MEMORY LANE – In 1989, back when newspapers invested in stories and journalism was a thing that people paid for on Cape Cod, the coolest editor at the Cape Cod Times sent me to Bethel, New York to write about the 20th anniversary of Woodstock.
Before I went to Max Yasgur’s old alfalfa field in the Catskills, I interviewed four Cape Codders who had attended the original festival and told me things like, “Everyone smiled. I think everyone’s cheeks hurt from smiling so much.” And, “it was wild,” “magical” and “the greatest party of all time.” Each had a personal story of what happened to them during those epic days in August, 1969.
When I finished that story, I drove to Bethel for the 20th anniversary of Woodstock.
From those first-hand accounts as well as the famous movie and album, I knew a lot about the original concert, which had almost every star of the era and a bunch of iconic performances that will live forever. It was obviously a great concert.
On the other hand, at the first one, the toilets were overflowing. And did you hear of the rain? The mud? The lack of food? The traffic jam? The brown acid?
My point is that while Woodstock 1969 is justifiably more famous, the gathering in 1989 on that land of ghosts was pretty special in its own right. And way more comfortable.
Instant Karma On Yasgur’s Farm
I was 10 when the “real” Woodstock happened. So, to me when I was there in 1989, the nostalgic, look-back event was very in the moment and also quite real. Surreal too.
I met Wavy Gravy, who was surrounded by cameras and was being very wavy and full of all sorts of gravy. It seemed to be his true personality.
In my story, I wrote that he is,“a walking freak show, surrounded by the media and fans. Everybody wants their picture taken with Wavy Gravy. Everybody is searching for words of wisdom… He is larger than life, a cherubic caricature in a microphone jungle.”
“I try not to be cynical,” Gravy said that day. “But 20 years has changed a lot more than people’s appearances.”
When I met Wavy Gravy, leader of the hippie police at the original festival, in 1989, he was really old to me then – which is about seven years younger than I am now.
Time has changed a lot more than people’s appearances, indeed.
But my memory of my visit to Yasgur’s farm remains fresh. And knowing of the mud and lack of food at the original, and the disastrous, angry 1999 reunion (at an air force base??!!), I have always believed the 1989 gathering was arguably the best. Sure, I’d lose the argument. But still…
The weather was perfect. The New York State Thruway was not closed. Although I stayed at the site most of both nights, I had a hotel room.
I was a freelance writer, not even on the staff of the Cape Cod Times, and yet the paper sent me to things like Woodstock and even Manhattan to do a story on a writer for the David Letterman show. The writer had happened to summer in Falmouth. As I said earlier, once upon a time, journalism was an actual thing.
So there I was in Bethel, New York for an event that a crowd member told me, “Nobody organized this. This is a completely spontaneous event.”
And in trying to recreate what had happened 20 years earlier, that relatively small 1989 gathering of about 5,000 people pitched tents, parked their cars, started campfires, pulled out guitars, beers and such and flashed more peace signs than I’ve ever seen in my life.
I met a guy who was in something called the Rainbow People, and he told me, “Rainbow is real people in the real world eating real food and thinking real thoughts. It’s very spiritually enlightening. It’s based on realness… When I go out into cities, it’s like everybody’s made out of plastic.”
And I had conversations like this the whole time I was there. It was far out.
I also wrote this in 1989, “It’s hard to explain but it’s definitely here and it’s contagious. It’s not the land, although lots of people call it, ‘holy ground.’ It’s the people, the attitude. The first reaction is to scoff when someone flashes the peace sign. But it’s really impossible, in a walk across the field, not to catch the karma of this place. Everybody smiles. Everybody.”
The music certainly wasn’t as good as at the original. I recall a lot of 1980s hippies with mullets and guitars next to their tents playing bad versions of songs from the original concert. But I also recall it not mattering even a little bit.
Once, a long time ago when I was working on a completely different story, I had a great magazine editor suggest, “Start with the land. That’s a great place to start a story.”
So I will end with the land, Yasgur’s farm.
I am not a very spiritual person. This here, Earth, to me, is the heaven we get. It’s pretty easy to see that if you live on Cape Cod.
But in 1989 as a young reporter when I visited Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York and I looked out at that vast field that was once filled with hundreds of thousands of people full peace and love and zero violence, I had what felt like a spiritual experience – the kind I get now when standing on the National Seashore.
To this day, I think it’s because I wanted to feel it. Still, that’s okay with me. It felt pretty special… Heaven on Earth… for three days in August in upstate New York. I was there, 20 years later.
Wavy Gravy put it best at that original concert 50 years ago, “We must be in heaven, man!”
Finally, A Note About Journalism
My Woodstock reunion story ran in the long-ago Capestyle section, edited by Alicia Blaisdell-Bannon.
Notice the great graphics of Jim Warren. Yes, the Cape Cod Times once had a full-time staff illustrator.
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Thanks, Brian, for another great read. We watched “Woodstock” on PBS’ American Experience last night. Lots of footage narrated by the organizers of the event in ‘69. Fun and very well done. More or less “the making of”. Amazing that it happened at all.