FORTY YEARS AGO, WOODSTOCK CELEBRATED the Age of Aquarius with the sounds of Hendrix, Santana, Garcia, Townshend, and other rock legends. The Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 may have announced to the world that popular music was being hijacked by hippies, freaks, and flower children, but it was Woodstock that declared America had come a long way from the era of whimsical Norman Rockwell tableaus. Woodstock gave a title to a “nation” of bright and shiny idealists who were celebrating mother earth before “Going Green” became a facile marketing phrase, opposing a tragically miscalculated (and misunderstood) military action in Vietnam, expanding minds (in ways both natural and chemical), exploring sexual freedom and color blindness, and grooving to the sound and fury of guitars played in new and mysterious ways.
Billed as an “An Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y.,” on August 15-17, 1969, the festival itself was kind of a beautiful train wreck, as anyone who has seen the 1970 Woodstock documentary can attest. The promoters— Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld—originally envisioned the event as a “for profit” concert that would attract around 50,000 fans. There was almost immediate trouble securing a venue, and the event location remained in flux until dairy farmer Max Yasgur offered to rent his 600 acres to the promoters for $75,000 (an additional $25,000 was paid to other nearby land owners). Ultimately, approximately 186,000 tickets would be sold ($18 in advance/$24 at the gate)—prompting the promoters to up their attendance estimate to 200,000—but when nearly 500,000 people descended on the Yasgur’s fields, Woodstock famously became a “free festival,” and all retaining fences were cut down.
Obviously, a massive sound system had to be constructed to bring the music to so many people—an ulcer-inducing gig that fell to Bill Hanley. Hanley developed a plan to arrange the stage and sound equipment in a big “V” that would offer some security from the crowd, and then determined the number of speaker columns and sound towers he would need to fill the fields with music. He constructed the speaker arrays from scratch—you couldn’t rent such a massive sound system in 1969—with custom Altec cabinets (each weighing half a ton), JBL 15" D140 woofers, and Altec horns.
“I thought the sound was great—even though I had set up the system for 200,000 people, not half a million,” said Hanley.
Those half-million strong were part of a generation of music and culture that resonates to this day. You can hear it in the artists who played back then, and are still performing today, and you can hear it in new bands and new effects and other gear that embrace the sonic DNA of psychedelia. To whisk you back to that era—if but for a moment—we’ve assembled a photo essay by legendary rock photographers Jim Marshall and Henry Diltz, as well a compilation of quotes from the guitarists and other musicians who experienced the event first hand. Peace!
“I was a young guy with young energy, and I played really fast at Woodstock. But, to be honest, I also was trying to make a name for myself, so maybe I was a bit too flashy. Playing fast helped me get noticed, but I didn’t believe the hype about it all. I was always aware that Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin, and others were much faster than I was. But those jazz guys play so smooth that their runs don’t appear to be fast, so I decided to use my fast licks like a machine gun with the effect of devastation—if you know what I mean [laughs]. I kind of enjoyed that, and it seemed to get the audience up.”
“Playing Woodstock was great—it was the first big gig I played with Jimi. We came around the back way, and we looked out on that crowd. It was the largest crowd I’d ever played in front of. Mitch [Mitchell, drummer] said, ‘Hell, I don’t know whether I want to go out there!’ Jimi said, ‘We’ll give to them, and they’ll give back to us, and we’ll have a good time.’ And it was great. It was exhilarating. When Jimi starting playing the ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ if you listen to the recording, you hear me playing the first five or six notes. Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute—we never practiced this.’ So I immediately stepped back, and it was—bang—a very great song he did.”
“It was just another festival,” Johnny Winter deadpans when queried about his appearance at Woodstock—which is like saying the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show of February 9, 1964 was just another Sunday night.
“One of things I remember about Woodstock was trying to get there to play. As it turns out, the charter plane I was on with Jimi Hendrix flew into the wrong airport. We were supposed to be picked by a helicopter. The roads were jammed, and there was nobody at the airport, so we had no way to get to the concert. So we’re standing at the airport with [famous attorney] Melvin Belli trying to figure out what to do. And Melvin Belli steals this pickup truck parked at the airport. So it’s the three of us in this stolen pickup truck trying to get to the Woodstock concert to play—Jimi, Melvin, and me. That’s what I really remember about Woodstock.” —From a 1979 interview for On the Record by Mary Turner
“By the time we got to Woodstock, we weren’t afraid of the crowd. Bill Graham trained us very, very well. It was a disaster of transportation. All the freeways were blocked like a science fiction movie. You know, people just abandoned their cars on the freeway. The crowd was 550,000—half a million or more strong. All I could see was an ocean of flesh and hair and teeth. And the cheering was like, well, combine a bunch of Super Bowls and World Cups. It was the sound of 500,000 people screaming at the same time. We’re in a helicopter, hearing it, you know? It was the biggest door I had ever walked through. Maybe a year and a half back, I was in Mission High School, and now I’m playing on the same stage with Sly and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin—all these incredible mega-superstars. I remember that I was under the influence of LSD. I thought, ‘Damn! Why did I take LSD before I went on?’ The guitar neck, it felt like an electric snake that wouldn’t stand still. That’s why I’m making ugly faces, trying to make the snake stand still, so I can, like, play. I remember saying over and over, ‘God, I’ll never do this again, ever! If you can just keep me in time and in tune—that’s all I ask.’ That was my first mantra. But, by God’s grace, the performance they got from ‘Soul Sacrifice’ was very electric. After you play Woodstock on acid, nothing’s a big deal anymore.” — Excerpted from Santana at Woodstock by the Experience Music Project
“Woodstock had some particularly bad moments. We had some excuses. The stage was sinking, and the equipment was starting to roll toward the edge. The sound system went off, the lights went off, and radio signals from the Air Force were coming out of my amp. It was not an atmosphere conducive to good music. I don’t think anybody played well that night, but we were the worst. We played better at Monterey Pop, but we were sandwiched between the Who and Jimi Hendrix, so nobody remembered us. We’ve always blown the big ones, as Garcia once said.”
“While you were playing, you could feel the presence of invisible time travelers from the future who had come back to see Woodstock.”
“Back then, we were purely searching for the best, and when we saw someone who looked like he had the spirit, we wanted to go with him. And where’s he going? He’s going to find himself, to join in a rock and roll band, to camp out on the land, and to set his soul free. That is what we were all trying to do, and that’s why Woodstock happened.”
COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD
“I was just sitting on the stage grooving, and watching Richie Havens, and when he stopped, someone asked me if I wanted to do a solo set. I was really nervous about playing by myself in front of that huge crowd, so I started making excuses. I said, ‘I don’t have a guitar.’ That’s when someone found me that Yamaha—an FG150. To this day, I don’t know where they got it. Then, I said, ‘I don’t have a guitar strap.’ So they cut a piece of rope off the rigging, tied it to that Yamaha guitar, and said, ‘You’re on, pal!’ Well, you can hear in the movie and on the record that the FG150 sounded really good. That guitar could project, man. I really feel like Richie Havens and I took the acoustic guitar to another level that day at Woodstock. We started a new style of really loud, powerful rock-and-roll acoustic-guitar playing. My life would have been totally different if someone had handed me a typical $100 acoustic. I thank my higher power they handed me a Yamaha FG150!”
Interviewed by Dick Cavett
Cavett: When you mention the National Anthem, and talk about plying it in any unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail from people who say, “How dare anyone . . .”
Hendrix: But listen, that’s not unorthodox. That’s not unorthodox.
Cavett: It isn’t unorthodox?
Hendrix: No, no, no. I thought it was beautiful.
“We were playing right after the Grateful Dead [yawns conspicuously], and I think it was about one in the morning. The Grateful Dead was on the stage for three hours, and if you know anything about the Grateful Dead, at first they come out, and they tune in front of you—‘Ah, now we’re going to tune’—for 25 minutes. Then, they played a little bit, the equipment broke, and then they came back. So, by the time we came onstage it was pitch black, and all I can see of the audience is that there are a bunch of naked people squirming in the mud. But there’s one guy with a cigarette lighter way back saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, John, we’re with ya.’ So, I played Woodstock for that guy.”
“I don’t wear my glasses on stage, because it looks better that way, and I don’t need to see what’s going on—so it’s always a psychedelic blur for me playing live anyway—but just the magnitude of Woodstock was amazing. We’d just played the Atlantic City Pop Festival before that, which was a large festival, too, but it was nothing compared to Woodstock. It’s kind of a blur now, but we went on 18 hours late or something, because everything was disorganized in a loveable sort of way, and by the time we went on, we looked like we’d been waiting for 18 or 20 hours.”
“You look out and see 300,000 people, and the magic of the nighttime has sort of fallen away into the reality of the morning. It was a pretty bedraggled bunch out there— including the guys on stage. But it was something amazing to behold, and it was something that I think we all felt we had a part in, and in putting together. There was really a kind of us-against-them mentality going on back in those days, and this was us, and we were impressed by how much ‘us’ was out there.”
on Not Playing Woodstock
“The Jeff Beck Group was still breaking ground, and we were doing our homework in bars and small venues, and even without the bad vibes in the band, I didn’t think we could have pulled off Woodstock. I just didn’t think we were big-stage material, and I couldn’t bear to be preserved on film playing out of my depth, and having Rod [Stewart] hating the sight of me on screen. Screw that! And I just had to follow my instincts, and say, ‘Right, well, I ain’t doing that.’ And obviously Ronnie Wood and Rod had got some scheme up their sleeves in case I buggered off, and in hindsight they did the right thing [laughs].”
Written by Linanne G Sackett, The Woodstock Storybook Special 40th Anniversary Edition [BookSurge] contains more than 200 extraordinary color photographs taken by Barry Z Levine. As the official still photographer for the 1970 documentary, Woodstock, Levine was perfectly situated to capture all aspects of the historical event, including all of the major performers on the bill. Visit woodstockwitness.com for more information.
Gear Lust 1969
If you were sitting in the back of a Volkswagen bus on your way to Woodstock, and happened to be flipping through the August 1969 issue of Guitar Player looking for some cool combo gear, here are the ads you’d see:
Espana, Goya, Harmony, Hohner, Imperial, C.F. Martin (General Custer ad), Yamaha.
Gretsch Chet Atkins models, Eko (basses), Kustom (also amps and a combo organ), Ovation Thunderhead.
Acoustic amps (endorsed by the Mothers of Invention), Ampeg, Baldwin Exterminator, Fender (solid-state amps), Guild Quantum Bass Amp (endorsed by Jim Fiedler of Blood, Sweat & Tears), Heathkit TA-38 Bass Amp, Magnatone, Standel, Ovation Little Dude, Plush Electronics (endorsed by the Jeff Beck Group), Sunn.
Effects & Accessories
Electro-Harmonix LPB1 Power Booster, Innovex/Hammond GSM Sound Modulator, Rowe/DeArmond pickups.
Black Diamond, Darco, Ernie Ball Slinkys, GHS Formula, La Bella, Picato.