Debra Garvey, like many others who attended Woodstock in 1969, remembers the crowds. The difference was that, at 14, she was a very young attendee — and “probably the only person there not on drugs,” she says, half-jokingly, 50 years later.
Garvey had “blackmailed” her brother, who was 17, into bringing her to the three-day music festival. She told him that if he didn’t, she’d clue their parents into the fact that he was selling pot. But almost immediately upon getting out of their car at the festival site in Bethel, N.Y. — they had driven from their home in Queens — the siblings got separated. Garvey spent a couple of hours wandering about, where the sheer amount of people “really kind of freaked me out,” she recalls. It was the first time she’d ever been away from home.
At one point, Garvey found herself inside Ken Kesey’s famous psychedelic bus, helping young people come down from bad trips. Garvey, who now lives in New Hope, Pa., remembers giving them orange juice.
Garvey remembers, too, the general lack of food and water; she remembers being surprised by people walking around naked, which she’d never seen before. She remembers the rain. But despite the absurdity of it all, she never felt unsafe: “For a 14-year-old girl to be on her own, there were no problems or anything.”
Certainly, that wasn’t the case for everyone who attended. Many recent articles have pointed out the unsafe conditions at the festival, including two deaths. Thirty years later, the anniversary festival Woodstock ’99 was plagued with allegations of rape. And this year, the 50th anniversary festival was preemptively canceled due to logistical and financial issues.
While virtually everyone remembers the “chaos” of the original Woodstock, many still have fond memories, too. Women like Garvey were coming of age at a time when women had historically been relegated to being housewives and secretaries. The music festival was not so much about the music; it was about freedom, she says, and “peace and love.”
It was an “awakening,” Garvey says. “It was beautiful.”
Fifty years ago, no one — not the organizers, not the musicians, not the newspapers — knew how huge Woodstock would be. No one predicted that 500,000 people would show up, or that the festival, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend, would go down in history as arguably the most iconic event of the hippie era.
The era, like the event itself, was fleeting. Two years before Woodstock, Joan Didion reported from San Francisco, where, she wrote, “The center was not holding.” What she meant by that was that 1967’s Summer of Love in California was coming to an end. By the time Woodstock rolled around, it was not all peace and love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where harder drugs had moved in and many of the founders of the counterculture had moved out.
But the East Coast was ripe for one last big hoorah. In 1969, the anti-Vietnam War effort was in full swing, and rock musicians — Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane — were undeniable stars.
Ticia Agri, who now lives in Placerville, Calif., was 24. She wasn’t big into the music scene, she says. But when a friend mentioned that a man named Michael Lang was producing a music festival and needed an assistant, “this wave of energy went through me,” she remembers. “I said, ‘That’s me, that’s my job.’”
Agri would serve as the Woodstock executive producer’s right-hand wingwoman as organizers dealt with the infamous last-minute location change of the festival, the completely unprecedented deluge of attendees, and the unexpected rain. But everything — from securing their spot at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm to hiring members of the Hog Farm, a commune, for security — was “perfect,” Agri says.
She doesn’t remember being bothered that she was one of the only women among a sea of men responsible for putting on the show. “All through my life, I came from an era where people discounted women,” Agri explains.
In many respects, the festival was a logistical mess. Anarchists broke the festival’s fence down, so that producers ultimately made the event free. Agri remembers being yelled at by The Who’s manager, who wanted to be paid upfront.
But, for Agri, the once-in-a-lifetime aspects outweighed those headaches. She says she was behind Hendrix onstage as he played his set, and went into the crowd for Richie Havens’s famous “Freedom” performance. She didn’t take any drugs at the festival, she says, “but I got so high just standing there in the middle of that crowd, listening to Richie.”
The musicians, meanwhile, felt, acutely, the festival’s logistical mishaps. Nancy Nevins, 17, was the lead singer for Sweetwater, which performed right after Havens on Friday. But when the band arrived in Bethel, Nevins says, no one even recognized her.
That was somewhat par for the course, being a woman in rock back then. “When they saw us, people were always stunned, because they were looking at a lead female singer, long hair, all that,” she says.
But it was all Nevins, who still performs today and lives in Southern California, ever wanted to do:
Onstage, the mishaps continued: The stage was rickety, she remembers, and “the sound was dreadful.” And yet, despite the stage and the sound (she couldn’t even hear her other bandmates), Nevins says they managed to get the crowd on their feet. It wasn’t because of the music, or even the work of the producers. “It was because of the people,” she says. “They were what made Woodstock, Woodstock.”
For all the darkness that was creeping into the counterculture, it’s remarkable, as many have pointed out, that no large scale violence broke out at the 500,000-strong festival. Nevins says that goes back to the crowd. “People were good to each other,” she says. “There really were no strangers, and so there was no fear. We all said, ‘Hey, what’s up, man?’”
Garvey, the attendee, experienced that firsthand. Toward the end of the festival, she made friends with a group of college-aged guys. She’d lost her shoes in the mud, and one of them gave her a pair of moccasins to wear. “I had to get on a bus back to Manhattan, and they didn’t want me to be shoeless,” she says. “They kind of just took me under their wing.”
Agri says that the cancellation of Woodstock 50, a festival slated for this weekend as a celebration of the anniversary, “was a sort of blessing.” She’s still in touch with ’69 executive producer Lang, who was organizing Woodstock 50. In our current moment, in which mass shootings have become commonplace and politics ever divisive, something like Woodstock just isn’t feasible, she says.
“A world of caring, sharing, helping, coming together, and embracing diversity, embracing all that we are with love. And that’s really what’s in everybody’s hearts. That’s why Woodstock is famous today.”