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Woodstock was a who’s who of the 1960s music scene. The Bethel, New York, festival was held 50 years ago this week, and was nearly canceled several times, on account of lightning, traffic, food shortages, musician shortages, bad brown (and other) acid, and a host of other fiascos. Somehow, it has emerged to become the cornerstone countercultural event. But, as attendee Wavy Gravy once said of the ’60s in general, if you remember it, you weren’t really there.
You know who else wasn’t there? A lot of people you think actually were. Bob Dylan, the guy who helped make Woodstock into a creative retreat? You remember footage of him right? Surely he was there, right? Well, he wasn’t there. And neither were a bunch of other people you think were.
You know who was there? A bunch of people you’d never guess. Luckily, this list will clear that all up for you. Here’s who wasn’t at Woodstock, and a list of people you might be surprised were there.
You may be wondering why a festival billed as “Woodstock” took place 70 miles away from the town that gave the event its name. Producer Michael Lang had hoped to lure local resident Bob Dylan out of his three-year-long retirement by getting the festival permitted in or near Woodstock itself. But when the town council rejected the plan, Lang and his partners had to branch out… and branch out some more… and more, until finally, Bethel allowed farmer Max Yasgur to put the gig on at his place. (Dylan would temporarily end his hibernation that summer, but for a different festival, the Isle of Wight.) As journalist Hendrik Hertzberg put it: “We went because of the persistent rumor that Bob Dylan might show up.”
As Dan Bukszpan, author of the new book Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music, says: “Everyone thinks Joni Mitchell performed, even though she didn't.” That popular misconception is due to one major piece of evidence — Mitchell’s song “Woodstock,” with its line “By the time we got to Woodstock / we were half-a-million strong.” However, her manager, David Geffen, double-booked her on the Dick Cavett show and she was unable to get out to the festival afterwards. Her song, which became a hit when covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, solidified the event in the popular consciousness. However, listen closely to Mitchell’s later, stripped-down piano version and you may find a wistful torch song for a movement that almost literally passed her by.
All three groups turned the festival down, with Tull leader Ian Anderson reportedly passing because of this conversation with his manager: “‘Will there be lots of naked ladies? And will there be… drugs and drinking… and fooling around in the mud?’ Because rain was forecast. And he said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ So I said, ‘Right. I don't want to go.’” Zeppelin’s gruff manager Peter Grant asked for too much cash upfront and Poco decided they’d earn more and have a bigger crowd, altogether, if they simply toured that weekend.
Originally billed as one of the fest’s closing acts, the year’s top-selling band bailed when they had logistical issues. (In fact, the story of what happened when Iron Butterfly demanded the red carpet treatment from Woodstock is far more amusing than the one about Van Halen’s brown M&Ms.)
The Jeff Beck Group, which at the time featured a young, unknown Rod Stewart at the mic and future Rolling Stone member Ronnie Wood on guitar, was listed on the poster for Woodstock, but ended up dropping out in an equally spectacular fashion. Their reason may have been the best of all: the band broke up on the Thursday before their gig, never to play another show (although all three men are somehow still with us).
Chicago was supposed to play, but according to a CBS News interview with Bill Graham, he claimed that he swapped them out with Santana and Chicago played a show Santana canceled in San Francisco instead. Obviously, the right call was made on this one. The hard-rocking Guess Who seems like a better fit but, according to rumor, had to turn down the festival due to a tour that they had already put deposits down for.
Few knew who he was at the time, but singer/songwriter Willie Nelson was, in a way, in evidence at the festival: Joan Baez sang the unknown country up-and-comer’s “One Day At A Time” in the middle of her set, with a long preface.
No joke! Of the offer to appear, the cowboy singer later said: “I would’ve been booed off the stage by all those goddamn hippies.”
Bukszpan points out in his new book on Woodstock that the actress (Halloween, Stripes, Rock And Roll High School) was in attendance as a teenager: “She was 19 years old and working crew with the Joshua Light Show, who did a psychedelic light show the first night of the festival.”
The fashion guru told the AV Club: “Believe it or not, I and a group of my boarding school colleagues got into a van in 1969 and went to Woodstock in our Weejuns [penny loafers] and gray slacks and blue blazers.” We can believe it.
According to his memoir, Tyler met young Joe Perry, his future guitarist in Aerosmith, in Boston that summer. Tyler was 21, Perry 18. They hung out and played music together before road tripping to upstate New York for Woodstock. It’s unclear if the duo sealed their musical bond at the festival, but it’s clear both men learned a lot from Janis Joplin’s set.
The Doors didn’t play, but drummer John Densmore can be seen in the Woodstock documentary marveling at Joe Cocker’s performance of “With A Little Help From My Friends” from stage left. Considering his famous stoicism, Densmore appears to be having enough of a good time that he may have later convinced the whole band it made a mistake skipping it. (They did later agree to perform at the following year’s Isle of Wight, which ended up being their last international gig with Jim Morrison.)
In the film, soundtrack, and most photos of the festival, Neil Young, already becoming a star, is nowhere to be seen, which is curious, considering his band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, were among the highlights of the festival. It turns out Young simply refused to be filmed — and asked his bandmates to play an acoustic set without him first. In some outtakes of the festival footage, however, his head occasionally pops up, and his is the confirmed fourth guitar (and voice) on later soundtrack volumes.
Martin Scorsese, who had only directed one little-seen student feature film, signed on as an assistant director on the Woodstock doc, and was joined by his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. (Both are now Academy Award winners; Schoonmaker holds the record, in a three-way tie, for most Oscar wins as an editor.) According to a 1970 interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese remembers: “We had 14 to 18 cameras at Woodstock, counting wild cameras. And when those three days were over, we came back with 50 miles of film. One hundred and twenty hours of film. It took us more than two weeks just to look at the rushes.” Schoonmaker later became an Oscar nominee for her editing and inventive use of split-screen and slow-motion imagery on Woodstock.
Some assume the psychedelic legends played Woodstock, simply because they were the quintessential hippie band. Others think Jerry & Co. weren’t on the bill, simply because they’re nowhere to be found in the film (even in the Director’s Cut) or the soundtrack. When asked why even the Dead, which has released dozens of live recordings over five decades, played down their appearance, Jerry Garcia himself said: “It’s nice to know you can survive as a band even after blowing the biggest gig of your career.”
Fogerty, who controlled much of CCR’s legacy, claimed that he didn’t like the band’s performance and vetoed any inclusion in the documentary, including the Director’s Cut, or soundtracks. But, in listening back to the bootleg tapes, bassist Stu Cook said, “the performances are classic CCR and I’m still amazed by the number of people who don’t even know we were one of the headliners at Woodstock ’69,” in The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The former host of NBC’s Meet the Press is perhaps the most surprising celebrity attendee of Woodstock. One of his popular refrains among friends was to joke that he was the only person that weekend to be seen in a Buffalo Bills jersey, drinking beer.
After the pacifistic festival ran out of food on day one and Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared Bethel a “disaster area,” producers were placed in touch with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, which ran half-a-dozen sorties over the weekend, providing doctors, nurses, medical equipment, bandages and even body bags, as there were far more deaths at the festival than most people remember, including several miscarriages and drug overdoses. For a great, even touching insider’s account of the “mission,” check out this helicopter pilot’s account.
Brian Fairbanks started out his journalism career at the age of 15 as a staff entertainment writer at the Hartford Courant for three years in the 1990s, followed much later by a three-year stint writing about sex and pop culture for Nerve. He has also written for Mic, Gawker (as its first investigative reporter, under the Consumerist emblem), the Guardian, AOL, Cinema Thread and many more outlets, and worked on nonfiction books with Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen Ambrose and many others. He lives in New Orleans.
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