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Guitar's biggest names tell us what really happened at Woodstock

The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend perform at Woodstock August 16, 1969
(Image credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

50 years ago, Artist Arnold Skolnick was commissioned to design a poster for the original Woodstock festival. He came up with the image of a dove - an age-old symbol of peace - perched on a flute, an instrument in vogue with the hippie counterculture at the time, but at the last minute, the flute was replaced with a guitar neck.

It was a timely substitution. Woodstock was the culmination of a five-year period that had seen the emergence of the electric guitar as the preeminent instrument of rock music - a potent symbol in its own right of the free-spirited, politically engaged, spiritually aware youth culture of the 1960s.

In reality, Woodstock was an extremely challenging gig for all the musicians who performed there, not to mention the audience of nearly half a million souls who attended

Today, the word 'Woodstock' is encased in fuzzy warm mythology. In reality, though, Woodstock was an extremely challenging gig for all the musicians who performed there, not to mention the audience of nearly half a million souls who attended. The festival was a muddy, disorganized mess. Most of the artists who performed later said it was hardly their finest moment. A few, like the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, said it was his band’s worst show ever.

So there’s an element of ragged glory and triumph over adversity in the music played over those three days, captured on audio tape and film, and presented in the most complete form to date on Rhino’s new 38-CD box set, Woodstock: Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. Without the dedication and endless goodwill of these performers and their audience, Woodstock could truly have become a disaster.

Santana's snake dance

For the artists, the backstage hazard was threefold:

  1. Because of traffic jams all around the site, the schedule had “gone kerblooey,” as folk icon Joan Baez put it.
  2. This meant that performers didn’t know when they were going on, or how long they would have to wait to get on stage.
  3. Time hung heavy on their hands. Many were nervous about facing the largest crowd ever assembled at the time. There was no shortage of drugs backstage. It was the '60s; many succumbed to temptation.

So it was a miracle that any of them could play at all. “The bands were trying to make it happen, regardless of the mud and all the other circumstances there,” Carlos Santana told me in the '90s.

“You gotta understand that, in three days, the elements go like waves. There were the natural elements, plus all the mescaline and psychedelics people were taking. Some of the groups fared very well, and some were wiped out. I think we were both. We fared best on Soul Sacrifice.”

Santana and his band had yet to release their debut album when they played Woodstock, but their manager, rock entrepreneur Bill Graham, had been asked if he’d help out the festival’s promoters, Woodstock Ventures, with much-needed logistical advice and assistance. He agreed, on the condition that Santana was included on the bill.

I was tripping, and I remember saying inwardly, ‘God - all I ask is that you keep me in time and in tune.’

Carlos Santana

Graham already knew what the world would soon find out - that rock was about to be revolutionized with Latin grooves and the incandescent fire of a brilliant new guitarist. Albeit one who was tripping his brains out at the time.

Backstage, Carlos had met up with Jerry Garcia, who had been told Santana wouldn’t go on for hours, and offered him a hit of mescaline.

“I took it right away,” Santana recounted in his autobiography, The Universal Tone. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll have time to enjoy this, come back down, drink a lot of water, get past the amoeba state and be ready to play tonight. No problem. Right.”

Wrong. The next thing he knew, his band was being ushered onto the stage.

“I was tripping,” he wrote, “and I remember saying inwardly, ‘God - all I ask is that you keep me in time and in tune.’ I kept myself locked on the usual things that helped me stay tight with the band - bass, hi-hat, snare drum and bass drum. I was telling myself, ‘Don’t think about the guitar. Just watch it.’

“It turned into an electric snake, twisting and turning, which meant the strings would go loose if it didn’t stay straight. I kept willing the snake not to move and praying that it stayed in tune.”

Despite his altered state and a Gibson SG that kept going out of tune, Santana’s consummate musicianship wowed the crowd. The band’s performance of Soul Sacrifice became one of the highlights of director Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary, released the following year.

Santana, featuring Carlos Santana [far left], perform at Woodstock August 16, 1969

Santana, featuring Carlos Santana [far left], perform at Woodstock August 16, 1969 (Image credit: Bill Eppridge/the Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Won't get fooled again

Getting stiffed on performance fees was another hazard Woodstock artists faced. Backstage, the promoters informed the Who and the Grateful Dead that they wouldn’t be able to pay them for their appearance.

Management for both bands pressed the issue, and the contractually agreed-on fees were ultimately coughed up. There’s a tale of a banker being flown into the festival site via helicopter with the Dead’s check.

In their recent autobiographies, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who detailed the 14-hour wait that the group endured.

“The scene that greeted us at the backstage area of the festival was horrific,” Townshend wrote in his 2012 book, Who I Am.

The show didn’t feel like it went well. The monitors kept breaking. The sound was shit. We were all battling the elements and ourselves

Roger Daltrey

“The entire parking area was a slurry of thick, gelatinous mud… As I got out of the car, I slipped and sank up to my knees. There were no dressing rooms available, so we went to a tent with a hot-water machine, teabags, instant coffee and a coffee dispenser. I helped myself and within minutes realized the water had been spiked with acid.”

The same fate befell many performers, including Daltrey. And as drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle enjoyed the ministrations of two groupies in the band’s rented station wagon, Townshend visited the first aid tent after watching a man climb a 30-foot telegraph pole touch a live wire and fall screaming to the ground.

“I thought I had walked onto the set of M*A*S*H,” he wrote. “There were cots of patients everywhere, mainly young people on bad trips, some injured, but mostly kids suffering from bouts of terror.”

The Who eventually got their chance to perform at 5 a.m. on Sunday. “The show didn’t feel like it went well,” Daltrey remembered in his 2018 autobiography Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite.

“The monitors kept breaking. The sound was shit. We were all battling the elements and ourselves.”

As the band launched into Acid Queen from their then brand-new rock opera Tommy, radical activist Abbie Hoffman climbed onstage and launched into a stoned rant about the recent jailing of another activist, John Sinclair, in Detroit.

“Still playing the Acid Queen intro,” Townshend wrote, “I knocked Abbie aside using the headstock of my guitar. A sharp end of one of my strings must have pierced his skin because he reacted as though stung, retreating to sit cross-legged at the side of the stage. He glowered at me, his neck bleeding. I finished the song and looked over at him. ‘Sorry about that,’ I mouthed. ‘Fuck you,’ he mouthed back and left the stage.”

While the Who’s Woodstock experience was generally less than pleasant, Daltrey recalled one redeeming moment that made it all seem worthwhile. It came as the Who reached the climactic moment in their rock opera.

“Shortly after six,” Daltrey wrote, “we got to See Me, Feel Me from Tommy and the bleeding sun came up. Right on cue. You couldn’t have topped it. After all the shit we’d been through, it was perfect. It was extraordinary. It was one of those moments you couldn’t ever recreate if you tried. Once in a lifetime.”

By the time we got to Woodstock...

Stephen Stills was one of the few people at Woodstock who wasn’t high as a kite. “I was absolutely stone-cold sober,” he told me in 2013. “I had made the conscious decision to just say, ‘No thanks, I’m good’ for the whole day. We had to wait hours and hours.”

The individual members of the guitarist’s new group, Crosby, Stills & Nash, were already renowned for their previous work in the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Hollies. But they had just recorded their first album as a trio. (Neil Young, also ex-Buffalo Springfield, joined shortly after the disc’s release. He performed with them at Woodstock, but this was not filmed.)

And their Woodstock appearance would give their career an enormous boost. It was only their second gig ever. The inclusion of their signature track Suite: Judy Blue Eyes in the Woodstock film - together with Stills’ admission to the crowd that he and his bandmates were “scared shitless” - became one of those classic late-'60s Kodak moments.

I was just glad I’d kept my wits about me, which was the only way I was able to re-tune my guitar... because right as we started, a big, cold, damp breeze came across the stage and threw my guitar out of tune

Stephen Stills

But it all almost never happened. Anticipating the hassle involved and the likelihood of not getting paid, the group’s manager, David Geffen, hadn’t wanted them to perform at Woodstock. Realizing the event’s importance, however, Stills and David Crosby took the matter into their own hands, chartering an aircraft to get them and their equipment to the festival. But the traffic that surrounded the site made this a challenge of Herculean proportions. Stills and company made it onto the site, but it wasn’t certain that their gear would.

“I was immediately worried that the guitars weren’t gonna get there,” Stills said. “I think I had my acoustic in my hand, because that was gonna be really important. I don’t know why the others didn’t have theirs in their hands.

“Meanwhile the Band, Canned Heat and Jefferson Airplane had offered us their amps. Now, I worried about this too, because, well, [Band guitarist] Robbie Robertson’s amp might have sounded good if I turned it up. But the Grateful Dead had a way of setting their amps that was way too clean for me.

“And Jimi Hendrix’s Marshall amps were hidden away, as was he. Poor thing, he had to sit in his house [nearby] for three days while various sundry hangers-on trooped in and out to give him more drugs. And there was a lot of that.

“But I’m really focused on ‘What are we gonna do and how are we gonna make sure that we sound good, and that there’s enough sound?’ ‘Cause we’re gonna start with the Suite.’ I was really glad that I’d brought my guitar. And I kept double-checking: ‘This is the mic I want for the guitar, and this is the mic I want for the vocal. And make sure there’s lots in the monitor.’ Things like that. Details.

“And then a big brew-ha-ha breaks out with Neil. All of a sudden, Neil doesn’t want to be filmed. God knows where that came from. It might have something to do with the polyester, light-blue suit he was wearing. I mean he’s Canadian! They can dress really wrong.”

But all ended well. Crosby, Stills & Nash opened the show acoustically, and then were joined by Young for the amped-up portion of their set.

“Our gear showed up just in time to get set up,” Stills says. “So there’s no soundcheck. Everything was a little fast, but we actually did fairly well. I’m not sure about the intonation, but the acoustic stuff - the Suite - was good, and there were cameras everywhere.

“I was just glad I’d kept my wits about me, which was the only way I was able to re-tune my guitar between verses of the Suite. You can see it in the film. Because, right as we started, a big, cold, damp breeze came across the stage and threw my guitar out of tune. It really went south.”

Stephen Stills [left] and David Crosby perform at Woodstock August 17, 1969

Stephen Stills [left] and David Crosby perform at Woodstock August 17, 1969 (Image credit: Fotos International/Getty Images)

Blazing blues guitars

While they’re not as well known today, Canned Heat were one of the most popular blues bands of the late-'60s. They’d lost their lead guitarist, Henry Vestine, just prior to Woodstock. The festival was the third gig their new lead man, Harvey Mandel, ever played with the band. Mandel would go on to work with John Mayall and the Rolling Stones. The band turned in a fiery, intense performance.

Ten Years After, one of the premier British blues bands of the Sixties, had several well-regarded albums out by the time they played Woodstock, including the 1968 live disc Undead and the 1969 studio recording Stonedhenge.

Even in the age of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After frontman Alvin Lee was often thought of as the fastest gun in all of guitardom. His marathon Woodstock rendition of I’m Going Home - an uptempo, 12-bar blues song that had originally appeared on Undead - kicked Ten Years After’s career into AOR overdrive.

A third blues guitar great who performed at Woodstock was Johnny Winter. His 1968 debut album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, had turned the heads of those who followed the blues in those days.

However, the disc that really put him on the map was his April 1969 self-titled Columbia Records debut. Dressed in the crazy, quasi-medieval costume he wore on the Progressive Blues Experiment cover, Winter defied the laws of nature and physics with a Fender electric 12-string at Woodstock.

The Dead's shocking performance

The combination of torrential rain and a hastily rigged stage at Woodstock made serious electric shocks a real hazard for performers.

“The typical thing you had to watch for was an amplifier being on one circuit and a microphone on another,” Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady told me in 2009.

“If they weren’t grounded together, you got a horrendous shock. Now, you add water to that and it could be really dangerous. They tried to put a couple of tarps over the stage to keep the rain out. But like a sail cloth or something, they became water collectors - they’d sag down and water comes gushing down onto the speakers, amplifiers and all that stuff.”

Every time I touched the electric guitar, I got shocked. I had become a conductor

Bob Weir

The group that suffered the worst from electric shocks at Woodstock was the Grateful Dead. The revered San Francisco psychedelic group managed to get through five songs in 38 minutes, with frequent pauses between tunes as band members recovered from horrendous zaps of current and hallucinogenic occurrences of an unspecified nature.

“Woodstock was a double experience for us,” Dead guitarist Bob Weir commented in the book Woodstock: The 1969 Rock & Roll Revolution.

“The first was the festival, being together with other musicians, lots of young people and truly being happy together. There was a wonderful atmosphere both behind and in front of the stage. The second was the concert, and ours was, without a doubt, the worst concert in our history. It rained a lot, and continued to do so.

“The stage was impassable. The sound technician had tried to put the wiring back, but the results of his work were terrible. Every time I touched the electric guitar, I got shocked. I had become a conductor. There was a huge, blue shock when I touched the microphone… A terrible experience.”

The rockets' red glare

The festival’s headliner, Jimi Hendrix, was also in a difficult position at the time the event took place. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - the group that had brought the guitarist to fame - had split up just a month and a half before Woodstock.

Casting about for a new musical direction that hadn’t really gelled at the time, Hendrix ended up playing Woodstock with the under-rehearsed, ill-prepared Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. The ensemble teamed Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix’s Chitlin’ Circuit comrades Billy Cox (bass) and Larry Lee (guitar) and two percussionists, Juma Sultan and Geraldo Velez.

“That lineup was short lived,” Hendrix’s longtime recording engineer and co-producer Eddie Kramer later told me. “Jimi was experimenting. His buddy, Larry Lee, had just come back from Vietnam. Jimi wanted to give him a shot.”

Armed with just his 1968 Olympic White Strat, Marshall stack and effects pedals, Hendrix brought to life the horrors of war

The musicians managed to do some rehearsing and jamming amid a drug-fuelled party vibe at Hendrix’s house in Boiceville, New York, near the festival site. But they weren’t exactly in top fighting form.

Meanwhile, Hendrix was following news coverage of Woodstock’s first two days and realizing that his ramshackle new band would be playing its first gig at what people already knew would be one of the most historic events of the rock era.

So Hendrix was uneasy as he and his band boarded helicopters bound for Woodstock’s muddy, chaotic backstage. As the festival’s headliner, he received star treatment. Hendrix was the only artist to get his own private backstage area - a farm shack, actually. But he wasn’t spared the interminable wait to get onto the stage.

Also like many of the other acts, he’d unwittingly partaken of the LSD-spiked water, which most likely didn’t do good things for his anxiety levels. A companion of his, Leslie Aday, was summoned to the shack when Hendrix started acting weird, as Aday recounted in the book Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight:

“He seemed really sick, or really high, and was sweating bullets. I was feeding him Vitamin C, fruit and having him suck on lemon slices. He didn’t feel the band knew the songs well enough or had had enough rehearsal.”

The set was uneven at best. The humid conditions kept throwing Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster out of tune. And the band clearly seemed to lose the plot at points.

Fortunately, they were backing one of the greatest rock showmen of all time. In a beaded, white leather tunic and scarlet headband that have become an indelible part of Woodstock iconography, Hendrix held it together with his own coruscating virtuosity.

There were several points in the show where Hendrix took off on extended solo bouts of feedback frenzy and fret-board magic, but the one that became the great signifier of the entire Woodstock era was Hendrix’s tour-de-force rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Hendrix knew the time and place were right to make a major statement. Tensions were running high over the Vietnam War in the summer of ’69. Resistance and rage burned hot in streets and towns across America and the world.

Armed with just his 1968 Olympic White Strat, Marshall stack and effects pedals, Hendrix brought to life the horrors of war - strategically strafing feedback-induced bomb blasts and mournful ambulance sirens amid the melismatic cadences of the American national anthem.

His guitar wept for the war’s dead too - 57,939 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese killed - working the military funeral tune Taps into the patriotic melody. Without a word, Hendrix had closed the Woodstock festival with an impassioned plea for peace - a recontextualized anthem for the Woodstock nation and a testimony to the immense power of the electric guitar.