The three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair in August 1969 was a welcome moment for the Baby Boom generation.
Woodstock was one of the prouder markers of a decade that so far seemed to offer mostly frustration. In the midst of all the violence, the war, the protests, and the assassinations, 500,000 people came together and got down. They celebrated, got high, got naked, and listened to one of the greatest musical lineups any generation could muster. And nary a punch was thrown among half a million people for three days. There were no cops, except outside the grounds. And the locals did their best to help out the hippies. It was paradise.
Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, the Who, Credence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & the Family Stone… you get the idea. Here’s the full line-up of the event. It’s a nearly perfect soundtrack for a generation. But not quite.
Could the Woodstock lineup have been even better?
There are several iconic bands that did not make it to Bethel, New York that weekend, and the reasons (rumors? excuses?) are as varied as the performers themselves.
The Beatles were a long shot for the festival. They had not performed live in years. They were barely speaking to one another, and everyone in the group seemed to be more focused on their post-Beatles plans. Rumor has it that when the band was approached to perform at Woodstock, John Lennon’s price tag included a slot for the Plastic Ono Band, but Yoko Ono caterwauling on stage was a step too far, and no agreement could be struck. There is not much evidence to support this story, but it does keep the “Yoko ruined everything” vibe alive.
Had the Beatles showed up at Woodstock, what would they have played? There may have been a couple of old pop tunes just for the sake of nostalgia. But long gone were the days of Help and Please Please Me. The band and its fans were beyond that. Audiences at Woodstock might have swayed to tunes from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The White Album. And Paul McCartney would surely want to debut some new tunes from the upcoming Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles would ever record together.
Likewise, the Rolling Stones also took a pass on Woodstock, though who could imagine a stage big enough to host both the Beatles and the Stones? Mick Jagger was in Australia filming Ned Kelly, a movie about a 19th century outlaw that would turn out to be another miss for Jagger’s on-and-off acting career.
How about Led Zeppelin? They were up and comers, and rubbing shoulders with some of rock’s biggest names might have looked good for this hard-hitting foursome just coming out of the gate. Their manager didn’t see it that way. Peter Grant believed that Zeppelin would be just another band at Woodstock, and they were such a more potent force on their own. So, rather than interrupt their successful summer tour, Zeppelin skipped Woodstock and showed up at Asbury Park, NJ as scheduled.
The Doors also turned down Woodstock. While Zeppelin could be forgiven the indulgence of passing up the festival, the Doors really could not. Front man Jim Morrison’s March arrest in Miami for public drunkenness and indecent exposure (turns out he was just drunk and indecent, but not exposed) had resulted in a lot of bad press and cancelled tour dates. Woodstock, where the audience was highly unlikely to be offended by Morrison’s onstage antics, would have been just the shot in the arm the Doors needed. Doors guitarist Robby Krieger admitted it was a bonehead move.
Despite rumors that Morrison didn’t like outdoor venues (acoustics? fear of being shot?), the Doors would have put on quite a set. Classics like “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” “Light My Fire,” and “When the Music’s Over” would be joined by songs off the latest Doors album, The Soft Parade, released just weeks before Woodstock.
Morrison’s hang-ups or let-downs aside, drummer John Densmore did make it to Woodstock, just not as a performer.
Bob Dylan was another living legend by 1969 who would have put together a killer set at Woodstock. Many people mistakenly think Dylan played Woodstock. He was the premier folk rock artist of the age. He even lived in the town of Woodstock, 60 miles down the road from where the festival eventually ended up in Bethel, NY.
Dylan was set to play the festival, then pulled out after his boy got sick. But shortly after that, Dylan skipped town. He reportedly booked passage to England on the Queen Elizabeth II on August 15, the first day of the festival. He sailed to England and performed at the Isle of Wight Festival two weeks later. Rumor has it that Dylan was increasingly put off by the influx of hippies into the area and soon sold his house and relocated.
Iron Butterfly also said yes to Woodstock. They flew in from the West Coast, but found themselves stuck in a New York City airport. Rumor has it they overestimated their star power from the acid rock classic, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and demanded a helicopter to deliver them to the venue. Depending on who you hear this story from, the promoters either lost Iron Butterfly in the chaotic shuffle of the festival, or they told the band to f*#k themselves. Either way, Iron Butterfly never made it to Woodstock.
Throughout 2019, Mr. Rick will be looking back at 1969, the year the turbulent 60s came to an end. Subscribe now and be sure to catch new features on ’69 and so much more.