Woodstock 1969: Mud, music and merriment

August 09, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

It was billed as three days of peace and music on a 600-acre farm in New York's Catskill Mountains. Named Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the show started on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, but actually ended on the fourth day, Monday, Aug. 18.

Richie Havens, who officially kicked off the iconic concert on Friday night, doesn't even refer to it as Woodstock. Instead, he calls it Bethel, because technically that's where the event was held, not in Woodstock, N.Y., which is located 43 miles southwest.

Tickets for the full weekend cost $18 and featured 32 of the hottest acts of the era -- Janis Joplin, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, who famously closed the event.

From all accounts, it was a logistical nightmare. The town wasn't ready for the nearly half a million people who descended onto Bethel. The traffic was so deadlocked that many decided to abandon their cars and trucks and walk to the event.


But still they came.

And during that rainy weekend of 1969, a group of wet strangers huddled together in a field, giving food to those who needed it and enjoying the music.

Twice people tried to recreate Woodstock -- in 1994 and in 1999 -- but neither could capture the feeling of the original. The reasons, say Tri-State residents who attended the 1969 event, are simple: spontaneity can never be planned, and history can never truly be recreated.

No need for a ticket

Gary Berg, 61, of Boonsboro, still has an original ticket from Woodstock, which along with an original poster, isprotected behind glass.

He was 21 years old then, a young married father who worked as an electrician and loved his rock 'n' roll.

Two weeks before Woodstock, Berg attended the Atlantic City Pop Festival in New Jersey. It had been a precursor to the bigger festival with such names as Cass Elliott, Joe Cocker, B.B. King and Janis Joplin.

Berg said he thought at the time that would be it for concerts for the summer.

"I really wasn't planning on going to Woodstock," he said.

A friend was selling tickets for the festival in his Baltimore shop. By today's standards it was cheap -- three days for $18 -- but it was a lot of money in 1969.

"Most concerts were $2.50 to $3 back then," Berg said, noting he took home about $70 a week back then.

But Berg paid the ticket price and planned a trip to Woodstock. He can still remember some of the performers -- Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Byrds, Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin.

Berg said he had hitched a ride with a buddy to go to New York.

"He had a Jeep, so it allowed us to get closer and use the back roads," he said.

They got within two miles and parked, hiking in. By the time he got there, his ticket was useless. The fences had been trampled and there wasn't anyone to take them. So the ticket he has is still untorn.

By the time they got there Friday night, it was dark and raining and the music was already playing.

"I never got to see the musicians. I could hear them," Berg recalls. "There was like this orange hue over the stage because of the lights hitting the rain."

The rain, he said, was something he wasn't at all prepared for. But what made him miserable, he said, was the temperature -- cold at night, hot during the day.

"Talk about hot, you had a whole lot of people in a crowd," he said.

And he isn't a fan of large groups of people.

"I didn't want to be in the middle of the crowd," he said.

The band he wanted to hear was The Who, whom he had seen a few weeks before at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with Led Zeppelin opening for them. The Who was to officially close out Saturday evening but the concert was behind. Jefferson Airplane performed even later -- about the time the sun was coming up on Sunday.

"I remember waiting for The Who, but they didn't come on until 3 a.m.," he said. " (After they played) I was about to lay down to go to sleep when I heard Grace Slick say it was a new dawn. I got up to listen to them."

He wasn't able to stay to listen to Jimi Hendrix close out the festival Monday morning. He had to get home to his job.

Berg said he enjoyed his time at the festival, but if he had one thing he didn't like it would have to be the rain on Saturday.

"The rain just kept coming down," he said. "You'd get soaked and start to get cold."

But even in those conditions, Berg said there weren't any fights or hostilities. Two died, one of what was reported as an overdose, the other by being accidentally ran over by a tractor.

"Under those conditions, there weren't any problems," he said, "Everyone was happy."

That, he said, is what really the four-day festival was about.

"The bigger message was that peace and love mattered," he said.

He said everyone was friendly, including the local police. "There was no attitude allowed."

He had brought a sleeping bag with him but it did little to protect him from the rain. He left the sleeping bag there in the field.

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