One Man’s Road to Woodstock

August 4, 2009 at 6:58 PM

I was the product of a broken home and was living with my grandparents in upstate New York – unhappily since I was a Brooklyn boy – during the middle and late 60’s. Like many children of divorced parents, I was angry and acted out as much as I could. But, the music was changing and I was changing with it. I went from Elvis and the 4 seasons to the Vanilla Fudge and Santana.

When I used to visit my cousins in Brooklyn during visits to see my dad, I got to hear their record collections. I was exposed to The Beatles and The Stones, The Beach Boys and The Animals when I was there, and more visits helped me find Paul Butterfield, the Who, the Yardbirds and others.

While living upstate I somehow found my way down to the city with a friend (sneaking out as I was only 13 – something I did quite often) and we went to the Filmore East.

This may have changed my life.

I found my way there on many more occasions and got to see the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Mountain, Quicksilver, and many, many others over time. This was how I really discovered the great musicians.

Live was a whole new ballgame, and I got to see them make their magic. I was addicted to seeing these guys live. I can remember seeing the Grateful Dead after only hearing the song “Truckin”; I had no idea about their crazy jams. I saw Hendrix at the Garden early on, and he was awesome, but going to the Filmore was magical for me.

I became obsessed with getting to every event I could, spending my 13th and 14th years exploring the music the best I could, and in turn finding my connection to my generation. I joined a band and schoolwork became less important than partying and making music. I lived for the music.

I ran away on several occasions, mostly convincing friends or girlfriends to adventure with me to the city, but I always got brought back to Newburgh. After one too many times, I went back to Brooklyn to live with my dad. I had a new school, new friends, new band – but now closer to where the live music was happening.

I would go to the city with friends and catch groups like The Jefferson Airplane in Central Park. We experimented with drugs as everyone was doing. But the connection to all the others of my generation was through the music and we all pursued it as much as we could.

FM radio was our info network and was where we heard the calling.

Rumors began circulating that a “mega concert” was going to take place in upstate New York in a place called Woodstock. We all knew that Woodstock was where Dylan and the Band were living, and all these great other musicians were there all the time as well. The name conjured up an image of a musical mecca.

We listened to our info network and waited for updates.

As we were approaching the summer of ’69, war protests, free concerts, and Vietnam on TV, was the backdrop. Rumors became more prevalent and bigger names were being thrown around, like even the Beatles may be there.

We learned that the promoters were not able to have the concert in Woodstock at all, but instead had to actually make the site in Wallkill. Interestingly enough, Wallkill was about 5 miles from my grandparent’s house in Newburgh. These are the same grandparents I ran away from a few times before. However, the prospect of missing this concert would make me really do some serious groveling if I had to. I really thought about moving back in with my grandparents in Newburgh, and actually started the process of telling my dad I would rather live there. My brother and I (he always went along with me) convinced my dad it was best for all of us and next thing I know – boom – I am in Newburgh waiting for the concert of my life. There was some kind of crazy force making me want to be there.

Now my biggest problem was that every summer I spent on my uncle’s resort in the Catskills, in a place called Monticello. We owned a resort and restaurant called Spaner’s. Our restaurant was popular for its authentic Italian cuisine cooked by my very own grandmother.

I started working there in ’66 as a helper to my uncle. He had me learning everything, plumbing, painting, tree trimming – you name it. I was his sidekick and did everything from clean the pool to stock the bar. I would spend the money I earned on records, now buying my own, and exploring everything I could find that was not pop.

The resort was a place where I was very much molded. You could see the transformation of my youth through the jukebox summer to summer: Frank, Bobby Darin – Jan and Dean, the Monkees, the 4 seasons – early Beatles and Stones – Janis and Led Zepplin. That jukebox captured more of the evolution with Dylan acoustic going to Dylan electric to Hendrix covering Dylan.

Now I was coming to my first summer where I may not be working for my Uncle and I was actually wishing I could be there. After all, this was the place I learned to drive, had my first, well a lot of things, and if I could work the angles I could go there to the resort in Monticello have a ball, get paid, and somehow get to Newburgh (closer to the concert in Wallkill) when the concert came about. I would figure it out I was sure.

Word spread of the concert and I just knew this was going to be the big one. I was going to be there no matter how or what I had to do to get there. Although I figured I could do something to get out of the summer job – boom – next thing I know I am there at the resort wondering how I will make it to the concert.

Monticello was always a mix of local “hicks” as the city people called them, Hasidic Jews and New York City workers taking vacations to the “Borscht belt” as they called it. The city workers’ wives stayed there with the kids all week long, and the husbands would join them on the weekends. Some would be there for their two week vacations, others the whole summer – dirty dancing parents and the teens hating it, or camp – but now the area had become lots and lots of hippies. Had I not noticed it before? Was it always like this?

Each day I would read the papers to see what groups were being added to the bill. Rumors of the Beatles, the Stones, Cream, Jeff Beck, the Who, The Doors and others to join what already was looking really unbelievable.

And just when I couldn’t figure out how I could disappear back to Newburgh, I read that there was an injunction to block the concert from taking place in Wallkill – oh no – this was only 5 miles from my house in Newburgh. Now how was I going to find my way to who knows where?

Then the papers said Middletown was the new site – about halfway between Newburgh and Monticello (may still be doable), and each day I looked to see if there was any new news, another injunction, another site to find.

Our resort in Monticello was just up the road from the Racetrack. More importantly, just up the hill from 17b, the road that led from the highway directly to White Lake and Bethel, New York, a sleepy little farm town that you would miss if you yawned from boredom going past it.

The announcement was out: at last a real site was found – Max Yasgur to the rescue – and this site was about 5 miles from Monticello.

This was unbelievable news and a sign. I wasn’t going to the concert. The concert was coming to me!

My cousin was up for a month that summer, and he got assigned to let me practice driving on actual roads. This allowed me to explore the backroads endlessly and some of the shortcuts that would come in handy later. I convinced him that we should drive to the festival site and sit and watch the progress as the massive stage was being built. I would get goosebumps. We loved going there and did it many times and I felt a crazy connection with the people working there.

One night we heard Ten Years After was playing at, I think, the Brown’s hotel, in a little room that must have been like a clubhouse – unreal, maybe 40 people there. Alvin Lee would show the brilliance over and over that many had no idea about, until that fateful night in August with the watermelon and “Going Home”. It was like we had them in our living room. Of course I spread the word about Ten Years After to all my friends.

As we approached mid-August things started to change in Monticello – it was really getting over-run with hippies now and people were freaking out. They didn’t know what to make of these freaks and many were not tolerant. They would harass them and the news would tell everyone to be careful, “lock your doors,” etc. They kept coming, however, and I am talking weeks before the concert.

Lake areas were filled with hippies swimming naked and smoking pot, streets were filled with VW micro-busses and motorcycles. This was not a movie script. It was happening for real.

My Aunt was not so tolerant. Her gangster world didn’t like hippies – hippies were too out there. She insisted I wasn’t to go to the “festival” as we began calling it. It was actually being labeled as a “Music and Arts Fair,” and “three days of peace and music” was the catch phrase. She didn’t buy it, nor did many of the town folk. All I could think was, why couldn’t I go? So what if I was 15. I lived enough on my own to feel like I was at least 18 now, had friends in Vietnam, taken acid, traveled all over by myself – what was the problem?

My uncle was the total opposite. He was tolerant and an entrepreneur. He rented all our motel rooms to the hippies or kids from all over who actually had the money to pay, for good prices. He also let lots of hippies camp out on our property – make their base there and head off to the festival – I thought it was so cool.

It was surreal, hippies playing frisbee, pitching tents next to our pool, making love in the woods. Our resort was right in the middle of it. My Aunt was horrified.

As concert time approached, the road was a nonstop line of cars, and VW busses and motorcycles and campers and trucks heading to the site. 17b was the road you take after getting off the quick-way and off the Thruway (you know, “the New York State Thruway is closed man”), and this road led right past the bottom of the hill that our resort was on. We would go watch for a while wishing we could go (my friend Gary Martone and me). The traffic would get slower and slower Tuesday, Wednesday, and by Thursday was impossible, and we were like 6 or 8 miles from the site.

The festival was supposed to be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – but by Thursday I believe it was starting to happen. Friday news reports coming out said they were running out of food already, rain was a problem and disease was feared.

By Friday we heard they needed water and anyone going should bring plenty of supplies. They said the hippies overran the place and knocked the fences down and it was declared a free concert now – they just kept coming and coming. We know now that at the time it was the largest gathering of humans to watch a MUSIC EVENT IN HISTORY, 350, 000, some say half a million.

Sometime that day my uncle who wasn’t much of a talker and I went into town. The entrepreneur couldn’t resist. He saw the traffic. We bought cold cuts and Italian bread, got cases of soda, and went back to the resort.

While making hundreds of sandwiches and packing ice and water he told me – “here’s the deal. We go down the hill and you and Gary sell sandwiches and sodas and give away water to those poor bastards stuck in that traffic”.

One lane was already just piles of cars abandoned as people got out and walked the few miles from there to the site.

“When we are out of stuff then you can go – but you have to do one thing – my friends want to go and they got to get around this traffic and you know the route. They will take you and Gary and you stay with them, but use your shortcut to help get closer.”

Needless to say, I jumped at this job with an eagerness that was something to behold. Sell stuff and keep a cut? Lead your friends to the concert? I am the man for this job, I thought.

At first we sold the stuff, then we were trading for drugs and my Uncle didn’t seem to care – “Just keep moving and sell what you can,” he would say. We got flashed from the girls for drinks and food and gave away stuff to the coolest painted cars. It was so much fun we almost forgot what we were doing it for.

Leading my uncle’s friends to the concert that had been calling me all my life, well, that was the best day of my life and I hadn’t stepped one foot onto the site yet. We used the shortcuts I developed and made our way closer than all those people whose cars littered 17b for miles and got pretty close to the site.

We got there late and were sleeping in the car only to wake up to Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick’s announcement that it was time for “Morning Maniac Music”.

We made our way in.

Gary and I found ourselves in what some people called “Woodstock Nation” and it was unbelievable. Everyone was on the same page sharing, meeting, laughing, dancing, listening to all the best artists from our time.

I remember the announcements (too late for me but I didn’t get sick on the acid), I remember the distribution of food. Baskets were at the top of the hill filled with peaches and apples and such. The people up there would just throw them at the middle of the crowd so far away that they couldn’t walk through the maze of the people to get to them with the food, so we would just turn around and try to catch some.

We would share all the stuff despite the warnings of disease supposedly spreading: “don’t share water, don’t swim in the lake, don’t share pot,” etc. We didn’t listen to a word. We all helped each other. It was the only way to survive the heat, the rain, and the lack of adequate food and water.

I remember the rain – Oh how we all remember the rain. Some guy standing ten feet from us took off all his clothes and started soaping himself up. I didn’t realize how hard it was raining. We all were just laughing and watching this scene. A beautiful blond, with the flowers and all, joined him and soaped his back – they showered right there. It was strangely funny, erotic, and appropriate all at the same time.

Somewhere after the second rain, the real bad one, I lost Gary (my uncle’s friends had abandoned us at the crack of the first guitar chord when we got there). I was alone, but I wasn’t. We were half a million strong and everyone loved everyone. I saw Gary in the distance, one of the guys running and sliding down the hill in the mud (you saw them in the movie). He motioned for me to come join him but I went to the lake and was tripping and lost him after that. I didn’t see him again the rest of the festival.

We were friends, Gary and I (summer friends – like a cousin to me and the son of my Aunt’s bodyguard but that’s a whole other story!). He was there every year at the resort, helped me work occasionally, got in trouble with me always, instigated events, but was my sidekick – my brother was too young and Gary was almost my age.

The concert went on with long breaks – rain, equipment issues, etc. I was tripping and high and I have to tell the truth – I don’t remember who I heard and who I didn’t. I know I left in the morning on Monday after Hendrix or maybe during but I cannot tell you anything else.

Well I do remember Joe Cocker stuck in my mind before the real rain.

I wandered out to the road upset that it was ending, frozen from all the rain and lack of extra clothing. It seemed cold even though it was August but maybe it was the finality of it all.

I wandered over to the road to make my way home. It was something to behold. You would wait for a car going by that wasn’t loaded with people on top of it, on the trunk, or on the hood – inside was out of the question. If there was a spot you would just jump on board. I could hear “people get ready” playing in my head. A car comes by and I hear the Vanilla Fudge “you just get on board” and I climb on, and we’re on our way.

I am telling the absolute truth – half a million people and not 100 more yards on top of that trunk and another body plops on the same car as me. Who is it but Gary—unbelievable.

Several more cars and eventually we reached the resort where everyone was so happy to see us. Some were worried and some just needed us back to work. They hadn’t heard a thing since we left and now it was Monday. There were no cell phones back then.

All I can tell you is we were back to work very shortly after returning as if it was just another day, but not for Gary and me. We had been to heaven and back (although the storms felt like hell on earth).

It is my happiest memory of Gary and after that summer I only saw him once more, the next year. While walking home from work in Newark, New Jersey, a mugger shot and killed him. He was my first friend to die. He didn’t go to Nam, he didn’t OD, some idiot just killed him for his money.

I choose to remember my summer buddy like he was that August day, running all out and sliding head first down the hill in the mud while I saw trails coming off his feet thanks to “a little help from my friends”.

There was something that kept calling me back there and I finally visited the site a few years ago one summer. I brought my two daughters who heard all the stories for years (after questioning my mushroom tattoo) and it was my mission to show them what it has become. Along the way they got to meet and spend time with my Italian cousins and to visit the cool Uncle Stanley as well. The museum at the site is cool, the land is well preserved, and they have concerts there regularly now. Many of the musicians who played the original festival return and do gigs there. I heard Leslie West even got married there! But calling it Bethel Woods loses a little for me. Regardless, it still has the magic when you step foot on the property.

Our resort has been gone for many, many years now, and the area where it was located was run down and horrible for a good amount of time. The last few years have seen a revival in real estate up there as an escape for people from the city, and the area has been growing. My uncle returned again, bought some land, and put a horse farm on it for his wife. My Aunt (the cool Uncle’s sister and partner) and her gangster friends are all gone now but maybe she would approve finally?

For years though, people have been going to the site on its anniversary and many impromptu concerts have happened. I never made it back on an anniversary, all the way from my home in Florida, finding one excuse after another. But, an amazing connection still exists for those people who were at Woodstock. Many believe it was a seminal moment in the youth or “counterculture” movement, or the awakening of a generation yearning to express themselves that the music brought out in them. There were many events leading up to that moment: war protests, the “summer of love,” “Monterey,” etc. However, nothing like Woodstock had happened before, nor has it been duplicated since. One thing remains constant. The people who were there have a connection to each other that I believe is unparalleled.

People claim to have been there even if they weren’t, just to feel part of it.

I feel the reason this concert was so powerful is because it got the worldwide attention a lot of the events before it didn’t; most importantly, it seemed to give so many of us the feeling that we were all connected in a crazy moment in time, all feeling the same thing, accepting each other despite any differences, black, white, old, young, with the musicians verbalizing for us and giving us a soundtrack to all the sensory overload we were experiencing.

“Our collective voice,” if you will, was being heard by the world, not being ignored or dismissed.

For this reason, being in the “Woodstock Nation,” being part of the half a million that lived through it makes us special.

All the pundits have analyzed the show and the music, but I think my journey getting there may say something about the times, if not simply to voice one person’s Woodstock experience, among many.

Forty years later (now coming up on 50 years later) I’m hearing the calling again – not on FM radio like before – but through the words of so many others, whose stories I’ve been reading. I know I’m not alone – and I look forward to feeling the connection one more time. Can I make it to the 50 year Anniversary? And hey – I hear the Beatles might really show up this time!

The other day I actually got to meet Michael Lang (the man behind Woodstock) and talk about his latest venture. I am hearing the calling again, and again maybe it’s coming to me? 4/23/16

Epilogue 8/15/2018 — 49 years and here comes another Anniversary.

Last week I found myself in New York for family issues.

My Brother and I haven’t been there together for some years now. Besides the usual must do’s, pizza, bialys, the old apartment and more, I got tickets to Buster Poindexter at the City Winery. My brother invited a long lost friend Joe Romano to join us. I haven’t seen Joe since, well, Woodstock 49 years ago. As it turned out Joe was very active in the New York music scene when I was but we never crossed paths. The same with my brother. Joe could name drop like the best of them and back it up too. So there was lots of reminiscing and discussion of music and our similar likes. We got around to the pivotal moments in both of our lives: Woodstock. Joe figured since my brother Gary got screwed and didn’t get to go to the festival, that he wouldn’t like us going over it, but Gary, my younger brother, has come to terms with it, barely.

Gary is 3 years younger than me. While I paved the way for him in many areas growing up, the age difference at that time made it hard for him to do everything I did. When we were older we went to everything together. I taught him about Greenwich Village, how to get around the city, the music scene as I knew it. I famously gave him my record collection when I left home for good. He became a crazy record collector with that start. We have always been close, but we didn’t always hang together at the young ages of Woodstock times.

Shortly before the Woodstock Festival, he got in trouble for being caught smoking. He had an altercation with my Uncle over it and in a moment of defiance, so like only my brother could do, he ran away. He ran down the hill from the resort with everyone running after him, stuck his thumb out and got picked up before anyone could catch him. He traveled back to Newburgh to Grandma’s house (our summer resort in Monticello was only 40 minutes or so away). He got there in a flash. Now he was really in trouble! He was caught immediately and sent to Mom’s in Florida to straighten him out and as a result, he would miss the greatest concert that there ever was for one act of defiance. 

I was always way more calculating than my brother. I was not going to miss it. As a side note to my brother’s credit: years later, 1973 to be exact, I had 10 tickets (I was scalping tix and some were for me and my brother – 3rd row or so) to the Song Remains the Same Led Zeppelin Tour. I planned on taking my brother and some friends and selling the other tickets. Gary heard there was a festival in upstate New York for that same date which had the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and the Band already scheduled. It was supposed to rival Woodstock by the time the festival would come around. He was NOT Going to MISS this one! I sold all the tickets and we went. As it turned out Watkins Glen did rival Woodstock. They say 650,000 people attended. However, unlike Woodstock, no other bands showed up. So for three days we heard nothing but those three bands. I always remained an Allman Brothers fan and even had the pleasure of meeting and photographing Gregg and Butch in recent times, a dream come true. However, I could not listen to the Grateful Dead after that concert for at least 25 years. Just couldn’t do it. My brother got his wish though. Many people think this Festival was one of the best, especially Dead fans. But sorry Gary it was no Woodstock. There will never be another Woodstock Music and Arts Fair.

Joe reminded me that I wrote him out of my story, and he proceeded to refresh my memory about it, and I started to remember more. Funny how that goes. Joe and his sister, Stacy, were at our resort that year. Joe was an extremely outgoing kid and he inserted himself into every situation he could that summer and I am sure for many more to come. Joe and Stacy helped sell the sandwiches and drinks to the hippies stuck in their cars that I have described many times. This was what was going to allow my friend Gary Martone and I to go. Joe colorfully discussed the scene with me “remember the painted cars giving us joints for sandwiches, chicks showing us boobs for drinks?” etc etc. I suddenly remembered him being part of it all. I always wondered how my friend Gary and I got separated at the festival. Joe reminded me that there were four of us and my uncle’s friends in the car traveling the backroads we knew, to get past all the lines of cars abandoned and blocking route 17 all the way to the fest. When we got there the adults went their separate ways and four of us, Gary Martone, myself, Joe, and another Joe made our way in. We talked about the stands set up along the entrance: “purple acid here!” “mescaline right here!” “hey get your joints here” “hash brownies, right here”. Apparently there was no water left, no food, but hey drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll was the only thing that mattered. Joe insisted that after the first rain, he and Gary were under our blanket or plastic or something and I was standing next to them and that there is a picture of us that was in life magazine or some other publication.

Joe solved the first mystery when he described going off with Gary to slide down the hill in the mud. They had a ball, were covered in mud, and came back and tried to get me to go, but I didn’t, and that was the last I saw of them during the Festival.

He corrected one of the most famous parts of my story and after he did I remembered it way better. In all fairness, there was the fog of the 60’s to sift through but Joe helped me get there. On the way home I found my friend Gary Martone after losing him for those few days. I thought he “plopped” onto the same car I was sitting on the back of, but Joe corrected me. Joe didn’t remember them running into me, but when he described his memory it came flooding back to me. I had my spot on the car as I said before. A Volkswagon bug came up near us and who is hanging on the back of it draped over the rear bumper, laying up against the back, and holding onto the roof for dear life are GARY and JOE. One wrong move and they are goners. This is the scene I came up upon or they came up next to me. Neither one of us can remember what happened next. Did I jump off my car (unlikely – I had a perfect spot). Did Gary fall off and jump on my car? Maybe. Who cares? I remember vividly now the looks on their faces as they held onto that little tiny sliver of space they occupied, still filthy from their exploits, but glad to see we all survived. Woodstock brothers for sure and “Half a million strong”!!!

So finally –  the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair.

It was touted to be a major event to those of us who make it that far. I made the pilgrimage alone – but not really. 

The same crap that existed the first time with moving the site, promoters and money people fighting, injunctions from site allowances, all happened again. There were going to be two different ones with one bigger and better than the first but in Maryland. I decided to go to the original site like I planned many years before.

As I drove through the familiar backroads, a great sense of calm and purpose came over me. The site was kind of commercial with the Museum and the Amphitheatre, but it is a monument to a one of a kind moment in history – all people all together, no black or white, no rich or poor, no religious bickering. 350,000 people, the largest gathering of people in one place for a shared purpose, simply for the enjoyment of the music and each expressing their collective voices and views. No one burned anything down. Everyone shared what they had. This monument needs to stand for another 100 years – a monument of what is and what should never be – sorry for the Zeppelin pun.

We were easy to recognize, the true alumni, older, looking for closure after 50 years. Many of us chatted about fond memories and we shared stories of what happened since and our first visits back. All of who chatted were adamant that we had to be here for this one for ourselves. I found my spot on the hill where I spent those days, walked all the way to where the stage was and back. I had a drink at the foo foo café and watched the people and the “tourists”. An intimate gathering celebrated with Arlo Guthrie and his family and band. I felt complete. I don’t have to go back again but my brick will Live on forever at the site. There was a concert later in the new Bethel Woods Amphitheatre on the site off to the side. The actual site is hallowed ground and thankfully it remains so. I called my friend, Scott Sharrard who was Greg Allman’s musical director for many years, and was at yet another celebration down the street. He was on while Arlo was on so I missed getting to see his show. Must have been a sign to stay and finish it out at the site. I watched a little of the late show and out under the stars. Appropriately, it rained. Ha. Only the tourists moved. The rest of us just smiled.

 I drove back towards the city, and, weirdly enough, stopped for the night in my old hometown, Newburgh – the town I hated and ran away from on more than one occasion. I remembered the streets and lots of memories flooded back. I thought about what a waste of energy it was back then. I put closure to that too. 

I came home the next day just in time to a Celebrate Woodstock show at the Funky Biscuit with my music family and I was home again.

the Monument

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