Sunday, August 17, 2014

Remembering a little concert in the middle of a cow pasture.

It started on a Friday night. I was working the evening shift at WCOS in the main studios in the Cornell Arms building since the show was moved back there from Doug Broome’s Drive-In Restaurant earlier that year. I think it was the 10 PM newscast when I heard Mike Rast read a story that came across the Associated Press news wire about some serious traffic problems at a concert at a dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York. I remember quipping after the news cast that a cow must have broken down in the middle of the one highway in the county. Mike and I had a lot of fun with cow and pig jokes. Both of us were glad we weren’t there.

The next day, we weren’t so sure. By then more news was rolling out of the Catskills and we began to get a picture of just how big this little concert in the middle of Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm really was. During that sometimes rainy weekend, 32 acts performed outdoors before an audience of 400,000 young people. The list of performers began rolling in Richie Havens, Swami Satchidananda who gave the opening speech/invocation for the festival, Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar who played through the rain, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. Geez, I thought, this could be something special, even bigger that the Monterrey Pop Festival of 1967. What an understatement, this of course was Woodstock, widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history.

It is said that “If you remember Woodstock, then you weren’t there!” I certainly remember it, and am both glad and sad that I wasn’t there. I am glad because my friends who were there talked a lot about how miserable it was in the rain and the mud that resulted from the intermittent showers over the weekend. The sanitary facilities were completely overwhelmed and by time the last notes were played by Jimi Hendrix at 11 AM on Monday the 18th the pasture was smellier than Max’s cows could have ever made it. I am sad when I listen to the soundtrack recordings made during the concert; I realize that I missed hearing seminal performances by some of my favorite artists.

That included at least one song that was made up on the spot on stage. That happened with the opening act, Richie Havens! Havens was supposed to be on stage for an hour to an hour and a half. But, because of the crowds trying to get into the venue, the acts that were following him, Swami Satchidananda and Sweetwater, were stuck in the traffic trying to get into the farm. Richie sang every song he knew. At that point, he told the producers that he did not know any more songs. They said that they needed for him to “stretch” while the Swami who had just arrived at the edge of the farm made his way to the stage. Richie began stroking his “open fret” tuned guitar and thinking. After playing chords for what seemed like an eternity he said “guitar mike” asking for the sound technician to raise the level of the microphone that was picking up his acoustic guitar. With that accomplished, Richie kicked off a couple of riffs and set off ad-libbing what is now considered one of his masterpieces, “Freedom”; six minutes and twenty four seconds of musical genius, loosely tying together popular phrases of the day such as “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”.

By the time that Joan Baez, who was six months pregnant at the time, finished out the first night at 2 AM, the die was cast. Woodstock was something special. The big name acts that didn’t perform at Woodstock; The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, Chicago, Tommy James and the Shondells and The Moody Blues all had a chance to be there and missed it, much to their regret. Those artists that did, had the experience of performing to an audience of over 400,000 fans through a sound system that was spread out across several hills on 70 foot tall towers and drew over 480,000 watts of electrical power. That is over nine times the power of the most powerful AM radio stations in the United States at the time.

I must admit that back in Columbia, to Mike and me, Woodstock seemed like it was going to be the next step after the Monterrey Pop Festival in a never ending series of “super concerts”. We were wondering if an even bigger one would pop up here in the south. Of course, Woodstock was the pinnacle of the large scale outdoor music festivals. Forty five years ago tonight, Jimi Hendrix closed out Woodstock. I wonder, if those who will be in that pasture tonight in remembrance of the anniversary will be able to hear the strains of “All Along The Watchtower”? I bet they will, faintly, out there in the mists of time. Oh Yeah, can't you hear it? Oh MY!

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