My older brother was driving — a VW bus of course. It was the summer of 1969 and I was one of eight friends from a Boston suburb headed to Bethel, N.Y., for Woodstock, a music festival that promised a once-in-a-lifetime lineup of rock stars.
For teenagers in Boston, the world seemed to be exploding around us that August. Astronauts had just landed on the moon. The Vietnam War was a constant presence. Protest marches were frequent. Twice I walked from my high school into Boston for an antiwar protest. There were gatherings on Boston Common every weekend.
Every teenager thinks the world revolves around them, and that’s exactly what we thought. But suddenly it was a world we thought we were going to change: more peace, more love, more pot.
There was a soundtrack for all this commotion. Fresh rock and roll appeared every day. Concerts were plentiful and cheap. During my high school years, the old Boston Tea Party featured a stream of bands: Led Zeppelin, the Who, B.B. King, Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, Joe Cocker — all for about three bucks a pop. The Music Hall and Boston Garden offered even more concerts.
In the summer of ’69, I was 15. I had graduated from buying 45s to collecting LPs. I liked the Beatles; Led Zeppelin; Jimi Hendrix; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Melanie. I liked it all. So Woodstock seemed like a good idea. To persuade skeptical suburban parents, we treated it a bit like a camping trip, taking two cars, a big tent, a cooking stove. (Not every parent went for the camping trip gambit, and we left a few friends behind.)
We didn’t plan very well, just took off from Boston on a pleasant summer afternoon, with a cooler full of junk food, and when our cars got separated as the traffic built in southern New York state, those of us in the VW bus realized we had but one box of Pop Tarts among us. Lost, we knew we had finally found our way when we began to pass carloads of cheering kids flashing peace signs and heading north on the New York Thruway.
As we got closer to the festival site, the traffic thickened. The two-lane road to Bethel was impossibly clogged with cars; people began to pull over and park on the side of the road, choosing to continue on foot. (There was really no choice — there was no way to drive through or around the stalled line of cars.)
Miraculously, when we joined the end of the snaking, but unmoving, line of cars, we spotted the other car in our caravan, the one with the food. We pulled over and with no room on the shoulder, parked herky-jerky in a field, where we pitched a huge tent. We were still miles from the concert site, but surrounded by thousands of other young people. Woodstock had begun.
Organizers expected 50,000 people at Woodstock. By Friday night, there were several hundred thousand, and the kids kept coming. A crowd the size of a city blossomed.
We were astonished. Hippies everywhere. The path from the road into the festival site on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm opened up at the top of a bowl. The stage was at the bottom of a hill completely covered with people. On both hillside and stage the constant comment was, “Oh wow, man, there’s a half million of us.”
It looked like a huge campground for hippies, bohemians, and bikers, but there were also plenty of kids like us, teenagers from across New England and the East Coast, kids with long hair but who still lived at home or were in college. We were the ones who actually bought tickets to the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival after hearing advertisements on WBCN.
By the time we got there, they were no longer taking tickets: It had become a free concert. We had to walk miles from our campsite, passing through a gate and stepping over fencing that had been knocked over. We passed all kinds of people on the road, including a group of bikers trying to control a guy who was having a bad LSD trip. We passed by a liquor store, and one of us, who was 18, took his turn going in. (The owners allowed only one hippie at a time in the store.) The prize was a bottle of Ripple, all that was left on the shelves.
We got to the site and settled in, ill prepared for the lack of food (the concessions were sold out) and the intermittent rainstorms. But people shared their food, passed their joints, and amid the mud and the music, the essence of Woodstock became clear. Suddenly you weren’t the only one with long hair. It sounds corny now, but instead of the violence that defines the present time, it was peace and love and half a million kids getting together that made Woodstock an event.
Looking through the lineup 50 years later, I don’t remember which bands I saw from the hill and which ones I saw in the Woodstock movie or at the Tea Party. Indeed, some in our group settled for camping in the warm, dry tent, fortified by a chunk of hashish, and plenty of kids never made it to the site at all, turned back by the traffic or the dire warnings on the radio and in the newspapers.
Saturday we walked to the site and saw John Sebastian and Santana but left before the night acts to get back to our tent. Sunday we wound our way through the crowd on the hill to claim a place close to the front to watch Joe Cocker and Country Joe & the Fish, but then torrential rains moved in. We moved out.
Wet, tired, hungry, and still amazed, we drove home.