A recent New York Times article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the three days of Peace, Love and Music in Bethel, New York, in 1969 surprisingly drew a lot of nasty comments http://tinyurl.com/mkeatu. Most of the negative criticism and “get-over-it-already” attitude appeared to be the opinions of those aging baby boomers who didn’t attend. They are either still harboring a 40-year grudge that they missed it, or else they are the same uptight crowd that give us baby boomers the evil reputation (among younger generations) of being greedy old bastards who are hell-bent on destroying the economy and the planet.
I’m one of the relics, a leftover of the 400,000 or so who made their way to Yasgur’s farm to spend three days and nights listening to the premier musical artists of our day. What we found when we arrived was something even more amazing, and that’s one reason we’ll never forget our experiences. It’s the stuff that cultural legends are made of, a story to hand down to future generations. I’m sorry if the uptight crowd still thinks we were a bunch of unwashed, drug-addicted, sexually depraved hooligans. I’ve lived another 40 years as a contributing member of society and I’m going to tell my story, if you care to stomach another version of the Woodstock legend. Those three days changed my awareness, all for the better:
It took a couple of weeks to convince my boyfriend to come back from his summer job in New Hampshire to accompany me to what was being touted as the music event of a lifetime. Eventually, he gave in and we purchased tickets for all three days. I don’t remember exactly what they cost, but I do remember it was a hefty sum for two teenagers in those days. The irony, of course, is that when we got there, so many people had shown up, that tickets became irrelevant.
Neither of us had a driver’s license, so we bummed a ride up to White Lake with some high school friends of mine. About 3 or 4 miles outside of the festival, the two lane highway had turned into a massive parking lot headed one way to the festival. We got out with my friends’ camping gear and walked the rest of the way. It was the first time in my life I can recall walking that far. It seemed like such a great distance for me, spoiled and pampered as I was at the tender age of 17.
There were a lot of people even on Friday afternoon before the concert started, and as the evening turned to night, more people kept showing up. I remember the opening act: the rough urgency of Richie Havens’ voice and guitar, and then Melanie, young, slender and pretty, who later immortalized her own memories of looking out from the stage into an ocean of hopeful young people as we lit matchbooks and candles in the rain. When I saw her years and years later performing for free on a beach in Florida, the crowd broke out the cigarette lighters, shining like stars in a sudden downpour. I filled with my own sudden downpour of tears. I was older, Melanie was a plump, aging hippie with two grown daughters, and it seemed like Love, Peace and Music was a dusty concept to brush off and air out at concerts performed by has-beens.
Many wax ecstatic over their memories of Woodstock. Like the old joke about the ’60s…”If you remember them, you probably weren’t there,” I have my doubts about the validity of most of these reminisces. After all, most everyone was high, and they are all 50 years old or more now. I can barely trust my own memory, and I wasn’t stoned that weekend. What I do remember, besides the thirst, the hunger, the heat exhaustion, bug bites and waking up in a cold puddle of mud was the sheer power of almost half a million young people spontaneously coming together to celebrate life with a collective free spirit that had never been seen in such magnitude.
Without hearing many of the groups perform that I’d come to watch, I begged my boyfriend to help me find a way home on Sunday morning. Painstakingly, we hitched rides one after another until we got to New Jersey, and from there we took a train to New York City. As we passed a newsstand in the bowels of Penn Station, I saw this headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times…”300,000 at Folk-Rock Fair Camp Out in a Sea of Mud.” A 5×6 aerial photo showed the stage in the right bottom corner and the rest of the frame was filled with tiny dots, somewhere among them my own. Like 100s of thousands of pinpricks of light, we had come together in a galaxy of peace for one brief weekend in time.
I was paralyzed with a feeling like pride, and realized that I had just been part of something significant. I had, for the first time in my life, experienced something much bigger than just myself. It took many years for me to begin to understand how we are all a part of one another, something a lot of people who came to Woodstock that weekend already seemed to know. Still, it was a start for me, and though I wish I’d been less self-absorbed at the time, I could not help but take away a seed of understanding that germinated and grew long after we left the festival behind.
Peace be with you,
Long live the spirit of Woodstock 1969: Peace, Love and Music