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Musicians included Santana, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Jimi Hendrix.
This festival had an enormous impact not only on the local community but on global music history. The miracle of Woodstock is that the reckless hype that caused nearly half a million people to flock to a small upstate farm didn’t result in a mass calamity; it was the spiritual high point of a generation, the fable that would get twisted and recycled for sinister purposes for decades. It’s important to distinguish Woodstock, the business, from Woodstock, the August 15 to 18 musical event: Woodstock Inc. For the majority of Woodstock attendees, even those not wasted out of their gourd, it was probably difficult to tell Ravi Shankar from the Who when they were both just little specks in the distance playing music that could barely be heard above the din of the teeming humanity of nearly half a million people. Contemporary reviews of the festival, when they weren’t bitching about the traffic and moaning about kids these days, tended to be iffy about the performances themselves — and rightfully so, as the chaos of the event put a lot of famous performers off their A-game. It wasn’t really Hendrix’s fault, inasmuch as anything was his fault during his short tenure as rock’s greatest instrumentalist, that this show was a mess for him. Joe Cocker and his band took the stage after Jefferson Airplane’s crash and burn; the entire band, save Cocker, were all tripping balls.
Woodstock, with its harsh conditions and ridiculous scheduling, made mincemeat of some of rock’s most legendary figures; perversely, it gave a benign clown like Arlo Guthrie a perfect podium for his own brand of meandering awesomeness. Woodstock, for both performers and audience alike, was in many ways a celebration of a certain grubby aesthetic; dirty and dressed down seemed to be the dress code. Michael Shrieve had just turned 20 when he walked onto the Woodstock stage, in front of nearly half a million people, sat behind his drum kit and propelled one of rock n’ roll’s greatest sets ever. To watch the famous clip of Ritchie Havens belting “Freedom” while frantically strumming is to see an inventive performer desperately stalling for time. 2.  During the three days of the Woodstock festival, there were luckily no incidents of any sort of violence or deaths among the crazy amount of people (half a million!) in the crowds. The 3 day festival was held in Bethel, New York and more than 30 musicians and bands performed. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, was it the way the future was meant to feel, or just a shitload of hippies standing in a field?
But it’s important to remember that for every indulgent or lame performance, there was at least one equally transcendent set. Any rock performer knows that “headlining” means going on last, and “going on last” means often starting way too late after everyone has already left for the night. Lee played second guitar in Hendrix’s Woodstock band, and it would be Lee’s only performance with Hendrix.


Nowadays the band would probably have slammed a case of Red Bull and vodkas and powered through their show at twice the tempo, but here the Airplane just seem kind of tired and lost. Cocker’s performance, then, was one of the most brazen pantomimes ever attempted, a straight fellow doing an elaborate caricature of what he imagines tripping balls must feel like and look like. They had a decent slot, they played in front of a gazillion people, and it really should have been their moment to connect with an audience and blow everything away. Some pre-rock troubadours knew how to tell a story, guitar in hand, just because it cracked them up and for no other reason — luckily this one had an audience and made it onto tape.
His performance of “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag” at Woodstock, then, was peak Country Joe, as it were, a searing zenith of dripping contempt, total nihilism, and potent chortle at the void that was the times as they were. Luckily no one informed Sly and his crew, who managed to class the whole event up with their mere presence. The look on Shrieve’s face throughout “Soul Sacrifice” is one of punished exuberance; he often appears nearly in tears as fills and volleys flow from his hands like an unending torrent.
Even though the musical portion of Woodstock had just begun, the disaster that was the planning and execution was already in full swing, meaning that the show was hours and hours late even at the start, with no one left to go on after Havens. It is hard to say what Woodstock’s legacy would truly be if it weren’t for the film, which both accurately captured the melee of the event and created mythic imagery of the performances and the atmosphere, allowing midnight moviegoers to bask in the generational camaraderie of Woodstock without having committed themselves to the unthinkable hardships that came with actually going to the festival.
Maybe it was just the times, when the sheer volume of classic touring acts was just insane.
And so poor Jimi had to start his set in the morning hours, after a reported 90 percent of the audience had left. He played throughout the lengthy set, and even sang lead vocals for two songs, one of which was one of his own originals. Disassembling songs into little shrieking pieces, splitting words and phrases into a thousand tiny stretched out fragments of nonsense, time and space and emotion are crushed into nothingness, with a gyrating man in a tie-dye t-shirt sending everyone into a void of meaningless waste; I’m guessing Ian Curtis was studying reels of Cocker’s desperate chicken dance here throughout his adolescence. Woodstock caught the band in a strange infancy, before they’d solidified the proto-metal melt that would make parts of 1970’s Climbing! Guthrie would later remark that he might have comported himself differently if he’d known that his kids would still be able to mock him, decades and decades later, for his stoned ramblings about “rapping with the fuzz” and “can you dig it” and “the New York State thruway is closed, man”; thank god that he didn’t, because his particular style of bemused incredulousness is genius.
McDonald’s involvement in the Youth International Movement, or the Yippies, inspired the chorus of the tune; and indeed, the gallows humor of “Rag” fits in with the mission of the Yippies. Havens made a career both before and after Woodstock using his masterful voice to sell anything, meaning that when he just started belting “freedom” over and over, with no real song attached to it, he was creating hippie iconography out of literal thin air.
The festival organizers had originally wanted to hold the event in or near the village of Woodstock, New York, but they couldn’t find a suitable location that was available to host the concert. Instead, dairy farmer Max Yasgur agreed to allow them to have the festival on his property in the nearby town of Bethel.


Since then, the movie has been re-released several times with added concert footage and extras. For one, it was hard for anyone in attendance to actually witness the musical alchemy on the stage: amidst a sprawling 600-acre site, we’re talking about a tiny stage with an inadequate sound system and no jumbotrons.
Yet any audio recording has Lee scrubbed from the mix — supposedly Lee was out-of-tune, or at least more out-of-tune than Hendrix. No one knew it better than Jerry Garcia himself, of course, who was both an insightful critic of his own art and his own worst enemy, right to the end. Like we knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn’t see one of them. Yippie co-founder Paul Krassner once noted that “there was a linear connection between putting kids in prison for smoking pot in this country and burning them to death with napalm on the other side of the planet;” it was this dark death joke that McDonald felt compelled to spread to a wide audience. Luckily for us it was all captured on film: the nerves, the energy, the desperate artistry and a commanding cry that was never really bested for the rest of the event.
It was directed by Michael Wadleigh, and a young Martin Scorsese served as an assistant director and film editor. As such, then, the band, with a sweet time slot in front of an audience beyond their wildest imaginations, was a total snooze, with plodding drums by N.D. Here, in a 1971 interview, after the massive success of the Woodstock film, he lays it all out. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse. The fame the band garnered, in part, from their festival appearance and the spotlight of the film would destroy them, but for that set in a field in 1969, they were perhaps the most perfect band on the planet.
It’s as if his participation in this landmark musical event has been erased from all memory. On top of that, it was raining or wet, so that every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks.
Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”, a woozy semi-improvisation edited for the Woodstock film from a half-hour-plus dicking-around jammy-jam, eventually became the symbolic representation of the festival somehow; but in terms of what happened on the stage at Bethel that morning in 1969, it was by all accounts pretty subpar, especially for Hendrix. In the summer of ‘69, a lot of dudes had bands and they tried real hard, as the song says; Mountain’s sluggish plod really gave no indication that they were just about to rise above the ten zillion similarly-plodding heavy groups with their distinctive fat-ass cowbell riff-rock.



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