Someone once said: “If you remember Woodstock, you probably weren’t there.” I still look for myself in the 1970 documentary, trying to remember exactly where I was in that peaceful, drenched mass of humanity.
Most of my memories are colored by purple haze and sunshine acid, though some moments leap out like Richie Havens wailing about “Freedom” and Grace Slick yelling “Mornin’ people” at some god-awful hour before launching into “Look what’s happening out in the streets/ Got a revolution/Got a revolution….We’re volunteers of America.”
That’s why I was there: to protest the war in Vietnam through peace, love and music. Yes, there was the lure of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. But it was the feeling of camaraderie, of living the idealistic spiritual presumption of brotherhood and sisterhood, of making love, not war, and bearing witness to the real life dawning of the Age of Aquarius one year after “Hair” opened with its historic nude scene on Broadway, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre that proved Lyndon B. Johnson lied about “winning” in Vietnam.
We really believed we could change the world. Two months before Woodstock, John Lennon composed the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance.” One month before Woodstock, Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, proving anything is possible. And on Aug. 15, 16, and 17, half a million long-haired hippies came together for a mass love-in where rain and mud became a primordial ooze—the “garden” Joni Mitchell later wrote about.
This is a romanticized memory, of course. But true for me, nonetheless, 50 years later, as if a drizzle of rain ran the pointillism of reality into a lovely impressionistic landscape.
I don’t know if Denene Jensen felt the same way. Denene was my college friend who supplied the car, food, water and red wine while I supplied the tickets. We had to abandon the car to hike up to the site. I inadvertently gave away our water, meaning we drank red wine or the rainwater we captured. And a stage announcement indicated Woodstock was now a free concert as we rolled out our sleeping bags under a tree, ignoring the possibility of a lightening strike, and smoked pot until we dozed off to Joan Baez on acoustic guitar. She seduced us with a song about this murdered labor leader named Joe Hill who she insisted had not died.
It was comforting. I had been aware of the war in Vietnam since 1964 when, at age 14, I was torn between my very liberal Westport, Connecticut neighbors who said the attack on a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Tonkin was a lie, U.S. propaganda – and my father, a “lifer” in the Air Force who supported Sen. Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater wanted to nuke North Vietnam. By August 1969, I had become a student anti-war protester, a “women’s libber” and a weekend hippie. Some of my male friends fled to Canada to avoid going to war; those who went came back maimed in body and mind. But by Woodstock, none had died. I was keenly aware that I was among the fortunate ones.
Woodstock proved there was a better way than constant war, that love, peace and understanding really could work if given a chance. It wasn’t just some ethereal vibe—it was a real idealistic virtue we took to heart, implanted in our souls and fused into our marrowbones. It created a core humanistic value that informs my principles today.
But even with pot-hunger pains distracted by incredible music, sharing whatever with whomever and streams of refracted light imagined through the prism of Sunshine acid—at some point Denene and I just got too cold, too hungry and thirsty and had to leave. We caught a ride with a guy named Guy, which I thought was just hilarious as I tripped on a pane of acid.
Two months later, I was back protesting the war at the Oct. 15 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which, I learned later, was co-organized by David Mixner, who I later met and covered for years as an amazing LGBT leader. It was during that protest that I first encountered real gay people—Gay Liberationists freed by Stonewall who’d also come to protest the Vietnam War. I wasn’t out to myself then—I thought I was a hippie who loved loving. But I was intrigued by these protesters who wore tutus during Sunday dinner and were as hard as any fighter in the streets the next day.
I later found out that Woodstock was essentially a miracle—so much went wrong from the beginning. But we didn’t know that. And we turned the abysmal weather into a collaborator for mud-slides and an excuse to skinny-dip in front of grinning cops who cut us slack since we were so nice, polite and fun.
We forgave each other our foibles, accepting help finding an unmarked patch of ground when the portable toilets over-flowed. Helping each other was done without a thought or motive. Sometimes the drugs just broke the dam on years of pent up sadness and we were there. I didn’t experience that again until decades later when I broke down at a 12th Step meeting.
Some people say the murder at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969 killed the dream of Woodstock. It didn’t, not for me. I will forever carry that felt-memory of a mud-marred Utopia where peace, love and understanding really did rule the day.