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Graham Nash on Woodstock: ‘It Was Both Primeval and Futuristic’

It was only CSNY’s second gig, and they were playing to a crowd of 400,000

British musician Graham Nash and American musician David Crosby of the group Crosby, Stills, & Nash performs on stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, Bethel, New York, August 17, 1969. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

Graham Nash (left) and David Crosby of the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performs on stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, Bethel, New York, August 17, 1969.

Fotos International/Getty Images

We were in New York City with Joni Mitchell, and Elliot Roberts [who managed both CSNY and Mitchell] decided that Joni shouldn’t go to Woodstock because she was also scheduled to do The Dick Cavett Show on TV. It’s one of the great credits to her as an artist that she was able to write the song “Woodstock” without having been there. Of course, when you’ve got all these people babbling at you about what happened, I guess it’s pretty infectious.

And it was overwhelming! It was like Blade Runner, like looking down on L.A. in the year 2050. It was both primeval and futuristic. And there was a hell of an energy emanating from it. Coming in to land, something went wrong with the rudder of my helicopter, so we came down very heavily, and that was scary. When we got out of the helicopter, we were greeted by John Sebastian. We lit up one and had a party in Sebastian’s tent. He was wearing what later became his uniform, tie-dyed long johns and pants, and there was mud halfway up his legs. He was there for the entire three days, so he told us graphic stories about the rain and mud.

Backstage was totally chaotic. There was so much dope that it’s very hard to remember anything. Whenever the three or four of us would get together — especially with the Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Sebastian — it was just nonsense. Woodstock was only our second gig, but we weren’t afraid of the crowd. We were more concerned with our peers. I think Stephen [Stills] and I were a little nervous that Hendrix and the Band and Blood, Sweat and Tears were there. And I think Neil [Young] was nervous about playing with us. Neil’s not in control when he’s with us — not in the way he likes to be. And so I think that made him a little nervous. I don’t really know why he didn’t choose to be in the movie. To this day, a lot of people think that it was just CSN that did Woodstock, but in fact it was the four of us.

I thought we did a lousy set. When you consider playing acoustic guitars to 400,000 people and trying to reach to the back of the crowd with songs like “Guinnevere,” it was absurd. But we certainly gave it our best shot. Sure, the “Suite” was a little out of tune, but so what?

The next day, back in New York, it was like, “Did that really happen? Was it just a giant acid flash or a hallucination?” It was only later that I began putting it into perspective. It was a coming of age, a flowering of a generation of kids who decided they could take responsibility for their own lives and affect their destiny, that they could coexist with a few hundred thousand other people and not get into violent scenes and have a great time.

A lot of us in the years since have shied away from the Woodstock myth. It’s like, if you were at Woodstock and you’re enthused about it, then you’re a ’69 hippie, you’re to be discounted. But there’ll never be anything as good as Woodstock, because it was the first and the best. I don’t think you can re-create that. There was a certain glow about the Sixties, a certain naiveté and exploration, an excitement for the future that doesn’t exist anymore.

A version of this story was originally published in the August 24th, 1989 print edition of Rolling Stone.

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