Tuesday, August 24, 2010



40 years ago this month a group of hippies took over a field in upstate New York and made musical history

S. Rachel Lovey (Photo: Roy Arenella)
One of the lovely things about getting older is when someone mentions a past cultural or historic event and you can say, "I remember that, I was there."

I find myself on the anniversary of Woodstock—the legendary August, 1969 music festival—in a joyous state. Well, more joyous that I was there and less resentful that it was so long ago. I was not only at Woodstock on the 600-acre dairy farm in rural Bethel New York, but performed there with the Earthlight theatre troupe.

I never spoke much about my hippie and Woodstock days until about 10 to 15 years ago. Maybe I thought it dated me. Family members mistakenly thought I had taken too many drugs. Most of my friends thought I had taken too few. I had always struggled between normalcy and outrageousness, so after Woodstock I became an eccentric stand-up comic. That’s how I found my real drug of choice in the late 70's—caffeine. I haven't had a good night's sleep since 1976. 

I got a reminder of Woodstock in the mid-80’s. VHI was on T.V. and one day I hear this very familiar voice saying, "Give me an L-O-V-E.” I realize the voice is mine and the rest of the Earthlight troupe, and it's the out-takes of the original 1970 Woodstock documentary of the event, which took place in a field in up-state New York. I feel like I am looking at myself in another dimension, another time. The fact that I are wearing tie-dye loin cloth that barely covers my skinny body doesn't help. 

Woodstock 1969 is a different time—Nixon is president, the Vietnam War continues and, as a country, we readily sing along with Country Joe and the Fish. "Now it's one, two, three, four... what are we fighting for?” Assassinations are yet to occur, and we still fight racism, sexism, homophobia, uptight laws and morality.

So when Wavy Gravy from the Hog Farm yells out "What we have is breakfast in bed for 400,000," or Joe Cocker with his disjointed body and raspy voice sing "I get by with a little help from my friends," we feel close. Looking around at Woodstock’s apparent chaos we see what a new community might be. True, there is not enough food, not enough sanitation or first aid, too many drugs, too much mud; but there also is a sense that for these 3 to 4 days of music, people have come together for peace and celebration.

What a party it is. Thirty-two of the best-known musicians in the country are here, in what goes down as one of the greatest moments in popular music history.

In preparation the festival, Earthlight, my theatre troupe, rehearses at the designated festival space. We are fortunate enough to be brought on the main stage with Swami Satchidananda as he blesses the event, bringing some kind of magic medicine to the festival. History says he sets the tone for Woodstock and, inadvertently, so do we.

Earthlight goes on to do "theatre pieces," a somewhat more spiritual version of street theatre in the campgrounds. One piece is a "love cheer," another a human pollution machine—I play poison! We perform "Mine," a theatre piece in which we use one word to symbolically take over the world.

Richie Havens, Woodstock’s first performer, sings "Freedom" as if he s in a trance, channelling the very spirit of freedom. It still gives me a chill 40 years later. Joan Baez not only does her stage set but, if you look closely in the movie, you can see her gathering people to sing folk songs. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quietly evoke the haunting sweetness that lingers thru the era and until this very day.

Even my boyfriend's moaning and groaning over his 10-mile, 10-hour drive to get to the festival fail to keep me from noticing the raw wailing of Janis Joplin and near crying of Jimi Hendrix's guitar. 

Not much has changed in the four decades since Woodstock. The naysayers still say it's the hedonism, the drug abuse that bring society down, lead to the spread of A.I.D.S., and the lack of respect for authority. 

Yet, before the pre-packaged, pre-hyped events of today, before current celebrity hysteria, the paparazzi, TMZ, and Entertainment Tonight, the Woodstock Festival all those years ago resulted in an amazing “happening” of peace and music. Wow, we were something.

Nowadays I'm always blogging, facebooking and twittering about my hippie and Woodstock experience. As I get older, connecting myself to those years gives me the kind of relevance that rock and rollers have, (even old rock and rollers like the Rolling Stones) and gives me much more credibility with younger audiences, students, nieces and nephews.

Despite the drug extremes of the period I am thrilled to have been a part of that era and have had the privilege of saying, "Woodstock?, I remember that, I was there." •

Earthlight performed for a year after Woodstock off Broadway. The troupe can be seen in the director’s cut of the Woodstock documentary and loosely re-created in Ang Lee's up and coming "Taking Woodstock."

S. Rachel Lovey is an original founding member of Earthlight Theatre, a stand-up comic and motivational humorist. Visit her blog, the at woodstockandearthlightrevisited.blogspot.com. The Tie-Dyed Diaries 

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