CONWAY — If you remember the Sixties, some pundit once noted, you weren’t really there.
That is especially true for anyone who says they attended the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, aka “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.”
Fifty years ago, Aug. 15-17, 1969, close to a half-million young people gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., 43 miles southwest of Woodstock, N.Y., for a rock festival that came to define a generation.
The tickets were only $8 a day ($6 if you got the multi-pack), and the lineup was insane: Richie Havens, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Sha Na Na, Country Joe & the Fish, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, The Incredible String Band, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, The Band, Santana, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Mountain, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Butterfield Blues Band, The Who and, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
As The New York Times noted in its recent “Woodstock at 50” assessment, the music festival was organized by 23-year-old Mike Lang (“groovy kid from Brooklyn”) and Polident heir John Roberts (“unlimited capital”), also 23.
But the overwhelming crowds turned the event into a free concert. Lang reportedly informed his angry creditors: “There is no gate. There’s no cash. It’s a beautiful thing. Have some faith.”
Approximately 500,000 festival-goers had some faith, and stuck around for a muddy, chaotic, soul-shaking weekend that was anything but peaceful.
They didn’t include me. But they almost included my older brother.
I had just turned 12 and was totally unaware that my brother Steve was among the masses heading to the festival.
Then a student at Plymouth State College, the ever-pragmatic Steve later told me that the traffic jams got so bad he and his buddy bailed and went to a beer festival in northern New York instead (the drinking age there being 18 at the time).
However, some Mount Washington Valley residents did make it to the groovy extravaganza in Bethel and generously shared their stories with the Sun this week. They included Brian Smith, 72, of North Country Fair Jewelers of North Conway; his former business partner, Ronda Gates, 73, now of Kaslo, British Columbia; and Chocorua Boatworks proprietor Geoff Burke, 68, of Tamworth.
The trio recently gathered for an interview at the old Big Pickle Restaurant (now 27 North) in North Conway to reminisce.
Smith and Gates said they had just opened their jewelry business on Route 16-A in Intervale when they heard about the festival and decided to go.
“We hung a sign on the door reading, ‘Gone to Woodstock. Reopen next week,’” related Smith.
Joining them on their long, strange trip in ’69 were Mary Case, Smith’s late former wife, and her brother, Taffy Case, now of East Madison.
Smith — who has been asking his jewelry shop customers to share their Woodstock memories — related that other locals who went to Woodstock included Chuck Henderson, now special assistant to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and founder/former owner of Chuck Roast Equipment of Conway; and his “Blue Ugly” Ford traveling companions Ian “Eenie” Clapp of Tamworth, brother of actor Gordon Clapp and Polly Howe of the North Conway 5 and 10 and now retired from Profile Subaru; Paul Gray (now a North Conway carpenter) and Andy Pevarnek, now of Weymouth, Mass; and Judy and Virgil “Cookie” Abbott of Bartlett.
There was also avid cyclist/Jackson Ski Touring employee Dave Kinsman of Lovell, Maine; former WMWV 93.5/WBNC station owner Cynthia Hall; Dana Badger, nephew of late Realtor Dick Badger; the Sun’s “More Thoughts While Weeding” columnist Ann W. Bennett of Jackson; and local educator and Memorial Hospital board member Laura Jawitz.
During their recent joint interview (no pun intended), Smith, Gates and Burke brought along such Woodstock paraphernalia as a poster, tickets to the event and brass peace-sign pins Smith had made with the thought of selling them at the festival.
(As it happened, in the free-spirit atmosphere of the weekend, he ended up giving them away — including one to a policeman as they were leaving.)
Gates, who is now retired but worked for years for the Fish and Wildlife Branch of British Columbia, said attending Woodstock “was a life-altering experience: It was about peace and love at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and there was so much tumult in the country.”
But she added that as fun as it was, she doubts she could do it again. “My body wouldn’t let me, I’m sure, but I don’t regret being there,” she said.
Burke was an 18-year-old employee of the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch who drove his VW Bug the seven hours to the festival. He, too, said being part of Woodstock Nation was a mind-boggling and life-changing experience.
“It manifested the amazing idealism of the era of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. It was goodness personified,” said Burke, now a builder of custom lapstrake wooden boats. “The country was so polarized because of the Vietnam War, but the tide was changing, and Woodstock was a manifestation of higher ethics, I think.”
Smith remembered, more prosaically, that “it was really, really hard finding food. But what was really nice was that the townspeople came out and were handing out sandwiches and water. It was one of those feelings that ‘we were all in this together.’”
Unbelievably, despite the chaotic throng, Smith and his traveling companions soon ran into fellow Conway residents Henderson, Clapp, Pevarnek and Gray after abandoning their vehicle next to the gridlocked road to the festival.
Smith says they were camped out in a bus shelter, when who should walk past but Chuck Henderson.
Taffy, then 18, and a recent Kennett High grad, said he was in his sleeping bag with his eyes shut when he heard “familiar voices, with familiar names.
“I opened my eyes to see Chuck and the others. I called out to them, and they said, ‘What are you doing here?’” laughed Case, now a nurse at Freedom Elementary.
That account was backed up by Henderson, who was selling gaiters, backpacks and belts in North Country Fair Jewelers that first year.
“There was this monstrous traffic jam for miles and miles ... and there was Taffy, Ronda, Brian and Mary!” laughed Henderson.
“The traffic was unbelievable,” Clapp recalled. “I remember we stopped on the way in at a farm on the main road that was selling corn on the cob, and they told us that if we took the small road by the farm, it would be a much easier walk, and it ended up bringing us right in. We ended up 30 feet from the stage!”
Clapp says when he tells people he was at Woodstock, they scarcely believe it. “They turn their heads and say, ‘Really?” Clapp still has a copy of the New York Daily News with a photo showing the traffic, saying, “Traffic Uptight at HippieFest.”
As for Henderson, he says it was the music that drew him to the “HippieFest,” and he saw some great performers, including John Sebastian, Santana and Joe Cocker, but disappointingly missed The Who. “The Who were the main act I wanted to see,” he said, “but they didn’t go on until 6 a.m. (Saturday), and I couldn’t stay awake so I went to a field and slept!”
Henderson also recalled that when conservative Manchester Union Leader Publisher William Loeb wrote an editorial decrying the slovenliness and drug-crazed throng, the then-18-year-old Henderson wrote a rebuttal, “talking about” his generation, to quote The Who.
“I wrote a letter to the Union Leader in response, telling how it was amazing to have that many people come together in a really good spirit of being there and being respectful of one another,” Henderson said. “Loeb replied to it, which I still have a copy of. I picked on him, and he gave it right back to me,” said Henderson, describing Loeb’s words as “mean and nasty.”
Asked to gauge the impact of Woodstock, Henderson reflects that it really was all about peace and love. “I went there more for the music than the happening,” said Henderson, who at the time was a guitarist for the local band The Cryterion that played at school dances and was working for Western Auto as he geared up for his freshman year at UNH, “but once you were there, it was like, ‘Wow, this is something very different — this is not your average concert!’”
As for the legacy?
“You have (generational) bragging rights for having been there, because everyone knows about it,” said Henderson, “but unless you were there, you didn’t really have the feeling for what it was or what happened. It was a moment in time, something that could never, ever really be re-created. There were some big concerts after that, but they just weren’t the same.”
Former Pine Tree School principal Jawitz says she was a young teacher living in Boston when she and friends traveled in a VW bus to the festival.
“My best memory was being in a hammock by the bus, hearing Joan Baez and also Richie Havens. I also got to hear Jimi Hendrix playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on the last day of the festival,’” said Jawitz.
Jackson resident Bennett, then 18, had just graduated from high school, coming from a conservative Quaker community outside Philadelphia.
She related to writer Karen Cummings in a 1994 Mountain Ear article that she had gone to the festival with her older sister but was left alone “in this sea of people” for 48 hours by that same older sister, who joined in the “happenings” at the event.
“I had been visiting my sister, who had just graduated from college in Cambridge, and it just seemed like a good idea to go,” Bennett told Cummings. “Imagine being 18 years old and being in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people that you didn’t know. The amazing thing is that I had no fear for my personal safety. It was certainly an event of peace and love.”
That was her sense 25 years ago, and it remains so today. In an interview this week, Bennett said: “They were extraordinary times, of upheaval, civil dissent, tragedy and at the same time the belief that change was possible, and in fact, that proved true. Only the summer before, Vietnam anti-war protesters were chanting ‘the whole world is watching.’
“Onto that stage came Woodstock, where folks from all walks of life converged. The New York State Thruway was gridlock for miles, there was no way in or out over that long weekend, law enforcement was virtually non-existent. It was a sea of mud, there were long waits between performers for all sorts of reasons. Yet there was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie, of a generation coming together.
“To say I had never witnessed anything like it is understatement. And never have since.”
Kinsman, then of Cambridge, Mass., bought last-minute tickets to the festival, and he and a friend got a ride to the event with a man who owned the local head shop in Cambridge and had some “supplies” to deliver to Sly & the Family Stone.
“If it had not been for that guy, we probably would have bagged it (due to the traffic),” said Kinsman. “We walked 7 miles. When we got there, people were pouring in from all directions. The fences by that point were trampled down, and no one was interested in taking tickets. At first, I could hear Ravi Shankar playing. We then found a campsite in a span of trees. I nodded off to sleep hearing Joan Baez singing. The stage seemed like it was miles away.”
It rained overnight, and when they awoke, their sleeping bags were soaked. “Someone said, ‘Let’s go get some breakfast!’ Well,” said Kinsman, alluding to the lack of food, “that was not going to happen!”
Although the Hog Farm (the pop-up hippie commissary) was handing out some food at that point (Henderson recalls that it was coleslaw), the lines were a quarter-mile long, and Kinsman said they were young and hungry, so he and his friend made the decision to hike back out and start hitchhiking home.
“We went quite some distance away from the festival before we found food,” said Kinsman, who was a drummer known for playing for the band Ill Wind.
“We made it back home, and I remember watching news coverage of the festival on television of the people leaving after the last day. It was like I had been to the moon and back!”
Smith said that when Woodstock performer Arlo Guthrie played at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, last month, he was asked by an audience member if he would play at Woodstock 50 (a reunion concert idea that was floated in July but never came together).
“Arlo said that he would be happy to play at no charge if it were held at the same place — but otherwise, it would be like going to a re-enactment of the Gettysburg Address in a different place; it just wouldn’t be right,” said Smith.
The 25th anniversary concert, however, was deemed a success. Held in Saugerties, N.Y., near the original, it was attended by locals Roger Marcoux of DragonFly Aerials LLC. of Bartlett and twin sisters Mary Nagle and Margieri Forgiato of Conway.
“It was just as crowded, and it was muddy, too, just like the original. My best memory was waking up in my tent at 4 in the morning and hearing Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler singing,” said Marcoux, who obtained an original ’69 Woodstock ticket at the event.
Like that ticket, the memories of Woodstock — and, hopefully, the legacy of camaraderie spawned by that remarkable event — will live on