By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
I have a confession to make.
I was a Woodstock deserter.
There, that feels better. But, yes, it’s true. On Aug. 16, 1969, after only one of the three days of peace, love and music, I voluntarily abandoned the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. As the 50th anniversary of the festival draws near, I am reminded of this — no doubt the worst decision of my then 21 fun-loving years.
Your response is probably something like: What a loser. And, why?
Well, no excuses, and there’ll be more on that later, but a contributing factor could have been that I had never seen so many people in one place, no less been surrounded by them. It was an astounding, imposing sight.
Like the 400,000 or so who blanketed the vast slope of that cow pasture turned amphitheater in Upstate New York, I hadn’t experienced anything like it before — because nothing like it had ever happened here before. Even the promoters were famously caught off-guard as the crowd swelled to a couple of hundred thousand more than they’d prepared for.
The giveaway came immediately as I and my friend, Michael, had finally slogged our way to the entrance gate on Friday morning. Groggy after a night sleeping in the car thanks to the traffic jam from hell on the New York State Thruway, we were greeted with the sight of people breaching the fences — rendering the $18 advance tickets in our hands worthless (as worthless as $18 for three days of rock’s biggest acts could be — $18!)
It may not have been the first rock festival, but none had the magnitude of Woodstock in size, scope and significance. Billed as An Aquarian Exposition, it’s weight as a countercultural and musical watershed has been well-documented in film and song — and consecrated in countless, glassy-eyed retellings. But as for its larger cultural and generational impact, I just have two words: Woodstock Nation.
Interestingly, of the over 20 such festivals that preceded Woodstock, three occurred in South Florida — and one of them had a direct bearing on it: The co-promoter of the first Miami Pop Festival in 1968 was none other than Michael Lang. A year later, he put on Woodstock. (And this year, he appears to be failing in his beleaguered attempts to stage the 50th anniversary festival.)
Held at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, the Miami Pop in May was also kindred with Woodstock for two other reasons: Jimi Hendrix and the rain. At the racetrack, rain canceled the entire second day of shows, making Hendrix’s performance the previous night the unintended closer. (Fun fact: His song, Rainy Day, Dream Away, was inspired by the rainout.) At Woodstock, the psychedelic guitar hero was also the closing act, but rain delays postponed his finale until early Monday morning. Though the crowd had dwindled to an estimated 30,000, his ballistic performance of the Star-Spangled Banner remains perhaps the festival’s enduring flashback.
Officially promoted as the “1968 Pop and Underground Festival” and “The 1968 Pop Festival,” the May event drew about 25,000 and became known colloquially as the “Miami Pop Festival.” This has led it to be confused with the much larger and unrelated Miami Pop Festival in December, also held at Gulfstream. With a three-day crowd of about 100,000, it was the first major festival on the East Coast, and boasted an eclectic lineup of about 30 acts, ranging from Joni Mitchell to Marvin Gaye, Flatt & Scruggs to Hugh Masekela. It was also the first rock festival with two main stages simultaneously showing big-name performers.
The third festival was called the Big Rock Pow-Wow, three months before Woodstock at the Hollywood Seminole Indian Reservation. Headliners The Grateful Dead played two of the festival’s three nights, and as if that wasn’t hallucinogenic enough, Timothy Leary spoke from the stage to close out the second night.
The cliché is that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t there. Well, I was only there for a day and it’s all pretty much a blur. Except for Richie Havens walking onstage furiously strumming his guitar to open the acoustic first night of the festival, I remember so little that in writing this I’ve had to appeal to the memory of my friend, Michael.
He tells me that before dark we left our little space about a third of the way down the hillside to try to find something to eat at a booth in back. The scene was a Fellini film in tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottom jeans, flowing peasant dresses and flowing hair, love beads and flower patches, patchouli and other pungent aromas. Then there was the ultimate Woodstock fashion statement — a random longhair or three strolling among the throng, carefree and completely naked.
Somehow Michael and I lost each other, and by the time I tried to return to our place, darkness had fallen over the crowd. The only light came from the very distant stage as I teetered on tiptoes through the sea of crammed bodies. I was never able to find my way back, but it didn’t matter. Wherever I landed, it was always the perfect spot.
The next morning brought one of those trippy moments when I discovered that Michael and I had ended up mere feet from each other. I’ve wondered what might have happened if I hadn’t found him though, because it was he who drove the decision to leave.
Since it had taken us an entire night to make what would normally be the two-hour drive from our Northern Jersey homes, Michael had become paranoid that he wouldn’t make it back in time for work Monday at his father’s engineering firm, as he’d promised. In his defense, at that point, it did seem like anything could happen — good or bad — with so many people jammed together, virtually no security presence, the promoters in crisis mode and the feeling that the now-free festival was making itself up as it went along. Despite the air of community that eventually prevailed, Woodstock was declared a disaster area by the governor, and the Army had to airlift in supplies.
When Michael told me he wanted to leave, after some serious waffling I decided the right thing to do was to go with my ride. My customary cop-out joke has always been that Woodstock just wasn’t happening enough for me. The truth is that I have spent a half-century of concert-going to try to make up for that bonehead decision — beginning that very day when I trekked 150 miles south to Asbury Park, N.J., to catch a Led Zeppelin concert that night.
Before it was recently aborted, I had been toying with one last shot at redemption by making it up to Woodstock 50 this month in Upstate New York. Maybe I’ll just pick up the new Woodstock 50 — Back to the Garden box set that, with 36 hours’ worth of 432 songs, is kind of like being there. Maybe not.
I’ll probably just go on living with the minor regret of having missed two days of legendary rock performances and who knows how many experiences that could only have been described as far-out — such as my current friend John’s serendipitous stumbling into a Woodstock wooded campsite and smack into a brother he hadn’t seen for years.
But, you know, I too got rained on, I was sung a lullaby by Joan Baez and I slept the night in my hillside space warmed by 400,000 of my closest friends. It may have been distilled, yes, but I still had a Woodstock experience.
And I still have Michael’s memories.