Billboard.com spoke to many of the artists who performed at the historic Woodstock festival about their thoughts and memories of the event that helped define their lives and careers.
It was a once in a lifetime thing for me. (Playing on the free stage) was a riot. Whoever was officially taking names and putting people in order didn’t recognize me. I was just one of the lineup. I think I just gave my name as Joan. I went out on the stage and I’m not sure what I sang, but I remember this guy at the top of the hill, in the back…with no clothes on and flowers in his hair and a long beard. And he started to dance through the crowd toward the stage. So I just cut one of the songs so I could bow politely to him and leave before he made it to the stage and got up there with me.
Stu Cook, Creedence Clearwater Revival
When we left Los Angeles we flew all night to get to Woodstock. We had heard there were 200,000 people already there, which was amazing, and by the time we got there everything had changed. It was no longer the 200,000; it was out of control as far as we could tell. We didn’t know what to expect, but we went in there…in a little helicopter, sort of hanging out on the pontoon of the helicopter. And backstage we were having a totally different experience than the audience. There was a lot of creature comforts — there was friends, there was food, there was good smoke, booze, whatever. We weren’t experiencing the same environment that the rest of the people were. Then when we got onstage, we didn’t know there were 500,000 people there. It was pitch black. After the first few songs we still weren’t sure if there was anyone there; it was three in the morning and it was getting pretty quiet. People had had a fairly long day. And then some guy way the hell out there yells, “We’re with ya!,” and we were like, “OK, well, [i]that’s[/i] the guy the concert’s for,” and on we played. The next day we played for 5,000 people somewhere, and it started to dawn on us what we’d just been at, that we’d probably never see anything like that or experience an event like that again.
It was kind of nerve-wracking for us. It was only our second show. Everybody we knew or cared about in the music industry was there. They were heroes to us — The Band and Hendrix and The Who…They were all standing behind us in a circle, like, “OK, you’re the new kids on the block. Show us…”
John Entwistle, The Who
You couldn’t sit in the dressing rooms because they were being shuffled between the bands, so I walked around the whole of the audience. I met some friends out there who gave me some bourbon and Coke — unfortunately the ice had been stolen from backstage and had acid in it, so I spent a little while taking a trip. I figured I had enough time, so I drank the rest of the bourbon and passed out. When I came around I was pretty groggy, but just about fit enough to play. I don’t remember what adventures the rest of The Who had, but we finally went on and the most amazing part of it was when we sang “I’m Free,” the sunrise came up, so it was pretty amazing.
John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival
It was big. You knew it was a really momentous and special thing — and I was nervous. The fact that freeways were all clogged for 50 miles around was like, “Wow, that’s pretty unusual.” We were taken by helicopter and dropped at the Holiday Inn and allowed to sleep a little bit, and from there we were taken by helicopter, this shaky old World War II thing that I was also really nervous about; only two of us at a time could fit in it. We arrived in daylight and saw all these people and it was like, “Oh my god…” Once I was on the ground and I looked around I was just nervous the whole time I was there, because with half a million people there were no rules. There were no real professionals running it, no real security set up. It wasn’t something where they knew in advance what was going to happen, therefore no precautions had been taken. All it takes is one person shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater; if all those folks had started to stampede, a lot of folks would get hurt. I was just a little nervous about what could go wrong. I remember seeing a guy selling water, a dollar for five gallons. I thought that as the most bizarre and commercial, crass thing I had seen. You should be [i]giving[/i] water. Our own show…everything ran late, as you know. We ended up following the Grateful Dead, which is a whole story in itself. We were supposed to go on by 10 or 11 o’clock that night, and we didn’t get on ’til something like 2:30. The Dead went on and all their equipment broke, so they spent 45 minutes to an hour to get it fixed. I always suspected people were just too high and couldn’t figure out how to fix things right, you know? We were supposed to be the headliner, but by the time everything unraveled, I don’t know who was the headliner — and I probably didn’t care by that point, either.
Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead
The thing I remember most is people behind the amps running around and going, “The stage is collapsing! The stage is collapsing!” That didn’t make for such a good time.
I walked out in the crowd and went way up to the back of the hill. I was overwhelmed just being i the crowd. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do except be there.Mickey Hart, Grateful Dead
It was a great hang for the musicians. Everybody was imbibing in their choice of delicacy and rubbing shoulders with all your peers — Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash and all the people. It was just a big hang. It was very friendly and we were just happy to see each other. Some of us had only heard of each other, too. We had heard the records but we never really got to play with anybody except the people from San Francisco that we knew — Carlos and the Airplane and Crosby and those guys. They were our buddies. But people from England and a lot of the other groups, we hadn’t really ever played with or heard live.
I was supposed to be fifth on stage, and no one at the whole festival went on when they were supposed to. I came in on one of those glass bubble helicopters and saw Tim Hardin under the stage, sort of playing by himself. I knew he wasn’t going on first. I didn’t want to, either, but I had the least number of instruments, so…I thought, “God, three hours late. They’re gonna throw beer cans at me. They’re gonna kill me.” Fortunately the reaction was “Thank God somebody’s finally going to do something.” They were happy. I was supposed to sing for 40 minutes, which I did, and I walked off the stage and the people were great, and then (the organizers) said, “Richie, four more songs?” “OK.” I went back on and they were still clapping, so I sang four other songs, went off again, then I hear, “Richie, four more sons?” They did that to me six times. Two hours and 45 minutes later I’d sung every song I know.
Alvin Lee, Ten Years After
I decided to go out and take a walk before we played. I joined in the whole vibe of the thing. It was just great. I experienced it from the other side of the stage…I remember, too, that we ran out of cigarettes backstage. So somebody said, “I’ll go out and get some from the crowd.” He came back with 20 joints; nobody had any cigarettes.
Phil Lesh, Grateful Dead
It was a great event. We didn’t play well; there were all kinds of problems. That’s what I remember is that we didn’t play well. Yeah, we had problems with (the wiring), but a good workman never blames his tools.
John “Jocko” Marcellino, Sha Na Na
It was unbelievable. I was 19, a teenager in America and hearing about this thing Woodstock. We were an offshoot of the glee club (at ??) but I was the drummer on campus — mainly because I had drums. I was in six bands, and one of them was destined to go to Woodstock. We closed a place called Steve Paul’s Scene in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a famous rock hangout, and Michael (Lang) was there and he went up to our manager and said, “We have this Woodstock thing” and he didn’t know what it was. And he came and told me and I said, “Go back and tell the guy yes, whatever…” We were the last act booked, and I think that check bounced and we got $1 to be in the movie; there were 12 of us, so I think we made eight cents each, but it was an unbelievable opportunity. When we got up there the place was like a refugee camp, and we waited all weekend. I slept out there in the (field); I didn’t know they had all the stuff backstage. Other acts kept showing up; Paul Butterfield came up late, doing a long set, and we’re going, “Damn, we’ve waited all weekend and we’re not gonna get on.” Finally they said, “Sha Na Na, you’ve got 35 minutes. Go!” so we dragged our little equipment up there and luckily we made the movie — I think mainly ’cause they were waking up the crew to film Jimi (Hendrix). We made the edit, and the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.
There’s lots of (memories) — rain, companionship, great music, technology that sucked, lots of people, lots of energy. I thought we were pretty good. I was listening to (the tapes) recently and we were pretty good, I think. It was a good time but 40 years ago. Who gives a fuck anymore?Greg Rolie, Santana
We flew in, as most of the bands did ’cause everybody parked on the highways and the whole thing was closed in. So they flew us in helicopters, and flying over this massive amount of people, I have to admit, did not strike me ’cause it was like ants on a hill or something. I had no concept of it. And then when we played, we played to each other; Carlos’ back was usually to the audience ’cause we played like jazz players, [i]with[/i] each other and 500,000 people happened to be there. The first 10,000 or 20,000 people, we’d done that. Everybody had played a bunch of festivals. And after that it’s all hair and teeth; you can’t see anything, so it’s nothing to be afraid of, especially since we were just playing to each other and for each other. If I had known what (Woodstock) was all about and what it ended up being in hindsight I probably would’ve been frightened to death, but the band just played and that was it.
It was like witnessing an ocean of hair, teeth, eyes and hands. If you closed your eyes, you could forget the impact of seeing a moving ocean of flesh. Then you could just feel the sound, which had a different kind of reverberation when it bounced off the people and came back at you…I remember seeing Jerry Garcia; as soon as we landed, he was already playing his guitar on the hill with this beautiful, blissful smile on his face.
Michael Shrieve, Santana
It changed my life, of course. It was an incredible experience. WE didn’t have a record out or anything. Nobody knew us. Nobody had heard us or heard of us for that matter, so for us to go over like we did that day was even more phenomenal. It made me proud to realize that…we connected with the audience like that. When the movie came out about a year later we were in New York City and we heard that the film was showing and we went as a group and waited in line to get in. We were standing there, and as the people were coming out of the first show they started pointing at us and whispering to each other. We went in and saw the film, and I think we were all really shocked. Of course as musicians to see yourself on a big screen in the movie theater is a big deal in the first place, and we didn’t know it was “Soul Sacrifice.” We didn’t know much about it…so for myself, personally, when the drum solo came on and it was split in four or whatever it was, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to sink down in my seat or to stand up and say, “That’s me! That’s me!”
Pete Townshend, The Who
It made us rich. “Tommy” was finished; it had sold maybe a million and a half copies. Woodstock put it back on the charts, and then the film came out and “Tommy” sold another four million copies…But it was chaos, wasn’t it? I mean, what was going on off the stage was just beyond comprehension — stretchers and dead bodies and people throwing up and people having bad trips. And all they could say was, “Isn’t this fantastic? Isn’t this beautiful?” I thought the whole of America had gone mad at that moment.
Leslie West, Mountain
The (helicopter) pilot had to take two trips. I was a lot heavier then, and he wouldn’t take all of us in one trip. It was sort of embarrassing…There wasn’t anything to eat backstage, either. Janis Joplin finished the last bagel before I got to the stage, damn her. (laughs)
Bob Weir, Grateful Dead
I had a great time there, all except for the gig. Our sound man at the last minute decided that he wanted to re-wire the sound system, and he got the grounding totally wrong — the wrongest I’ve ever seen. It took them three hours to set it up, and I think it probably took all of that three hours for the guy to get it that wrong. So any time any of the guitarists touched their instrument they were getting a low-voltage shock, and we just had to put up with that. We were getting about 15 volts; it’s enough to rattle your nervous system, and it gets real old real quick. I learned really quickly not to get too near my microphone ’cause any time I got within a couple inches of it there was a big, blue volt that lifted me off my feet and threw me eight feet back into my amp stack. And when I came to I had a fat lip and just got back up and continued to sing the song, but I wasn’t 100 percent for a little while, there. The whole environment was unkind to the musicians. It wasn’t a good night to be playing guitar, but playing guitar and singing could be fatal…But we camped out there for several days and really got down with the mud and music and all that kind of stuff. There were a lot of ponds and creeks, so I went swimming a lot. And I watched lots of folks. I thought Creedence did a wonderful job. Of course Santana was great. Jimi Hendrix was amazing. I was a little disappointed by Crosby, Stills & Nash; they were new to the stage, at that point still mostly a studio band and they weren’t as tight as they got to be in the years since.
I would say it was wall-to-wall people, but there weren’t any walls.