By Tom Calarco
You know, one afternoon many years ago I sat down at the counter of the Friendly Ice Cream Shop at the mall in Colonie, New York. It’s amazing how often people used that phrase “you know” back then. There were lots of oh wows and far outs, too, and if they called you crazy, well that was the ultimate compliment. For instance, we would add “crazy” in front of someone’s name that we liked. Even someone with a surname like Ellsworth would be called, Crazy Ellsworth, or Crazy Grigorovitch, or maybe you used their first name instead, like Crazy Charlie. But the king of phrases during that time was, you know.
Anyway, it was 1969 and I was a wide-eyed kid wondering what life was all about. I was waiting to order when a girl sat down next to me. I can’t remember what she looked like, only that she was about my age. I remember being nervous and I hesitated to look at her as I ordered an extra thick chocolate milk shake. To my surprise, she spoke as soon as I finished.
“Did you hear, it’s free now. Woodstock is free.”
I turned to face her.
“Do you know anyone who’s going?”
Earlier that day it had been reported people had torn down the fences surrounding the concert area and promoters had declared it a free concert.
“No,” she said. “But I would love to go.”
“Really,” I said. “I want to go too, but none of my friends want to go.”
“I’ll go,” she said. “Will you take me and my girlfriend?”
Well, of course I took her and her girlfriend.
On the way to the Woodstock Festival
I picked them up the next morning. Reports had flashed on TV and radio that too many people had arrived and roadblocks had been set up. Contrary to the pictures you will see today of the bumper-to-bumper lines of cars, when we were headed there, it was already almost noon on Saturday and most everyone who was going was already there. The roadblocks had caused most others to turn back. But we were undaunted because we knew that somehow we would get in.
We knew the general vicinity about 90 miles away and figured when we got close that we would ask directions. I don’t remember how we knew, just that we had to get off the NYS Thruway at a different exit than the one closest to the concert because it was closed. If you’ve never been to upstate New York, the rural sections are green with rolling furry hills sometimes ascending to small mountains and lots of lakes and rivers. The concert was held amidst such a landscape, like the Joni Mitchell song made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, conveyed: “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year-old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
As would be expected, a hitchhiker was outside the tollbooth. Hitchhiking was more common among young people in those laidback times when violence was not so prevalent. I remember hitchhiking hundreds of miles by myself before I got a car, and I would always pick up hitchhikers without reservation. That all changed in 1977 when I had a scary experience with an escaped convict whom I picked up outside Las Vegas before leaving him in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
Back to Woodstock. Now, I’m sure you can probably guess what the first words were that the hitchhiker outside the Thruway tollbooth said when he got in the car.
Of course, “Far out!”
And the first thing he did was pull out a pouch of pot and light up a joint. As the old Walrus, John Lennon, said in one of his songs, everybody smoked pot in those days, at least any average young person who was trying to experience life in its many disguises. But it was a more mellow variety then and provided more of a haze than a daze.
Naturally, we were stoned when we came to our first roadblock. We smiled at the policeman who waved us on and headed in the direction of the detour. Fortunately, not far ahead was another hitchhiker.
“Ya know, the pigs are everywhere,” he said. “But, ya know, I know a back road.”
The next thing the second hitchhiker did was — you guessed it — light up a joint. The inside of my car had become enveloped in misty ribbons of silly pleasure.
Of course, in retrospect, it’s not so silly. Marijuana or cannabis, as its adherents call it, is a huge political football. Its demonization goes back to the 1930s. Stories seem to vary but a conspiracy of chemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical interests with which it presented potential competition set in motion legislation to criminalize it and the stigma continues to the present day despite progress in advancing its medicinal properties. That’s a topic, however, for another time.
We followed the hitchhiker’s directions and found ourselves on the road that had been blocked off but farther up ahead. As I sucked on the joint we had been passing around, I saw another police car ahead at an intersection. I fumbled with the joint as I put it down. He was standing in front of us, his car blocking the road that the second hitchhiker said we needed to turn onto. I drove slowly and looked at the officer who peered into our car. My heart raced but he just motioned us on.
“There’s gotta be some way to get in, man,” said one of the hitchhikers.
Up ahead we spotted two more hitchhikers. They looked very young, maybe 15 or so. Though the car was full, I thought that maybe they would know how to get to the concert. And you know, I was right; they lived in the area. They hopped onto my trunk and we drove a short way and turned into a woodsy dirt road. Oh, wow, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that as we came to rows of cars and people strolling towards the concert site.
Did I say, Oh Wow? It was outta sight!
The music had not yet begun and we parked in a field alongside rows of other cars. Aside from the tents and people lined up along a parade-like route, my memory of the path to the concert site evokes in me some religious fresco with symbolic overtones, probably nothing like it really was. It was something that has become bigger than life and its myth will forever outlive its reality. I remember only countless smiling faces, long-haired people in t-shirts or no-shirts and bell bottom jeans treating strangers as if they were lifelong friends, vibes that existed only in utopia. It was just like that song from the era by the Youngbloods: “C’mon, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
We wormed our way in and my visions of it have been replaced by the ones I’ve seen in the film and other pictures, none of which unfortunately I took. I’ve probably seen hundreds of pictures and I can’t find myself in any of them, though we got fairly close to the stage, well in front of the scaffolds that have become familiar images from the scene. Now if anyone ever sees a guy wearing a blue and gold horizontal striped t-shirt and blue jeans with dark hair like one of the Beatles, well, that’s me. On the other hand, you know, it could be a lot of other people too.
The Incredible String Band, as I recall, was setting up. I remember turning and looking behind and at the sloping horizon of people. It blew my mind. As far as I could see were people massed together like bees on a hive. We took a seat onto the mudluscious earth. It had rained hard the day before. But that was of little concern. The music quickly took center stage and the ritual passing of the joints began.
I remembered I gradually inched away from the girls and recall sitting by myself when Creedence Clearwater was playing. Crazy thing was that they had followed the Grateful Dead, who to this day I don’t recall playing. They were not well known in the East at that time, and when I consulted reports about that day, I learned that their set was plagued by technical difficulties, so that’s probably why. What I do recall is being approached by what my haze of memory recalls as a beautiful hippie girl with long, straight waist-length hair. She asked me if I would split a hit of acid with her.
Now, what do you think I said? Well, you’re wrong.
Damn, I refused. I had never taken acid before and they were warning people about bad acid; in fact, two people actually died from overdoses. But I wish I would’ve taken the chance, and I blew it. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, but such is life. We win some and lose some.
I’m gonna add a little guitar
And make it easy to move your feet
Psychedelics or not, a steady stream of marijuana continued to pass through the crowd. It was like one colossal party. By midnight, the crowd’s energy was electric. It was sometime after the night had turned into the next day that Janis Joplin freaked across the stage in her frenzied style. It seems like one ecstatic moment had crossed into another when Sly and the Family Stone followed her. They took me higher than anyone I would hear that night sometime past 3 a.m. when their blaring brass and blues screamed “I want to take you, higher,” and as a mushroom cloud of marijuana covered us, everyone jumped to their feet as Sly’s brass section swept us up into the stratosphere of the highest time.
See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me
It was anti-climactic when The Who followed with “Tommy,” and the Jefferson Airplane sang their latest album, “The Crown of Creation,” which ended around 8 a.m. By that time, the crowd had thinned out and we had moved right up in front of the stage. But it’s mostly just a blur now and the darkness of the music from that album was not uplifting.
In any case, we were wasted and went back to my car, and slept awhile. Then we went to the nearby village of White Lake to find something to eat. It was tough finding food and getting back to the concert site. When we did, the rain came. It poured and we got soaked. Tired, hungry, and uncomfortable, we headed home.
It was the last time I ever saw the girls I went with, and I have no recollection of their names or what they looked like. Much of what happened that weekend at Max Yasgur’s huge cow pasture seems now like some psychedelic dream. Somehow I can’t really remember how much fun it was, though much of it is still so vivid that it must have been. It makes you realize how important it is to live in the moment and soak in all the life surrounding you.
Many things have been and will be said about what happened fifty years ago at the Woodstock Festival, but whatever they say, about the trash and lack of sanitation — I contracted a horrible sore throat that lasted for weeks — at least for a few days, a half-million people got together with love in our hearts and peace in our minds, and no violence. You know, that’s something worth remembering.