Friday, August 15, 2014

The Start of Woodstock

It's been a strange week.

Forty–five years ago today, the Woodstock music festival began in New York. I had planned to focus on that — and yet, all week, my thoughts have been on Robin Williams.

I wrote about the Woodstock anniversary extensively five years ago so I don't need to spend a lot of time on it this year — never intended to, really — except to note the anniversary.

But I've been thinking about Williams, who had just turned 18 and recently finished high school when the festival was held. Did he go to it? I doubt it. He lived in Chicago and Detroit when he was very young, but the family moved to California when he was 16, and I doubt that he went all the way across the country for a music festival — although he may have. Nearly half a million people showed up; it wouldn't surprise me if a few came from the West Coast.

Considering his age, I'm sure the movie and the three–record album were influences on him, as they were for just about everyone else in his age group, even if he wasn't there.

Swami Satchidananda Saraswati opened the festival with its keynote address (I guess you could call it that). That probably sounds odd, given that everyone who was there came to hear the music.

Probably 99% of the weekend — which stretched into the following Monday — was devoted to music from all sorts of performers (at least, when it wasn't raining) and the festival ended memorably, with Jimi Hendrix giving an amazing performance to a much–depleted audience.

But the festival began, before Saraswati's remarks, with Richie Havens.

His performance of "Freedom" still sends chills down my spine — and I have seen it countless times and heard it even more.

He played for a couple of hours late that August afternoon.

There are other memorable moments from the festival, too. I wrote about many of them five years ago.

Woodstock launched some careers, as Katie McLaughlin writes for It was the first public appearance for Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

It has been said by some that Woodstock was the last gasp of the '60s, and there may be some truth in that. Certainly it was the last gasp of the communal '60s when the emphasis was on peace and brotherhood.

Why was that? I have asked — and I have been told it was because virtually the only drugs being used that weekend were pot and acid, neither of which brings out the violent and aggressive sides in people like alcohol and cocaine.

Is that the reason? I don't know. At least one person was using heroin that weekend, and he overdosed. Another person died of a burst appendix, and still another was in a sleeping bag and was run over by a vehicle so the weekend did not pass without incident but there were no fights. Lots of sex, as McLaughlin writes, but no fights. Hundreds of thousands of kids, strangers to nearly everyone there, spent the weekend together in peace and harmony.

And then, of course, there was Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show on Monday morning. About half the crowd had left by that time. The ones who left early missed what may have been the most memorable performance of all. Well, they released a double CD of his show 25 years after the fact.

It was an innocent time, but it was losing its innocence. Only a week earlier, the Manson family had committed seven horrific murders in two consecutive nights.