Everybody kept saying it was gonna be huge, but I don’t think anybody really believed that. To the Grateful Dead, it sounded a bit like pressure. You know, “You gotta play well ’cause your career is gonna be made or broken by it.” We also expected a gigantic party, which it certainly was.
Once I got there, I camped out in a tent about half a mile from the stage. I sort of drifted around. It was pretty filthy. It was muddy. And there wasn’t enough food or facilities. If it had gone on for a month, it would have looked like a summer version of Valley Forge. On the other hand, everybody was pretty much into it. As long as they were there, they were gonna make the most of it.
It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.
The people were just glad to be entertained, to get their minds off the rain and wind and mud, no matter what was happening. Had we played a good set, we probably would have transported them to another reality entirely. Some people made their careers at Woodstock, but we’ve spent about 20 years making up for it [laughs]. It was probably the worst set we’ve ever performed. And to have performed it in front of a crowd that size was not an altogether fulfilling experience.
I still have difficulty figuring out what it all meant. Obviously, it showed that there were a great many of us like-minded people at that time. But having been around, I knew that already. Getting everybody all together in one place was kind of nice, I guess. The fact that we could have an event like that and have so little in the way of unfortunate incidents was encouraging. But I gotta tell you, it was a big mess, it was out of hand. You just couldn’t be doing that a couple of times every summer.
When I heard Pete Townshend had kicked Abbie Hoffman off the stage, I was delighted, because I have always thought that rock and radical politics are a bad mix. I’ve always felt that the politicians should leave us the hell alone. Basically, it was just a music celebration, a music event. There were those who tried to see a deeper meaning and draw conclusions, but I don’t think anyone went to Woodstock to make a statement. They went to party and hear good music. Or maybe I just slept through all the political significance.
The significance for me was that the new music that was evolving during the previous years had come of age there. It suddenly had achieved a higher level of professionalism and established a legitimate idiom for itself. It was a synthesis of a number of different styles, and it fit the culture at the time. A lot of kids were really into the music, and they turned out to hear it. So did lots of record-company executives. They were walking around, looking at all the numbers and just reeling with emotion.
A version of this story was originally published in the August 24th, 1989 print edition of Rolling Stone.