Yes, I Don't Remember Woodstock
Just about everybody over the age of 60, it seems, knows someone who went to Woodstock. The original crowd estimate was around 400,000, but thanks to the movie, web sites, books and other media relating to the event, almost anyone can recite in detail what it was like: The rain, the lack of food and shelter, the amazing, and not so amazing performances, the wonderful feeling of togetherness despite the challenging conditions.
I, on the other hand, hardly remember anything about Woodstock. And you know what that means? I must have been there.
Over the 50 years since that iconic 3-day festival of Peace, Love, and Mud, I’ve spoken to others who were there and have trouble remembering. We agree that part of the problem was certainly lack of sleep and abundance of illicit chemicals, but just as daunting is the memory’s inclination to conflate what we experienced at the festival with what we later saw on the screen in the movie that followed a year or so later. I suspect that just about everyone who went to Woodstock also saw the movie, and probably more than once. Why? To see if they could find themselves on the big screen, of course.
I went to the movie at least three time when it came out roughly six months after the festival (Alas, I am one of the roughly 390,000 people who are easily unidentifiable). But as a result of seeing the movie then, and several times since, I have reason to believe that my memories of the original event have become seriously compromised.
I still have some recollections that I’m nearly certain are real: Riding up Rt 17 through the rain on my motorcycle with my girlfriend early Saturday morning. Stopping at the Red Apple Rest and finding it jammed with long hairs like myself. Snaking around the fifty gallon drums the state police had used to block the exit we needed to take. Riding along the edges of lawns and fields once the road became too clogged with trudging longhairs and abandoned cars. Leaving the motorcycle parked on a dirt (or was it gravel?) road, after which my girlfriend and I waded into the crowd to find a patch of grass where we could spread a sleeping bag and sit down. We’d hardly gotten settled when, 25 yards in front of us, a naked woman suddenly jumping up to face the crowd, shouting incoherently and gesturing wildly with her hands and arms until two people near her put a blanket over her shoulders and got her to sit back down.
After that, my memories start to get as muddy as the ground we sat on. I’m pretty sure we settled down beside a fellow wearing a necktie around his head like a bandana who shared a joint and a peanut butter sandwich with us. I think he was the one who warned us not to eat the corn from the surrounding fields, saying some people had tried it, and had gotten diarrhea because it was feed corn for animals, not humans. I kind of remember taking a handful of coco puffs from a box being passed around. And that fellow wearing a poncho who was leading a sheep on a leash and carrying a sign about loving, not eating, our animal friends may have passed nearby. Or is that something I only know about because of the movie?
From there on, my memory gets even soupier, surely thanks to lack of sleep and the endless stream of joints and bottles of wine being passed around (at least, I think that’s what happened). I think I remember Country Joe doing the Fish cheer on Saturday afternoon, and being one of the tens of thousands who joined in. I think I went up to a concession stand to buy some hot dogs (or were they hamburgers?). I might remember the set Santana played, but after that, most of my memories of the music from late Saturday afternoon into early Sunday morning have become too reminiscent of the movie to be trusted.
I have no recollection of the Grateful Dead playing in the rain around midnight (their performance isn’t in the movie), nor of the rain itself that night. And unless I somehow mastered astral travel (not entirely out of the question given the amount of drugs that were said to be available) it’s impossible that I could have been close enough to the stage to see the rose-colored glasses that Sly (of Sly and the Family Stone) was wearing. The one memory from that night that I hope is authentic is very early Sunday morning while The Who performed on the stage down in the glen where it was still dark, the first light of morning beginning to turn the tops of the surrounding hills gray. (I’d be interested to know if anyone else shares that recollection).
A few years ago, I had lunch with my former girlfriend, hoping that she might help spur some recall of what we did during the day on Sunday. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, she couldn’t remember that day at all, but she did help solve one mystery -- where we spent Sunday night, and why, on Monday morning, she was gone. Also, why, unlike most of the remaining crowd Monday morning, my clothes were dry. (Did anyone back then think to bring a change of clothes to a three-day event? Not me. Underwear? It was the 60s; did we even own underwear?) Anyway, my former girlfriend was pretty sure we’d stayed in a tent with some guys who were leaving at five in the morning to go back to the city. She’d left with them to get to her job.
I must have slept well in that tent Sunday night (so any memory I have of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or Ten Years After would have to be from the movie) because my recollection of Monday morning is much clearer. Sadly, I missed one of my favorite groups, The Butterfield Blues Band, but I recall seeing Sha Na Na, followed by Hendrix’s famous closing set, and then hiking back to the road, where my motorcycle was still standing. I’d half expected it to be gone, or at least be knocked over during the exodus that began during the wind and rain storm Sunday afternoon and continued through the night (Where did my girlfriend and I find shelter during that afternoon rain storm? We’ll never know).
Over the years I have met a few people who do have very precise memories from Woodstock, but most of them weren’t there for the entire event. I’ve also spoken to some who were there and hardly remember any of it, including how they got home after it ended. Even without the impediments of sleeplessness and elicit chemicals, and the intrusion of the movie on our fragile recollections, the ability to remember certainly does vary greatly from person to person. But as a rule, I go by a slightly modified version of the famous slogan of that entire decade: if you remember it (well), you (probably) weren’t there.