2019 is a big year for retrophiles. Aside from major tragedies, how often does a whole season get a well-known song like ‘Summer of 69’ did? Folks are reliving good times and telling tales of how it used to be fifty years ago.
This year we celebrate so many 50-year-old happenings: the moon landing, the Beatles’ rooftop concert, Tommy, “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”We remember sad things: the Manson family killings, Altamont, the end of both the Beatles and the original Star Trek. There were big cultural changes, too, like the Stonewall riots.
But NOTHING defines 1969 quite like the Aquarian exposition known as the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, and this August marks its 50th birthday.
Sure, a 2019 Woodstock anniversary festival is happening in New York this year. But locally, there are a few ways to celebrate, such as Shine A Light on The Queen, a March 2 fundraiser in support of the LUQ Foundation’s music education programming. More than 50 esteemed local musicians come together, supergroup style, on one stage to perform songs from the chosen year’s theme: this year it’s 1969.
Graham Nash, writer of such songs as “Teach Your Children Well,” will perform at The Queen on March 31. He is a Grammy-winner, a philanthropist with an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash and with the Hollies.
We reached out to some Town Square Delaware neighbors who were among the hundreds of thousands of people who had the Woodstock experience and asked them to share their stories. Two Delawareans share their stories in this, Part 1 of a 2-part article.
Bill, Scott and Barry’s Excellent Adventure
A famous Delawarean who went to Woodstock is serial entrepreneur and author Bill Stevenson. Locals will mostly know him as the founder of what Rolling Stone once called “the best-kept secret in rock and roll:” the Stone Balloon on Main Street in Newark (now The Stone Balloon Ale House). He’s currently experiencing another level of nationwide fame due to surviving a heart attack on the streets of New York City, and his subsequent campaign to increase availability of defibrillators in public.
Twenty-year-old Stevenson’s sister worked for one of the New York City promoters of Woodstock. She told him there was a possibility of him getting a job there if he left Ocean City, New Jersey, in time to arrive at Woodstock on Thursday. He begged his boss for a rare summer weekend off work. By the time he and his two friends arrived, around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, August 14, 1969, there were around 30,000 people already on site. A day before the four-day festival had even started, the event planners realized the fence wasn’t going to work.
The 1968 Z-28 Camaro Stevenson drove stayed parked behind the stage for a full week, as it was blocked in by hundreds of thousands of cars. Having left the doors unlocked, to avoid a break in, he later returned to find that it had been slept in, but otherwise unharmed.
What struck Stevenson was that when they arrived, “We could not believe we could literally walk right up to the stage. Nobody asked any questions.”
He adds, “We actually thought Woodstock was the small stage at first and thought it wasn’t that big a deal. Then, a quarter mile away, over the hill, we saw the amazing Woodstock we all know.”
Upon the group’s arrival, the event planners were building towers. Musicians were arriving in buses and flying in and out in helicopters. And the rain came soon enough.
After some time went by with no food available, Stevenson said that they were eating raw hamburger to stay nourished. They had no camping gear.
The friends debate whether it was Sunday or Monday—Stevenson is sure it was Sunday that they departed— when the group decided to walk out of Woodstock. They walked about 8 miles out of Bethel and down the highway until they finally found a pay phone. Stevenson called his widowed mother who was living in the Poconos, 1.5 to 2 hours away.
He asked her to pick them up, telling her, “We’re hungry, dirty and can’t believe we’ve been out in three days of this weather, with no place to cook food.”
Stevenson says, “The amazing thing was that once we got past the last of the cars [parked for miles along the roadway], all of a sudden, there was my mother’s station wagon. I couldn’t believe she knew exactly where we were.”
He jumped in the driver’s seat and drove back to his mother’s lakeside home in the Poconos, arriving home around four in the afternoon. With all his clothes on, he ran out on the dock and jumped in the lake.
Stevenson said, it being August, “There was nothing but a pool of mud floating on top of the lake.”
On reflection, he says it was a great experience but he didn’t realize how big Woodstock was until his mother told him of the mixed news she’d seen on television.
Regarding the negative reports of behaviors and medical issues, he says, “We didn’t really see anything but wonderful people and a lot of great music.”
His final memory of Woodstock, after returning for his Camaro the following Thursday, was of piles of trash.
Still, Stevenson’s favorite memories of the festival were music-related.
He says, “The main band I went to see—my sister was dating [band member] David Clayton Thomas—was Blood, Sweat & Tears.
A lot of people don’t realize they were one of the main headliners…there’s very little video of them being onstage. I’d never heard of Santana and had heard a little about The Grateful Dead. I knew Sly and the Family Stone and The Who and Jefferson Airplane, but I went to see Blood, Sweat & Tears. I walked away thinking Santana was just unbelievable. I was aware of Jimmy Hendrix, but I never saw him play on Monday.”
The last acts he remembers are Joe Cocker and Country Joe and the Fish, but when it started raining again, they couldn’t stick around for any more music.
Stevenson’s life was forever changed by the music at Woodstock. It led him to his life’s path, founding the Stone Balloon. He remembers the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whom he later booked to play at the Stone Balloon, being on the bill, but never saw them.
(More of Stevenson’s memories will be in print when his second book, an autobiography, comes out this spring. His first book, The Stone Balloon, the Early Years, fetches high prices on Ebay.)
He says, “My goal was to continue playing football for the University of Delaware, but after Woodstock, it was all about the music. I had wanted to play for the Jets or the Eagles. After Woodstock, all I could think about was opening up a place for the bands to play.”
And the rest is well-known Delaware history. The Stone Balloon, opened in 1972, made Bill Stevenson both successful and famous. And he got to book Blood, Sweat & Tears on a stage that also welcomed Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.
Stevenson’s lifelong friends who accompanied him to Woodstock are also both a little famous.
The first is Donald Scott Mackenzie, whom a year later was shot at Kent State, but lived to tell the tale.
The second is Lieutenant Commander Barry Gabler, who went on to become a famous naval pilot and instructor for navy flight teams, and later Delta Airlines.
He’s celebrating the 50-year milestone by attending the anniversary festival.
“I never would have thought, fifty years later, music would be playing up there again. I had no idea that at age seventy that I’d be going back. We are staying about ten miles from Bethel.”
A Sobering Experience
Wilmington native Charles Flaherty now lives in Philadelphia.
Unlike most of the hundreds of thousands of attendees of Woodstock, the 20-year-old Flaherty had a ticket, which he’s kept in a box for years. He went with a friend from his college town, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Flaherty says, “I don’t remember how much we paid for our ticket, like $18 or $30. It was a lot of money for a ticket for music…needless to say there was no one there to collect them. People just streamed in.”
The musical acts and the importance they had to his generation was a big lure.
They traveled in a Ford station wagon with sleeping bags, tarps and a tent. He’d been to festivals, such as well-known events in Newport, but had no idea what was awaiting them at Woodstock.
He says of the rural roads leading to the festival site, “You couldn’t get anywhere close to it. We pulled the car off on the side of the road, and joined the hundreds of thousands of people on the road who ended up walking into the festival site.”
One sentiment Flaherty has carried forward is that there was a “garb that everybody wore: bell bottoms or tie-dye t-shirts or whatever your hippie uniform was.”
He said that people didn’t like being called hippies, noting that his circle of friends came from good families and were educated. He said “hippie” was a pejorative label that conservatives put on a person.
Flaherty says, “We all had long hair. Throughout my education, I wore a coat and tie every day. In general society, there were people who were conservative, your age, and others that had long hair and still had a coat and tie on.”
He adds, “I was trying to get a handle on people kind of my age. There were motorcycle gang people, people with tattoos, people running around without any tops on. I wasn’t prudish, but this was a music festival and we are all strangers. Lots of people were high…if they were drunk they’d be bulls in a china shop. I wasn’t judging them at all, but just trying to see how I fit into this.”
His recollection was that the music wasn’t exactly flowing constantly. By some reports, plenty of the musicians were stoned, and there were long gaps between the musical acts. Much of that, he thinks, was due to drum sets being taken down and sound checks.
Flaherty recalls, “There was no music but there were 300,000 people just milling around.”
He also felt that the rain put a damper on any enthusiasm, plus there were mosquitoes and it was hard to get food and clean water.
Although Flaherty says, “I didn’t meet anybody,” he certainly did.
He recalls, “I met Jerry Garcia just wandering around looking for food. He was there with the band. They had the Further bus there and they were just sitting in lawn chairs out in front of their bus. Not with a fence or anything around them. I walked up and introduced myself.”
Garcia told Flaherty where to find food, which was a couple of fields over, where farmers had brought a lot of produce. If you helped clean lettuce and chopped it up to put in huge cauldrons, you could eat what you wanted. Flaherty did so.
Reflecting on the food options, he says, “Someone would have a loaf of white bread and if you could get a few slices of that with some clean water, that was food. It wasn’t like how people show up to the Philadelphia Folk Fest with their hibachis, grilling hot dogs. It was pretty disorganized. Anybody who came with supplies was exhausted immediately.”
Just beyond the cauldrons of lettuce was a cow trail, a beaten path into the dark woods. This is where a sober Flaherty discovered an open-air drug market, with costumed dealers displaying explicitly their products and pricing on sandwich boards.
Flaherty says, “I was drinking all of this in. I was seeing the behavior of so many peers that had long hair like me and had the same kind of clothes as me, being kind of out of control. It didn’t make me feel like I was with my kind. I kind of felt a little aghast. This is probably how people looked at me in the outside world and I didn’t like it.”
Music was the draw for Flaherty. He loves the remastered recordings of Woodstock that have come out since, but says that is not what the festival sounded like.
Flaherty never did anything like it again, saying, “There wasn’t enough entertainment over three days to keep me interested in sleeping on the ground in a field in upstate New York. I never went to any stadium rock things or even Farm Aid. I had interest in the music but I steered clear of any kind of event that had the earmarks of a Woodstock kind of congregation of strangers. I was a young man; I certainly wasn’t someone who didn’t know how to start a fire or camp. But there was none of that; you couldn’t really do that.”
His final lasting impression was walking out of there early and being thankful, after what seemed like miles, to find his car, not broken into.
“I wasn’t disappointed, but I realized there are people who may look like me but aren’t like me. It made the world seem a bit harder to get a grasp on. You came away knowing less about your fellow man.”
Not wanting to sound like a bummer, Flaherty revisited his interview with some additional thoughts. He felt it was important to express that there was some context, other than him being sober, that caused him to be more serious about the experience.
1969 was a time of war and political turmoil. As a college student in Cambridge, surrounded by so many other colleges and universities, it was an environment of perpetual protest and political talk.
He and his friend set out for Woodstock for some relief from their day-to-day experiences.
It certainly was not relaxing.
He adds, “I’m glad I went. That dose of reality is part of my experience. I wish my girlfriend would have been there; I’m sure I would have had much more fun.”