Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Other Woodstock

The new movie "Taking Woodstock" opened today, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic music event of 1969. Estimates put the crowd there in upstate NY at about 500,000. I was too young to go, so I was in Rockland County NY that weekend with my girlfriend, whose older sister (unbeknown to her parents) was at the festival. Upon her return, I got a firsthand account of what it was like. For the next four years, I performed in bands and covered most of the songs and artists from the festival.

Then on July 28 1973, came the Watkins Glen Summer Jam, featuring the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and The Band. More than 600,000 people descended upon the small, picturesque town in upstate New York, the largest audience ever at a pop festival. I was one of them. Several estimates suggest that one out of every three people between the ages of 17-24 from New York to Boston was at that event.

I was with four friends, in two cars, leaving from Bergen County NJ the afternoon before the concert. It would be about a five hour drive along rural Route 17 – assuming normal traffic. The traffic was far from normal. There was a steady stream of cars filled with young people for most of the length of Route 17. The Roscoe Diner, in Roscoe NY, was a favorite stopping place, and we stopped there to regroup, refuel, and decide what we'd do as we got closer to Watkins Glen.

At about 1 a.m., the morning before the event was to start, we were 11 miles outside of Watkins Glen. The traffic was at a standstill, and that looked to be as close as we could get by car. So, we parked at the side of the road, along a long line of cars doing the same thing, gathered up our 'stuff', and started to walk. We didn’t know how far away we were.

It seemed endless – walking in the dim night, amidst a sea of young music fans seeming heading for some kind of Close Encounter. Sometime between 4-5 a.m., I started to see signs of civilization – there was a brown-roofed restaurant called "Mr. Chicken", which was to be a significant landmark in the next days, months, and decades. We finally got to the concert grounds – a sea of bodies, lying on blankets, colorfully dressed (or undressed).

There was little available real estate to be had. We found a small spot of bare ground, spread our blankets, and tried to get some sleep, after an 11-mile walk through the night. I closed my eyes at about 5:30am – At about 6am, I felt my head being jostled and I opened my eyes to see the posterior underside of a dog dangling over me. That, plus the wooden tent stake poking my side, was enough to get me up.

All we could see was people – everywhere. And a tiny stage off in the distance. However, there were large towers of speakers everywhere. I scoped out food and porta-potty locations. And then the sun came up. Hot – extremely hot. I had brought water. My friends, in their infinite wisdom brought wine, and not a drop of water. Water was being sold at a heavy premium – far more than the other mind-altering substances which were being freely hawked everywhere (which I did not find particularly appealing).

Eventually the music got going – the stories of the Grateful Dead's legendary sound-check which turned into an impromtu 2-set concert, are quite accurate. Following the Dead's opening performance, the Band went on and then, shades of Woodstock, along came the rain. Now there were 600,000 hot, wet, muddy, people – but still peaceful and happy.

One of my friends, who drove the car I rode in, started to get heat stroke and dehydration, so we brought him to the medical tent. He was quite out of it, but when he saw that all the nurses there had shed their tops, he quickly became alert. I'm not sure if this has become an approved treatment for heat stroke or not, but it worked.

My supply of water was gone, most of our money was gone, and we still had an 11 mile walk back to the cars ahead. There was still more festival to come, but I thought it best to get my dehydrated driver back to the car while there was still some cool in the air, so we said goodbye to our colleagues, and began the trek back.

Along the way we saw all the colorful things we could not see in the dark as we were coming in the night before – vendors, hawkers, pushers, and the now-famous Hartford CT radio station camper, which was doing a pirate broadcast from the concert site.

Eventually, I saw it – the comforting brown roof, and the words "Mr. Chicken". We got some water and food, and finished the trek to the car. The entire experience – being a part of the largest music gathering ever, is clearly engrained in my memory, but sadly, I never thought to bring a camera with me. I do however have the local newspaper from that weekend with photos.

Yes, Woodstock was first, but Watkins Glen was bigger. Having been there, I understand the primary lesson of Woodstock and that whole time we call "the sixties". The music was a great bonus, but the real treasure was seeing how immense groups of diverse people of all backgrounds and walks of life could come together and peacefully enjoy the simple pleasures of being on this earth. And I have always seen music as a means of bringing people together across any type of boundary or divide.

I have since been back to Watkins Glen many times. It is one of my favorite places, due mostly to the unique scenic beauty of the gorges and Finger Lakes. And nearly 40 years after that historic music pilgrimage, there, steadfastly on the main street, is Mr. Chicken.


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