Exploring the Bay Area connection
By Jim Harrington
By the time they got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong.
They had come from all over the country to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in
Bethel, N.Y., for a three-day celebration of peace, love and rock 'n'
roll that was so big it ended up stretching to a fourth day and
Forty years later, the Aug. 15-18, 1969, festival is now recognized
as the most famous concert of all time, as well as the defining
moment in the '60s counterculture revolution. And it might never have
happened without the things that came before it on the streets of
Haight-Ashbury, in Bill Graham's Fillmore club and in the Berkeley
and Palo Alto music scenes.
In other words, the road to Woodstock began in the Bay Area.
San Francisco sound
The most obvious connection is on the lineup card. About a third of
the acts that played that weekend were from the San Francisco area.
What's more significant, however, is that so many of these bands
including Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Sly and the
Family Stone were the ones that people wanted to see.
"I don't know if you have half a festival if you don't have the Bay
Area bands," says Cheryl Pawelski, vice president of A&R for Rhino
Records, who compiled the new six-CD set "Woodstock 40 Years On:
Back to Yasgur's Farm."
"All of the Bay Area artists were releasing such seminal albums at
the time. That area was just too important to music to not invite
those artists to the party."
And once they arrived, many of them made the most of it. Sly Stone,
Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and the Airplane all delivered memorable
sets. Berkeley's Country Joe McDonald became a folk hero as he led
the masses in his signature cheer, "Give me an 'F'"..." and Bay Area
clown prince Wavy Gravy emceed the event and secured his spot in '60s lore.
The Grateful Dead lived up to its reputation of coming up small in
big situations drummer Mickey Hart recalled that Woodstock "was the
worst we ever played." But Carlos Santana came to Woodstock a
promising talent and left a legitimate superstar.
"I was there when Santana played and it was just phenomenal,"
remembers Susan Reynolds, a former Moraga resident who edited the
book "Woodstock Revisited: 50 Stories from Those Who Where There."
"You waited a long time between bands and so when someone actually
played it was like, 'Yes.' But when Santana played, it was like, 'Oh,
my god, yes!'"
Leave it to Creedence
But it was an East Bay band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, that may
have been most pivotal to Woodstock's march to history, says author
Pete Fornatale. The John Fogerty-led band out of El Cerrito was the
first major act booked to the festival, and that gave it the momentum
"That gave these (promoters) credibility because they had absolutely
none going into the festival," says Fornatale, who recently published
"Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock."
Many are surprised to learn that CCR was at Woodstock. Credit that to
Michael Wadleigh's Academy Award-winning documentary, "Woodstock,"
which, in its original form, didn't include CCR, Blood, Sweat &
Tears, the Band and some other of the festival's most notable acts.
(The recently released 40th anniversary "Ultimate Collector's
Edition" of the film does feature some of these performances.)
Wadleigh's 1970 film turned out to be the single most important
document of the festival. It was an avenue for millions to experience
"Woodstock," first in theaters and then in subsequent video/DVD
releases. And what those viewers witnessed from the Bay Area acts
were truly legendary performances.
"Sly Stone got up there and it was like a Baptist church on a Sunday
morning," says Fornatale. "(Santana) just rose to the occasion and
launched an amazing 40-year career."
The 40th anniversary of the festival has ushered in a wave of
remastered recordings, books, DVDs, and memorabilia. Meanwhile
organizers are expecting about 100,000 fans to turn out to see
Woodstock alumni and other performers at the "West Fest: Celebrating
the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock" on Oct. 25 at Golden Gate Park in
San Francisco. (Visit www.2b1records.com for more information.)
ZIP codes don't tell the entire story of the Bay Area's effect on Woodstock.
For one thing, so many of the festival's top acts from beyond the
Golden Gate, including heavyweights Jimi Hendrix and the Who, were
clearly inspired and reacting to the psychedelic brand of blues-rock
known as the "San Francisco Sound." And Woodstock went beyond music.
It also turned out to be a benchmark for such campaigns as the peace
and free speech movements. That's another link to the Bay Area, which
played no small role in bringing these movements to national
prominence a few years earlier.
"California set the tone for peace and love and it shifted eastward
across the nation," remarks Elliott Landy, the festival's official
photographer, whose work can be seen in the book "Woodstock Vision:
The Spirit of a Generation."
That tone was set, in large part, in 1967 during two local
"happenings" the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival. Those
events gave birth to the flower children, which would blossom into a
nation by the time they got to Woodstock.
"We were living in small towns. Many of us were considered freaks in
our own towns," Reynolds recalls. "Then, we went to Woodstock and we
realized we weren't alone."
Reach Jim Harrington at email@example.com