The 50th anniversary of Woodstock 69 (August 15–18, 1969), the iconic music festival that marked a generation, is on the minds of many. The New York Times recently published a story titled, “The Disastrous Woodstock 50: What Went Wrong?”, which details how Michael Lang (the producer of the original event) and his associates tried to mount a 50th anniversary festival only to go down in flames less than 60 days out.
It is also the 25th anniversary of Woodstock 94, which I attended with one of my great friends, John Miller. It was a milestone event in both of our lives and it solidified our friendship — one that continues more than a quarter century later.
This is the story of why I had to go to Woodstock 94, the experiences of two friends surviving three days of rain and mud, unsanitary conditions, food shortages, and how we navigated our way through the massive crowd of 550,000 people in the middle of farmland. It is a story of how we enjoyed the music that brought so many together in Saugerties NY in August 1994.
Making the trip to attend Woodstock 94 was never in question for me.
As a teenager growing up in the early 80s, I was fascinated by all things 60s — a time in history when there was so much upheaval and when everything seemed possible. Humankind managed to take a “giant leap” to the moon in 1969. Amazing. Change and revolution was in the air.
I particularly resonated with the music of that time — an explosion of different sounds that reflected an intense period of creativity, experimentation and energy. The music was rooted in cultural and social movements — “happenings” — espousing and encompassing the ideals of equality, equity, justice, love, and most forcefully, a rejection of war and the status quo.
Much of the popular music of that era still permeates the cultural fabric of our society today.
I was mesmerized by the award winning Woodstock documentary that magically transported me back to Bethel, NY of 1969. I wish that I had been born a generation earlier as I would have wanted to be in the crowd to witness Jimi Hendrix perform his iconic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” after taking the stage early on the final morning of the festival when much of the immense crowd had already gone home.
To see Joe Cocker, with electricity seemingly running through his entire body, perform the Beatle’s hit “With a Little Help from My Friends” — an anthem of the Woodstock era.
To hear Crosby, Stills, Nash (with and without Young) perform for the first time live as a band. World class harmonies on one of my favourite songs “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
And to experience other iconic artists and groups of that era including Janis Joplin, Credence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Richie Havens, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Canned Heat, The Band and Joan Baez.
I was riveted by Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” which featured Michael Shrive on drums. A career defining moment for him and Carlos Santana.
I also satisfied my love for all things Woodstock 69 by listening to my vintage copy of the record — a triple album set that I played so often that I almost drove the needle through the vinyl.
David Radmore, a buddy I worked with in Vancouver in my early twenties, shared my passion for all things 60s. Over many nights of partying, we made grand plans to buy a VW van and a portable printing press (to print and share our messages to the masses), and tour the US together. Our objective was to hit the road to spread the ideals of the 60s — saving the environment, social justice and free love of course. It would have been an epic adventure, but we never made it past enjoying the music and drinking too much.
And then the rest of our lives happened.
I travelled — backpacking and working my way around the world, finished college and then landed my first professional marketing gig with a move to Toronto in 1993.
I met John Miller through my brother Chris when I visited him in Toronto two years prior to moving there.
Like my brother and I, John was also starting his career in marketing on the advertising agency side of things. Today he’s the managing director of one of the top ad agencies in Canada.
In the summer of 1993, John invited me to his family cottage near Minden, Ontario (on Mountain Lake), an amazing place his grandfather and best friend built with their own hands nearly 100 years ago. It’s there that John and I forged a friendship — partly around our love of music.
That fall, John and I heard about the Woodstock 94 festival. We were both inspired to go and we tried to rally my brother and other friends to buy tickets so we could all share the experience together.
There were so many doubters (including most of our friends) who complained that the event would be too commercial because big corporations like Pepsi would be sponsoring the festival, and that it would be impossible to replicate the feeling of the original 69 edition.
No matter the haters, there’s no way I was going to miss this milestone event. While the others stayed on the sidelines, John and I were the only ones who took action. We bought our tickets ($135 each) and started making plans.
The festival took place on Winston Farm, just west of Saugerties, New York, about one hundred miles (160 km) north of New York City and seventy miles (110 km) northeast of the original 1969 festival site near Bethel.
It took us about 8.5 hours to get to the shuttle bus pick up spot in John’s VW GTI — his first car. We started off from his mom’s home in Oshawa to be sure to get ahead of the Toronto traffic in the morning.
We stopped in Albany to get supplies. Some beer, wine and food. We figured we could sneak it in even though organizers had let it be known that security would confiscate everything.
Once off the shuttle bus (40km ride on I-87), we walked right into the site without even showing our tickets — security already overwhelmed by the sheer number of people arriving. We should have brought more of everything.
An Instant City of 550,000 — Navigating the Mayhem
For the most part, the Woodstock 94 city organized itself organically. Once you stepped onto the festival site you were essentially on your own.
John and I had set up our tent near a ravine which we figured would create a natural barrier to having too many other tents next to us. We were wrong. Within hours most of the accessible real estate was gone.
This was also a time before cell phones, and the Interweb was in its nascent stage. For the most part, we did not have any way to communicate with the outside world or with others on site except by making appointments to meet at a certain place at a specific time. Old school.
Rumours do spread quickly — especially in large crowds tightly bunched together like rats in a lab. Early Saturday, there were lots of conversations about the possible shortage of water and food — apparently due to the logistical issues of fighting muddy roads and immovable tents and people.
And of course, most people did not bring enough supplies because of the Woodstock organization’s warning that they would confiscate outside supplies — having made a deal with sponsors to supply everything from Pepsi to Pizza.
I remember a quiet sense of fear permeating the crowed for a few hours until it was finally communicated via the stage PAs that we would all be ok — water and others supplies had reached all zones of the festival site.
An Amazing Music Experience
Woodstock 94 did not disappoint when it came to the music. In fact, there was too much to choose from and no way to catch everything on the competing North and South Stages. We had to make choices.
Day One (Friday August 12) — After setting up our tent and getting organized, we made our way to the North stage area where the music was well underway.
James — We managed to get very close to the front of the North Stage. I had never heard of this band prior to Woodstock but came away a big fan. Great music that got the audience jumping and crowd surfing. One of my favourite songs they performed was their hit “Laid”.
We retreated further back after James to get away from the crushing crowd and took in Sheryl Crow, Collective Soul and the Violent Femmes. It was hard to get sleep that night as Ravestock — the DJ festival featuring the likes of Dee-Lite got underway around midnight on the South Stage.
Day Two (Saturday August 13) — An amazing lineup of performers. We started at the North stage as we had to catch Joe Cocker who once again wowed the crowd with his amazing pipes — and reprised his singing of “With a Little Help From My friends” 25 years after his iconic 69 performance. Joe Cocker was the real deal.
He was followed by Blind Melon whose lead singer, Shannon Hoon, came out in a white dress with berets in his hair. He was obviously flying very high but the band managed to pull off a good set featuring their hit “No Rain”.
Cypress Hill took the stage in the afternoon — featuring a giant pair of fingers holding a joint as a prop. They had everyone jumping to their hits including “Insane in the Brain”. Fun.
I headed to the South Stage while John went to explore the eco-zone of the festival site. I arrived in time for The Cranberries (they were awesome as always) and stuck around for Zucchero, Youssou N’Dour and part of The Band set (I wanted to go back to the North Stage to see another stellar lineup).
John and I met up at the tent and then made our way to the North Stage to catch Crosby Stills and Nash. Some nostalgia, of course, but they were still on top of their game. Great performance.
I passed on Nine Inch Nails as it was raining hammers, and I was tired. John decided to go alone. Apparently, I missed one of the best performances of Woodstock 94.
It was about midnight when John made it back to the tent where I had been trying to sleep. Metallica was set to go on next. It was still raining hard. I had never been a big metal fan and was familiar with only a few Metallica songs. I had heard they were great live and decided to go and check it out. John passed.
I made it to the top of the hill on the right side of the North stage. There was a group of 20 or so people with a large tarp which they were collectively holding up to ward off the rain. They made some room for me. We had a great view of the stage and the sound was amazing. Metallica just rocked it.
These guys are amazing musicians. Best of all, my little group on the hill were singing all the lyrics to the music and so I could better connect with each song. Definitely one of the highlights of Woodstock for me. I got back to the tent around 3AM, having caught a couple songs from Aerosmith’s set before calling it a night.
Day Three (Sunday August 14) — I remember waking up in our tent to the music of Country Joe MacDonald who was reprising his iconic 1969 performance with his anti-Vietnam War song The “Fish” Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.
A cool way to get into the spirit of Woodstock and begin the day.
We made it to the North Stage area to catch part of Arrested Development and a few songs by the Allman Brothers Band. We wanted to get to the South Stage where Green Day was to perform. When we reached the stage, there had been a scheduling delay and the WOMAD performers (curated by Peter Gabriel) were still on. Some great music but, unfortunately for the WOMAD performers, the unruly crowd was there to see Green Day and things started to get crazy.
There was lots of booing and many cries of “We want Green Day” — to such an extent that Peter Gabriel had to come out to ask everyone to show some respect for the talented performers. By the time Green Day was set to come out, the fans were in a foul mood.
The band finally came on and within 20 minutes into their set, mayhem broke out- mud and grass flying in all directions and towards the stage at the band. Band members were partly responsible, taunting the disgruntled fans who had waited for hours to hear them.
I left just when the things started going sideways and so missed most of the iconic Woodstock 94 moment that launched Green Day to superstardom. I simply didn’t feel safe staying there.
An hour later, John and I did return to the South Stage for another great lineup.
Paul Rodgers and Company — The former lead singer of Bad Company, Paul Rodgers, put together an all-star band for this show. This included Jason Bonham on drums (the son of the late, great John Bonham of Led Zeppelin fame), bassist Andy Fraser, guitarists Slash (Guns and Roses) and Neal Schon (Journey).
They did an amazing 70-minute set which for me was one of the best shows of the entire festival. These guys rocked it.
In the official Woodstock 94 video, you can see John and I several times in the audience not far from the stage. Perhaps this will win us some creds with our kids one day.
The Neville Brothers — I was always a big fan of these New Orleans legends. Great musicians.
They played some of their big hits including Yellow Moon featuring the amazing vocals of Aaron Neville.
Santana — We didn’t even have to move as Santana followed the Neville Brothers on the same stage. I’m a fan of guitarists who can shred it, and Carlos Santana is one of the all-time greats. I was hoping for a little magic from Woodstock 69 and they didn’t disappoint. It was a real thrill to experience this band up close and personal.
After taking a break at our tent on the way, John and I headed back to the North Stage to catch Steve Winwood and Traffic and the Spin Doctors. I stayed for a few songs from Pornos for Pyros, led by Perry Farrell (I would become a huge fan of Jane’s Addiction in later years), and John stayed to enjoy the rest of their set as he was a fan.
I went back to meet John (in the same spot) to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers who came out wearing lightbulb inspired outfits to start their set. They rocked out with a great performance including the song “Give it Away”.
Next up was Bob Dylan, who had passed on performing at the original Woodstock. I wasn’t his biggest fan back then but I did enjoy hearing “All Along the Watchtower”. I knew the Hendrix cover well, but hearing Dylan perform the song afforded me a new perspective on this legendary singer songwriter.
By the time Dylan finished his set, John and I were clearly out of steam and decided to pack it in. We would hear Peter Gabriel start his performance on our way out of the festival.
Mudstock 94 — An “Insanitary” Mess
Like the original Woodstock, the 94 version was hit by several rain storms which turned a vast portion of the site into a muddy mess. In fact, the event was nicknamed Mudstock.
The sanitation on site was a disaster. There was garbage everywhere — including discarded food containers, bottles, and Woodstock pizza boxes. Soiled blankets, sleeping bags and clothes were simply abandoned in the ever growing landfill the festival site had become.
Waste management vehicles could not make it through the thick mud to empty the porta potties. In some areas, the mud, now mixed with human waste overflowing from the toilets, was almost a foot deep.
Many gave up on using the toilets and instead sought out whatever inch of unoccupied nature they could find to do their business. I told John that there was no way I was going to take a shit anywhere.
He laughed at me. I don’t know how I did it, but for nearly three days, all the while drinking and eating (albeit minimally because we were running out of food), I never took a shit.
This was unfortunate for the poor soul overseeing clean up at the gas station 40km away, right next to where we had parked our car. It was there that the flood gate finally gave way. Fire in the hole!
Some had embraced the mud completely and joined the “mud people” tribe. Unlike my mudslide at the gas station, they enjoyed sliding down the hill in the natural “slip and slide” located not far from the main stage.
Paths Crossed — Experiencing People
Woodstock 94 attracted all kinds from diverse backgrounds and communities. We literally bumped into hundreds of interesting people and characters.
From the “love” couple who were channeling Woodstock 69 and were clearly 110% in love, to “Captain America” proudly draped in the American flag and wearing a crown made of cigarettes.
There were fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, Boomers, GenXers and teenagers — like the sisters who smiled for my camera while sitting in the mud, looking shell shocked the rest of the time and, I expect, secretly hoping they were warm and dry back at home.
It was interesting to observe all those that embraced the freedom that comes from being somewhat anonymous in a sea of half a million people. Some were experimenting with drugs, nudism, and many were getting more in touch with their spirituality and sexuality. Everything was happening, and most amazingly, in peace and harmony.
Except for the Green Day foment, I didn’t witness any fighting or even an argument during the three days we were there. The only downer was when we heard that a couple of people had died (of natural causes), that news conveyed by Shannon Hoon, during the Blind Melon set.
I had a cool moment with one of the official event photographers just after Paul Rodgers’ performance. I ran out of film (hard to imagine today) and didn’t want to lose my amazing spot near the stage in order to get more in our tent.
I caught his attention and flashed him some money gesturing that I wanted to buy some film from him. He threw two rolls my way and gave me the thumbs up. No charge! His generosity gave me the opportunity to take great shots of Santana and The Neville Brothers.
It was also cool to catch a close up glimpse of two of the icons of Woodstock 69. Michael Lang, the festivals’ producer, was watching from the side of the South stage as was Wavy Gravy later. Both reprised their roles from 25 years earlier.
John and Stephen’s Excellent Adventure- We Survived!
Things were peaceful at Woodstock 94 but we did have to fight large crowds for space, and access to food and water. We also battled mother nature — doing our best to keep ourselves warm and dry and the mud out of everything.
Combined with three days of very little sleep, we were exhausted and ready to call it a festival.
We packed up our dirty, muddy tent and belongings just as the sun was setting. One of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen — turning the sky a combination of red and purple.
We walked towards the exit, through a maze of trees and trash in a misty fog lit up by blue stage lighting (that the organizers had wisely decided to install to make sure people got out safely) — with the sounds of bagpipes and synthesizers coming from Peter Gabriel’s onstage performance of “Come Talk To Me”. There was something surreal about it. And then suddenly we were out on the street — two people amongst hundreds waiting to get on the shuttle bus.
About an hour and 40km later, we were back at our car. After the afore mentioned gas station visit, we headed back home to Toronto. John was focused on getting back in one shot — he drove the whole way. I think he told me he hallucinated a few times from being so tired. He dropped me off at home 9 hours later and, like that, our Woodstock 94 adventure was over.
Woodstock 94 was an amazing music festival and an experience that affirmed the power of music to bring people together.
As humans, we all seek to connect with others in ways that align with our ideals and our vision for how our world could be made better. Music enjoyed in a collective experience can be a catalyst to that end.
Woodstock 94 did have a strong connection to the original festival, despite the obvious difference in commercialization, because of the similar feeling of harmony generated and shared by those attending both events.
It was yet another reminder of our collective desire as humans to express our ideals and vision for a world of peace and of love, and that together we can make a better world for all.
Twenty-five years on, I continue to hold those ideals and that vision, even in the face of so much adversity in our modern world — be it individual or corporate greed, unbridled consumerism that has become a major distraction for the masses, and the political turmoil around the world that is pulling people further apart rather than bringing them together.
My friendship with John has ebbed and flowed over the years since we “survived” Woodstock 94 together. Our bond has always stayed strong — solidified by our common beliefs and our commitment and effort to fight for those “Woodstock” values and ideals in our own communities.
Our adventure continues.
One Love Johnny.