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Sounding Off: Festival was less fun for us

I’m another Laguna person who was at Woodstock. Here’s something I wrote around the 30th anniversary for a college student who was writing a paper on the festival. Like Jonathan Lukoff’s reminiscence, I think, it gives a different side of the event:

It’s interesting to be part of “history"! I went to the festival with two of my sisters, Lisa and Mary, and a sister’s girlfriend. We only stayed for the first day. We chose to leave early. That may surprise you, because, in retrospect, Woodstock seems such a pivotal cultural event. Why would anyone leave the event of the century early?! I’ll tell you.

At the time of Woodstock, I was 19 years old. I lived in a suburb of Chicago, but was going to school at Bard College, a place not far from the town of Woodstock, N.Y., where the festival was originally to be held. We all bought tickets for the festival in advance. My memory was that the three days cost something like $50 each "” at any rate, at the time, it seemed like a huge amount of money, but I was excited by a brochure I’d seen that listed the participants. I was very keen on folk music especially and that (rather than some of the rock musicians) was a stronger part of the draw for me. (I’m sure that if we’d kept those tickets they’d be worth something!)

We headed east in Lisa’s Karman Ghia. The plan was to camp out and go to the three days of the festival. Then we were going to head up into Canada and go to the Gaspe peninsula. I’d be dropped off for sophomore year at my college, and the other three would head back to the Chicago area.

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When we got on the highway near where the festival was to be held, we were absolutely astonished at the number of cars, all of them filled with young, hippyish people like ourselves. Since we’d bought tickets well in advance and since we were coming from far away, we were totally unaware that the festival would get swamped...so swamped that it became a free event, open to anyone who could get there. Needless to say, it took us a long time to get near the festival site.

We got a campsite, not far from a pond where we could swim and bathe (we joined a fair number of skinnydippers in the pond "” in those days, it was a part of back-to-the-earth youth culture), and we headed to the festival, walking perhaps a mile. It was definitely a “scene." Tons and tons of hippyish people, most of us in a festive mood. It was clear that something very big was happening. There was a sense of genial chaos.

When we got to the festival field we walked up to quite near the stage, not far from the big “tower" on the left. We pretty much stayed there, because if you didn’t have a “landmark," with so many folks it’d be very easy to get lost or disconnected. I remember that it took a long time to set up the sound system and get things underway. There were frequent announcements over the loudspeakers, conveying important information for lost people, medical situations, estimated crowd size, etc. My memory is that at that point it was fairly sunny and hot. Later, rain became a big part of the experience "” and was a big reason why we chose to leave after one day.

So, if you want to know how I remember Woodstock "” along with the thrill of being part of something huge and youth-oriented; along with the sense that most if not all of us shared a pro-peace, anti-war ideology; along with the music, I also recall how uncomfortable it was. There was a lot of sitting on hard ground that was getting increasingly muddy with the rain. There was a lot of waiting and waiting in the rain. We were hungry and there wasn’t much food. People were generally pretty friendly, but I think a lot of us were in the same situation "” i.e., not at all prepared for sitting for hours on hard ground in drizzly weather, feeling hungry and perhaps thirsty, also knowing that visits to the portapotty would involve more time and waiting, etc. I think we had a sandwich or two the whole day. These aren’t really the optimum conditions for enjoying music or relishing the fact that you’re part of a pivotal cultural phenomenon.

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Oddly enough, I don’t have a lot of memories of the music that first day. I did finally see the film “Woodstock" about a year ago, and that brought some of it back. I don’t want to confuse my own memories and experiences with anything from the film, so I won’t say much about the music aspect except what I clearly recall. In my own mind, I still haven’t really “mythologized" the event or music, because like so much history it feels different when you’re in it. And Woodstock, in some ways, felt both exciting and like a let-down. So many people, so much discomfort. (I wonder if I was even a little “bummed" that we’d paid for tickets and here were all these folks who’d crashed “our" party and contributed to the discomfort?) Mostly it was overwhelming "” so big, chaotic, uncomfortable "” it just happened to you. Much of it was rather dull, just sitting and watching and waiting for things to happen. It’s true, however, that it was extraordinary to look around and see that we were part of a vast sea of youth. That was exciting and exhilarating. We were definitely in another world "” what with the general youthfulness, the spontaneous interacting and dancing, the occasional nudity. There was a sense of being part of something unique. Along with the excitement, I think there was a slight edge of fatigue and anxiety too. With so many people, you were “stuck" in the crowd and who knows what might transpire? Again, a personal experience of an event can feel different than the later societal image of it.

My memory is that it took a very long time to get the music and sound system finally started. The sound system was having problems and there were some fears concerning the electrical system and the rain. While the music was extraordinary, again there was the discomfort element. (It’s different sitting on the muddy ground in the rain, hungry and tired "” and watching “Woodstock" on TV.) The musical performance I recall best is Ravi Shankar’s playing a raga. By that time it was night and raining. Again, the cultural image of Woodstock is that there was so much peace and harmony and cooperation, and while much of that seems true to my experience, I also remember that people were asked not to clap while Ravi Shankar was performing (that’s not part of the tradition and structure of raga playing) and yet they did clap. Perhaps inevitably with so many thousands, some people weren’t paying attention or didn’t care. At the time, I remember thinking that was disrespectful. If I recall right, I was excited by Richie Havens’ singing, and Joan Baez (though I was surprised because I think she sang “Joe Hill" "” an old labor union song, not what I would’ve expected). I also remember that there were a lot of people smoking marijuana and probably doing drugs. All three of us were more “straight," and we therefore didn’t experience Woodstock “stoned." That may have made the total experience considerably less “mellow" for us.

When we headed back to our campsite late that evening, I think my sisters may have been pretty keen on leaving. I don’t recall if I was for or against that choice, but in any event I must’ve concurred with the “group" sentiment. I probably would have been willing to stay, but it was very uncomfortable sitting for hours, etc. I remember that it felt wonderful to jump in the pond the next day and feel cleaner, refreshed. I’m sure that we probably felt some relief, rather than reluctance in leaving the next day. More people were pouring in, but we were just dealing with the logistics of getting away. I recall that we drove north, journeying through the area of rural New York state in which there are towns of Hasidic Jews, with the men and women wearing traditional outfits, signs in Hebrew, etc. From there we headed up to French Canada. We’d left one exotic world, Woodstock, for others.

Over the years, I’ve felt a certain pride in being able to say that I was there, but what I don’t always say is that is that I, and the folks I was with, chose to leave! Truth is stranger than fiction.


KEVIN O’BRIEN lives in Laguna Beach.


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