“By the time we got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong.”
— Joni Mitchell
It was 20 years ago today ... and, no, this not a reference to Sgt. Pepper or his Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was 20 years ago today that my son Steve and I set out on what I thought at the time — and what proved to be true in every sense — would be the adventure of a lifetime. We packed up Rachelle and Alan Bitterman’s tent and headed to Rome, N.Y., for Woodstock ‘99, the 30th anniversary celebration of the original 1969 festival that changed history.
The trip itself was one of those father-son bonding adventures like you see in some made-for-TV movie. But this one worked. With stopovers in South Carolina and New Jersey before ending up at the former Air Force base in Rome that was the site of the festival, our trip up I-95 was one that neither of us has ever forgotten. (Jut mention Michael McDonald singing “I Keep Forgettin’” to either one of us, and you’ll get the same response: a burst of laughter at the absurdity of the song that hit us both late — and Fletchers get silly late — during the first evening on the road.)
I didn’t know what to expect at Woodstock, but what actually convinced me to go were a couple of factors: 1) I saw that Kid Rock had been added to an already stellar lineup, so that tipped the scale in a big way, and 2) My longtime musical buddy and fellow Herald employee at the time Barry Levine bet me the cost of one of the tickets ($150) that I wouldn’t go. Levine thought he had a safe bet because of my lack of travel experience, especially outside the friendly confines of my beloved Southland, but Levine didn’t understand how deep the music thing was in me.
Some of the memorable things about Woodstick ‘99:
— Getting there early Thursday evening and having to park about 2 miles away from the entry to the festival site, and having to lug all our equipment those 2 miles;
— Watching George Clinton and P. Funk play pretty much all night Thursday night, which helped my scared-of-needles self get through a first tattoo. (The Woodstock emblem of a dove perched on a guitar neck ... it’s on my right lower leg.)
— Jumping at the first touch of the tattoo needle and having the tattoo artist tell me I was going to mess up his work if I didn’t keep still.
He suggested I roll over on my stomach and watch the action the next tent over, which was the body-painting area. There, I watched an attractive lady get her body painted — every bit of exposed skin, and she exposed all of it — which is apparently all she wore over the next three days. (I saw her a couple of times, and the outfit was the same.) Oh, and the guy had to tell me that he was through with the tattoo ... worked like a charm.
— Bathing in the morning. There was one — just one — PVC pipe that was attached to a water line, and it stood up off the ground about 3 feet. I waited in line for an hour or so (it was a long line) to get to the “bath,” wearing only boxer shorts. I soaped down, rinsed off, washed my hair, then moved along so the next person in line could do the same. We were not exactly the unwashed hippies of ‘69. (The runoff water did, though, run under a set of porta-potties, which made some attendees’ decision to go mud-diving in the runoff questionable.)
— Sitting in can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness with 350,000 of your closest friends while listening to hard-rocking favorites like Metallica, Korn and Buck Cherry, among others. (I’ll admit that, 20 years later, the eeriness of those night-time performances was kind of frightening.)
— Most of all, though, I remember the music: James Brown, Live, Lit, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Our Lady Peace, Wyclef Jean, DMX, Insane Clown Posse, Elvis Costello, Jewel, Ice Cube, Bush, the Offspring, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Hornsby, and, yes, even Limp Bizkit. There were others, too many to recall off the top of my head, but all a part of an unforgettable experience.
Woodstock ‘99 was in no way the cultural milestone that the original festival was. With ice going for $30 a bag, Cokes and lemonade priced at $5 apiece, and hot dogs a good 10 bucks, the crowd grew more angry at being gouged with each passing day. Finally, on the last day of the festival, the crowd’s anger erupted, and some decided to burn the concession area down (as the Chili Peppers played Hendrix’s “Fire,” of course). By that time, though, Steve and I were on the road home, weary but full from the experience.
Steve’s right at the age I was when we made that trip in ‘99. But I know that when it comes to the shared memory, neither of us will “keep forgettin.’”