Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock 1969
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Why Can't Anyone Get Woodstock Right? 15 Of The Original Fest's Performers Weigh In
John Sebastian was onstage at the Woodstock Festival when a stage runner came bearing rough news: the fence had come down. Despite a meager $6 per day admission, demand had vastly exceeded supply, and throngs of concertgoers had decided to break in by force. For its 24-year-old promoter, Michael Lang, this should have been a recipe for disaster. But he did what he does best, for better or worse—he thought on his feet.
"I saw Michael look into the middle distance for a minute and then say, 'I think we have ourselves a free festival,'" Sebastian tells the Recording Academy. "I said to myself, 'This guy is a genius.' And sometimes being a genius isn't making money. It’s realizing your situation and treating it for what it is." He breaks into a wry laugh. "In that case, a dangerous situation!"
50 years after Woodstock, time hasn't been kind to Lang’s seat-of-his-pants business style. Woodstock '94 was plagued with rain and became a gigantic mud slick. Woodstock '99 deteriorated into an alcohol-fueled nightmare, along with reports of arson, looting and allegations of sexual assault. And last month, an ill-prepared Woodstock 50 went into a legal and financial tailspin and was finally killed at the eleventh hour, after months of bluster from Lang that the show would go on.
Some surviving Woodstock acts, like Santana, Canned Heat, and Country Joe McDonald, were set to reappear at Woodstock 50; others declined the offer or weren’t asked. Now that the festival is dust, a few original Woodstock cats, like Ten Years After, Melanie and Canned Heat, plan to spend August 16–18, 2019, at small-town gatherings like WE 2019. Others are plugging away on tour that weekend. Quite a few have no plans to celebrate at all.
With Woodstock 50 a bust, the Recording Academy spoke with 15 of the original festival's performers about how they plan to ring in the 50th this weekend (or not), and why no one has successfully recreated the 1969 experience.
What was the original Woodstock like through your eyes?
John Sebastian: I had a pretty great catbird seat to the Woodstock festival. By that, I mean that I could go backstage at any time I wanted. I had access to a tent that was mainly for acoustic instruments, but [giggles] which at night I could use.
Nancy Nevins (Sweetwater): I felt stressed out, as much as any 19-year-old can feel that way. Woodstock was a mess in every way as far as being a performer there goes.
Doug Clifford (Creedence Clearwater Revival): It was a logistical nightmare from where we were. We were exhausted from a red-eye flight, doing television all the day before.
Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival): It was the summer of festivals. There were a lot of big festivals. Bigger than Woodstock, actually, in terms of attendance.
Fred Herrera (Sweetwater): We had been playing numerous outdoor festivals at the time, each one larger than the last. Leading up to this one, it seemed like just another. When we arrived, we realized the magnitude of the event, but I figured the next one could be larger.
Nevins: Plus, Sweetwater had a serious mission to accomplish beyond Woodstock, which is why we played first. We had to get [keyboardist] Alex [Del Zoppo] back to Riverside, California by 6 a.m. on Saturday… or else. He was in the Air Force Reserve. Their annual two-week training camp started in Riverside the next [morning]. This was non-negotiable. I was preoccupied with that need, which made everything else, like the crappy sound and general stage conditions, enormously burdensome.
Clifford: We went in on a two-man helicopter with three people. I was half in and half out of the helicopter. I had my right foot on the skid, hanging out the door, which was open, of course. I was holding the seatbelt of the seat next to me to stabilize myself.
Gregg Rolie (Santana): [The view] really impressed me. Like ants on a hill. Past 10,000 people, it's just hair and teeth. It's just brown. It didn't register.
Roger North (Quill): Having studied structural engineering in college, I remember being very concerned that the overhead lights and rigging were in danger of being toppled onto the stage by the wind of the oncoming rainstorm.
Miller Anderson (Keef Hartley Band): Our manager refused to let us be filmed without a contract. That was a big mistake for our band.
Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane): By the time that it came for us to go on, it became apparent that they were running really behind schedule. As everybody knows, we waited around all night and didn’t go on until Sunday morning.
Sebastian: I was standing on the stage when the runner came from the back porch of the festival, saying "The fence has gone down." I saw Michael look into the middle distance for a minute and then say, "I think we have ourselves a free festival." I said to myself, "This guy is a genius." And sometimes being a genius isn't making money. It’s realizing your situation and treating it for what it is. In that case, a dangerous situation!
David Clayton-Thomas (Blood, Sweat & Tears): We were basically only there for a couple of hours. We did our encore, got a tremendous reception and immediately after the show, back on the helicopter and gone.
Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix/Gypsy Sun & Rainbows): Jimi looked out from behind the curtain at the crowd and said: "That crowd out there will be sending us a lot of energy up onstage, so let’s take that energy, utilize it and send it right back to them." Mitch had a bottle of Blue Nun wine with him. As if we were making a toast, Jimi, Mitch and I each took a large swig from it, smiled at each other, and went out and played for almost two hours.
Robin Williamson (The Incredible String Band): I’d rather not keep getting dragged back into the '60s. I’d like to be one of the first people over the mountain.
David Crosby (Crosby, Stills & Nash): What happened was that half a million people treated each other decently. I don’t think there's ever been a gathering of half a million people anywhere where there were no rapes, no robberies, no murders. None. People behaved differently with each other. It was so stunning for those of us that were there that we can’t get it out of our heads. There was a moment where everything worked the way we dreamed it could.
What do you think about the troubles Woodstock has faced over the years? Why has it been so difficult to maintain the brand over time?
Anderson: Woodstock was very disorganized. It was nobody's fault. The organizers did not expect so many people and it just got out of hand.
Crosby: Since then, it’s been people trying to use that word, "Woodstock," as a way to make a ton of money. That's the truth of all of the rest of it that’s gone on since then.
Cook: There's a lot of people involved in that pie. If you recall, the first one was almost a disaster as well. The main problem is that the people behind the festival are not concert promoters. They have another agenda.
Skip Taylor (producer/manager of Canned Heat): Unfortunately, Michael Lang has gotten a lot of credit, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of criticism, and I’m one to give it.
Herrera: I would surmise that the original had a great deal of luck associated with its outcome, busted finances aside. Maybe the promoters of the current and subsequent ones took for granted more than they should have.
Cook: The first one happened miraculously. That was a cosmic, universe-exploding experience that could never be duplicated. The brand has suffered because it’s impossible to top itself. It can’t even match itself. Everything comes up short.
Clifford: It’s not something you can manufacture or recreate. It was real. It was the spirit of mankind, the way it was supposed to be in the first place.
Crosby: The people who did it were in it to make a ton of money. They did not care about the audience’s experience at all. They didn’t know what that experience is. They don’t really understand what magic music can [create]. If you get the right kinds of music next to each other in the right place with the right people, you can get magic. They thought you could simply buy it by the pound. You can’t.
"The first [Woodstock] happened miraculously. That was a cosmic, universe-exploding experience that could never be duplicated. The brand has suffered because it’s impossible to top itself. It can’t even match itself. Everything comes up short."
Nevins: The "bliss" that is Woodstock can't be duplicated because it's not for sale. Such acceptance, love, and good-naturedness can't be re-packaged. Try marketing authenticity and unity. It can't happen. By their nature, true spirituality and acceptance can't be marketed.
Crosby: They made a terrible mistake and all of these gigs have been failures, in my eyes anyway. Woodstock ‘94 made money, but it was a horrible, horrible experience for everybody who was there.
Sebastian: Also, the intoxicants were different in 1969. Pot being the major recreational drug, and then you compare that to Woodstock ‘99, where the problem was alcohol.
Rolie: Society changes. The social structure back then was one thing, and now, there’s a lot of angry people out there, obviously. They may have disagreed strongly [back then], but there wasn’t such violence as what you see now. Now, they try to repeat it and they charge $30 for a bottle of water!
Kaukonen: Whatever magic was in the air that gave whatever you want to call it, the counterculture, a sense of visible and concrete identity in the world at that time, that’s not going to happen today, because... that’s not going to happen. It’s not that time anymore! You just can’t expect things to magically happen anymore.
Nevins: That is why the 50th anniversary concert failed. It was designed around maximizing profit and ego strokes.
Crosby: They’re very, very greedy people doing really dumb stuff. I think that’s probably what went wrong this time.
Taylor: I blame [Lang] singlehandedly for ruining this celebration of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which was and still is the greatest festival that ever happened in the world.
Cox: You know, it would have been interesting had a call been made for as many of the gatherers and performers at Woodstock to convene on the 50th anniversary and help tilt the scales and maybe fate would have been pleased. We’ll never know.
Williamson: I don’t really know anything about what’s going on with Woodstock 50. I haven't been following that at all. I’ve been trying to do things in the present time and look toward the future, really.
What do you plan to do to celebrate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, if anything?
Clifford: Probably take my grandkids out to dinner.
Jocko Marcellino (Sha Na Na): Cruising the North Sea on vacation.
Cook: Scuba diving in Roatán.
Rolie: I’ll be there on August 16th with Ringo [Starr & His All-Starr Band] at Bethel Woods [Center for the Arts]. We’re going to be doing the Santana stuff. That’s what I play with Ringo.
Kaukonen: Let’s see. I’m going to be on the road. If I was home, I’d probably take my wife and daughter out to dinner.
Williamson: In the U.K., there’s not much to celebrate here. I wasn’t planning on doing anything about it here.
North: I will be thinking about the festival, but I have plans to maybe spend some time in the woods that weekend.
Kaukonen: You know what, honestly? I’ll probably write something on my blog about it, just from a memory point of view. I don’t see how you can celebrate something in a concrete way that was that ephemeral.
Anderson: I have my own band, the Miller Anderson Band. We are playing festivals celebrating 50 years of Woodstock all over Europe.
Nevins: I'm celebrating the 50th with gratitude. For living through those years, for knowing most people have goodness in them, and knowing that our current states of material ignorance are not the Alpha and Omega of humankind. There is a better us and the artists will bring it out first. The entrepreneurs and business addicts never will.
Clayton-Thomas: They’re not "celebrating" [with these 50th anniversary shows]. It’s just a bunch of promoters trying to cash in on the name again. People aren’t buying it. People understand that it was a unique moment in history and it will never happen again.
Herrera: Sweetwater has already been performing at a number of Woodstock-themed events, including outdoor and indoor concerts, TV shows, radio, blogs and Q&A appearances, all associated with the 50-year anniversary.
Sebastian: I’m playing all around that date like crazy, and I would have played the date if [Michael Lang] hadn’t moved to Maryland, because I already had a gig in Maryland, and they’ve got those kinda rules where if I’m gonna hire you to play my gig, you can’t play somewhere [nearby] next week. I was right there with him up until when I couldn’t be with him.
Taylor: There are other things happening around the country other than just the one Woodstock 50. Fortunately, we’re partaking in a lot of them.
Clayton-Thomas: I don’t. I’ve turned down half a dozen offers to play these reunions. It’s mostly cover bands, other bands or a band that was at Woodstock’s bus driver who now has a band… you know? It’s gone. It’s history. It’s over.
Crosby: What I told you definitely happened. That was the significance of it. If you give a sh*t about what I’m telling you, pay attention to that. That’s where the real value was. And that’s what’s absent here.