I wasn’t scheduled to perform, but I was there from the beginning. There was a casualness about the format there that has never existed again. I just showed up backstage and asked Chip Monck [the stage manager and announcer] if I could help. He said, “Sure, millions of people are coming, and we’re not prepared. We don’t have much of a staff, and everything is sort of improvised.”
I’d just been living in a Volkswagen-bus tent in a muddy little culvert in L.A., so I told Chip, “I know how to live in these things.” He said, “Great, you’re in charge of the tent.” So I became the welcoming committee. I’d show people how to keep their guitars dry. Don’t walk into the tent with muddy feet, you know. That first night I slept with the Incredible String Band, all their instruments and lots of other people in this eight-by-eight-foot space. It was hilarious.
I consider Woodstock one of my lousiest performances, because by the time I was asked to play I was as stoned as everybody else. It had been raining, and Chip approached me: “John, we need someone to hold the stage with an acoustic instrument, because we’ve got to sweep the stage before we can even put an amp on it.” It was raining when I began to play, and à la Cecil B. DeMille, the sun came out just as I was finishing. One of the things I said during my performance was that this event was an outgrowth of people sitting around tables, passing joints and talking about how things could be. Suddenly here was an explosion of that — a multiple of the same phenomenon.
Rick Danko and I went over to the large white tents where Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farmers were cooling out acid casualties. The people were lying on canvas cots, and Wavy was walking around in a white outfit. Every kid who came in would go up to Wavy and say, “Here, man, please take these, and don’t let me ever see them again!” Rick and I tried to think of all the soothing songs we could play for the mentally disoriented. It was hard-core easy-listening music.
When Jimi was playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,” my brother and I were pushing somebody’s car out of the mud and making our exit. Most of the people had gone, and it looked like a battlefield out there, like a war had gone on.
I’ve spent 20 years living down the outfit I was wearing. I was really into tie-dyeing at the time, and it was basically tie-dyed Levi jeans and jacket — my Woodstock “suit of lights,” as someone once called it. I still have the jacket, but the pants were stolen out of a New York laundromat.
A version of this story was originally published in the August 24th, 1989 print edition of Rolling Stone.