On Aug. 15, 1969, I finished the Friday shift at my summer job at Times Square Stores (TSS) in Hempstead, Long Island, picked up a couple of friends in my dad’s Plymouth, and off we went to the Catskills for (as the publicity poster proclaimed) “An Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y.,” better known simply as “Woodstock.”
In the past half-century, it has attained mythic stature as a harmonious expression of anti-establishment fervor (during which there were no known major incidents of anti-social behavior, which today is sadly inconceivable). If the counterculture had a capitol, Woodstock would be it.
I don’t have photos of myself at Woodstock to prove I was among the hundreds of thousands who convened there, but I know three people who do have a photo—an iconic image no less—to certify their presence at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that miraculous weekend of peace and music: they all are on the cover of the Woodstock album.
The Album Cover Crowd
The couple in the foreground, lovingly locked in an embrace under a pink quilt, are Bobbi and Nick Ercoline. The residents of Pine Bush (Orange County) have appeared in recent years at Woodstock tribute shows produced by John DiChiaro, who, with brother Tom, owns The Winery at St. George in Mohegan Lake.
The figure in the distant background of the Woodstock album photo is Charles Dering. When I emceed The Winery’s Woodstock tribute concert this past May, I met Mr. Dering, who’s lived in Mohegan Lake since 2002.
It turns out that he and I have some parallel recollections of our Woodstock adventures, though his memory is more crystalline than my purple haze.
In fact, I am living proof of the Woodstock alumni oath of authenticity that “if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t really there.” I don’t remember a lot, so you can rest assured I was there. He remembers a lot more, and has a photo that attests to his presence.
Both Charles Dering and I borrowed our parents’ cars to crawl our way to the music mecca that Friday night. Traffic was so immobile, a trip that should have taken a couple hours or less took three or four times as long. After exiting Route 17 in the town of Bethel, even with benefit of a shortcut that Mitch knew from his summers in camp at nearby Swan Lake, we didn’t finally locate a place to park until the sun came up on Saturday.
Charles remembers asking an “old-timer” at a rest stop in Liberty, “Is this the way to the Woodstock concert?” The helpful fellow pointed to a VW Bus, ornamented with flowers painted on the side, and said, “Just follow them hippies. That’s where they are all going.”
The Woodstock Mud
After we parked the car, Mitch remembers our walking at least a couple of miles before reaching the promised land of the concert site, but not before getting caught in a downpour. “That was the Woodstock mud,” Mitch recalled the other day as we wished each other Happy 50th Woodstockiversary.
Where Charles and my Woodstock memories diverge is in how well prepared they were—and how well prepared we were not.
Charles and his friend, Tim Tassoni, brought a tent, blankets and copious food rations. My high school friends, Mitch Sirotta, Billy Kronen, and I, having decided rather late to make the trip, brought nothing but the clothes on our back—and some personal effects we left in the car, to which we didn’t return until the trip home Sunday morning.
Charles and his friend brought a cooler with beer, sandwiches, fruit, chips and snacks, which kept them nourished till Day Three (Sunday).
Mitch recently reminded me, “You stayed where we had positioned ourselves in front of the stage. I went looking for food, mud up to my ankles. All I could find were cold hot dogs and warm soda. We sat there eating it, saying ‘This is disgusting.’”
Still, we survived the unplanned Woodstock Diet. As Charles points out, “We were all skinny in those days and did not have 24/7 access to food, so we did not miss non-stop eating.”
Upon arriving at the field of people as far as the eye could see, we planted ourselves in the first patch of dirt that revealed itself between bodies pressed together like canned sardines. It put us close to the performers’ front right corner of the huge stage.
Charles says they pitched a tent farther back in the throng, on a flat landing. From there, they only had to walk a few steps, to a slope in the natural amphitheater, to have a clear, if distant, line of sight to the stage below.
On Sunday morning, says Charles, “We passed by a butterfly flag on a pole and found a good spot for our army blanket about 20 feet away. I stood watching Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. Nearby, Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly were standing, wrapped in a blanket. None of us knew each other, or that photographer Burk Uzzle was just a few feet away with his camera pointed in our direction.”
He finally got to meet the couple for the first time at The Winery in May. “It took me 50 years to find out,” says, Charles, “but Bobbi and Nick are two of the nicest folks I have ever met.”
Priceless $7 Tickets
Mitch, Billy and I hadn’t bought tickets, at $7 a day or $18 for a three-day pass, but Charles and Tim did. Before any of us got there, the concert was declared a free event, so Charles still has those priceless tickets, in mint condition.
There are a few moments I do remember vividly.
There were a lot of people around us smoking something, but not us. Mitch, Billy and I may have the distinction of being the only people at Woodstock who were not stoned. Am I bragging? Or complaining? Just sayin’.
I remember a shirtless guy touching the sound tower a few feet to our right. He started fitfully shouting, “I’m being electrocuted!” which sent a momentary shock through our section, until we quickly realized that people were perched on It, like pigeons, with no problem. His was an irrational reaction to the tower’s low-voltage electrical current, no doubt triggered by something he “ate.”
The Most Memorable Act
When people ask me which groups we saw at Woodstock on Saturday (Day Two), I’m hard-pressed to exercise total recall without consulting a playlist. Fifty years is a loooong time.
But there is one group that always comes instantly to mind because of how improbable the circumstances, and how joyous the sensation. It is my most transcendent memory of Woodstock by far. These musicians came on in the dead of night Saturday, about 3 a.m. We were all totally spent, nodding off if not asleep, mired in mud.
Suddenly, illuminating the darkness like a bolt of lightning, Sly and the Family Stone electrified the crowd, singing, “I’m gonna take you higher!” And just like that, rising as one, the crowd was on its feet, deliriously dancing to the music. I’ve never seen anything like it. Who needed acid? We were tripping on the naturally pure power of teenage adrenaline. We were giddy with rapture. The soundtrack doesn’t begin to do it full justice. You had to be there. I can’t believe I was.
So, Woodstock alumni, wherever you are, congratulations to all of us. I don’t know if we are stardust, but nobody can deny that, as we mark the 50th anniversary, we are golden.