich motherfuckers?”
Those were Billie Joe Armstrong’s first words, and it was all downhill from there, Woodstock One's famous rainstorm only added to its mystique. The torrential downpours that drenched Woodstock 25 only added to its misery. As Green Day’s set neared its chaotic end, Billie Joe abandoned his guitar to volley clumps of mud at the crowd, and they threw it back. It launched a full-scale mud fight and I was helpless to stop it.
By the time it was over, SST’s brand-new gear was in ruins. The band’s manager approached me and asked, “How much is this gonna cost me?”
“Plenty,” I replied.
“That’s OK,” he laughed, “It will be worth every penny.”
25 years after Woodstock I, that was what the industry had become.
I’ve since been fortunate to work with half the artists I saw at Woodstock. One particularly endearing moment came as I viewed the muddy site of Woodstock 25 while standing with John Sebastian at the side of the stage.
“John,” I said, “I'm having a moment here, I was one of those kids rolling in the mud in front of you 25 years ago when you said, 'Far out man' and it's freaking me out a little to be here with you now.” He smiled and said, 'Me too.'"
Some years later, I hosted Richie Havens in the studio. I told him the same Woodstock story I’ve recounted for my readers here and he loved it. Richie was a beautiful man, a great and unique artist. He is gone, but he will never be forgotten.
This year, SST was on board to provide backline for Woodstock 50. The motor homes were booked, the bands were booked, the gear was booked, I’d come full circle...or so I thought.
I should have been there at Watkins Glen right now, preparing the Woodstock 50 stage. But the powers that be squashed the show. The dream was over…again.
Men plan, God laughs.
I once spent some time with Fred Weintraub. He was the promoter who handed a suitcase stuffed with cash to Michael Lang to fund the first festival in exchange for its film rights. Without Weintraub, there would have been no Woodstock and there would have been no film.
This time, for Michael Lang, there was no angel with a suitcase.
If you’ve never seen that film, do yourself a favor—see it now. If you have seen it, see it again. It's worth a rerun. Just remember, whatever you do…