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Stories of Woodstock 1969 from Musicians and People Who Were There

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2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, The three-day event dubbed “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” which saw hundreds of thousands of music fans converge on a 600 acre farm in Bethel, New York to witness rock and roll history on August 15-18, 1969. Those fortunate to have attended and survived the rain, mud and brown acid were treated to a dazzling assemblage of some of music’s most spectacular artists, from Jimi Hendrix to The Who, CCR to CSNY, Sly & The Family Stone to Jefferson Airplane.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of this landmark cultural event, I assembled quotes from various musicians I’ve interviewed over the years who performed at the event for an eyewitness remembrance of Woodstock. Additionally, we also hear from Woodstock co-organizer Michael Lang.

WOODSTOCK CO-ORGANIZER, MICHAEL LANG

Rock Cellar: Can you share your memories of some key artists who performed at Woodstock starting with Janis Joplin?

Michael Lang: Her set had the power of a Stax/Volt revue. She was thrilled to be there, and was definitely in the moment. She went over with the audience really well. The kind of back and forth interplay she did with her bandleader, Snookie Flowers, resonated really well with the audience.

Rock Cellar: How about Santana?

Michael Lang: Santana were unknown to most of the audience. Their music was so exciting and fresh, it took people a while to figure it out. But when Michael Shrieve played his drum solo on “Soul Sacrifice,” that was the moment where the band really won over the entire crowd.

They just knocked everybody out. To be able to connect with a crowd of that size was a revelation to the band. A star was born.

Rock Cellar: How about Sly & The Family Stone? What impressed you the most about their electrifying performance at the Woodstock Festival?

Michael Lang: Sly’s set was high energy and infectious. They had the audience from beginning to end. With the call and response of the audience it was like a revival meeting for hundreds of thousands of people. It was rock and roll church and he had everybody in his hands. The genius of Sly and the Family Stone was their lyrics were always relevant to our lives and captured the tenor of the time. They came dressed to party. They were the most colorfully dressed act on the bill and they were threw act that most of the other bands were focused on seeing.”

Rock Cellar: Johnny Winter put on a master class in blues guitar playing.

Michael Lang: Yes, he did. Part of our strategy was booking lesser-known acts along with more popular groups. Joe Cocker was an unknown, Santana was an unknown, Crosby, Stills & Nash were unknown and Johnny Winter was an unknown. We tried to introduce new acts that we thought would resonate. Johnny Winter played a great blues set. From the way he looked to the way he played, he really slayed everybody.

His marriage of Texas blues and early rock and roll resonated with the crowd. He was such a gifted virtuoso on the guitar that it was hard not to appreciate his tremendous talent.

Rock Cellar: Jefferson Airplane were established superstars by the time they played Woodstock, What do you remember most about their performance?

Michael Lang: They were up all night and when they went on the sun had come up. They came on after the Who, who were a tough act to follow, but they went over wonderfully. They played a beautiful set that felt like a homecoming for them and the audience. Grace (Slick) called their set ‘morning maniac music.’ Woodstock was a definitive moment for all of us, and the Airplane felt very much a part of that fabric.

CARLOS SANTANA

Rock Cellar: Performing at the Woodstock Festival was your big break that pushed Santana to the next level.

Carlos Santana: Yes, I’d say most definitely getting to play at Woodstock was a really big break for the band early in our career. Bill Graham is definitely a person who opened the biggest door in my life, him and Clive Davis, Mr. Clive Davis. Woodstock was an incredible door, and we wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Bill Graham. He fought for us to be there and he took Michael Lang and said, “Look, I’ll help you with this event but you have to put Santana on the bill.” And he was like, “Santana? What’s that?” (laughs) And he said, “Well, you’ll see.”

Our album hadn’t even come out yet and nobody knew us from Adam when we performed at Woodstock. But it was Bill Graham who, like a boxer, trained us to play in different sized venues to get ready for things like this. We’d play in a two thousand seater, we’d play in a 10,000 seater, a 30,000 seater and we’d play a 60,000 seater. Then we were playing 120,000 seaters, playing festivals in Dallas, Texas, Atlanta and Atlantic City. So by the time we were at Woodstock we weren’t afraid of the crowd because Bill was the one who introduced us to all of this.

PETE TOWNSHEND (THE WHO)

Rock Cellar: The band has always been lukewarm about your appearance at Woodstock.

Pete Townshend: The footage is brilliant. We were brilliant. It was all those drugged-up hippies that ended up looking like twats in the Simpsons.

Listen, Woodstock should have delivered what it promised. We did. The movie delivered too, I think. The sad part is that all I remember about Woodstock is meeting Richie Havens again and thinking, “This is a truly spiritual man.” Everyone else seemed like rabbits in the headlights. I don’t fuck with spirituality. I do it like it’s a personal war.

Woodstock could have been a beginning, not an end. There were nearly a million very good souls there, with the best intentions. What went wrong? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I didn’t have a good time. It was just another gig to me.

A particularly tough one. But I have always carried this strong belief that while I am on stage the audience is doing the driving somehow. This has confused some fans when they meet me off stage — they expect to have the same control over me they enjoy while I perform. But on stage I am powerless over the process, and I think it’s about the best thing I do. I am unconditional about my desire to do my best on stage, and I know how good I am. So I am confident, and secure, easy, but also determined — and yet at the same time I am humble as a performer, I feel as though I have a duty.

JOHN ENTWISTLE (THE WHO)

Rock Cellar: John, what are your most vivid memories about The Who playing at the legendary Woodstock festival?

John Entwistle: The original Woodstock was fourteen hours of hell (laughs). They were running over in time so by the time we went on they were fourteen hours behind. We also had a four-hour drive to get there to go five miles. We had to drive there because the helicopters that they were using were being used as hospitals.

Rock Cellar: It’s ironic that The Who hated playing at the major festivals of the era –Monterey Pop and Woodstock.

John Entwistle: Playing the Isle of Wight was good. Backstage was kind of a community effort. Different people had barbecues going. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot more chance than to prepare for the show. The main thing wrong with festivals is you don’t get a sound check and when you’re onstage you don’t really get a chance to sort the monitors out. You can go up there with the best of feelings and then you end up not being able to hear the rest of the band.

GRAHAM NASH

Rock Cellar: In typical CSNY bravado, your second gig was at Woodstock in front of a few hundred thousand people.

Graham Nash: Woodstock started out to be an event with ten, fifteen, twenty thousand people and then a week later it was a hundred thousand people and then a week later it was two hundred thousand people. I mean, it grew exponentially. When we agreed to play that show, which was only the second show we ever played, we thought it would be in front of ten or fifteen thousand people but it wasn’t like that when we got there. (laughs) It was hundreds of thousands of people.

MARTY BALIN (JEFFERSON AIRPLANE)

Rock Cellar: Thankfully, Woodstock was not a nightmarish scenario like Altamont.

Marty Balin: Yes, unlike Altamont, being at Woodstock was a great feeling. It was kind of muddy and rainy and a hassle going back and forth but there was so much great entertainment on the stage. That’s what really stands out about that festival for me. I remember going down and working with The Diggers and feeding people and hanging out with them. Going back and forth to the motel and then back to the stage and watching shows. Seeing Hendrix was amazing. When he did “The Star Spangled Banner” that was a badass moment.

Rock Cellar: Was the Airplane pleased with your performance at Woodstock?

Marty Balin: Oh no. we didn’t get on until about seven in the morning and dawn was coming up and we were terrible. I’m sure we were in the film. I’ve never seen the film but I’m sure our performance wasn’t that great.

DOUG CLIFFORD & STU COOK /CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL

Rock Cellar: What had CCR heard about the Woodstock festival in advance of appearing?

Stu Cook: That was the summer of festivals as I recall. There were four more big ones, there was one in Atlanta and there was one in Southern California, Woodstock was one of many and it wasn’t he biggest but it had the cachet and turned out to be the one that was the most memorable

Rock Cellar: CCR arrived at the festival by helicopter. What was the backstage scene like?

Stu Cook: We helicoptered out to the site in the mid to late afternoon backstage, where we were greeted by Barry Imhoff, one of Bill Graham’s lieutenants who was there taking care of Santana. We knew all these folks from the Bay Area. Bill was sort of an unofficial advisor to the band in that era. We did a lot of concerts at the Fillmore and got to know Bill pretty well. We thought along the same lines with professionalism and obligation to fans, so we had a pretty good relationship with him. So we just fell in with Barry and company. They had a motor home, there were beautiful New York steaks and fine French wine and good California weed. We were like, “this is great.” We had no idea what was going on in the audience. (laughing)

We went to the stage occasionally and saws three or four songs from multiple acts that preceded us. I don’t recall the acts (laughs). It was all a blur, a lot of hair and a lot of teeth. CCR was intended to headline Saturday night, that was the plan when we signed. We were the first or one of the first handful of artists that signed onto play the Woodstock Festival. We were supposed to go on on Saturday at 10PM as the headline slot. That was out ours, but the weather intervened on Saturday. It was a pretty miserable day for technology and the result was things fell behind several hours, We followed the Grateful Dead and went on after midnight, twelve thirty, one thirty, in that area.

Rock Cellar: CCR’s historic appearance at Woodstock is finally coming out on DVD 50 years later. How do you look back at CCR’s performance?

Doug Clifford: Under the circumstances I thought we did pretty well at Woodstock. I’m happy with it. We had a rough day the day before we played the Woodstock Festival.  We did television with Andy Williams for an Andy Williams special and they had nothing but problems all day long, and we had a flight to New York waiting for us. We had to cancel our flights until finally we got on the last flight out to New York. So we took a red eye from LA to New York.

We make the flight and we get to where we’re going and then plans suddenly change. And here we are going to a smaller airport. We were told there were cars that had been abandoned on the road and we were told there were a half a million people there so they have to find a way for us to get there safely. We were hearing this information and this was pre-internet and pre cell phones, so it was pretty crude communications. We ended up realizing there were a lot of people at Woodstock. We were finally able to get to the point where we were abler to get in. We had to fly into Woodstock in a two-man helicopter with three of us. The pilot, John and I were in one helicopter and the pilot, Tom (Fogerty) and Stu (Cook) were in the other helicopter.

Stu Cook: I remember that we had some little technical issues when we first started up. Some of the microphones might not have been on or some of the recording equipment might not have been plugged in correctly. So there were some issues, but that happens at any show. That can happen after a sound check. You leave sound check and think everything’s great and you come back and strike the first note of the show and nothing happens so that wasn’t a Woodstock only kind of glitch. Once we got rolling all was okay. I think they were limited in their lighting because of electrocution concerns so it was a dark evening in with minimal stage lighting and no spotlight. It was very difficult to see any of the audience, even up close.

But I thought we played what I would call a journeyman set. Solid. No super brilliance. I think we did connect with the crowd. It was hard to tell. The audience had just suffered through the worst day of probably most of their lives with the rain and the mud and the lack of food, just the whole thing, the overcrowding, But they were apparently making the best of it so it was up to us to do as well. I left the stage thinking that we’d played a decent show. I recall that we left pretty soon afterwards. We had an early departure and needed to be somewhere in New Jersey the next day.

Rock Cellar: What was the thinking behind CCR’s performance not being in the original film or soundtrack album?

Doug Clifford: That was John’s decision, he said he didn’t think we played well. Later, I’d see interviews where he said the audience was asleep and we had to follow the Dead. He also said, “We’re number one, we don’t need it.” We fought for 50 years for this one (laughs). It’s bittersweet; it would have been great to have appeared in the original film with our peers. When we talk with people about Woodstock, most people don’t even know that we were there.

Rock Cellar: By not appearing on the soundtrack album or film, how did that impact on CCR?

Stu Cook: It definitely had an impact. We were one of the headliners and were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time and we should have been in it and history has proven that. It was a mistake not to be included. Every artist that appeared in the film were in for one song, and maybe not even one compete song. As it turns out the music was what I call the “muzak” of the event.

The real story is of course the audience. The bands sold the tickets, we were the draw. But the real story of Woodstock is the audience and how they pulled it together for the weekend and made it a memorable experience. So we should have been in and every artist that was in it got a bump. But even if you’re number one you can still always use a bump; you’re not gonna be number one forever.

John told the band that we didn’t play well enough to be in the film but at the time I had already been in possession of the audio tracks and in fact we were on the original audio release, the Live at Woodstock original album, five songs that Doug and I had selected to be included. We did this in direct opposition to John’s feelings about it. In fact, when the Woodstock director cut came out, Michael Wadleigh, he director of the film, we had a conversation and he really wanted the band to be in the 25th anniversary director’s cut and we were marching towards that until John said he would sue if we were included. He was on Warner Bros Records at the time and Warner Home Video ended up being the owner of the film rights. 

Rock Cellar: Have you seen the film of your performance and heard the audio of CCR’s full set?

Doug Clifford: I’ve seen the video but I haven’t heard the whole audio but I’ve had the audio in my IPhone for a long time.

Stu Cook: I’ve had the film footage of our performance at Woodstock for many years. Looking back at it, it was standard Creedence set. CCR never played a bad show, which is why Doug, Tom (Fogerty) and I were surprised that John didn’t want us in the film. At the risk of coming off like I’m ungrateful, it was a mistake and we never understood. And what really hurt is he blamed it on us and said, “You guys didn’t play well enough.” But I think when it’s released we’ll be fully vindicated from that assessment. Our shows were amazingly consistent. We were a pretty solid consistent band. We had good night and we never really had bad nights. There were average nights and some nights we really rose above that. But we were solid and could pull it off even if someone was ill or it had been a long day and we missed dinner. (laughs) We never allowed ourselves any excuses for not delivering the best possible show.

MIKE GREENBLATT, Woodstock attendee and author of Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Krause Publications)

Rock Cellar: You were one of the fortunate fans to attend the Woodstock Festival. Close your eyes and provide as vivid and evocation of what those few days were like, the struggles, the challenges you faced the performance triumphs.

Mike Greenblatt: Thursday, Friday and Saturday were idyllic. Although it rained all three days, it was a light drizzle, not enough to dampen our spirits and the realization that we were all in it together and the whole world was watching set in.

Sunday, though, after Joe Cocker’s set, the sky darkened, the winds whipped up, the announcement was made from the stage that a huge storm was heading in our direction and that they were going to have to turn off the music for a few hours. The acid started kicking in just as the heavens opened up and it poured down on us hard for the next three hours with no music. I panicked. My friend had gone off in search of a phone booth to call our moms and tell them we were alright because we knew the news had concentrated on the negatives. He didn’t return for the longest time and I didn’t want to leave our amazing spot right in front of the stage where we had been since Thursday because I figured he’d never find me again. It wasn’t fun anymore at that point but I was trapped, tripping, wet, cold, hungry, thirsty and I had to go to the bathroom.

Many music fans cite the Woodstock festival as being one they wish they could have attended. But you were there and dealing with the rain, mud, overcrowding, lack of food and bad brown acid. Is the reality of actually attending the Woodstock Festival romanticized, was it more an exercise of will and dealing with those aforementioned daily struggles?

Mike Greenblatt: It was romanticized, and rightly so. As long as the music played, I knew everything would be alright. Music-as-salvation has stayed with me my entire life. The fact that 500,000 of us were all in the same boat with not one reported case of violence and no police force? We wanted to prove our peace and love credentials and we certainly did. That amount of people under those conditions? It had never happened before and it certainly hasn’t happened since, so the romance is warranted.

Rock Cellar: Working on your book about Woodstock what were the major revelations you found out that you never knew being someone who was there first hand?

Mike Greenblatt: I didn’t know that Governor Rockefeller was close to sending in the National Guard to send us all home. It didn’t know that power lines were underneath us as the top soil frayed during Sunday’s storm, risking a mass electrocution.

Rock Cellar: Run us through your recollections of the performances by the five key acts you saw perform.

Mike Greenblatt: 1) Sly & The Family Stone. I had seen them at The Electric Circus in Greenwich Village on the same tour. I knew they were great. But I wasn’t prepared for their all-out onslaught that had me dancing, laughing, shouting “Higher” at the top of my lungs and collapsing in a heap after the set.

2) The Band. I couldn’t believe how true their harmonies were and how they kept switching instruments with each other. I never saw a band do that before. By the time they played, my friend Neil, who stayed straight the whole time, was wanting to go home but we made a pact that both of us had to want to leave if we left. He was a really good sport. I was still madly tripping.

3) Mountain. Maybe the loudest band I’ve ever heard in my life to this day. Leslie West’s electric shrieks of lead guitar split the dark of night and sent me spinning with utmost joy. I might have enjoyed their set the most of any of the acts. I couldn’t believe how heavy they were.

4) Country Joe McDonald. His solo set on Saturday afternoon when he led the fuck cheer for the first of two times stands out as a moment of pure hysterical freedom. To shout that word out at the top of your lungs at 18, stoned, free, laughing, in public with everyone else around me also shouting it out was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever experienced. He kept shouting out “What’s that spell?” and we kept shouting out fuck and I’ll never forget it.

5) Ravi Shankar. I had never heard a sitar live before. It was so psychedelic, so unbelievably different from anything I ever heard, I was blissfully demonstrative to the point of the guy next to me telling me to relax because he was just tuning up.

Rock Cellar: CCR’s performance at Woodstock was not included in the soundtrack album or the film and is coming out this year for the first time in its entirety. Did you see them, and if so did you view their performance as a success?

Mike Greenblatt: I could’ve listed CCR in my top 5 of all the performances. Back then, we judged a live act by how closely they sounded to the record and CCR was perfection. I loved them. Still do. But I didn’t care or even think about how they were omitted from the movie and soundtrack when it was all over.

Rock Cellar: Having worked on the book, given your research who are the real heroes behind the Woodstock Festival and by contrast, who are the villains?

Mike Greenblatt: Heroes: Bill Hanley (“The Father Of Festival Sound”), Professor Chris Langhart, who put up the Christmas lights in the woods so we could eventually find our way back to the car. He also built the bridge from the backstage area to the stage itself, and the med tent, and installed all the phones, and the water fountains. John Morris, who kept putting out fires all weekend like forcing Sly on stage when he went into his diva routine in his dressing room, or convincing the governor that we were able to police ourselves, or keep us sane — along with Chip Monck — as an avuncular host on-stage.

Max Yasgur is a hero. He let us play on his land and told the townspeople that generations of American soldiers fought and died for us to have the right to do what wanted on his property and there was no way he was going to stand by and let us get railroaded off his land. I still get a lump in my throat when I read what he said to the town council about us and what he said directly to us from the stage. Villains? The town of Walkill for kicking us out before we even started.

Rock Cellar: This may be a difficult question to answer objectively, but the Woodstock Festival is now viewed as a mythic event. If you can strip that away, does it still live up to its legendary reputation?

Mike Greenblatt: You’re damn right it does, because of the aforementioned good behavior of everybody. My neighbors fed me, kept me high, kept me warm, kept me laughing and provided instant good vibes throughout. It couldn’t happen today.

Rock Cellar: What is the true legacy of Woodstock?

Mike Greenblatt: That 500,000 people could gather in one place at one time under horrible conditions with no security and all help each other cope.

JOHNNY WINTER

Rock Cellar: You played the Woodstock Festival in 1969; did you have sense of the importance of the event itself?

Johnny Winter: Not really, not until we were flying in by helicopter and saw all the people. That’s when we realized it was gonna be something huge.

Rock Cellar: Were you nervous?

Johnny Winter: Nah, I never get nervous.

Rock Cellar: Why not?

Johnny Winter: I just don’t. I like to play; it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve always enjoyed playing; I never get nervous playing a show no matter how many thousands of people are in the audience.

Rock Cellar: You don’t appear in the Woodstock film, why?

Johnny Winter: My manager didn’t think it was good idea. He said the festival didn’t make any money and the film probably wouldn’t either. He always said it was the biggest mistake he ever made. He admitted it to me.

Rock Cellar: Do you regret you weren’t in the film?

Johnny Winter: Sure I do. Oh yeah … I was very happy with the way we played; it would have been great to have been included in the film. I remember that I was asleep in the press tent using a bag of garbage for a pillow. We just wandered out there to see what was going on and they said, “Well, you guys are all here so why don’t you play?” I’d just woken up and I’m surprised we played so good. (laughs) I didn’t get to see anyone else play at Woodstock; it was hard to get a helicopter out so we left as soon as we got finished playing our set.

ROBBIE ROBERTSON (THE BAND)

Rock Cellar: The Band appeared at The Woodstock Festival but did not appear in the film or on the soundtrack album.

Robbie Robertson: I don’t like music films very much. All of those documentary concert films that had been made up until then, I didn’t care for them. I mean, Woodstock was terrific because it was Woodstock and it was this own historical phenomenon unto itself. Not because of the film to me. With me being a film buff and Marty (Scorcese) being this tremendous up and coming director, we were so on the same page. With The Last Waltz, it was the first time anything like this had been done in thirty-five millimeter.

I knew after we were done that this was gonna be a difficult act to follow.

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