Though Woodstock was a sublime event for many of its 500,000 attendees, it had been something less for the 400 in triage for bad acid trips, not to mention the three who died straight. And, though it launched some of its 36 bands — notably Santana, CSN, Sly and the Family Stone — it was a downer for others.
Pete Townshend of the Who called the historic festival of peace and love — celebrating its 40th anniversary next week — “horrible.” Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane described it as “a bunch of stupid slobs in the mud.” Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish noted: “When they tell me it was great, I know they saw the movie and they weren’t at the gig.”
Among other star performers who had less than a transcendent experience at Yasgur’s farm were Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.
“We were just plumb atrocious,” said the Dead’s frontman. “It was raining to boot and I was high [on Czech acid] and I saw blue balls of electricity bouncing across the stage and leaping onto my guitar.” Throughout their set, the Dead were buffeted by 60 mile per hour winds, and their roadies were screaming that the groaning stage was about to collapse.
After the Dead escaped unscathed, Credence Clearwater came on, followed by Janis with her Kozmic Blues Band. Propped up by three roadies, the Queen of the Blues stumbled on stage clutching a bottle of booze in each hand. She’d just shot up in one of the portapotties, and had chased the smack with tequila and vodka, the same triple that would kill her a year later.
Stage cameraman, Henry Diltz, recalled that she was “tortured and crying into the microphone. She really screamed in agony on those songs.”
After climaxing the set with her signature "Ball & Chain," she retreated to her tent and fixed again. When her manager called in, announcing the arrival of a Life reporter, she bellowed back: “I’m not talking to fucking anybody! F— him, man, and f— the world.”
Woodstock was a bitter disappointment compared to Monterey Pop, which had launched her career two years before.
The same was true for her former lover, Jimi Hendrix. Since his apotheosis at Monterey, he had toured relentlessly and had become the highest paid rock performer. But his Experience had broken up three months prior to Woodstock. At the same time he had been busted for heroin possession in Toronto.
Desperately in need of rest, he had taken a summer trip to Morocco. Here the king’s clairvoyant had predicted his imminent death.
Returning from abroad, the guitarist retired to his rented mansion near Woodstock where he tried to put together a new band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. The group was under-rehearsed and, in spite of Hendrix’s objections, his manager booked him as the headliner for Woodstock.
He was scheduled to perform on Sunday night but, due to delays, didn’t come to stage until early Monday morning when only 30,000 rainsoaked diehards remained in Yasgur’s muddy, trash-ridden alfalfa field.
Recalled his girlfriend, Leslie Day, who nursed him in a farm shack behind the stage: “Jimi seemed really sick, or really high, and was sweating bullets. I was feeding him Vitamin C and having him suck on lemons. He didn’t feel the band knew the songs well enough or had had enough rehearsal. He was stressed out.”
“Stressed” was a euphemism. Jimi had far more on his mind that morning of Aug. 18, 1969 than an unprepared back-up band. His trial was coming up in Toronto and he feared he would be convicted and his career ruined.
His close friend, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, had been murdered six weeks before. His own manager was extorting millions from him and conspiring with the mob. The Black Panthers were harassing him. Moreover, Jimi hadn’t slept in three days and he was freaking on the bad Czech acid from the backstage water coolers.
These anxieties were the true ingredients of his excruciating "Star Spangled Banner," the climax of his show for most. As for the rest of the set, he apologized to the audience. “I know it’s not together.”
Recalled Leslie Aday, “He was unhappy with his performance and just wanted to get away where no one could find him.” Even his long-time engineer, Eddie Kramer, was alarmed. “Never in his two and a half years with the Experience had he exhibited such disregard for professionalism,” he later wrote. “I remember worrying that Woodstock might be the beginning of the end for Jimi Hendrix.”
And so it was. Exactly 13 months later the greatest guitar player who ever lived was dead. And three weeks after that the other legendary Woodstock refugee, the Queen of the Blues, joined him.
Even so, Woodstock was not a dark memory for Jimi Hendrix.
“50,000 halos outshined the mud and history,” he wrote in a poem later on. “We washed and drank in God’s tears of joy. And for once, and for everyone, the truth was not still a mystery.”
David Comfort is the author of "The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead: The Fatal Journeys of Rock’s Seven Immortals."