On the walls of my studio, mixed in with family photos, my artwork and graphics awards, are two mementoes of the '60s. One is a framed poster from Bobby Kennedy's New York state Senate campaign. The other is the thick, glossy program from Woodstock.
The Kennedy memorabilia marked my initiation into politics. But the Woodstock program is only one souvenir from a summer of music festivals — each one a giddy list of headliners. In 1969 I had just graduated from a Catholic women's college in Buffalo, N.Y. I had a summer job and had just bought my first car, a used blue Chevy Chevelle. In the fall, I would be teaching elementary art at a school in Rochester, N.Y.
All the visible excesses of the '60s are what most people noticed and recall. But many of us became politically or musically aware without fully embracing the counterculture. I was an artist and a feminist rather than a hippie.
In fact, my boyfriend and I were just a couple of nice kids. We had too much Catholic upbringing to get into trouble but were too hip to go to church. Instead, we indulged our passion for music.
No drugs. No sex. But, oh, the rock 'n' roll!
The summer began with Toronto Pop, a weekend event in a stadium in downtown Toronto, only a couple of hours over the border. Richard went to school in Toronto, so it was familiar musical territory for us. We were veterans of the concert scene as well as the Mariposa Folk Festival.
We sat on the grass in the stadium in clear view of the stage where we saw Dr. John, Steppenwolf, Al Kooper wearing a white tux and leading a 15-piece orchestra, BS&T, the Band, Carla Thomas, Chuck Berry and more.
Music went on into the night, and eventually we all crashed on the floor of a huge club called the Rock Pile, where musicians jammed till 6 a.m.
That was followed by a blues fest at the University of Buffalo. Woodstock was the logical conclusion to the summer. We read about it in Rolling Stone magazine, sent for tickets (three days for $18) and got a AAA-Triptik guide to White Lake/town of Bethel, the actual location of the festival.
At the last minute my parents decided that, since I still lived under their roof, I couldn't go on such a trip with my boyfriend. I countered with the argument that I'd be leaving the week I returned to start my new job in Rochester. They yielded to my plans but were so mortified by the whole idea that they never revealed my whereabouts at the family reunion they attended the weekend of Woodstock.
We arrived at the festival area in mid-afternoon on Friday, parked the Chevelle in an empty field that was rapidly filling with other cars and started to walk over to the concert site. As New Yorkers, it was not inconceivable for Richard and me to drive across the state to see the premier musicians of the moment. We realized this was going to be different when we noticed license plates from all over the country, including the West Coast.
As we got closer, it became obvious that our tickets would never be collected. We climbed over the flattened entrance gates and rounded a corner to find ourselves face to face with the largest crowd either of us had ever seen. We both lived in big cities, but this was different. Everyone was our age — in fact most were white, middle-class kids like the two of us, and everyone was in love with music.
The music remains my most vivid memory, though it becomes difficult to separate the reality of the event from the experience of the movie. Sly Stone was great on film, but that night on the hill everyone complained audibly and waited impatiently for him to finish his set.
From high up on the hill, all the artists were reduced to dots of color. But even without being able to see the performers, everyone seemed awash in the same ocean of music and experience: dancing, singing, sharing food and laughter. Everything was reduced to moving points of light like a surreal version of Seurat's ``La Grande Jatte,'' a vast crowd of pleasure seekers facing the great wave of music.
There was a sense of a new community, if only because few of us had realized how strong our numbers were — or understood the variety of people who could come together to celebrate peace and music. The group seated next to us were from a rival women's college back in Buffalo, no more hippies and freaks than we were.
We weren't high on anything but the music. When you hear the Who play``Tommy'' with the sun rising behind them, it's not an experience you're likely to forget.
By Sunday, we had fallen victim to the rain. All our clothes were wet, the car was mired in the field and the hill facing the stage was so slippery that we couldn't manage to maintain our balance even if we had wanted to see the final performers. There was such a surfeit of music that missing a few performances didn't really seem important.
Woodstock was a musical event without precedent. It was joyful and peaceful. I never sensed tension or anger in the crowds around me and I never felt afraid. But neither did I think it was the beginning of a new era. It was wonderful but it was never part of the real world.
When the music ended, our car got towed out of the muck and we drove home to our real lives. On the back of the Woodstock program is a quote from the I Ching that sums up the event as much as anyone is able: "From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together has mystified mankind."
I wrote this remembrance about going to the 1969 Woodstock event for the 20th anniversary of the concert. Neither my memories of the event or my feelings about it have changed since then. It was originally published on Saturday, August 5, 1989 in The Capital Times. My mother got annoyed with me all over again when I sent her a clipping of this article.