ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Richard Wolfson stirred to consciousness on the morning of Aug. 18, 1969, a Monday, trying to figure out just where he was and struggling to identify the sound that had wakened him.
“It was like I was on Mars,” said Wolfson, 68 now but only 18 back then. “It took me 15 minutes to realize I was hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and it was (Jimi) Hendrix playing it.”
Wolfson, who grew up in New Jersey but now lives in Albuquerque’s South Valley, was not on Mars but in a place just about as surreal. He was in a field on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., the site of the now-legendary Woodstock music festival, which marks its 50th anniversary this month.
Wolfson feels his Woodstock experience as vibrantly today as he did five decades ago.
“So far in my life, it is probably the greatest single weekend I’ve had,” he said.
An estimated 400,000 people – staggeringly more than the 50,000 to 75,000 that had been anticipated – turned out to listen to acts such as Hendrix, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and many more at the Woodstock festival, which ran from Friday night, Aug. 15, through Monday morning, Aug. 18. Overwhelmed by the huge numbers that made it impossible to collect admission at the gate, Woodstock became a free concert, which would put its organizers more than $1 million in debt. It also turned into a several-days long logistical trial for festival officials such as production manager John Morris.
“Nobody had any idea we would have that many people,” said Morris, who splits his time between Santa Fe and Malibu, Calif. “The Beatles at Shea Stadium (August 1965) had 55,000. The Monterrey Pop Festival (June 1967) was 35,000 over three days. I actually had a bet that I’d give $100 for every 1,000 people we had over 75,000. I’m sure glad he didn’t try to collect.”
On the Thursday evening prior to the festival’s Friday start, Morris and several others drove from the concert site to a nearby town for dinner.
“It took us 10 minutes to get out and three hours to get back,” Morris, 80, said in a phone interview from Santa Fe. Realizing that acts would have the same trouble getting to the festival grounds, Morris got out the Yellow Pages Friday morning and started renting every helictoper that could be found. He ended up with about 18 ‘copters, which were used to ferry performers in.
While Morris and his crew were hunting down whirlybirds, Bill Nevins and two friends were leaving New York City for the 110-mile ride to Bethel.
Nevins, who turns 72 today, is a poet, freelance writer and retired teacher who lives in Albuquerque. But in August 1969 he was a recent graduate of Iona College, a Catholic school near New York City, and was working as a security guard while waiting to get into graduate school.
“I remember saying, ‘I hope there is room in the parking lot,’ ” Nevins told the Journal. It turns out that the highways and roads anywhere near the concert site became parking lots as the traffic backed up to a standstill.
“We left our car on a country road, behind a line of cars,” Nevins said. “I’m sure we walked two miles. By the time we got there, the fences were down, or they were open, and we didn’t need the tickets we had bought.” And by the time he got in, Nevins had been separated from the friend who had the tent, a bad thing because it rained Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the festival.
“The crowd was so huge,” Nevins said. “I didn’t see that guy with the tent until we got back to the car afterwards. I pretty much slept in my sleeping bag in the rain. But I didn’t do any of that sliding in the mud (as seen in the 1970 Woodstock movie).”
Nevins said he remembers enjoying the performances of Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez and kind of vaguely remembers the rock band acts.
“I get my memories from the festival mixed up with my memories from the Woodstock movie,” he admitted.
One thing he does remember is that he had got his hair cut short for his security guard job and felt out of place among a host of longhairs.
“Short hair was good for being in the heat and the rain,” he said. “But maybe that’s why I’m not in the movie.”
Wine and Velveeta
In August 1969, Richard Seligman had just earned an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and was working as a research assistant for a neurologist in Albany, N.Y. He said Woodstock was not on his radar.
“I wasn’t paying any attention,” said Seligman, now 71, a retired physician and Albuquerque resident. “But two friends living in New York City gave me a call on Wednesday or Thursday of that week and said, ‘There’s this music festival and do you want to go? ‘” The friends picked Seligman up on Friday and they set out for Bethel, only managing to get within 12 miles of their destination before abandoning their car and walking and hitchhiking the rest of the way. They arrived at 6 or 7 Friday evening.
“We heard the music but we were not close enough (to the stage) to see the acts” Seligman said. “By the time we got there, all we could see was people, this sea of people. I don’t believe I had ever seen that many people. Everywhere you went, there were people in tents and people in covers of some kinds. There were random discussions of all kinds.”
Seligman and his buddies set up a tent that he recalls “leaked like a sieve.” They had brought a bottle of wine, a baguette, a big hunk of Velveeta cheese and a little water. By Saturday, their sparse provisions were gone and bad weather had taken its toll.
“We stayed pretty late into Saturday and then just got out of there,” he said. “We were pretty disgusting by then.”
Feeding the masses
Feeding and otherwise caring for the many thousands attending Woodstock was a job taken on by Lisa Law, who made a name for herself photographing musicians and flower children in the ’60s and who moved to New Mexico in 1967 along with others seeking to join communes in the state.
It was Law, now 76 and a resident of Santa Fe, and her former husband Tom Law who guided Hugh Romney, later better known as Wavy Gravy, and his Hog Farm commune in a search for a place to live in New Mexico. The commune settled in Llano near Peñasco. When Woodstock organizers recruited some 80-plus members of the Hog Farm to help out at the festival, Lisa and Tom Law went with them.
“When we got there, there were already people camped out,” she said. “By Friday, there were already 50,000 people there.”
It became apparent very quickly that feeding all these people was going to be a major challenge.
“I went into John Morris’ trailer and said, ‘Could you please give me $3,000 and a truck,'” Law told the Journal. Morris did and Law and Hog Farm member Peter Whiterabbit drove into New York City to get supplies.
“We bought 1,200 pounds of bulgur wheat, 1,200 pounds of rolled oats, currants, dried apricots, brewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds and kegs of honey,” she said. “We bought stainless steel pots and bowls, Chinese cleavers for cutting up vegetables, 160,000 paper plates, 80,000 Dixie cups, forks and spoons and knives and 35 plastic garbage pails.”
Back in a kitchen that had been set up at the festival site, Law and many helpers mixed up muesli (a cold cereal) in a (clean) trash can and served it to people from the trash can as they came by.
“That’s the kind of feeling there was at Woodstock, everybody taking care of everybody,” Law said. “If they had a bad trip, we had a tent for them. If they cut their foot, we had a tent for them.”
Law said she didn’t get to hear much of the music at Woodstock but she was glad she was there to witness the unique experience.
“There were 400,000 people there and there was no fighting,” she said. “It was absolutely peaceful. Seeing that many people enjoying music and helping each other, helping feed each other, is what I remember most.”
Rolling Stone magazine photographer Baron Wolman, already a seasoned veteran of shooting concerts by 1969, figured Woodstock would be business as usual.
“I thought it would be just another concert,” Wolman, 82, said in a phone interview from Santa Fe, where he has lived since 2001. “I would just drive over, get in the press parking lot and start shooting. Then I got in that traffic and thought, ‘I’m not going to make it in time.’ ” A Triple-A map helped him find a parallel county road where there was no traffic, so he got there before the concert started.
“I got on that concert stage and I never saw so many people in my life,” he said. “My wide-angle lens was not wide enough to take in the whole crowd. I knew then it was going to be a significant event. I photographed John Sebastian and Santana, but I really ignored the musicians. I spent more time among the people than I did on the stage. I got a lot of intimate moments. There were so many photo ops.”
Summing up his feelings about Woodstock, Wolman once wrote, “Woodstock showed the world how things could have been. And for this reason, it is important that we never forget this experience, this place, this time, this dream that came true – if only for three days.”
Now, Wolman says, Woodstock really does seem like a dream.
“Sometimes I don’t even recognize this country from what is happening in Washington,” he said. “I worry about everything from the politics to the environment. Things have changed and not for the better. I was lucky to have been born when I was, to have had that experience with Rolling Stone. I give thanks all the time.”
Albuquerque’s Wolfson, a poet and stand-up comic, was not long out of high school in Orange, N.J., when he heard about the upcoming Woodstock festival.
“It was everywhere in the news, and I thought this was going to be one of the greatest things of all time,” he said.
Wolfson and several of his “hippie friends” did not get to Woodstock until Saturday, the second day, because it took them a while to get one of the friends’ Chrsyler New Yorker running. When they finally arrived at a point five miles from the concert site, Wolfson drove into a field to park the car.
“There was about 12-feet high grass in that field and I did not see this eight-foot boulder and drove the car onto it,” he said. “The car was standing about perpendicular.”
As Wolfson and his pals helplessly pondered their predicament, about 50 hippies suddenly poured out of some nearby woods and manhandled the car off the boulder.
“And then they went back into the woods,” Wolfson said. “It was like they were just waiting for something to do. They didn’t say a word. It was like ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ”
On the festival grounds, Wolfson found a man who was selling acid (LSD) for $4 for “killer acid” and $5 for “weak acid.”
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll go with the cheaper one. I think I was high for the rest of the concert. I think I remember seeing Sly and the Family Stone.”
Gone to hell
Traffic, weather and other problems created havoc, delaying the arrival of acts. Morris persuaded singer Richie Havens to open the show just after 5 p.m. on Friday, although that’s not when Havens was slotted to appear.
“I said, ‘Richie, the schedule has gone to hell. You’ve got to go on,’ ” Morris recalled. When Havens finished, Morris sent him out again.
“He was soaking wet, but I said, ‘Richie, you got to do one more.’ ”
Morris said the closest he has ever come to a nervous breakdown occurred when a vicious thunderstorm erupted on Sunday afternoon just after Joe Cocker finished his set.
“I was trying to get people off the (light) towers,” he said. “There was wind, rain and lightning.”
The storm delayed the concert for several hours, but no one was injured by its fierce assault. Two or three accidental deaths, accounts vary, were reported during the run of the festival, which continued through the night of Sunday, Aug. 17, into the following morning. By the time Morris got Hendrix, the last act, on stage at 8 a.m. Monday, only 50,000 or so people were still there, and Morris, exhausted, went to his trailer and crashed. Like Wolfson, he was awakened by Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I got up on my elbow and listened and said, ‘Wow, it’s over. We got through it. It was peaceful, it worked, the audience had fun and so did we.’ ”
“Creating Woodstock: How It Really Happened,” a film that goes behind the scenes to tell how the festival came together, 3:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Aug. 13-15, Guild Cinema, 3405 Central NE, $5-$8.
Aug. 15-18 marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the landmark musical festival that drew 400,000 people to a dairy farm in New York state. The following exhibits and programs take a look back at an event that featured performing artists ranging from Richie Havens and The Who to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix and that was billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music.”
• “Hail, Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll 2019: Happy 50th, Woodstock!”, an exhibit of portraits of Woodstock musicians and photos of festival scenes by Lisa Law, Baron Wolman, Henry Diltz, Jim Marshall, Roger Ballen and Jason Lauré; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. today and Monday and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday and by appointment through September by calling 505-570-5385 ; Edition One Gallery, 728 Canyon Road in Santa Fe.
• “American Experience: Woodstock, Three Days That Defined a Generation,” a two-hour TV special, airs on KNME-TV, channel 5.1, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. Aug. 11, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20 and 10 p.m. Aug. 24; and on KNME-TV, Channel 9.1, at 8 p.m. Aug. 11 and 7 p.m. Aug. 24. John Morris, Woodstock production manager and part-time Santa Fe resident, is featured in the program.
• “Through a Lens Brightly: Shooting Past Woodstock,” a talk by former Rolling Stone magazine photographer Baron Wolman and Woodstock production manager John Morris, both Santa Fe residents, at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, 555 Camino de la Familia in the Santa Fe Railyard. The lecture is part of the 9th Annual Objects of Art Santa Fe program, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 11. Admission to lecture is included in Objects of Art admission fee, $15 per day or $25 per run of show. For more details, go to objectsofartshows.com.
• “Creating Woodstock: How It Really Happened,” a film that goes behind the scenes to tell how the festival came together, 3:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Aug. 13-15, Guild Cinema, 3405 Central NE, $5-$8.