WOODSTOCK – One Young Guitarist's POV
by Arlo Hennings
Excerpt from the book "Guitarlo"
People carried tents, backpacks, coolers, blankets, children, and pets. They pulled wagons and anything else that could be handy for camping or creating a new civilization. No one was selling tickets. The entrance gates had been torn down. It was a free for all.
Woodstock became an overnight experiment in communal living that had risen in organic chaos from the edges of a music stage. The great cosmic switch that controlled time was in the off position. I slept the first night in a stranger’s car. By the second day, there was no place to go to the bathroom. Anyone with food gave it away. Hundreds of thousands were too stoned to argue or complain. It was a human anthill, filled with sweaty, naked, freak out, love-filled, groovy-vibe, dancing people — bored or wrecked, but always dancing. The MASH tent was inundated with drug-related cases, women having babies, broken ankles, dehydration, and all the pandemonium associated with a disaster.
Helicopter crews tried to keep up with the supplies. It was up to each individual to help share what they could for the survival of the tribe. If it wasn’t for the rain that washed away the stink and provided a little drinking water, the place would have been a full-fledged wipeout. Some even welcomed the mud. Large groups turned the mud into a playground, wore mud hats, and walked about nude like ancient tree worshippers.
I kept making my way through the sea of mud and people to get closer to my ultimate destination... the stage. Back behind the stage, I saw a gypsy camp made out of basically anything that provided a makeshift tepee. It was on that side of camp chaos, that I stumbled upon the Hog Farm Family and their leader — Wavy Gravy.
“Man, there’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area,” Wavy repeated in a hoarse voice. He had been shouting on the stage microphone earlier how he and the other families had created enough free kitchens to feed 400,000 people for breakfast, so don’t worry.
I liked Wavy in his funny large hat and missing teeth. He had a lot of enthusiasm for what was happening. He didn’t have a negative atom in his body. He believed that the world could be changed, and if you stood next to him you would believe it, too.
In the background was the constant roar and wildness of the music. Depending on where you stood, the stage looked like a tiny pebble surrounded by a sea of ants. If you crawled in up close you might be crushed by the crowd. Day and night the music seemingly played nonstop, like a soundtrack to the improvised nature of the setting.
Various groups had set up their free kitchens and campfires. At the Merry Prankster campfire, I found Rocket’s Red Glare dancing by herself in a granny dress.
“Hello, Rocket’s Red Glare, how’s the party?” I asked.
She was blowing bubbles and sent about a dozen floating orbs at my head, as “Gr-o-o-o-o-o-v-y,” rolled off her tongue with a giggle. Rocket’s Red Glare danced around me in a circle, humming and giggling while she blew bubbles at me. I laughed along with her, “Great bubbles, babe...” I teased, enjoying her show. “I can see you’re having fun.” I danced a little jig with her while dodging and popping her bubbles.
“That’s my tepee over there,” she announced, pointing to a clump of trees, “Want to be my love beast?”
“Very tempting offer,” I chuckled, “but I found myself a place beneath the stage.”
“What do you think of the festival?” she asked.
“I think if I tried to describe it for the next 25 years, I wouldn’t do it justice,” I answered, “too bad it has to end. Then again... could it really go on?”
“It’s a new dawn,” she glowed.
“Yes, It’s the dawn of something,” I nodded.
“You know where I live, little guitar man. See you later,” she sung to me, as she and her bubbles danced away.
From the Merry Pranksters camp, I sat and watched the steady stream of music hipsters stop by to show support with an acoustic guitar. I first saw the effervescent John Sebastian and a buddy who played a set of songs about his travels across America in an RV. Later, to my surprise, the shaggy-bearded Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, and Marty Balin, founder and lead guitarist of the Jefferson Airplane, appeared together. They did a short, blues-based jam. The husky-voiced Melanie followed later and sang a few classic folk songs. A stoned Tim Hardin plucked his way through a few songs before he dropped his guitar.
I was most intrigued by their finger-picking style. I wanted to learn how to do it. To that end, I approached one of the Hog Family players and asked him how to do that trick with the right hand. New to many guitar playing techniques, all I knew was flat pick strumming. Many of my favorite songs were finger picked. I just didn’t know how to do it and it drove me crazy.
“How do you pick with the thumb, index, and ring finger, like I see everyone doing?” I asked Jack Flash.
“That is called Travis picking or the claw,” he explained. “It was named after Merle Travis, thus the name.” He reached for my guitar, and I reverently obliged. “There are many variations of the technique,” he went on and using my guitar, slowly demonstrated the style for me. “Keep practicing, you’ll get it eventually.”
“Thanks for the lesson, Jack,” I told him, with much enthusiasm and gratitude. He handed my guitar back, and I handed him my cube of LSD. I immediately spent the rest of the night memorizing the pattern.
I’d hung back long enough and was ready to make my big move. Turns out, it wasn’t difficult to slip past the overwhelmed backstage crew with my dream pass and walk across the wooden footbridge to build a fort beneath the stage. As long as I sat quietly out of the way, no one cared that a mud-clad, 15-year-old was trying to build his vision of working in the music business.
In front of the stage, a sound-mixing console rose out of the mud. To protect it from rain the equipment was covered by a makeshift tarp. Beneath the tarp, a person with thick sideburns and glasses, wearing an Australian-type Outback hat was desperately trying to control the direction of the music. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking into my future. The man at the controls was the South African music promoter I’d be working with 25 years later to celebrate Nelson Mandela.
Before my wide eyes, one legend after another performed: Pete Townshend, Joan Baez, Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and even Arlo Guthrie. Most were complaining about their start times, conditions, rain, monitor levels, money, hassles, and drugs. I didn’t care. All I cared about was the guitars.
With each artist came a rack of the most amazing electric and acoustic guitars I had ever seen. I recognized the standard Fenders and Gibson guitars, but the rock gods had custom-built guitars — exotic, handmade gems with pearl inlays, unique pick-ups, and golden tuning keys. I sat there mesmerized and watched them tune and warm-up.
Townsend gave his guitar a few windmills on his cherry red Gibson SG, and Arlo Guthrie carefully picked, listening for any anomalies in his fretboard. I sat there mesmerized and watched them tune and warm-up.
If one guitar wasn’t perfect their private guitar tech would appear with another. I studied their faces carefully before they went on before 400,000 people. I noted if they were calm or nervous, anxious or jumpy — or whether they seemed cool or dry mouth — and were they stoned or were they straight.
There I sat in reserved observance, completely engulfed in a moment of sweet surrender just floating in my boat of bliss, awaiting with bated breath the chance to meet Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix was scheduled to appear at midnight on the closing night but insisted on being the last to play. Then due to many delays, he finally hit the stage at 8 a.m. the next morning. After staying awake all night, I finally saw him enter the area in his red headband and white, buckskin-fringed shirt. His famous white Fender Stratocaster guitar hung over his shoulder. Some of the crew believed that he was a god that talked through a guitar.
From my vantage point, at the security fence barrier, I could see Hendrix close up, towering above the crowd, glowing in stardust. I had seen Hendrix a total of three times. The most recent was two months ago at the tear-gassed Denver Pop Festival. However, the show that day featured a new line-up of players. The band was introduced as Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. I was unaware that I had seen the original Hendrix Experience group for the last time and I overheard that the show today was a debut for Hendrix's new band. This new information added another layer of excitement for my hungry ears.
Hendrix was the most mystical of all the performers. He wasn’t just a musician — he was a shaman that brought his visions to the tribe through his lightning rod. When he stepped out there and plugged in, the air was pushed back three feet by the sheer thunder that emanated from his six-foot-high wall of amplifiers, like cosmic bookends to the 1960s.
Hendrix sacrificed his guitar to usher in through fire a new consciousness at the Monterey Pop Festival, now closing the cultural journey at Woodstock with his brilliance by turning his guitar into a wizard’s wand. He called his guitar a kinky machine that kissed the skies — and that was not an exaggeration. The molded piece of white-painted wood and wire screamed as a seasoned mother would during labor, giving birth to the most amazing melodies I’d ever experienced, one after the other.
Rockets exploded in multiple colored reds, whites, and blues, as Hendrix’s supersonic representation of Francis Scott Key’s, Star-Spangled Banner came over the sound system, blasting us all into the outer space of the underground.
The surreal interpretation of America’s national anthem caused me to reflect on my brother’s struggle to stay out of the Vietnam War. My brother loved the guitar as much as I did and I wished he was here to see Hendrix with me. I was too young to be drafted but when I looked around me most guys would be or were facing a hitch into hell. Like Country Joe McDonald sang in his “I-feel-like-I’m-fixing-to-die-rag” if my brother’s tour had been switched to Nam he might be coming home in a box.
For the next two hours, I stared dumbfounded at what I had never heard a guitar do. The guitar played me, cut me to the core precision- to the innermost reaches of my emotional hideouts — enraptured within his hypnotical rhythms.
I found myself floating somewhere beyond the innermost reaches of my emotional hideouts during this Hendrix Experience, on this third stone from the stone, where he invited us all to board his ship- and so I did, at the right of the helm, mind you- just underneath the stage. My body shook to the sometimes distorted over the top innovative tunes of brilliance. When Hendrix took over the helm, we rode upon a multiversal purple seahorse through notes of stone freedom. My world was definitely rocked and I was forever changed. “Thanks, Jimi.” The moment chiseled upon my skull. I would pick up a guitar and nothing was the same.
Woodstock had shown me more than any other event of the time the possibilities of bringing people together through music. Yes, Hunter Thompson, “Perhaps it had been the most overrated cultural event of the 20th Century,” but Woodstock sure did become one of the most memorable, groundbreaking moments in musical history ever recorded. And yes again, where we all who attended participated in growing the grassroots of an epic moment in musical history, within a magical medley of music and mud, at the first-ever Woodstock celebration.
Three days later, the abandoned fields of Max Yasgur’s farm lay buried beneath mountains of empty wine bottles, clothes, and abandoned relics of modern civilization. The “ECO” movement was a couple of years off. One cultural experiment had risen and crashed. I looked at my ruined Woodstock poster for the last time and pondered what would become of the Aquarians? The light they carried. What to become of such power? The awareness? Did it change anything?
Rocket’s Red Glare, where is your teepee?
I made my way back to the interstate and let out the wild thumb. Thumb against the blade of a pocketknife. Thumb as shiny fingernail of reflected camel eye. Thumb as a safety-pin-sized, out-of-tune fiddle, plucking a cricket’s song.
50 years later on the anniversary of Woodstock, I posted “I was there” photograph on my Facebook with an arrow pointing into a mosh pit of festival-goers. I was surprised how to this day that the event remained tattooed on the mainstream of pop history consciousness.
When I tell people “I was there” the remark usually invites a wide smile or a nod of the head in amazement – “really?” Sort of like the same level I climbed Mt. Everest in a bathing suit. I was now “one of them.”
The idea of raising social awareness and creating interpersonal harmony through music stuck with me and became a lifelong ambition. I sure am glad I went.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
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© Arlo Hennings 2020