Remembering Woodstock Almost 55 Years Later

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The other night I was watching the movie, Woodstock: The Director’s Cut. What memories. Almost from the very start there were people on screen who are no longer with us. Festival organizer Michael Lang, concert promoter Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Bob and Richard Hite and Larry Taylor of Canned Heat, John Entwistle and Keith Moon of The Who … it’s a long list. In fact the producers who made the director’s cut added a list of all those involved who have passed on.

There’s a couple of scenes in the movie where yoga instruction is going on from the stage and then a spot of grass near the concert site. Woodstock was about “Peace & Music,” and so much more. Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, leading a security force — dig that — as well as a group of, for lack of a better term, medical people who are helping people get through bad LSD trips. The immortal words of MC Chip Monck: . “You may take it with however many grains of salt you wish [but] the brown acid that’s circulating around us is not specifically too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that.”

For a 13-year-old, soon to be 14, hearing all the hippie-speak about LSD and marijuana was exciting information. There was Jerry Garcia holding a joint up to the camera saying “Marijuana, Exhibit A.”

Exciting stuff for a kid who wished he had been five years older so he could have gone to Woodstock. Two people I knew went and they had a great time. I suppose being 13 was too young to attend such an event.

A couple years later I learned the musicians and bands had played longer sets than what we saw in the film or heard from the two double albums. That just made me ache more for not going. I was familiar with a lot of the bands already, like The Who, the Grateful Dead Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Country Joe ad the Fish, to name just a few. The news media couldn’t get enough of the Summer of Love in 1967. It left its mark on my soul and psyche.

So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the days I could hold up in my hand, “Exhibit A,” and avoid the brown acid. Well actually, I never avoided taking acid.

As I got older the music from Woodstock faded as new music began to shape my musical interests. Frank Zappa was the greatest during my high school years and beyond. He still is, as a matter of fact. I still enjoyed listening to Ten Years After featuring Alvin Lee on lead guitar and vocals. Many guitar players saw Lee, with his signature Gibson ES 335, and went crazy for his speed and dexterity with the guitar. He was also a decent singer, but that took a back seat to his guitar playing .Many called Lee the fastest guitarist in the West.

Several years later I had the opportunity to see Ten Years After and they were great. Wishbone Ash was the opening act. If you like early 1970s guitar-driven rock, that was a great concert lineup. Much like the time I saw Pat Travers open for Van Halen.

Towards the end of the film farmer Max Yasgur, on whose farm the festival was held, delivers his iconic message to the hundreds of thousands of fans sitting in his fields. Closing with this, “… the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are — a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!”

The reason I’ve been thinking about this, watching the movie many times over, is because I will be attending my high school 50 year class reunion this summer. I graduated just five years after Woodstock and just over a month after graduating from Alexander Hamilton High School in Milwaukee I was at MCRD San Diego, training to become a U.S. Marine.

My interests in music didn’t change just because I was wearing an olive drab -colored uniform. It actually expanded. One group of fellow Marines turned me on to Funkadelics/ Parliament and other funk music. The 70s were a great time for life and music, whether in a military uniform or not. And it was kicked off by the “Aquarian  Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” in Bethel, New York instead of Woodstock, which is about 60 miles northeast of Yasgur’s farm.

It was a beautiful thing, an event that could only happen once, as witnessed by the deadly Altamont Free Festival at the Altamont Speedway near Tracy, California. The Grateful Dead pulled out of that one due to the increasing violence. Four people died at Altamont, one of whom was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels who were the security force.

Woodstock could only happen once. The sequels, in 1994 (25th Anniversary) and 1999 (the 30th Anniversary) couldn’t measure up to the original and the one in 1999 was marred by violence, including sexual assault.

Yes, the original in August 1969 is the only one worth remembering. It should be noted the original album made from the festival has some music not seen in the movie. We see Jefferson Airplane on screen, but the film doesn’t include their song “Volunteers,” which I like more than “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” which are included in the director’s cut of the film.

We don’t see the Butterfield Blues Band in the movie, although their song “Love March,” which is on the album, is incredibly stirring.

Ending the festival and the film and album is Jimi Hendrix and his Gypsy Suns and Rainbows. Jimi’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner” blew everyone’s mind.  They played on Monday morning, August 19, at about 9 a.m. Many of the people had left before Hendrix and his band took the stage, but the albums and film preserve it for the histories of music and cinema. Fans can buy Jimi’s entire set at Woodstock, either streaming or on CD and that is worth every penny.

The only disappointment with the Hendrix set: Because Jimi was booked as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the producers did not include the audio of the two percussionists, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez, and second guitarist Larry Lee. But points in the film and on the album, it sounds like Jimi is playing two guitars, which is only half correct. Larry Lee, who had recently returned from Vietnam, was playing that second guitar. We can only imagine what it sounded like with all six musicians in the recordings — as Jimi had intended.

That aside, get the album and the movie and enjoy it all. Here in California, as it is in 24 other states and one territory (Guam) Jerry Garcia’s exhibit A is legal.