Woodstock 1969: High Times
Joplin performed after Mountain, turning in a loose and reportedly drunken performance that resulted in her omission from the Woodstock album and the original film (though one of her songs appears in the 25th anniversary director’s cut). Still, her presence at the festival was well known. On the other hand, few people today know that her set was followed by a performance by the Grateful Dead, largely because the world-acclaimed jam band was neither on the Woodstock soundtrack albums nor in the movie. The same was true of the follow-up act, Creedence Clearwater.
Ironically, while Woodstock’s freewheeling style was ostensibly in sync with the Grateful Dead’s laid-back jam shows, they were unhappy with the festival and with their own performance, which was plagued by technical problems and the band’s discomfort with the disorderly atmosphere both backstage and onstage. Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s late guitarist, described the experience in an interview some years after the festival.
JERRY GARCIA Woodstock was a bummer for us. It was terrible to play at. We were playing at nighttime, in the dark, and we were looking out to what we knew to be 400,000 people. But you couldn’t see anybody. You could only see little fires and stuff out there on the hillside, and these incredible bright spotlights shining in your eyes. People were freaking out here and there and crowding on the stage. People behind the amplifiers were hollering that the stage was about to collapse—all that kind of stuff. It was like a really bad psychic place to be when you’re trying to play music.
We didn’t enjoy playing there, but it was definitely far-out. It was like I knew I was at a place where history was being made. You knew that nothing so big and so strong could be anything but important, and important enough to leave a mark. I was confident that it was history.
John Fogerty certainly agreed with Garcia’s appraisal of the Dead’s performance. The leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty griped that the Dead “gave a sleepy performance” that caused the audience to slumber before Creedence could hit the stage. Not that Fogerty and his band needed to score at Woodstock—they had already made a name for themselves with hit records that had placed them at the top of AM radio charts, all without sacrificing their credibility with the hip FM radio crowd. Naturally, Woodstock’s promoters were eager to get CCR on the bill. In fact, the band was the first big-name attraction that agreed to appear at the festival, which helped to draw additional top acts.
While a band of such stature rightly should have gone on during prime-time concert hours, Creedence found themselves pushed back in the schedule just like every other band. They didn’t come onstage until late Saturday evening, after the hour-long, problematic Grateful Dead set. Unfortunately, the technical gremlins continued during CCR’s performance, affecting the sound of the guitars and bass for at least half of their set, which included such hits as “Born on the Bayou,” “Green River,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary” and “Susie Q.”
Despite the problems, one good thing came out of CCR’s performance. In the months after the show, Woodstock’s persistent deluge inspired Fogerty to write “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” which mixed images of what he observed at the festival with dark, brooding reflections about American involvement in Vietnam. The song raced up the pop charts in the winter of 1970. Today, Fogerty cryptically introduces it in his solo concerts, saying, “I went to Woodstock, then hitchhiked my way home, then wrote this song.” At the time, however, the perfectionist Fogerty was disappointed with the band’s performance and claims that, for this reason, he refused to have CCR included in the Woodstock movie and album.
JOHN FOGERTY We didn’t do very well at Woodstock because of the time segment and also because we followed the Grateful Dead, and therefore everybody was asleep. It seemed like we didn’t go on until two a.m. Even though in my mind we made the leap into superstardom that weekend, you’d never know it from the [film] footage. All that does is show us in a poor light at a time when we were the number-one band in the world. Why should we show ourselves that way?
CCR’s fame notwithstanding, the most anticipated act of Saturday was the Who (though technically speaking they actually performed Sunday, given the late hour). The British group was an international sensation in 1969, thanks in no small part to Tommy, their groundbreaking rock opera. Woodstock’s organizers were desperate to get the group on the bill, though, reportedly, upon their arrival the Who insisted on being paid $11,200 before they would play. Perhaps part of their irritability was due to the late hour of their performance. Thanks to the day’s delays, the Who didn’t take the stage until 4 a.m. They started their set with a pair of songs that included their early hit, “I Can’t Explain,” before launching into Tommy, playing a slightly truncated performance of the record, including its hit tracks “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.” With singer Roger Daltrey out front posing like a Summer of Love Titan, the Who enthralled the sleepy crowd to a new level of excitement.
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