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Prompted By Woodstock

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It is the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, and for the past week there have been Woodstock stories everywhere I look. Every newspaper and magazine, print or online, seems to have a story written by someone who was there. PBS aired a new documentary last week subtitled Three Days That Defined a Generation. (Does that title seem a little over the top? Was this really the one event that defined our generation?) A new 36-hour box set of CDs, subtitled Back to the Garden, includes “nearly every moment of recorded sound from the festival,” according to the New Yorker review. It is selling for a mere $799.98, and there is a limited run of 1,969 copies (get it?). A Woodstock 50 festival was announced back in January, to be held in nearby Watkins Glen, New York,  but by July it had been cancelled. Too many artists had dropped out, and there were too many problems getting a site for it. The original just couldn’t be replicated.**

I actually spent some time thinking about Woodstock three years ago. The last four paragraphs of this story are a slightly revised version of an earlier story I wrote in 2016 in response to the prompt “Be Careful What You Wish For.” That might seem like an odd prompt to elicit a Woodstock story – the premise was to write about things you wished for, and maybe got, which backfired or didn’t turn out to be what you wanted after all. Instead, I wrote about something I could have had, and turned down, and later wished I had accepted. My apologies to those who already read the earlier story. Although I suspect that, considering our age, and the amount of drugs some of us have consumed, three years later you might have no memory of it anyway.

1969 was the summer after my freshman year of college, and that August was the month I would turn 18. Finally a grown-up for some purposes, although the voting age was still twenty-one then. I was spending the summer in D.C., living with my sister and brother-in-law on Capitol Hill, and working for Planned Parenthood. One of my most vivid memories from that summer was going to see I Am Curious (Yellow) with two college friends, Paul and Bruce. The movie had an X rating, so you had to be 18 to see it. It was early in the summer, well before my birthday. The ticket seller asked Paul for ID, but didn’t ask me. This was good, because Paul was actually 19 and was able to show his ID proving it, whereas I was still 17, and I didn’t have any ID anyway, because I didn’t drive yet. So we all got in to the theatre, no problem, but Paul was really annoyed that they thought I looked older than he did.

What does this have to do with Woodstock? you ask. Nothing. Just setting the scene. Now here comes the Woodstock part.

My boyfriend from high school, Jeff, who was still in New Jersey, got in touch with me in Washington somehow. Maybe he called my parents and they gave him my sister’s phone number. That would be the most logical explanation. Or maybe I had given him the number when I saw him in June. He told me that he had bought two tickets to Woodstock, and asked me to go with him – the titular ticket to ride. I told him I would have to think about it and call him back. I never knew until I started writing this story how much he paid for those tickets, but according to Wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge) they cost $18 apiece. While that doesn’t seem like much money now, it certainly would have then. Indeed, if I had known the cost of the tickets, that might have convinced me to go. I don’t think I knew very much about what the plans for the festival were, and certainly NOBODY knew that it would turn out to be one of the defining events in the history of rock and roll. But I did know that it was three nights camping out in a tent, that it was likely to rain, and that it was going to be a little bit of a hassle getting there, as I would first have to get from D.C. to New Jersey to meet Jeff, and then drive in his old clunker car up to Bethel, NY.

Probably the most dispositive factor was that I didn’t really want to spend three days and nights with Jeff. He had been a good boyfriend for my senior year of high school, but nothing more. He was from my town, but two years older and we had gone to different elementary and high schools, so our paths had never crossed. We met in December of my senior year when the youth group at my temple had a Chanukah party and invited all the local college students who were home for the holidays. He was a sophomore at Rutgers  University in New Brunswick, which was about an hour away. Our first date was on New Year’s Eve, and we went to a party some friends of his were having. We kissed for the first time at midnight, after watching the ball go down in Times Square.

He went back to college, but started coming home to his parents’ house every weekend to see me. We dated for the next six months, until I went to D.C. for the summer of ’68 to work for the McCarthy campaign. When that was over, I was off to Cambridge to start college, and the social whirl there left me not a moment to think about Jeff. When I came back home after freshman year, he invited me to spend a day with him in New Brunswick, where he now had an apartment, so I did, for old time’s sake. It was a little awkward, I wasn’t attracted to him any more, but we ended up getting really stoned and having sex — something he had never been able to get me to do while we were dating, as persistently as he had tried. The sex was not great for me, and I didn’t relish the idea of having to do that for three nights (we didn’t know back then that we could say no), and in a tent in the dirt, no less.

So I didn’t go to Woodstock, and ever afterwards I wondered if I should have gone. I have twice seen the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary made by Michael Wadleigh. The first time was when it came out, in a movie theatre in Cambridge. I was tripping on acid, and thinking that I saw little green men running around on the screen. The second time was forty-five years later, in 2015, on the TV at home, with my husband and kids, totally straight. I wondered if the little green men would still be there. They were not. Watching the movie (both times), most of it looked pretty amazing, and made me regret not going, although there was also a lot of rain and mud, which I would not have liked. My hair would certainly have been frizzy, and that would have made me unhappy. But I think it would have been worth it for the music!

 


**Note: Right after I finished this story on Friday 8/16, I saw a news item about Bethel Woods Center for the Arts hosting a series of events on Thursday through Sunday, August 15-18. It opened with a Thursday night performance by Arlo Guthrie, followed by an outdoor screening of the 1970 documentary on the very field where it was filmed. Scheduled performers over the weekend are to include Santana and the Doobie Brothers, both of whom were at the original (as was Arlo). If I had known about this in advance, I might have been tempted to go. I was in New York a week ago, it would have been easy to stay. But just like the first time, I didn’t manage to make it to this one.

 

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, you were older and much cooler than I was in 1969, but I think we wouldn’t have liked being at Woodstock for much the same reasons. As you’ll read, it wasn’t even on my radar screen, as I was being sheltered from the real world up at Interlochen. Nevertheless, the music does seem pretty awesome and is what I listened to my senior year of high school and throughout much of college, once I got there.

  2. Wow. That’s the most compelling tale of Woodstock NOT I’ve ever had the pleasure to read! The adventures of a 1969-vintage teenager. I think we’ve all heard the old adage/proverb “if you did go to Woodstock, you were too stoned to remember.” I enjoyed your thoughtful version of the road not taken, another proverbial notion that so many of us have experienced. Thanks!

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you, Charlie, that’s high praise! I thought the adage about Woodstock (and the ’60s in general) was that if you remember it, you weren’t really there. Sort of the same idea.

  3. Marian says:

    Suzy, loved the context of this story and how we were. My hair was frizzy as well, and I made the most amazing love beads, which always remind me of that crazy 1969 summer. I didn’t do drugs that much, so no little green men, but fascinating nonetheless.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Marian. Do you have any pictures of you wearing the love beads you made? I seem to have almost no pictures from that era, so you might not either. Certainly people weren’t going around snapping pictures the way they do nowadays. But I would love to see how you looked in them!

  4. Marian says:

    Alas, Suzy, I don’t have the love bead pictures. One of my friends, who was born just three months after I was, has shelves full of photo albums, and they are a perfect record of the clothing and accoutrements both of us had. I crack up because we had similar outfits and accessories! I have mixed feelings about frizzy hair, because two years after Woodstock I got a horrible case of mono, with prolonged fevers, and my hair went from thick and frizzy to fine and wavy, and has stayed that way. Would love more hair now!

    • Suzy says:

      Many reasons to dislike the way today’s kids are glued to their phones, but one nice aspect is that they can take pictures any time, anywhere. Wish we had had that capability when we were young. (I guess we could have carried around Kodak Instamatics, but nobody I know did that.)

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Really enjoyed the story, as all I knew before was that you had not gone to Woodstock — or even claimed to have gone. What makes the story so interesting is that you make clear that you do not regret the decision not to go on a personal level — not much into the guy, frizzy hair, etc. And yet, you also make it clear that there is some degree of regret that — in retrospect (of course) — this was such an amazing event (if not quite a “defining moment” for our generation). Thus, of course, raising the question: if you had to do it all over again…. Your answer: “But I think it would have been worth it for the music!”

    p.s. The 1970 documentary was amazing and I saw it twice myself. But never saw the little green men. Though Alvin Lee totting a watermelon after “Going Home” was almost as surreal.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. It’s funny, I don’t remember anyone talking about it at school that fall. So I have no idea if any of our college friends went or not. I guess if they HAD gone, they would have been talking about it.

      • John Shutkin says:

        I agree, Suzy; I can’t think of any college pals who went. Only friend I know who went was a very nice, innocent girl from my high school — I was actually one of her escorts at her Catholic debutante ball over Christmas vacation eight months earlier — and I know she had no idea what Woodstock would be about. Probably scarred her for life.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, there are so many times over a lifetime to wonder, should I have done that? What would have happened? Not using your ticket to ride made perfect sense at the time. Hindsight is 20/20. I love how you capture the 1969 era in your piece. And bad hair does matter still, folks.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment. After reading about how Sally said it was the best four days of her life, I do wish I could go back and take the road not taken, just to see what it would have been like. But as you say, my decision made perfect sense at the time. At least I did make it to that other defining event of our generation, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago!

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