Ritchie at Woodstock
RITCHIE: "I was in New York City and could feel the swell of energy 100 miles away. Nobody seemed to care that the Woodstock Festival was no longer going to take place anywhere near Woodstock. The only thing that mattered was that it was going to happen. Today."
"I left the city at five-thirty in the morning of the day I was supposed to play - the first day - and drove straight through to the Howard Johnson Hotel in White Lake, New York, without a hitch. We were only a few miles from the farm and all the bands had been told to come there first."
"I was sitting in the lobby with my band. I wasn't worried. I was fifth in order and wasn't scheduled to go on for hours. But at two in the afternoon, I was half asleep when news came that there was no music, no way to get through."
"From the edge of the hotel parking g lot I could see traffic was stopped cold and I could tell right there that the crowd was much larger than anyone was saying."
"The road to the stage had disappeared. It was no a wall to wall parking lot of abandoned cars. The main highway was backed by traffic that wasn't going nowhere. The Northbound Quickest (Route 17) had just been closed by the state police.... The whole thing was beginning to look pretty Shakey."
"Michael Lang, one of the promoters, rushed back and forth nervously o. A motorcycle, weaving between the crowds,...trying to figure a way to get a few music and to the stage. He was mumbling to himself and sweating, and we were begining to think we were all stuck.right there. No music at all."
"Yet somehow, through all sorts of missed connections and broken leads, Michael managed to find someone with a glass bubble helicopter about twenty miles away. Now here it was dropping slowly into the parking lot right outside my hotel window. The prop blades made the air sound like shotguns going off. This would be my first helicopter ride and my first good look at what was really happening here."
"We were squeezed into the glass bubble cockpit. We were the perfect choice (to go first); there were only three of us and we had the crest instruments. Me, my guitarjust, Deano (Paul Williams) and my drummer, Daniel! Ben Zebulon. We were sitting behind the pilot with two conga drums, two guitars squeezed between us. The glass surrounded us, top to bottom."
"Looking below my feet I could see the ground clearly, as if I was sitting on air. I got disagree a second. It felt like I was riding a stem that was holding two seats. And we were moving 100 miles an hour. It was beautiful below me. A sea trees - the tops of the whizzing beneath me in the wash of the helicopter's props."
"We banked a bit to the left and the sea of trees changed into a different kind of sea, just as beautiful. My mouth dropped when I saw all those people, hundreds of thousands of them…It was awesome, like double Times Square on New Year’s Eve in perfect daylight with no walls or buildings to hold people in place. The people formed and filled a human blanket across the road to the other side of the hill and into the forests all around the field.”
“Hovering above the hill, looking all around, my eyes could not take it all in, but I knew what to call it. ‘We finally made it,’ I told myself. We’ve finally made it above ground. They won’t be able to hide this picture from the rest of the country.”
“I had come to Woodstock with a feeling that I was not one of the few, but one of many and the moment we touched ground I knew that was true. My thoughts drifted back….”
“Things had been going well for me by the summer of 1969… I had already played Newport Folk Festival and was booked for hundreds of gigs in America, Canada, and Europe. I had two albums doing well and a third on the way.”
“Woodstock was an idea that had been brewing since the Monterey Pop Festival on the West Coast in 1967. All summer, we were hearing on the streets of the Village that a big East Coast festival was going to happen, but we weren’t sure where. There were plenty of stops and starts, a lot of disappointments, all of which the press wrote about.”
“Large numbers of people were hanging out, camping out in the town of Woodstock, then Wallkill, waiting for the final details to be worked out. So when all the court challenges and injunctions and complaints ran their course, and the Aquarian Music and Arts Fair at Woodstock was moved forty-five miles away in late July to Max Yasker’s 600 acres on a hillside in Bethel, New York, thousands of people picked up their sleeping bags, packed their vans, and trekked down the road to the promised land. Thousands upon thousands were also coming from just about every state in this nation.”
“Today, it was finally happening. For real. Our helicopter landed right behind the stage. There was a farmhouse with a big front yard that was covered by cars. Once I got out, I looked around and saw three roads on or near the farm. All were blocked by a blanket of people…The only place to change clothes or get tuned up was in the farmhouse or under the stage itself, which was eighteen feet off the ground, a huge structure with extremely tall sound towers alongside and out in the field. The lights seemed to be in place, but they were still finishing the stage. Far out.”
“I was impressed. It was an awesome scene and quite mellow everywhere I looked. Even the people nearest the stage weren’t clamoring for anything to happen. It was a summer day and they were having a good time in the country.”
“The vibes were good on this spot. So good you can still feel them to this day…”
“I went under the stage and saw Tim Hardin playing his guitar, singing a little to himself, just trying to stay as relaxed as possible.”
“A few minutes after three o’clock, the organizers approached Tim and asked him if he would go on first. We were about fifty yards away and I could hear him say loud and clear, ‘ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? ARE YOU CRAZY OR WHAT MAN? I’M NOT GOING OUT THERE FIRST. NO WAY, MAN. ABSOLUTLY NOT! FORGET ABOUT IT!’”
“I didn’t blame him. But then they came to me.”
“Michael Lang didn’t press the point because he said he had another band coming in by helicopter. Soon. But the bubble helicopter only brought in half the band – It’s a Beautiful Day – and the pilot was starting to see the big picture,” and quit.
“By this time, the organizers and county officials felt they had only one way to hold the situation together. So many people…this had not happened to anyone before. ‘What the hell do we do?’”
“Only one choice. Call in the National Guard. Quick.”
“The Guard was not called to round up people or to stop the pot smoking,…There certainly were no riots in the crowd. The truth is, there was no trouble at all. But even so, without the Guard there would have been no festival, or very little music and who knows what else….The National Guard actually came to SAVE Woodstock and that’s something kids today really should know. Besides, they were part of the experience we were having.”
“So many of us were against the Vietnam War – or war anywhere in the world. We weren’t against the people in uniform. Why would be against them? They were our brothers and cousins, uncles and fathers, here and in Vietnam. Besides, they didn’t start the war.”
“It was the soldiers who transported all the bands and the amps to the stage; it was the soldiers who brought in plenty of food and water during the weekend. A lot of them probably would have been sitting down in the crowd if they didn’t have to be in uniform. We knew we were lucky to have OUR solders there when we needed them and they needed a break.”
“Another forty-five minutes passed and I started to get edgy. Somebody had to get up on stage soon, just to hold the fort.”
“The organizers must have had the same thought, ‘cause here was Michael walking slowly toward me and I knew exactly what he was going to say. I could see his great smile getting larger and larger as he came closer….then he cocked his head to one side and said, ‘Ritchie, please help us out. Oh man, you GOTTA help us out. Please Ritchie, man, pleeeeeseee.’”
“I was finally convinced. But replied, ‘If they throw one beer can at me, you’re going to owe me – big time.’”
“I was only stalling a little for time. I knew what the situation was. I calmed myself with the thought that it would only be a twenty-minute set. I picked up my guitar and climbed the steps. The crowd went nuts. I felt the people just wanted something to happen after all the hours of nothing.”
“So I sat down on the stool and looked out at the huge crowd and said what I had been thinking since that first look from the helicopter at the never-ending blanket of people.”
“’You know, we’ve finally made it,’ I said into the mike. ‘We did it this time. They’ll never be able to hide us again.’”
After a forty minute set, Michael Lang asked Ritchie to do three more songs, and after that he was asked to continue some more.
RITCHIE: “I didn’t mind. It was wonderful. I was with my friends – my constituency – and we were a minion of many millions, including those who couldn’t get there but wanted to. I left the stage six times. Seven times in all and nearly three hours after I’d first looked out into the crowd, I’m back out there one more time, when finally I’ve completely run out of songs….so I start tuning and retuning, hoping to remember a song I’ve missed, when I hear that word in my head again, that word I kept hearing while I looked over the crowd in my first moments on stage.”
“And I say to the crowd: ‘Freedom is what we’re all talking about getting. It’s what we are looking for…I think this is it.’ I start strumming my guitar and the word FREEDOM come out of my mouth as FREE-dom, with a rhythm of its own. My foot takes over and drives my guitar into a faster, more powerful rhythm. I don’t know where this is going, but it feels right and somehow I find myself blending it into an old song – ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ – a great spiritual my grandmother used to sing to me as a hymn when I was growing up in Brooklyn.”
“Deano and Daniel are following along, getting into it…This was the same feeling I’d been experiencing all along. The feeling that Bethel was such a special place, a moment when we all felt we were at the exact center of true freedom.”
“’Clap your hands! Clap your hands!’ and they all did! People started to stand and the wave of them rising went over the hill. I’ll never forget it. I played while walking off, away from the microphones; I played while singing across the ramp, leaving the rest of my band on stage. I played all the way across the road before I stopped. I had nothing else to sing; this song made itself up on the stage. That last song turned out to be an anthem for me and for a lot of other people too.”
“An no matter how many times I sing this song – no matter where – I still feel the true spirit of the so-called ‘Woodstock experience.’ And what happened there and continues to happen even today.”
“I stayed on the grounds for several more hours, talking to people, catching the music, taking in the whole scene, getting some rest. I don’t think I ever played so many songs at one time. I was pretty tired, but pretty high from the experience, the energy around me. It was getting dark and It’s a Beautiful Day had played their set, along with a few other bands.”
“More bands were coming in by military helicopter and the National Guard was helping out. After a shaky start and lot of worries, the festival was moving along great. I wanted to stay and catch more music, but we were booked for Indiana University the next night. What happened next I will never forget. There’s no doubt it captured the essence of this event better than anything.”
“It was on the Army helicopter transport, heading back to the hotel when I saw it. The first thing I noticed was that this helicopter was much larger than the bubble we came in. the door was like a big bay window without any glass. Exactly the kind of helicopter the troops jump out of. It probably had seen its share of bodies and severely injured. It probably had been to ‘Nam.”
“It’s a Beautiful Day is on board, along with my band and another band. We were all in it with room to spare. The seats were opposite each other, backs to the wall. A long bench on one side and a long bench on the other. So I’m sitting there, faming the open door, leaning a bit on my guitar, holding it between my legs, on my lap, bracing my arms around it, staring straight out the door into the evening sunlight, seeing only treetops, when a thought came to my mind that stopped me in my tracks.”
“This is what it must feel like to be in ‘Nam. I thought to myself. You can’t see anything below the treetops except the machine gun rounds flying up at you. Imagine what that’s like. You’re nineteen or twenty years old. They’ve shipped you ten thousand miles from Kansas, or Brooklyn and you’re sitting there in your uniform too scared to breathe and tracer bullets whizzing by.”
“Suddenly I could see the whole scene as if it were really happening. And to this day, I sometimes get a flash of it – back there with those imaginary tracer bullets coming out of the treetops past the open bay door…Here I am at this Woodstock thing, with peace, love, and music in the air, going back to the hotel in a Vietnam army helicopter. Man, that felt weird, but it was only half of it.”
“Slowly I turned to look down the line to the three guys across the way on either side of the open door. I turned again to look down the line on my side and saw four or five guys sitting to my right, while my own guys and another two were sitting to my left.”
“Most of them were guitarist and bass players. All – and I mean ALL – were holding their instruments the same way I was. They were leaning on them like they were rifles, holding them upright on their laps, between their thighs with the guitar necks straight up in the air.”
“The image is burned in my brain. All of them sitting there like they could easily have been in uniform on the way to another skirmish with the Vietcong. But I had to laugh at what I saw. I knew what I was really seeing was exactly what Woodstock was all about: ‘We’re the new army,’ I said aloud. ‘We’re the new army!’”
“The sign of it was right in front of me: We looked like an army. There were tie-died shirts with big splashes of green – almost like camouflage – and we were holding our ‘guitar-rifles,’ straight up in the air in the military manner. As long as I live I’ll never forget that image and there’s no question it was right. We had no weapons; we had no harm in our hearts. We were musicians and singers and songwriters and we had come to Bethel from everywhere to rally the spirit and the harmony of so many voices, including our own. We were the new army; the new army was us, the new army was all of us where were there.”
“To me Woodstock is not just a time or a place or a terrific three-day concert in 1969 that attracted hundreds of thousands of people. It is not the mud baths people took in the rain or the good movie that showed the world how so many people from all generations and walks of life could get along together. We were already getting along together. What happened at Max Yasker’s farm in Bethel, New York, went beyond all those things. Woodstock was shared around the world by people who weren’t even there.”