A Day in the Garden:
Return to Woodstock
by Fredrik King
On the first weekend of August 1999, a music festival called "Woodstock" was being held in the town of Rome, New York. This was supposedly an anniversary of the original Woodstock of thirty years ago, the fabled "Summer of Love." But by the end of this particular festival, held on the black tarmac of an airfield, there were fires, rioting, and sexual assaults on an undetermined number of women, gang attacks that took place before the eyes of the audience. This was hardly the peace and love that symbolized the original Woodstock. And in fact, this particular event was Woodstock in name only. Unnoticed, or ignored, by the media, another Woodstock would take place a week later, at the site of the original festival, in Sullivan County, NY, over 100 miles south of the disaster in Rome. The organizers of this festival didn't have the legal right to the name "Woodstock," so it was simply called "A Day in the Garden," after a song written to celebrate the original festival of 1969.
I was too young to go to the original Woodstock, but on this 30th anniversary my favorite singer, Melanie Safka, simply known as Melanie, was going to perform, along with other singers who performed at Yasgur's Farm three decades ago. This time, I would be there.
After two days of driving my Chevy Blazer from metro Detroit through Canada and the Catskills region of Sullivan County, New York, I reached the village of Montecello on Saturday, August 14, about ten minutes away from Bethel and Yasgur's farm, the site of the original Woodstock. I rented a motel room, and made final preparations for the Sunday concert. I checked my small backpack for some items: a pair of Melanie CDs I hoped would get signed, a Sharpie felt tip pen, a notebook, and a disposable camera. (The Garden people said no cameras would be allowed, but I thought I might be able to smuggle in a small inconspicuous disposable 35mm.) I was thinking: I'm here, I've made it, I'm really going to see Melanie perform for the first time in my life after waiting for over twenty-five years . . . .
I woke Sunday morning at 8:00. I looked out the motel room window; the pavement around the motel was moist. It had rained, although not much. Would there be the kind of rain that blanketed the original Woodstock thirty years ago? I stepped outside the motel where others were gathering; they were here for the festival as well. I wondered how early I should leave, and decided the earlier the better. By about 10:00 I was back in the Blazer, making my way down Route 17 B, to Bethel and Yasgur's farm. I followed a line of cars into a parking area where attendants directed the small stream of vehicles into the lots, grassy sections that were designated for parking, not paved lots as such. I was directed to the end of a row, right next to a wooden log fence. I parked, grabbed my gear, and followed a group of people through a wooded, pleasantly shaded path to the farm entrance. I was lucky; I was early, and I was quite close to the entrance. By this time, the air started to heat up; the sky was spotted with fluffy clouds, white and blue shadowed, not the gray of threatening storms. The sun often punched through the clouds as we stood waiting to be allowed to enter the farm, and it was clear there wasn't going to be any rain for a while, but the sunlight was going to be another matter entirely. About thirty minutes later we were allowed through the main entrance to the farm, only to come to still another gateway. Here we waited some more, while the sun continued to pound at us; then we were directed to different parts of the final entrance. Those with tickets went right through at one part of the entrance, while the others had to go on the other side to buy tickets before being allowed entrance.
Security checked us for coolers and cameras; I heard some people say, "only 35mm cameras allowed." That meant, I heard later, that while there was a prohibition on cameras, in reality the only cameras that were not being allowed were those with telephoto lenses or video cameras. A security guard pleasantly asked me if I had any coolers, and shook the pack on my back. "No liquor, no coolers," I said. She let me pass.
Perhaps two dozen vendors had tents set up, hawking their various wares, photos, T-shirts, beaded necklaces, handcrafted items, many quite nice. But I wanted a good spot, so I bypassed the vendors, went through a large tent where beer and bottled water was being sold, and beyond I saw the stage. The earth slopped downward; in this part of the country, the land rolled unpredictably. My home state, Michigan, is basically a big pancake flattened by glaciation during the Ice Age, so I felt constantly disoriented, off balance, as I walked on this uneven ground. Fortunately, I was carrying my black walking stick, which I usually carry because of a bad leg; now it was helping me to keep my balance on this careening landscape. In clear view was the stage, covered with black canopy, with the Garden's stylized guitar with flower strings icon painted on the black cloth in an earthy yellow ochre. The canopy covered the box-like pillars that rose high above the stage on the left and right, concealing electronic equipment and the speaker system. I moved to the stage, and found an ideal spot, maybe a couple of dozen paces from the front of the stage, where the performers would be at my eyelevel. A little to the left of the center I spread out a blanket, introduced myself to the people already there and settled, and watched and waited. Late sixties music flowed out of the speakers; I was relieved that the sound wasn't deafening, as it often is at rock concerts. I turned and surveyed the farm; people were flowing in a steady stream, filling up the grounds. The grounds of the festival were very clean and quite beautiful. The grounds were clearly well maintained. The grass was verdant and healthy, and even the wooden log fences that surrounded the farm showed little sign of wear. The audience, I had realized, was almost entirely composed of baby boomers like me, people who were in their forties or fifties. Of course there were children and younger people, but they were in the minority.
Noon. There were two opening acts featuring young female vocalists; I didn't catch their names but they played enthusiastically and were received warmly by the crowd. I was delighted that everyone in the audience was polite and cordial; people were being good to each other in the spirit of the original Woodstock. Not once today would I see any violence or outrageous behavior. After the opening performers finished, the first main act appeared; a lady dj from a sponsoring oldies rock radio station introduced Country Joe, who launched into his classic anti-Vietnam war rock anthem, "What Are We Fighting For?" After a couple of other numbers, Joe read off the names and manner of death of seven young men "who are not here with us today"--seven citizens of Sullivan County who died in action during the Vietnam War. He departed the stage on that somber note, and the dj appeared again to say Melanie would be appearing next. She asked if everyone had water, because the sun was becoming truly brutal now; the billowing clouds provided some protection, but then the sun would lance through terribly. When a rare breeze wafted through the crowd, you could almost hear a collective sigh of momentary relief. I had a bottle of water by this time, too, but I only took small sips from time to time, enough to keep from becoming too dehydrated, but I didn't overdo the water because I didn't want to have to search for a restroom during a performance.
Water vendors were wandering through the crowd, selling bottles of water at two dollars each. (Not a particularly outrageous amount.) The dj also continued to advise the crowd about first aid tents and open showers in case people needed to get doused to cool off. Unlike the "Woodstock" that took place in Rome, NY the previous week, the operators of A Day in the Garden were taking real steps to ensure everyone's safety.
Another wait, at least thirty minutes. Then several musicians came out and took their places; two percussionists, one at the main drum stand, another behind a pair of tall chest high drums, the type drummed by hand. A bassist took up his bass guitar, as Melanie's son and daughters, Beau, Leilah, and Jeordie walked on to the stage. Then at last, Melanie. Leilah and Jeordie were at microphones to Melanie's left, Beau at her right, taking up a white solid body guitar. Melanie picked up her own guitar, rainbow colored tassels dangling from either side of the guitar body. She was dressed in black and white, matching her white streaked hair; Leilah and Jeordie were in black tops and pants. Melanie greeted us and spoke a little about the late Jimi Hendrix, then launched into "Purple Haze," followed by "Ring the Living Bell." The crowd was really enthusiastic now; there was lots of singing along with Melanie and her son and daughters, and quite a few of the younger people as well as us supposedly more dignified older folks were standing and dancing. After one of the early numbers, Melanie commented to the audience, "I'm cooking up here," taking sips from a coffee mug. Considering the black canopy surrounding the stage, combined with the sun's heat, Melanie and her company were performing inside a literal hot box. I was roasting myself, pouring bottled water into a cloth and dampening my face to ward off the heat.
Melanie began the opening chords for a very familiar song; people were already cheering before she could start singing. "This is the song that doomed me to eternal cuteness," she said, and began singing her naughty and cute "Brand New Key." When she reached the third verse she interrupted herself to say, "This is the verse that redeems me," and continued to sing of the virtues of bicycles and roller skates. (Later I would tell the woman sitting behind me that I didn't learn to drive until I was twenty, and her jaw literally hung open; how can you live in Michigan for so long and not drive? I told her I used to get around by bus or bicycle, and I used to use "Brand New Key" as my defense for refusing to drive for so long.)
"Brand New Key" was followed by "Look What They've Done to My Song Ma" and "To Be a Star." She talked a little about her youth and how "Momma, Momma" reflected the feelings of that youth, and was a song of sorts for Beau now. She commented, jokingly, of all the "older people out here," noticing that so many of us were baby boomers, her generation, and how Woodstock should be an event for all ages, young and old both. "Beautiful People" came next, then "Jammin' Alone" and by the time she began "Ruby Tuesday," virtually everyone was on their feet, swaying and singing with Melanie like a huge human wave. A new song followed, "Her Hymn," and then at last, "Lay Down."
After "Lay Down," the song that reminds me that we can be so much better than we frequently are, Melanie spoke about "the abomination at Rome," referring to the disastrous event that took place a week earlier under the name "Woodstock." "Woodstock isn't a commodity," she said, but in Rome, NY that's what the owners of the Woodstock name tried to turn Woodstock into, a commodity, a cash cow, if you'll forgive the expression. At Rome, NY, bottled water cost six dollars, bags of ice much more, with the proprietors milking the event for every single dollar they could scrounge up, even at the expense of young women being assaulted before the eyes of their friends and audience. "Woodstock is in our hearts!" someone near me called out, and Melanie echoed that. "There are angels here," she continued, "and they're always with me. So I'm taking my angels elsewhere . . . maybe some other farm or the farm next door." The cries in the audience indicated that I wasn't wrong in understanding Melanie: she wouldn't be coming to this place next year. I can only speculate why Melanie decided not to return--I think it was because the moneyed interests that manage to take everything good and turn it into a marketable item at the expense of human beings had done so with Woodstock, and Melanie in good conscience couldn't let herself be part of that kind of exploitation. She sang, "Those Were the Days" on that bittersweet note, and with her family left the stage. All in all, it was a powerful, memorable performance, and impressively energetic given the ferocious sun.
I grabbed my jacket and walking stick; the "Ring the Living Bell" collection disks were in my jacket pocket with the Sharpie marker. I went to the left of the stage, following the black canopy curtain, pass a first aid tent and an open shower where some children were playing under the water spray. Another sloping tract of land; at the end of the canopy was a dirt road, separated from the grass with another wooden log fence, the fence I think surrounded the entire farm. The canopy ended at the road, and between the canopy corner and the fence was an eight-foot gap, where I saw Richie Havens--another original Woodstock performer--amiably chatting with a group of fans and well wishers, maybe twenty to thirty total. I tried to move towards the gap in the fence, hoping for a glimpse of Melanie. Some very stern security guards blocked us: This far, and no further. I backed away to let make room for Ritchie's fans. He must have spoken with his friends for at least a good hour, while I heard Leslie West's guitar thunder out. I moved to the fence itself; by this time, heat exhaustion was taking its toll on me, and I had to lean up against the fence. "Where' s Melanie?" people in the group kept on asking. Many of them had Melanie LPs, photos, and so forth, hoping for a signature. Someone mentioned Melanie would be coming out to meet us, someone else said she was doing a radio interview. Presently we saw Leilah, Jeordie, and Beau rushing back and forth across the road to a small house that appeared to act as a kind of way station for the performers, then back to the concealed area behind the black curtain. At one point, I saw some police officers arrest an unresisting young man on the opposite side of the forbidden area; perhaps he tried to sneak in past security. Meanwhile, there was a small gap in the fence a few paces from the larger gap that divided the canopy barrier and the fence; just to part myself from the growing crowd I slipped through the gap and continued to lean against the fence. Security left me alone, perhaps because I clearly wasn't attempting to walk down the road to somewhere where I wasn't supposed to be; perhaps because a man who has to carry a walking stick didn't look like a threat. I appreciated the position these guards were in; the memory of the Rome disaster was still fresh in everyone's minds.
At one point, as Jeordie was crossing the road again back to the tented off-limits area, she heard the people call out to her and wandered over to us. Somehow I found myself within inches of Jeordie, and I was being jostled by flailing hands and a couple of bodies desperately trying to talk with Jeordie or get her signature. I thought for a moment to take her picture, being so close to her, but she had just finished a strenuous performance with her mom, it was oppressively hot, fans were screaming, and I didn't want to make things worse by putting a camera in front of her face. But I did try to examine her face closely; Melanie's features are all over her. She is every bit her mother's daughter, even in her manner and demeanor.
I took out my Living Bell CD and my marker pen. People were asking for Jeordie's signature, but she didn't have anything to sign with. "He has a pen!" someone said, pointing at me; now hands were coming at me! (Fortunately, I was on the same side of the fence as Jeordie; with a couple of exceptions, most everyone else was on the other side.) Jeordie asked for the use of the pen, and I gave it to her, of course. She signed several items, including shirts that people were still wearing. At last I worked up the nerve to ask Jeordie to sign one of the Living Bell disks: she used my pen to write, "To Fred Love Jeordie 99". Her signature, like Melanie's, ends with a little flower. Presently, Jeordie had to leave, but said Melanie would be out soon.
Another wait; by this time, I think it was about 4:30. Suddenly a van appeared and inside we could see Melanie, waving back to us. I will admit, I was a little saddened that I couldn't meet her, but it had been a long day for me and I'm sure it was much worse for Melanie. She put on a long and energetic show in the middle of a brutal heat wave, and to see Melanie perform was the reason I and many others were there, after all. And, I thought, I got to meet Melanie's daughter, and in her face I could see Melanie.
I went back to my original spot before the stage while Leslie West was pounding out "Mississippi Queen," gathered my blanket and things, said goodbye to the folks around me, and headed back to my truck. I followed the fence back to the main entrance and made my way back to the Blazer. Fortunately, since it was already parked by the edge of the parking area, it was easy to find. I drove back to Montecello, stopped at an unpretentious diner across from the motel I was staying at, and downed two large plastic tumblers of ice water and another tumbler of ice tea while I picked at a dish of diced melon. Back to the motel; closing the door, I threw off shirt and shoes, flung myself into a chair and savored the complete darkness of the room. I was experiencing a kind of sensory overload; I had traveled far (for me) and seen and experienced a lot in the past few days. I am amazed that I was able to sleep that night. The next morning I packed my things, returned my keys to the motel people, then started on my way back, punching speed limits all the way. Amazingly, no cops stopped me for speeding. I drove for ten hours, doing the return trip back home in one day when it had taken me two days to come to Bethel.
There are certain times in our lives, certain events, both happy and sad, that we take with us and store in the memory palaces of our minds. Graduation from high school, the first day of college, a first love, marriage, the birth of a son or daughter. For me, the experience of being at Yasgur's farm in 1999 will have a special place in my own memory palace, something that will remain fresh and vital in my memory long after the event itself has ended. Like that anonymous person called out to Melanie at the festival, Woodstock is in our hearts. It remains in mine.
Fredrik King is a writer and artist who lives in Michigan, US. He holds both B.A. and MA degrees in English from Oakland University and has taught English at local colleges and schools. His articles and illustrations have appeared in numerous publications. He is to be listed in the 1999 edition of The Year's Best in Fantasy and Horror as recommended artist.
His art has been displayed at the Maniscalco Gallery in Grosse Pointe, MI. Pen and ink gothic art can be seen at www.geocities.com/SoHo/Exhibit/5951.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.