Along with 499,999 others on a countercultural pilgrimage 40 years ago, I was heading for the Woodstock Festival of Music & Love. I was wearing my yellow leather fringe jacket for the first time. In one of the pockets there was a nice little stash of LSD. If you happen to be brand-name conscious, then you’ll want to know that it was Owsley White Lightning.
The CIA originally envisioned using LSD as a means of control, but, without anybody’s permission, millions of young people had already become explorers of their own inner space. Acid was serving as a vehicle for deprogramming themselves from a civilization of sadomasochistic priorities. A mass awakening was in process. There was an evolutionary jump in consciousness.
The underground press was flourishing, and when LSD was declared illegal on October 10, 1966, the psychedelic San Francisco Oracle became politicized while the radical Berkeley Barb began to treat the drug subculture as fellow outlaws. Acid was even influencing the stock market. Timothy Leary let me listen in on a phone call from a Wall Street broker who thanked Leary for turning him onto acid because it gave him the courage to sell short.
As I wandered around the Woodstock Festival, I was overwhelmed by the realization that this tribal event was in actuality what the Yippies had originally fantasized about for Chicago. No longer did so many of these celebrants have to feel like the only Martians on their block. Now, extended families were developing into an alternative society before your very eyes. I had never before felt such a powerful sense of community.
The soundtrack was live, and the Hog Farm commune provided meals, servicing the largest Bed & Breakfast place in history. Actually, they had been hired to provide security. But to Hog Farm leader Hugh Romney, security meant cream pies and seltzer bottles. He planned to wear a Smokey Bear costume to warn people about putting out fires. This was not merely a three-day outdoor concert. This was a Martian convention. Or, as Abbie Hoffman called it, Woodstock Nation.
The political contingent was encamped in a huge red-and-white-striped tent christened Movement City. In the afternoon, a mimeograph machine was churning out flyers proclaiming that the outdoor concerts should be free. At night, several festival-goers were busy unscrewing the metal-wire fencing that had been put up during the day. Yippie Roz Payne was among them. She helped take down the No Trespassing sign and changed it into a sign that read Peoples Bulletin Board.
On an afternoon when Abbie, Roz and I took a stroll down Merchants Way, which led to the stage that was still being constructed, they took down the Merchants Way sign and put up a sign that read Ho Chi Minh Trail. Lights had not yet been strung up along the path, and as it got darker, we kept walking and stumbling until we got lost in the woods. After a couple of hours, we saw a light through the trees, realized that we were right back where we started, and we laughed ourselves silly.
Abbie would get serious later on, though, ebbed on by his sense of justice and fueled by the tab of White Lightning that we had each ingested. While The Who were performing, he went up on stage with the intention of informing the audience that John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 and leader of the White Panther Party, was serving ten years in prison for the possession of two joints; that this was really the politics behind the music.
Before Abbie could get his message across, Peter Townshend transformed his guitar into a tennis racket and smashed him on the head with a swift backhand. Townshend had assumed that Abbie was just another crazed fan. When The Who played at Fillmore East the previous week, a plainclothes cop rushed on stage and tried to grab the mike. He intended to warn the audience that there was a fire next door and the theater had to be cleared, but he was able to do so only after Townshend kneed him in the balls.
Now he shouted at Abbie, “Get the fuck off my stage!” To the audience: “The next person that walks across the stage is going to get killed.” The audience laughed. “You can laugh, but I mean it!”
I inadvertently ended up with a political mission of my own at Woodstock. For a while, I was hanging around the Press Tent, which later turned into the Hospital For Bad Trips. A reporter from the New York Daily News asked me, “How do you spell braless?” I replied, “Without a hyphen.” He pointed out two men with cameras who were from the Criminal Intelligence Division of the Army.
And a free-lance writer who knew someone with a source in the White House told me how the Nixon administration had assigned the Rand Corporation think tank to develop a game plan for suspending the 1972 election in case of disruption. I decided to mention this at every meeting I attended, every interview I did, every campus I spoke at and every radio show that I was a guest on.
A year later, the story was officially denied by Attorney General John Mitchell. He warned that whoever started that rumor ought to be “punished.” I wrote to him and confessed, but he never answered my letter. Actually, investigative journalist Ron Rosenbaum was able to trace the “rumor” back and discovered that I was the fifth level down from the original White House source. I believed it to be true, and even rented a tiny one-room apartment I could escape to when martial law was declared. It had a fireplace so that if the power went off I could cook brown rice.
My favorite moment at the festival was Jimi Hendrix’s startling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His guitar wailing of our national anthem brought me to tears. It was a wordless version of what I interpreted to mean, “It’s not that we hate America, it’s that we feel the American dream has been betrayed, and we will live our alternative.” On the other hand, my least favorite moment was when I discovered that my new yellow leather fringe jacket had been stolen from the Movement City tent.
The ’60s were coming to an end, and the quality of co-option would not be strained. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” became a slogan for the Bank of America, and later for Total breakfast cereal. More recently, Tampax advertised its tampon as “Something over 30 you can trust.
Hippies became freaks. Negroes became blacks. Girls became women. Richard Alpert became Baba Ram Dass. Hugh Romney became Wavy Gravy, and his wife, Bonnie Jean, became Jahanarah. Yippie organizer Keith Lampe became Ponderosa Pine. My sister Marge became Thais. San Francisco Oracle editor Allen Cohen became Siddartha and moved to a commune where everybody called him Sid. They thought his name was Sid Arthur.
But the seeds that were planted then continue to blossom now. The spirit of Woodstock continues to be celebrated at such annual events as the Rainbow Gathering, Burning Man, Earthdance, the Oregon Country Fair, the Starwood Neo-Pagan Festival, Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and the electronic magic montage of musicians and singers around the globe performing “Stand By Me” on YouTube.
PAUL KRASSNER edited Pot Stories For Soul, available at paulkrassner.com.