The cliff hanger ending of the first post in my 1969 Woodstock Festival saga left me standing next to my paintings at the art show on the hilltop a couple of hundred yards from the stage, early on Friday evening. Country Joe McDonald was playing by then, and I’d just come face to face with Stephen Greene, my dreaded drawing instructor from the MFA program at Columbia University. As one of the judges, he’d been flown in by helicopter. On Saturday afternoon, I learned I’d been awarded second prize in the art show, and a month or two later, I received a modest check and a congratulatory letter from the promoters of the festival. I hope I can unearth that letter somewhere in my files, since it will help verify my presence and that of my paintings at the legendary event.
By Friday evening, attendance at the art show had slacked off considerably. By now the sloping terrain that formed a natural amphitheater around the stage was jammed with thousands of people. Wandering around was becoming more and more difficult, and folks were reluctant to desert the territory they’d staked out with their tarps and blankets. When the refreshing drizzle segued into steadier rain, I stashed my paintings in the van, then hunkered down on my beach towel through a number of acts. Midway through Ravi Shankar’s set, I decided to walk back to my motel several miles away. I was soaked to the skin and my feet were beginning to blister where my leather sandals rubbed the wrong way, but the few hours’ sleep in a clean dry bed were worth the aggravation.
For Saturday’s trek back to the festival site, I switched to my Zori sandals (that’s what we called flip flops back then.) The day was hot and sunny, and the walk seemed endless, but at last, while Santana played a blistering set, I set up my paintings on the hillside once more. Then I headed down into the mob with my beach towel. By now the crowd was the sea of jam-packed bodies that’s become the iconic image of the festival. I managed to sandwich myself in a few hundred feet from the stage, and there I stayed for the next 16 hours.
Yes, that’s right – sixteen (16) hours. By now moving was impossible. The porta-potties might as well have been miles away, and as for the food stands, forget about it – they were out of food anyway. I’d brought something to eat and drink – maybe bread, cheese, and fruit, I forget – but it was soon gone. And as for peeing, I didn’t. Not even once. Looking back, reflecting on the current state of my plumbing, that’s inconceivable, but my body must have gone into emergency shut-down survival mode. Somehow all the bodily discomforts didn’t bother me. Sometimes I sat, sometimes I stood or danced, sometimes I lay down and closed my eyes, but never once did I leave that soggy, filthy beach towel.
And I wasn’t stoned. The people around me shared a few tokes, the way we shared juice or water, but drugs weren’t a major part of the picture, at least for me. I wasn’t puritanical – I just wasn’t particularly interested, nor was I there to pick up guys. By now the art show was pretty much a lost cause, and I was there for the music, as were thousands of others. Maybe the seriously stoned folks stayed on the periphery of the crowd, but I believe that aspect of the experience may have been blown out of proportion over the years.
As for the music, it just kept getting better. The Grateful Dead were off their game, but Janis Joplin was incredible. By late Saturday night, I realized getting back to the motel would be pointless, even if it were remotely possible, so I just lay down on my few square feet of towel. Sometime around 2:00 a.m. I drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by people jumping up and down dangerously near my head while Sly and the Family Stone exhorted them to “Stand” and “Dance to the Music.” Fortunately I was wide awake by the time The Who came on for a two-hour set. Musically, spiritually and esthetically, hearing and seeing them perform their rock opera “Tommy” as the sky lightened and the sun rose on Sunday morning was my peak experience of the weekend.
Then came Jefferson Airplane, terrific as always. Toward the end of their set, I decided I’d better check on my paintings, which I’d left unattended overnight. There they still were, anchored safely in place and undamaged on the hilltop. There too, unfortunately, was the artist who’d driven the van. He and his wife wanted to leave, he said – they had to get back to work Monday morning and they couldn’t stand the thought of another potentially endless traffic jam. Without much of a choice, I packed up my paintings and we left, with a stop at the motel to pick up the overnight bag of clothes I’d never used. The trip back to SoHo was uneventful and anticlimactic – I think I slept most of the way.
So what did it all mean? Did Woodstock change my life, and how do I feel about it 40 years later? That’ll be the subject of my next post. I hope you’ll check back then, and as always, I welcome your comments in the meantime.