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Bill & Jim’s Woodstock Story

My story is about the real Woodstock, the one that happened in the summer of 1969. I have to admit I was somewhat appalled in 1994 when I heard that there were plans for a Woodstock II, typical of our culture’s obsession with sequels. It’s been my experience that such things are seldom worth doing, and trying to stage a repeat of an event that was so unexpected and so significant seems arrogant and pointless to me. Anyway.

I was amazed and delighted when I saw the ad in Rolling Stone magazine listing the lineup of bands and solo performers set to appear at this festival. I don’t think there was a single artist I liked and would love to see live (short of the Beatles and Rolling Stones) missing from this list. I knew I needed to be there if at all possible, so I showed the ad to my best friend Jim and we started plotting. We had a few weeks before it would be time to leave. I had a car, so that wasn’t an issue (it was a VW bug, of course), but I knew my parents didn’t like Jim, so I decided to let them believe I was going with an old high school friend named Alan. I think I chose him because, while we’d been pretty good friends at school and had hung out some at night and on weekends, we weren’t really the going-to-each-other’s-houses kind of close friends. Also he lived in a different subdivision and our parents didn’t know each other, so I figured the chances of being busted were minimal. The other issue was that I had never been anywhere near that far away from home before. I lived in Northern Kentucky then, and my mom freaked out if I wanted to cross the river into Cincinnati!

What I finally decided to do was to just go to them and say that there was a big concert in New York I wanted to go to, and I’d like it if they gave me their permission, but I was 18 and had my own transportation, so they couldn’t stop me and I would go either way. Much to my surprise, my dad just looked at me and said “Well. OK then.”

So on Thursday, the day before the start of the concert, we left Cincinnati and headed for Columbus, where we were to pick up Debbie, a friend of Jim’s who wanted to go with. Actually more of a friend-of-a-friend, I think, but it was 1969 and everybody was our friend! Early on I launched a discussion of sharing driving duties, as I wasn’t convinced we’d make it to NY alive if I was the only driver. Debbie made it clear that she was not a driver. In fact, she did little during the whole trip besides sit in the back seat with the 12-string guitar she’d insisted she had to bring (remember, VW bug) and smoke cigarettes, which was a bit annoying to Jim and me, being non-smokers. Jim, it turns out, had never learned to drive a stick shift, so I taught him along the way and he took a good share of the driving.

We had made sure to bring along as many 8 tracks as we could find of the bands we were going to see, and we spent the entire trip listening again and again to stuff like Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who’s Tommy, and the brand new Crosby Stills and Nash album. Also a little Mothers of Invention thrown in just because we dug them. Musical heaven! We had an atlas, but I’m still fuzzy about how we made it there with as few problems as we had (we only got lost 2 or 3 times), particularly since a fair amount of our driving once we got to somewhere in Pennsylvania was done in the dark.

But eventually, we did indeed arrive in White Lake sometime Friday morning. That’s when we discovered how incredibly many people had the same idea we did! Roads were choked for miles around the farm, so eventually we just pulled our car off the road as so many people were doing and walked the rest of the way. I would guess we walked at least 3 or 4 miles to reach the concert area, but what a rush it was to arrive! I forgot to mention that we hadn’t bought tickets. Figured we’d just pay at the gate. Of course by the time we got there the gate no longer existed and Woodstock was officially a free concert. We strolled in, found the little spot we would occupy for the next 3 days and settled in.

We really had come for the concert, so we never even saw that great big lake where all the skinny-dippers were, or all the head shops crammed into festival booths all through the woods. I assume we went to use those porta-potties from the movie at some point, but I have no clear memory of that. We did patronize the booth of one of the food vendors, not long before some radical person burned it down in protest of overpricing. I also forgot to mention that food was not really something we had considered, so we were delighted to eat the oats and raw ears of corn eventually distributed by the Hog Farm folks.

We had noticed a row of water spigots on our way in, and when we got mightily thirsty, Debbie volunteered (to our surprise) to go fetch a couple of jugs of water. I have no memory of where she obtained those 2 gallon jugs, but off she went. We knew based on how far away the spigots were, and the denseness of the crowd, that it would be awhile, but after a couple of hours we started to worry that she was lost. As we scanned the crowd, I suddenly heard a rather unkind expletive from Jim, then followed his pointing arm across the crowd until I spotted Debbie, wending her way through the crowd, trading drinks of water for hits of pot. Still despite the rain, mud, lack of food, and annoying “friends” (she also burned Jim’s back with a cigarette at one point, accidentally, I think), it was the best 3 days of our lives.

From our vantage point around two-thirds of the way up that big natural amphitheater, we couldn’t really see that much, but we got to hear the best music ever for free. When we just couldn’t sit or stand up any longer, well then we just slumped over on the ground and went to sleep. And when we woke up. MORE MUSIC! John Sebastian. Richie Havens. The Fish Cheer! Ten Years After. Arlo. Santana. Joan Baez. Sly Stone. Janis. ALL MY IDOLS! Late on Saturday night (technically early Sunday morning), I went to sleep (or collapsed) at the end of the Who’s Tommy set, then woke to the Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick shouting “Good morning people!” Truly it was a little bit of heaven on earth for us music-lovers.

By the time Monday morning came around, a lot of people had left, but we were there in large part to see Jimi Hendrix and had no intention of leaving until we’d seen him. With the crowd so thinned out, we were able to move way up to within a couple of rows of the stage! Imagine our surprise when instead of Hendrix, Sha Na Na overtook the stage! We had not heard of them yet and didn’t know quite what to make of them, but they delivered a fine show at any rate. And then it was time for the master! It was hard to believe we were hearing that screaming guitar live and that the man himself was a few mere feet away. I swear to this day that there were a few times when he leaned back to produce some of those long, wailing, bending guitar notes, and lightning streaked up across the sky in just the direction his guitar was pointing! If Jim were still with us, he’d back me up.

Finally, the event of our lifetime was over and it was time to go home.

I don’t really remember the trip home at all, just my mom looking at me when I got home and yelling “Oh my god, look how dirty his feet are!” This being the first thing she could think to say after suffering 3 days of anxiety attacks from the news coverage, which had convinced her that I was surely dead in a ditch. I do remember that it took weeks for that high to wear off. Also I discovered that I had finally achieved a bit of notoriety just by having been there! Years went by, Jim moved to Florida, and I married and had 2 sons. Then, in the summer of 1985, my wife Phyllis spotted an article in the paper about a local artist living in Florida who had died at the age of 37. We’d kept in touch over time, but I hadn’t seen or heard from him in several years. It was just 3 months after my dad had passed. A real year of loss.

But the final chapter in my story actually happened just a few months ago at the birthday party of my friend Belmo. He’s quite the music authority, specializing in the Beatles but also with a minor in sixties and psychedelic music, and a major interest in Woodstock. I think I’m his hero just a little bit, having been an attendee. At any rate, the two of us have spent untold amounts of time scrutinizing the Woodstock movie trying to find Jim and myself in the crowds, as indeed Jim and I had done years earlier. At this particular party, Belmo was screening his new acquisition, a DVD called “Hendrix Live at Woodstock.” I offhandedly mentioned that this would really be a good film to catch me and Jim in, seeing how close to the stage we were for Hendrix.

We watched for a while, but eventually the movie and music faded into background noise until I heard Phyllis yell “Stop! Stop the video! That was Jim!” Belmo paused and rewound a bit, and sure enough, there was me and Jim, filling up the entire screen. That’s me on the left, looking dazed and slack-jawed, and my best friend ever just digging Hendrix. In a room full of people, fully half of whom I’d just met, I just burst into tears! A 40-year search had finally borne fruit, but sadly enough, the one person I would have loved to share this photo with was 25 years gone. Still, this photo is a treasure to me.

It’s one of very few things I have left of my best friend, and the only really tangible memory of our best road trip ever.

– Bill
Cincinnati, Ohio