Woodstock, '69. Over the past 50 years, the legendary music festival has evolved into a narrative of biblical dimensions, touching on the miraculous and transcendent. People talk reverently about the pilgrimage to Bethel, N.Y., as though recounting a visit to Lourdes.
Which explains why original Woodstock cofounder Michael Lang, is planning a 50th reunion of the festival on August 16th, 17th, and 18th, 2019, although recently the permit to host the festival in Vernon, N.Y., was denied over concerns about sewage, parking and road congestion. An effort is underway to move the anniversary festival to Columbia, Md., but nothing is firm yet.
Sewage, parking and road congestion was the last thing on our minds the morning of Aug. 16, 1969, when my cousin Bob and I rattled off to Bethel in Bob’s old VW bug, happily ignoring radio announcements warning people to stay away from the festival.
Soon after we left, a newscaster interrupted the Rolling Stones on the radio.
“If you are headed to the festival, please turn around immediately. The New York State Thruway is backed up for miles.”
Bob stepped on the gas.
By some miracle we managed to squeeze by police barricades, roadblocks and acres of abandoned cars.
Outside we followed a winding path through a wooded grove lit by hundreds of tiny lights, past colorful tents selling beads, moccasins and drug paraphernalia. Jugglers and magicians capered through the trees like woodland sprites.
“Far out! This is like a medieval fair,” said Bob.
A few moments later we emerged from the woods. I stopped, stunned. Before us was a steaming jungle of 500,000 bodies pounding 600 acres of virgin farmland into mud.
If the twinkling fairytale forest was a medieval fair, this was Dante’s inferno.
“This is cosmic. Look how great everyone is getting along!” Bob waved his arm towards the mass of humanity lounging topless on blankets, drinking wine and soaking up the sun.
In front of us a girl started screaming and flailing her arms.
“Another drug-freak out!” someone yelled.
Overhead helicopters whirred, airlifting performers in and the injured or panicked out. The slightly hysterical announcements booming over the P.A. system ramped up the intensity.
“If you’re freaking out on the blue acid, go to the blue tent! The volunteers there are people who freaked out on the blue acid yesterday. And remember, never take drugs from strangers!”
By the time darkness fell on Max’s farm, Governor Rockefeller had declared the site an official disaster area, and the army was airlifting in medical supplies, food and water. We had still not managed to hear any music or gotten anything to eat, and we were knee-deep in mud and human excrement. Even Bob agreed it was time to leave all the peace and love behind.
We left just before the Up-Against-the-Wall-Motherf*****s burned down the Food for Love concession stands.
For many, Woodstock holds a wistful allure, a longing for that lost weekend that blazed like a star over the fields of Bethel. “Woodstock” (the film) has further anchored the myth firmly in the cultural imagination. But you can’t experience sewage, parking or road congestion in a movie. You can get a front-row seat to hear Joan Baez while lounging on your couch with a cold beer. It’s, well, cosmic.
Two days after Woodstock, my cousin Bob was killed in a car accident. I felt heartbroken. But I also felt happy that he had been able to experience what, for him, was a spiritual and generational apocalypse. Now he was gone to that great Woodstock in the sky, where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would soon join him.
I think about Bob and the day we spent together at Woodstock often. I just hope that wherever Bob is now, he can hear the music.
Pamela Jane is a children’s book author and the author of a memoir, “An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story.” Her essays have appeared in in The Wall Street Journal, The Writer, Writer’s Digest the New York Daily News and The New York Times. Contact her at Pamelajane@pamelajane.com.