The day that we were set to play at the Woodstock rock concert was just as weird and mixed up as the whole concert had been so far… but, let me back up a minute or so…
My name is Gregory L. “Duke” Dewey.
I was 21 years old, and playing drums for a band called Country Joe & the Fish, and we were flying to New York City to play in a three day concert event that would astonish the world, and also anyone who went to this concert, and the people that put it on, and the musicians themselves.
On the plane, flying from San Francisco to New York City, I had run into a special person. “Colonel Jim Sanders” had boarded the plane, as he walked by me, dressed exactly the same as in all the pictures and those signs of him at Colonel Sanders Fried Chicken stores, I said to Country Joe, “dang, Joe, that was Colonel Sanders, and Joe said, “No that wasn’t, man…” and I said, “You think guys walk around dressed like that just to pretend to be him? Do you think people walk around dressed like Country Joe? Heck, no, they don’t, that’s GOTTA BE HIM!” (The reason I mention this is because Joe always mentions it when he’s interviewed). We were flying to the gig at Woodstock, and I had gone down to talk to Colonel Sanders, once we were in the air, and sure enough, when I asked him “Are you Colonel Sanders?” he said, “Yup, Colonel Jim Sanders, at your service!” I asked him “What do you think about the hippies?”
He responded, “They eat chicken, don’t they?”
Once at Woodstock, the crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger, it didn’t seem to stop getting bigger, not ’til it rained… but that did not stop the concert.
I know, because while it was raining and no one was playing, I decided to play. I am a drummer, I play a totally acoustic instrument, and my drum heads had been made out of plastic instead of cow hide, for years, since I was in ninth grade at the Bryan High School, Yellow Springs, Ohio. They were virtually waterproof. I asked my equipment manager to set my drums up, I could play for the audience, and it wouldn’t electrocute me… I don’t have to plug in!
And so it was. I don’t know how long I played; it was close to, or longer than, an hour. Somewhere it is on tape, it was filmed, I’m sure, I don’t know how many people heard it but I played, I have never felt more compelled to play for an audience than I did on that day… never…
We had set up to play, and were on the verge of starting, when the sky turned black. Everyone from the Dayton area knows what those midsummer screaming thunderstorms are like. Day becomes almost night in a matter of minutes. And then the sky seems to fall apart from lightning and thunder and drops what seems like tons of water down upon the earth. The wind howls, stuff flies around, and the rain falls and falls.
I felt so helpless watching this huge audience just sit it out, they couldn’t move, and had nothing to protect them… they just took it. I watched them from the relative safety of the stage, but then the wind got very strong, my drums almost blew off the stage, while my equipment managers took care of my drums and the rest of our amps and guitars, I decided to watch over my equipment managers’ children, you can see me get them in the movie, and take them off the back of the stage.
We went down under the stage; it was about 20 feet tall. After awhile, the kids had settled down a bit, knowing that their daddy would soon come down to be with them. Then we heard these loud noises all of a sudden, as if people were pounding on the stage above with hammers or something, then suddenly a gush of water came from nowhere, and there was suddenly a waterfall coming out of the stage above us… bam! Then another, then another, they had cut holes in the stage with axes taken from ambulances. I later found out that the stage was pooling water. No one had thought of that possibility and the water was pooling fast, and getting very, very heavy, making a collapse almost sure to come, so they found the axes and chopped holes in the stage to let the water run off, thus preventing the eventual collapse of the stage due to the sheer weight of about a hundred square feet of water, two to five inches deep.
Eventually the storm slowed some, and I returned the children to their dad and asked him if I could play for the audience. After, I don’t know how long, but it was four or five hours, the rain almost came to a stop. After a lot of discussion about how important it was to play, considering whether we’ll get electrocuted, we, Country Joe & the Fish, agreed to go on.
If you pay close attention to the movie, you will see that we are playing on top of “dry” 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood that they put down on the stage for us. Our sound was not that great, our amps and speakers having spent hours semi-covered in a torrential rainstorm. The speakers were made out of paper, remember, and they were soggy. The sound sounded soggy to me, but there was so much energy coming off of that incredible audience, that nothing mattered anymore.
We just started, and they were happy we did, they had endured the storm and truly deserved to hear some of the music they came to see and hear. As I said, I have never before or since felt more compelled to play music for an audience. I was not aware of the fact that I was making a movie at the same time; it was just, PLAY THE MUSIC no matter what.
Ten Years After played after us, I knew them vaguely, and heck, I knew every one that was playing at this concert, sort of. But what set this concert apart from all other concerts for us musicians is this: We ALL came the first night, so we could hear each other. Normally we are all buzzing around the world at the same time so we don’t have time to hear one another unless we are in a concert together, and at this one, we were ALL going to be there.
We were all staying at a 350-room Holiday Inn about twenty miles from the concert site, and it was sooooooo crowded that all the roads to the concert were blocked! We were all stuck in the motel, for four days! My God, we had to deal with each other – actually TALK TO EACH OTHER and stuff like that! Musicians are typically shy people, they are self-involved, we don’t really know how to talk to other people, and we can play but, what, TALK!?
So here we all were, only three bands could go out to the site at a time on helicopters flown by the Reserves. After awhile, it turned out great, there were huge games of cards, heck, I remember a table with some of The Band, Airplane, Steve Miller Band, Jimi himself, Grace, Marty Balin, Garcia and the Dead, Janice, myself, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Richie Havens, Sebastian, guys from Blood Sweat and Tears, David Crosby, Sly’s band, Joe Cocker’s band… everyone would be down in the restaurant/bar, it was open 24 hours a day for four days. We ate a lot of food and drank a grunt-load of booze, and the party never stopped, because the concert went on around the clock.
I met and hung out with musicians that I don’t think I ever would have had an opportunity to hang out with otherwise. Some of them became lifelong friends, like Marty Balin, who formed the Jefferson Airplane, and sang most of the songs. He, myself, and Keith Moon from the Who, the incredible one-of-a-kind drummer, the three of us, would meet in the bar, and mostly drink ’til we needed to go back to bed, then we’d wake up later and eventually the three of us would be down there again, various people falling in and out of the trio. Eventually, I would have the fight of my life trying to recover from alcoholism, Keith would die from the same disease, and Marty found yoga and dried himself out and saved his life.
The big thing was for me, about this experience, is that we, the musicians had to make friends with each other, and live together as if on a ship for four days, as we all, in turn, flew out over the massive 500,000 strong audience to play for them.
Woodstock was the beginning of a five-month tour for Country Joe & the Fish, in which I would participate in one movie accidentally, (Woodstock) and make two others intentionally, and tour the USA and Europe, then land back home at San Francisco Bay. I have a gold record from the Woodstock movie soundtrack… I think that by now they may owe me at least one platinum one! The only money that has ever changed hands in regards to this event was the money I had to shell out to buy my own gold record, $67.56. That’s it, so far. I am going to put the drums I played at Woodstock (and that are in the movie), up for sale.
It occurred to me – at some point during the Woodstock experience – that this could be the biggest audience that I ever play for in my entire life, and that it was very special, how it all happened by accident, and that I needed to keep paying attention to what was going on, since it may never happen again in my lifetime!
Everyone who was anyone played at Woodstock, with the small exception of Cream, Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan… pretty much everyone else was there… all at once… together by accident.
Yellow Springs, Ohio