50 years later: Woodstock remembered

Thu, 08/15/2019 - 7:15pm

“The first day I remember pretty well,” said Rob Fitzpatrick, laughing, speaking of his experience at Woodstock, the legendary music and art festival that kicked off 50 years ago this week. It was billed as “three days of peace and music” at the height of the Vietnam War, and it has since become one of the key cultural moments that has come to define the dizzying 1960s. This was a decade that began in black and white and ended in an explosion of color and turmoil, and Woodstock capped it all off.

Fitzpatrick was a self-described rebellious youth when he, at the age of 16, and a friend decided to hitchhike up to the once-obscure town of Bethel, New York, and a place called Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.

He arrived on a Wednesday, two days before the concert was to officially begin, and they were checking the sound system. “They were playing Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first album,” he recalled. “They played it all the way through three times.”

The concert itself was supposed to start early in the afternoon on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969 and the lineup printed in the program was different than the order in which the artists actually played. Folk singer Joan Baez was supposed to be up first, but Richie Havens took the stage at about 8 p.m. that Friday night. Fitzpatrick remembers Baez taking the stage very early Saturday morning, when it was just getting light. “That’s the way I remember it,” he said.

What he also remembers was that it was a peaceful crowd, despite the fact that it ballooned to about 500,000 people. “People were hungry. People got sick. People got wet, but it wasn’t an aggressive crowd,” he said. Food was limited, but he said that people were making huge pots of soup. “That’s what I survived on.” He also remembers people selling stuff (including John Gasner and builder Walter Filkins).

The high point, if you will, for Fitzpatrick was getting up early Monday morning and walking down to the stage to listen to Jimi Hendrix play his famous electric version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Although he kept up with the music the first day, the middle remains a little blurry. He was getting little sleep. He heard the group Mountain play. Didn’t see The Who. He had a stack of programs, but many of them went into feeding a little fire because “there wasn’t a stick of wood to be found.” 

Even at the time, he knew it was going to be a huge event. “A lot of kids said, ‘I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go.’ I did go.” Initially, tickets were $18 for the three days of music. But so many people started to try to get into the concert that the fence around the property came down “and then they announced it was going to be a free concert. The emcee was cool. He kept the crowd calm.” (The emcee was Edward “Chip” Monck.)

He said he was going to stick around a little after the concert had ended, but he was out of money and so he headed back home, hitchhiking as before. Was he glad he went? “I’ve always been glad I went,” Fitzpatrick said.

Joe Kunz, a former employee at the Boat Basin who now works at The Narragansett Inn, sent in his recollections:

August of ‘69 I was still living in New Jersey. 21 years old. A friend and I were in a bar in Paramus — Grimstad’s Forest Tavern, which was also a pizza and burger joint, and alongside they had a package store. A kid used to come around just after midnight with the early editions of The New York Daily News and The New York Post. I grabbed a paper just to read the Mets score, and on the cover was a picture of Route 17 headed up into the Catskills. It was a parking lot of cars/vans, etc. on their way to Woodstock (Bethel) for the concert.

My friend just said, “Let’s go."

Well, we loaded up with peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, and bread from the kitchen at Grimstad’s, and beer/bourbon and a case of Bali Hai wine from the package store.

By 4 a.m. we were on our way. My friend had a ‘66 Dodge Charger, a fastback, and the back seats folded forward so we had plenty of room to sleep.

My favorite memories of the weekend, other than the obvious drugs, and craziness, swapping a gallon of Bali Hai for two rolls of peppermint Lifesavers. We had forgotten to bring toothpaste or toothbrushes. (Bali Hai was horrible wine.) Hearing someone call my name in a field full of people. At first I just let it go, but heard it again. A family from my town in New Jersey had moved to Texas a few years earlier. Their youngest son, Bram, was 13 when they moved and was 18 in 1969. He had hitchhiked all the way from Texas and in the middle of thousands of people recognized me. Losing my friend’s car. We went "exploring" on foot. Well, after a full day of drinking, carousing, and some "controlled substances" — it took us almost a full day to find the car. Every road looked alike — just backwater farm roads.

But... more than anything... the bikes! Woodstock was a year after the film “Easy Rider.” Everybody was into stretching motorcycles and tons of chrome. Bikes back in ‘69 were not the rocketship-looking things of today. They were BSAs, Triumphs, Nortons, serious machines.

We stuck around Sunday night since we lived only two hours away and got close enough to hear Paul Butterfield and Sha Na Na overnight,....and Hendrix in the morning. A once-in-a-lifetime shot.

The three memories are just the tip of the iceberg. Woodstock also gave us a lesson in big music festivals, which came in handy in ‘73. Summer jam at Watkins Glen, where the crowd was estimated at 600,000.

John Gasner left Block Island with his friend Walter Filkens.

“Walter and I got there a day or two early. He had a large Land Rover and we parked it on the hill in the back of the stage. We were looking at the back of the stage. We were very lucky. When it started to rain we had a canvas tarpaulin to put over the Land Rover. There were people all around us, people sliding in the mud. I used to make leather belts and we made like 60 bucks selling this stuff. We went into town to buy groceries, it was full then, and then all of a sudden like an hour later the grocery store started emptying out. Walter and I got separated. I remember sitting on the hood of a car with these three bags of groceries. We had a lot of food and we were feeding people. I remember the bus Further. The Merry Pranksters were there. As far as the music is concerned, it’s all a blur, but to tell you the truth, it was not as though I was stoned or hallucinating.

We were among the last people to leave. I remember the stage covered in mud. The Land Rover didn’t start and Walter remembered he had a crank and we cranked it up and went home. Walter was from Chappaqua and I was from Bedford. That night we went back home and we had girlfriends in Denver and L.A. We hitchhiked out to Denver and then I flew to L.A. That was that summer. I was 21.”

Karen Levey lives on Block Island and upstate New York:

My first husband was a part of the [documentary film] crew. I was on the cover of Life magazine standing next to Marty Scorsese. I just saw the PBS film commemorating it and I was in that, too. My first husband Chuck Levey shot Joe Cocker and Santana. He was there about 10 days to two weeks early. I got there probably four or five days before. I drove our old Volvo station wagon and we were staying in little bungalows but we never got back to them. We just slept under the stage. It was a remarkable time. I just watched the documentary and said, ‘Where are those times? Where in the world will you find that many people with peace and love and the spirit of being outdoors and helping each other?’

I was working. I met all the performers. We were up all night. We were in the rain and [Chuck] shot people in the rain. He filmed all those mud sliding contests. It was quite remarkable. I was finally able to call my mother and I said, ‘Mom, I feel like I’ve gone to the moon.’ I was a very proud part of that. It shaped my life in many of the ways I wanted to live and the people I wanted to be with and my values and my love of music and documentary films. The incredible value of people just being together with no judgement, just helping each other. There were young people, old people. I remember how incredible the police officers were. They were helpful, no friction. There was nothing violent, no violence or hate or discrimination or anything like that. It was a remarkable event. And great music. I’m still close friends with all those people. I just want to be around people who love and respect people.”