Long before the Woodstock Festival's "Three Days of Peace and Music" turned this Catskill Mountains town into a hippie mecca, it was a refuge for painters, musicians, actors, anarchists, bootleggers, Utopians and all variety of eccentrics. But none made quite the impact on the place as four rowdy, road-worn Canadians who checked into the Woodstock Motel in early spring 1967.
Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson – the Hawks – had been touring since most of them were teenagers, backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan on his 1966 electric tour. Dylan lived in Woodstock and had recently bought a house in the artist community of Byrdcliffe, where he was recuperating from a motorcycle crash. The accident led him to cancel his 1967 tour plans, leaving the Hawks aimless. When Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, suggested the group come to Woodstock, they liked the idea: The place offered cheap rent, space to work on their music, and after years on the road, says Hudson, the chance to "get reacquainted with screen doors and dishwashers and going to the dump."
The band (whose drummer Levon Helm was living in Memphis but would rejoin the group in Woodstock that fall) took to mountain life. They grew beards, split firewood, collected antique rifles, planted marijuana in the woods and began dressing like nineteenth-Century frontier gunslingers, in wool vests and denim shirts and cowboy boots. "They looked unlike anyone we'd ever met," remembers folk musician Happy Traum, who moved to Woodstock the previous year, "like something from another world."
Despite its history as an arts colony – everyone from painter Milton Avery to composer John Cage, jazz musician Charles Mingus and actor Lee Marvin had lived there – Woodstock was mainly working-class and conservative, and locals weren't thrilled about the longhaired hippies and folk musicians who'd started to move in. The Hawks were different – they fit in. "You'd see them at the hardware store, or drinking beer with firemen," remembers one local. "They lit up the town." Favorite Hawks hangouts were the Café Espresso, a Greenwich Village-style beatnik coffeehouse where Danko ruled the checkers table (and where Dylan wrote Another Side of Bob Dylan in an apartment upstairs), and Deanie's, a piano bar and burger joint where Manuel would jam with Paul Butter-field and other musicians after-hours.
The band made friends easily. "What happened when the guys came is that it became impossible to fall in love with any woman around here," remembers Woodstock Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber, who was seventeen at the time. "Because the girls were all in love with them."
Admits Robertson, "We were the only show in town."
In addition to the ladies, Danko and Manuel got to know the local cops pretty well – they always seemed to be crashing their cars late at night.
Hudson, Manuel and Danko rented a suburban-style split-level house, painted pink and set on 100 acres, for $125 a month; Robertson opted for a cabin nearby with his girlfriend. They'd get up around noon. Manuel cooked breakfast, Hudson did dishes – then they'd smoke a joint and go down to the basement to work on songs. "This ugly pink house became our clubhouse," says Robertson. "It felt like what the Dead End Kids would have in the city, or the Bowery Boys – a place to go every day and hang around."
The basement was made of cinder blocks with a cement floor; the furnace had to be shut off when they played. Hudson installed a two-track recorder, a cheap Nagra mixer and several high-end Neumann microphones. After Dylan recovered from his injuries, he joined the sessions most afternoons. In tapes Hudson recorded in late spring, most of which have never been officially released, you hear a lazy sense of fun and experimentation as Dylan leads the band through folk and country standards, Appalachian tunes, blues, gospel and improvised goofs like "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg." "A lot of the songs were just cracking us up," says Robertson. "We loved the idea of having the liberty and freedom to make music that nobody would ever hear."
There were two typewriters upstairs, and soon Dylan began pecking out new songs, sometimes several in a day. "It amazed us," says Hudson, "to watch Bob go upstairs and type out a tune without any erasures or backspaces, then he'd come downstairs and we recorded it."
By the end of summer, Dylan had recorded more than thirty new songs, including "Million Dollar Bash," "Tears of Rage" (co-written with Manuel), "This Wheel's On Fire" (co-written with Danko), "I Shall Be Released" and "Quinn the Eskimo." It was the most prolific run of new material in his career. "That's really the way to do a recording," he told Rolling Stone in 1969. "In a peaceful, relaxed setting in somebody's basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor." (There was, in fact, a dog – a rangy black mutt named Hamlet who Dylan had been unable to train, so he left him at Big Pink with Danko.)
All summer, local radio played Hendrix, Sgt. Pepper and Jefferson Airplane. Hudson remembers being entranced by Grace Slick's voice. And visitors to Big Pink – Allen Ginsberg, Wavy Gravy, Peter, Paul and Mary among them – often brought along new records. But Dylan and the band's musical explorations were far removed from psychedelic rock. "We weren't uninformed, but we were isolated," says Robertson. "That's what helped us. We'd been around the block way too many times to be caught up in trends. We didn't realize we were rebelling against the rebellion. We were trying to do something that was honest, timeless."
In the fall, Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, and the band – with Helm back in the fold – began work on its debut, Music From Big Pink. By this time, people in town had referred to the guys as "the band" (as in, Dylan's band) for so long, they decided to keep the name. "The town took us in and treated us like favorite sons," Helm wrote in his autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire. "If someone asked, 'Is the band in town?' they could be talking only about us."
In August, local promoters put on the Sound-Out Festival, a three-day outdoor festival that became a prototype for the massive Woodstock Music and Art Fair two summers later. Several hundred people poured into town for the Sound-Out; they camped out, took drugs and watched performances by local acts Cat Mother, the Chickie Neubles River Band and folk singer Tim Hardin, who was so stoned he fell off the stage.
As more hippies began to settle in town, residents complained about people sleeping in the woods on their property and skinny-dipping in Sawkill Creek. Cops stood outside the bus stop, intimidating hippies and often turning them away. Lots of kids turned up looking for Dylan. "They'd get off the bus asking, "Where's Bob? I have to tell him something,'" remembers Wilber. Hard drugs were becoming pervasive, especially heroin. The Woodstock Week reported an incident in the summer of 1967 in which an undercover narcotics officer came to town pretending to be an official from Cunard cruise lines. He claimed to be shopping for paintings by local artists for the cruise ships, but really aimed to bust drug dealers.
"After Music From Big Finland John Wesley Harding," says Robertson, "a huge mystique settled in the mountains up there. We'd tell people life is simple, there's not much to do, really, but that didn't stop them from coming. And with all this leading up to the Woodstock Festival, that's when the thing turned completely inside out. That's when the charm went out the window." The 1969 Woodstock Festival (though it actually took place in Bethel, fifty miles south) set off a full-blown hippie invasion – Woodstock's version of Haight-Ashbury two years earlier. Hundreds of young people flooded town, many with no money or place to stay. "There were VW buses as far as the eye could see heading in this direction," says Robertson.
Lots of musicians were coming to Woodstock. Van Morrison moved to town in 1969, and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin hung out a lot. George Harrison came for Thanksgiving at Dylan's in 1968, and Eric Clapton came to visit too. Grossman, Dylan's manager, opened a state-of-the-art studio complex, the next step in making Woodstock the rock & roll mecca he'd always dreamed of. "If you were in the scene, it was great," says Traum of the lavish parties Grossman held at his Bearsville home. "But it was not an open 'y' all come' kind of thing. It was really stardriven. There was an aura about it all."
These days, Woodstock remains a quintessential rock & roll town – and not just because there are Sunday-afternoon drum circles in the Village Green and psychedelic shops lining Tinker Street. The local radio station, WDST, is a leading independent rock outlets, and top studios, where everyone from Norah Jones to Dave Matthews makes records, are hidden away in the mountains. Musicians still gravitate to the area; residents include Donald Fagen, David Bowie and members of the B-52's and Bad Brains. And after all these years, two of the Band's three surviving members are still there: Helm hosts a biweekly concert series at his barn called the Midnight Ramble, and Hudson is in demand as a session player and music teacher. "This has always been a special place for us," says Hudson, tooling around in his black Saab one rainy spring afternoon. "The Indians considered it a sacred place, and so do we."
This story is from the July 12th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.