(Daniel Wolf/Globe Staff/file 1969)
BETHEL, N.Y. - "You been here before?" the young man behind the window asked me as I approached to buy a ticket to the Woodstock museum a few weeks ago. Before I realized that it was a standard question he was asking everyone in line, my instant reaction was, "Whoa, is he looking for my life story?"
Stephen Kurkjian, circa 1972
I covered the music festival for the Globe in 1969 and wrote a first-person sidebar that can be found by clicking here. And while trying to capture the chaos and exuberance of the event in straight news stories wasn't an easy task, I believe the exhausted enjoyment I gained from it helped me choose journalism as a career and not the law. [To see the Globe's coverage on Aug. 16, 1969, click here]
Forty years ago, as I traipsed up the final slope to the festival's grounds, there was no clear direction to my future, nor was there any clear direction to ticket booths, food, toilets, or other amenities.
The fences near the entrance of the festival had been torn down, and the three-day musical extravaganza, which had been expected to draw 80,000, had quickly grown beyond anyone's expections. Practically overnight, Max Yasgur's farmland had suddenly become one of the largest cities in New York State, and there was panic in the air about how basic accommodations would be provided for the 400,000 who had arrived by Friday afternoon.
Having intended to write just a Sunday wrap-up story on the concert, I said to Mark Flanagan, a Globe Northeastern intern who accompanied me on the trek, "I think this has become a daily," and left him to find the press tent. We didn't meet up for the rest of the weekend.
"Start filing," barked veteran Globe reporter Jim Stack, my rewrite man that night, when I reached him on one of the bank of phones I found in the near-empty press tent. "File what?" I asked. "It's just a lot of people waiting for a concert to begin." He quickly informed me that there might be no concert at all. The New York Thruway was closed because of the massive traffic jam of cars and Governor Nelson Rockefeller was threatening to call in the National Guard to deal with health and safety emergencies. And there was real fear that the event might turn into a violent, anti-Vietnam War protest.
But a quick tour of the immediate vicinity around the press tent and an inspection of the giant bandstand, where dozens of electricians, carpenters, set-up people, and laborers were working feverishly convinced me that the show would go on. And then before nightfall, Richie Havens, whom I had seen a few weeks earlier with a couple of hundred other people at a concert on the Cape, was introduced to nearly a half a million. The place went wild.
Whatever trepidation there might have been about what might lie ahead immediately dissipated with Havens's powerful voice and acoustic guitar. The rock 'n' roll that had drawn the throngs to Woodstock -- and would keep us there despite the torpid heat, sudden rainstorms, and muddy campsites -- was roaring out of those speakers with the clearest, pitch perfect sound. His rendition of "Freedom" would become the signature moment of the event.
And the extraordinary music continued throughout the weekend. The best groups and solo artists of the day --- Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young --- all
showcasing their best stuff. And it was all for free, and it lasted all night and into the morning.
And instead of their traditional blase pose as distant rock heroes, almost to a performer they tried to convey how blown away they were with the size of the crowd and how appreciative they were of what people had been willing to endure to see them.
I ventured back to those fields last month to see what memories the topography might evoke 40 years later and to take in a concert by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan.
None of them had performed at Woodstock, but the presence of Dylan, who was said then to be working on his next album several counties away, hung over the original festival like morning mist. Would he suddenly show up and help make sense of it all, provide some purpose, political direction to the gathering of all these people who were so familiar in temperament but so disconnected to the way ahead? Of course, he didn't, and the question of what Woodstock was all about for that generation remains elusive, leaving us only with the rock 'n' roll, pulsating and melodic.
The three rockers did a fine job of filling the night air with the anthems that have brought back such memories from our younger days. But watching the steady line of people coming and going to the food courts and beer stands, I had to think rock 'n' roll may have lost some of its vibrancy. It's become a more cultural wallpaper now -- less urgent, more polished. Pre-packaged with nothing left to chance.
What was so essential to our lives in the late '60s, and helped keep us alive that August weekend in 1969, had become for too many the soundtrack for our excesses.
Stephen Kurkjian retired from the Globe in 2007.
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