By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong. Minus one. I never did make it to Yasgur’s farm. For a former musician, that counts as a cardinal regret, although writing the novel Born Under a Bad Sign has enabled me to travel back in time for a visit.
Years ago, I did tour the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the calm and far less crowded tribute to the legendary festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The center nestles on a hill overlooking the original location of the stage. The site features an amphitheater and museum containing historical timelines and a psychedelic bus. The area is surrounded by dense forest bisected by a two-lane macadam road, with fields and post-and-rail fences bordering the road. A green and pleasant land.
Aside from the museum and a plaque at the bottom of the hill, the land hasn’t changed much in 50 years.
From the start, the farm proved an unlikely place for a concert. There were no services within miles. To get there, you drive past abandoned summer camps whose cabin roofs have buckled with time and weather. The nearest town boasts a Walmart, a Super 8 motel and a dog track.
So why did the organizers, including promoter Michael Lang, choose a dairy farm in southeastern New York State to stage a rock festival? Because there was nowhere else to go. In 1969, the town of Wallkill, New York, feared the crowds and other venues didn’t pan out. With less than a month before the August 15 starting date, Lang scouted a farm near the town of Bethel. There, he writes in his book The Road to Woodstock, he found a kindred spirit in its owner, Max Yasgur.
Unlike Orwell, the fictional rock band in Born Under a Bad Sign, my group wasn’t famous enough to play Woodstock. But our drummer, John McAllister, had a pickup truck and an extra ticket and asked if I’d like to go.
I was set to start college in a few weeks—Penn State was on a term system and incoming freshmen were required to report a week early for orientation, which put move-in day a few hours after the close of the festival. It was raining at the site, and already there were reports of crowds and mud. So I did the safe thing: I went to college and, vowing never to look back, have spent most of my life doing that.
Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.
With original photography by the author.