‘The Brown Acid Was Wonderful’: A Woodstock 1969 Oral History

Magic Bus
Archive Photos / Getty Images
– Magic Bus
Fans sit atop a bus 50 years ago at Woodstock in Bethel, New York, Aug. 15-17 1969.

In the 50 years since Woodstock took place during that fabled summer of ’69 – alongside miracles like man walking on the moon and the Amazin’ Mets winning the World Series –  the fabled three days of music, peace and love on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York has taken on mythical status, its narrative recounted like biblical events.

 The Woodstock movie helped plant indelible images in a generation’s psyche – Richie Havens making up “Freedom” on the spot, Joan Baez getting political with “Joe Hill,” Carlos Santana tripping his ass off, the debut of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Sly and the Family Stone taking us higher, Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends” as ominous storm clouds gathered and, finally, a bandanaed Jimi Hendrix giving his parting gift to the half-million hippies on hand in the form of reclaiming the national anthem, and America itself, for a new generation.  

There were at least 400,000 stories from those that made it to Woodstock, and millions more from people who wished they were there but never made it. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock movie and accompanying album helped perpetrate and burnish its legacy. The counter-culture boomers took that label and helped bring about radical societal changes in civil rights, women and gay rights, the environment and even the draconian drug laws, while many as they aged seemed to succumb to over-the-counter culture. They were also the first to realize their interests – from rock music to concerts to tie-dyed T-shirts — could be turned into a multi-billion-dollar business.

Pick up Pollstar’s Woodstock 50th Special Here

A half-century later, even Woodstock 50’s failed attempt to get us back to the garden can’t spoil the occasion. Here then are the stories of eight people who worked or performed at Woodstock: Jimi Hendrix percussionist Gerardo Velez, author Mike Greenblatt, PR vet Rona Elliot, Fillmore East staffers who held senior roles at the fest John Morris, Chris Langhart, Bill Hanley and Chip Monck and Carol Green who fed the crew.

Mike Greenblatt
– Mike Greenblatt

Mike Greenblatt, author of “Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur’s Farm.”
Like the Paul Simon song, we set out to find our America. We wanted to meet other long-haired kids, like-minded souls who were also against the Vietnam War, for civil rights and women’s liberation, to wave our freak flag high.  I bought a three-day ticket at the Last Straw, a head shop in Bloomfield, NJ, for $18, which we threw away because no one was there to collect it. My friend Neil and I drove up on Thursday afternoon with a tent, change of clothing, sandwiches, toothpaste, soap, a bag of pot, books –did we really think we were going to read at Woodstock? – which was left in the car when we were forced to abandon it.  

We hitched a ride to the site in a VW Beetle with about 16 hippies like a clown car, who let us perch on the running board.  The first thing we saw was that stage; where we were able to find a great spot right in front, communing with the people who started gathering. We played a game of Monopoly by flashlight.  At that point, we had no idea about the cultural significance or the enormity of the situation. We had never done anything like this in our entire lives. I just kept getting stoned on OPD… other people’s dope. It wasn’t until I woke up Friday morning that I realized – and I’ll never forget it the rest of my life –there’s a guy next to me I’d never seen before, who offered me a hit of his joint. “Turn around, man” he said.  So I did, and then I saw it… a vista of humanity.  That’s when we realized… there was no getting back to the car.  

The music was supposed to start at 9 in the morning, but Richie Havens didn’t go on until 5 p.m.  The sound was incredible. People were still peaceful and enjoying the moment. We had no idea what was going on until Arlo Guthrie took the stage to inform us, “The New York State Thruway’s closed, man.”  

Sunday got off to a beautiful, sunny start with Joe Cocker, but then the skies turned pitch black and the torrential rains began … That was when a lady came by with a loaf of bread and a hit of acid. I took it at the beginning of Cocker’s set, and then came the warning from the stage. Don’t take the brown acid.  But I just had. As it turned out, the brown acid was wonderful. John Morris got on-stage and told everyone the music would resume after the storm let up. His voice, along with Chip Monck’s, really calmed our nerves. The brown acid saved me. Once that kicked in, it was like I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was tripping. 

If Thursday, Friday and Saturday were idyllic, Sunday was a fucking nightmare. It wasn’t fun anymore. Neil had left to find a phone booth to call our moms. I was alone, the acid had kicked in, there was no music. The people around me weren’t very friendly at this point.  I started freaking out, getting paranoid. Where’s Neil? Where’s the music? When is this damn rain going to stop? It was the best and worst weekend of my life. Neil eventually found me because I refused to leave the damn spot for fear of never finding him again. That’s where the concept of music and salvation comes in. As long as the music was playing, everything was alright. And that’s stayed with me until this day. By 2 a.m. we were cold and thirsty and here comes Blood, Sweat & Tears.  We thought we were going to see Al Kooper; instead, it was David Clayton-Thomas and that stupid “Spinning Wheel.” That’s when we decided to leave.  Fuck Jimi Hendrix.  We’ve got to get out of here.  We found our car thanks to the Christmas lights that were strung in the woods by Professor Langhart.

When I got home, my mother clutched me to her bosom and cried. Since then, I’ve done nothing my entire life but listen to music and tell people about it.  I’ve written for the Aquarian Weekly and Goldmine, and just published my first book – on Woodstock – at 68.

John Morris

John Morris
John Morris, Head of Production and Booker, Woodstock; Managing Director, Fillmore East.
Mike Lang, Chip Monck and a few others came to my apartment and outlined the festival aasked if I would be interested in booking the acts because I had experience dealing with agents. I called Bill [Graham] and asked him to help, but he turned me down.  He was very much against stadium concerts.  I flew him and his wife Bonnie in. They stayed at Grossinger’s, where he had been a bus boy. Harry Belafonte remembered him from playing craps behind the kitchen at Grossinger’s and Bill taking him for $500. Bill grumbled and growled the whole time. It was antithetical to his beliefs that bands should only play 3,000-seat halls, but we booked Santana because Bill had me see them in San Francisco and I was blown away. 

We started booking acts in April. Joe Cocker and Santana were both paid $2,500. Hendrix was a special case; we paid him $32,000 for two performances, an acoustic set with Band of Gypsies and by himself. We famously got the Who for $11,000 because that was all we had left in the budget, and we plied Pete Townshend with wine to get him to agree.

On that first day, as the traffic backed up, I turned to my then-wife and said, “Get the Yellow Pages and hire every helicopter you can.” We had about 14 or 15.to fly the acts in. Richie Havens had somehow made his way to the site and Country Joe McDonald was on hand just to see the bands.  We also enlisted John Sebastian, who just happened to be walking down the street in his tie-dyed shirt, to take the stage. I was the adult in the room, charged with keeping the thing running. I was older than most everybody else, all of 30 at that point. 

Friday morning, we talked to Governor Rockefeller’s office and prevented him from doing what he did at Attica, send in the National Guard. They didn’t but instead sent some Army Medevac helicopters to help us with our medical tents. Everybody had one thing in mind – a peaceful, enjoyable, safe situation. 

When I finally got Jimi onstage, I went back to my trailer and passed out. I missed the whole set until I heard the “Star Spangled Banner” and realized, “It’s over.” It looked like the end of Civil War battlefield. It took about a month to clean the whole site. Max said he had the best crop of corn he’d ever had in his life. We were a large group of disparate people who worked toward one goal – to keep the audience safe, happy and having a good time. We were very proud of what we managed to accomplish, but the audience was the story. 

Chris Langhart
– Chris Langhart

Chris Langhart, Technical Director, Woodstock; Tech Director, Fillmore East.
Max [Yasgur] and I hit it off right away because I lived next door to a dairy farmer. I could talk to him about his milk machines and refrigeration, so we pretty much got carte blanche to do what we wanted.  The first thing I did was hire his best digger so I could place a pipe from the upper corner of the site, where there were seven water wells, diagonally to stage right front corner, where the lake was. I had a friend of mine who worked at Bell petition the FCC to force them to wire us for phone service, which they were refusing to do. They sent seven trucks from Canada with seven miles of wire necessary for the central exchange in Bethel. We installed 30 pay phones on the site, and we made a deal, if they kept all the reverse charges, we could have the contents of the coin boxes, which were never emptied.

I was putting out fires the whole time. Michael Lang tried to do the right thing. I’m not saying he was scattered, but he was distracted.  He had a lot on his plate. I worked mostly with [principal partner] Joel [Rosenman]. Michael called me about a year and a half ago and asked if I’d be willing to work if he asked, and never heard from him since. There’s no use having another one. You can never do it again. 

Bill Hanley
– Bill Hanley

Bill Hanley, Sound Producer, Woodstock; designed and installed Fillmore East’s sound system.
We were the first group of people to dedicate ourselves to doing audio of live events. [Lang’s fellow Miami Pop Festival organizer and Woodstock Coordinator of Campgrounds] Stan Goldstein first approached to pick my brain, but I wouldn’t let him. At that time, nobody wanted to pay money for sound.  

Practically all the sound at Woodstock came from the stage and the towers. That was all we could afford.  We used Macintosh 300-watt RMS amplifiers and speakers built 10 to 12 feet above the ground and secondary speakers 60 to 70 feet off the ground.  I was setting up for only 100,000 people…. 500,000 was a big jump.  You could hear from the back of the bowl, as long as the crowd was reasonably quiet, and the wind wasn’t blowing. 

When Richie Havens first hit the stage, I was busy making sure to compress the piss out of things so that we didn’t blow out the speakers. I couldn’t afford that to happen. I remembered manning the sound console at Newport between Pete Yarrow and Pete Seeger for Bob Dylan, and all that distortion when he plugged in. 

The Woodstock album was recorded directly from the on-stage microphones.  We split them up between the sound system and the tape recorders.  I made sure everything made it to the end. That’s my contribution to society.  My mission was to make the world a little better place to live in. I got paid $16,000, but I went into my own pocket, too. 

Chip Monck
– Chip Monck

Chip Monck, Chief Lighting Designer and MC, Woodstock; Lighting Director, Fillmore East.
We used 12 Super Trouper follow spots with carbon arcs, meaning every 40 minutes, we had to change the carbons in the lamp because that’s your light source. There was no such thing as a bulb. You didn’t just turn on a switch. We had to train new operators because the Fillmore fellas decided working from dusk until dawn was a little past their engagement. It was difficult to say the least.

What I took away from Woodstock was, when I walk into a gig, I make sure I have three contingency plans available.  Seriously, it was a marvelous thing to do.

[Laughs] My co-hosting with John [Morris] was apparently all part of Michael’s master plan. There was a tapping on my shoulder at 6 in the morning Friday. “Oh, by the way. We neglected to hire an MC and you’re it.”  The first thing I had to do was move the audience away from the stage.  It was petrifying, but the wonderful thing was, it was just me.  I had no preparation, so I came out as myself. It was just something that had to be done immediately… I just got up there and told them if they didn’t move back, they’d have their noses pressed against a piece of plywood for three days. And the crowd maintained that distance – along with a 10-foot fence and some telephone poles – the rest of the weekend. I really didn’t have to do too much, because the audience told us what they needed.

The brown acid warning was pretty silly, but it was the only thing I could do without causing panic. The warning very well may have been a set-up, but I doubt it because it came from one of the doctors, who wanted us to help direct people to the medical tent.  That’s why I used the tag, “But it’s your trip, so be my guest.”  I had to just so you didn’t have a mass outbreak of paranoia.

Rona Elliot
– Rona Elliot

Rona Elliot, PR advisor and community liaison, Woodstock. Worked for LA’s KHJ and The Today Show
My job was to tell the local Kiwanis Club how great Woodstock was going to be. I arrived there in May 1969 and stayed until September. For me, the power of music unleashes something inexplicable, magical and spiritual.  Woodstock is an aspirational, mythic idea that has continued to persist and elicit strong opinions. There was a confluence of circumstances in the ‘60s – the generation gap, the emergence of rock, the anti-war movement, the political assassinations, student demonstrations, Stonewall, feminism, the ’68 Democratic convention riots, gun control, smoking dope… The military draft was starting to affect middle-class white kids. The generational despair then was very similar to what we’re experiencing now. From the beginning, that was Michael’s vision, to be able to enjoy three days of music in a bucolic country setting. 

Woodstock was a spiritual window which opened briefly to express a certain kind of peace, love and community, but that window soon closed, and I realized it could never happen again. It was a one-shot thing, totally infused with magic. For the first time, we realized there were others just like us in the world. Everyone took care of each other that weekend. Monday morning, Jimi Hendrix reclaimed the “Star Spangled Banner” for us and said, this is our country, too. That was certainly the defining moment of the weekend.  

Music was the glue for our generation like technology is for the current one. Everyone who worked at Woodstock did what we had to do to keep everybody safe. We shared this experience and it changed all of us, the audience and the people who worked on it. And the fact we’re still talking about it 50 years later is proof.  

Gerardo Velez
– Gerardo Velez

Gerardo Velez, played percussion with Jimi Hendrix; seven-time Grammy nominee and member of Spyrogyra.
I first met Jimi at Steve Paul’s Scene, where he asked me to jam with him. I could play my little butt off…. I was 19 but looked 9, and I had the girls, the drugs and the money. He wanted to break up the Experience and do something with Latin, jazz, Middle Eastern music, blending them together to see what we came up with. He was tired of playing “Purple Haze.” And I loved that idea. I’d meet him every day at the Navarro Hotel on Central Park South, we’d jump into a limo and drive all over Manhattan.

That spring, Jimi moved into a house up in Phoenicia, New York, not far from Woodstock and I moved in with him.  I was familiar with the area from visiting my sister Martha Velez [the original Hair cast member and the first artist signed to Sire Records by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer].  Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell both stayed there when they came up. 

That was the beginning of the band, which I wanted to call Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows, and if you listen, that’s how Jimi introduced us at Woodstock. That summer, all Jimi did was practice the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  “We’re the counterculture,” I’d say to him, “Why do you want to do the National Anthem?’ He was focused on doing it because since he served in the military, it meant a lot to him to play the song. He wanted to show that even if we were the counterculture, we were also Americans.  We weren’t intent on overthrowing the government. He was just saying, this is our country, too.  

My girlfriend and I drove up to Woodstock in Jimi’s limo on Friday Aug. 15, the day the festival started, which just happened to be my birthday. I went to the site to suss out what was going on, and I saw people swimming naked in the lake; it looked cool. There was a big argument between Jimi’s manager Michael Jeffery and the Who over who would close the show.  We got to the site early on Sunday and taken to a house on the property. They kept pushing our start time back, so we rehearsed, dropped acid and got laid each time. When we finally hit the stage, there were maybe 30,000-40,000 people there. We were totally spent sexually, totally spent drug-wise. We just wanted to play, like stallions held back.  

When we saw the devastation and the garbage piled up, we realized all the people we could’ve played for. It was really tough. The stage had already buckled and the smell of urine and decomposition was thick.  During the performance, my tooth started to abscess, which sent a sharp pain shooting through my system. Someone gave me codeine, which I wasn’t used to. Between the acid and the codeine, I went into this hypnotic state. There’s a shot in the film where Jimi’s playing the Star-Spangled Banner and I’m just draped over my congas. I hadn’t slept in two weeks.

Carol Green
– Carol Green

Carol Green, fed Woodstock’s 300-member backstage crew.
I was a hippie, with a boyfriend who was an usher at the Fillmore and then became a member of the Woodstock stage crew.  Steve Cohen, who worked at the Fillmore East, told me about this festival, and asked me to cook for the crew.  We all drove up in a VW bus to a psychedelic barn where the office was located for the original Wallkill site. I was paid $150 per week for the summer. The crew included 13 people, including my boyfriend and I, which eventually turned into 80. I cooked and made sandwiches for all of them until Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm showed up. We eventually moved into this condemned ‘30s hotel, the Diamond Horseshoe.  

Woodstock was all about turning crisis into opportunity. It was absolutely the defining moment of my life: peace, music and love.  Who knows how many people’s souls were sprinkled with that fairy dust? I remember coming up over the rise while crowds were arriving by the thousands and I wanted to tell them to go home.  This is our land, our stage, our stuff… There was an ownership; we were a family.

John “Jocko” Marcellino, a founding member of Sha Na Na, who were enlisted to play Woodstock by none other than Jimi Hendrix, who had seen them play at Steve Paul’s Scene:
Jimi Hendrix brought [Woodstock co-founders] Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld to see us at Steve Paul’s Scene and changed our lives. On the night the club closed, they asked us to play Woodstock. We got paid $350 and the check bounced. 

We drove up in a van with a Sha Na Na sticker on the back window, which allowed us to roll right up to the stage on Saturday with a police escort as we pulled up trailing a truck carrying Sly and the Family Stone’s equipment.  When we arrived, I expected it to be cool, hanging out with the stars. Instead, there were all these emergency stations.  The whole weekend teetered on going out of control, but never did. As the crowd kept growing, all we could think of was, “When are we going on?”

The producers tried to get Jimi to close the show Sunday night, but he insisted that the handful of acts that were postponed by the rain got do perform, including us. We played 35 minutes at sunrise on Monday morning. It was so early, they had to wake up the camera crew and lucky they did, with “At the Hop,” thanks to editing by Martin Scorsese, making it to the final movie. 

We were like a track meet up there. We were exhausted and hyper at the same time. I remember us playing very fast, but when I listened back to the whole set recently, we weren’t that hyper.  In fact, I thought we sounded great.  That performance launched our career.